Sunday, September 09, 2012

The American Way

Right-wing radio talk show host Dennis Prager has a new book out, Still The Best Hope.  That's the best hope for the world, and he's talking about America.

To Prager, there are three paths the world may follow--Leftism, Islamism or Americanism.  His book is broken up into three parts, showing why the first two paths fall short and how the last will save us. Unfortunately, this is not a rigorously argued book so much as a collection of talking points strung together.  Not that there can be no value in giving example after example of what you believe, but it means the book has little cumulative effect. Prager thinks the Left is wrong about almost everything, but giving a bunch of anecdotes about when they've been wrong (or, at least, wrong according to him) doesn't mean too much when no doubt the Left could pick out countless examples where it believes Prager's side is wrong.

More important, I don't think Prager correctly analyzes the situation.  I have no idea where the world is going, but I don't think the choices are as stark as Prager has it.  I will admit that Islam, particularly the more extreme elements, represents a very different world view from the West's.  But Prager's battle between the right and left?  He exaggerates the differences, as close rivals often do.  Yes, there are distinctions between liberals and conservatives, or Republicans and Democrats, or Americans and Europeans, but it's hardly an insuperable gulf.  Both sides come out of the Western liberal tradition, and their differences, and big as they may seem, are intramural squabbles.  Compare the fights today with how things were 80 years ago--then you had, as perfectly viable choices, fascism and communism.  Both have, for the most part, fallen apart as ideologies.  Instead, we now have a right and left which are mostly two sides of the same coin.

For all the differences Prager imagines he sees (and I don't think the Left will see themselves in the portrait he paints--if I had the time, I'd go through how almost all his examples are hyperbolic), the areas of agreement between today's right and left are so great that they almost swallow up most disagreement.  After all, today's right in America isn't that different from a 1950s liberal (except that the right may be more liberal).  The left and right may emphasize different things, but they both believe in the same things: democracy, private property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, open scientific inquiry, equal rights, due process and so much else that makes the West the West.  Yes, sometimes they fail to protect these rights as strongly as they could, or go about it in different ways, but they still have the same basic roots.

For instance, Prager fears big government.  So do I, and I'd like to see it cut.  But the "American" way that Prager wants us to follow isn't that different from a European welfare state.  Sure, we want rugged individuals to make their own way, but if Republicans (or Prager alone) were in charge, how much smaller would the government be?  Hopefully we could cut spending enough to deal with the deficit, but I don't see us getting rid of Medicare or Social Security (at least not entirely, even if we rename the programs), nor do I see us getting rid of public education.  And the Right doesn't seem that interested in cutting the military, while we're at it.  Meanwhile, nations like Sweden have adopted market-oriented reforms when they discovered their welfare state cost too much.  So when all is said and done, one side wants to spend a few percentage points more than the other on government?  This is hardly the same battle as freedom of religion versus sharia law.

Prager argues for the "American trinity," as he calls it, which amounts to freedom, religion and E pluribus unum.  As to freedom, I'm all for it--I bet more radically than Prager.  I think gay partners should be allowed to marry.  I think drugs should be legalized.  I think we should get rid of obscenity prosecutions for anything consenting adults do.  For some reason, this isn't the right's concept of freedom (or the pursuit of happiness)--they'll support only the freedoms they see fit to allow.

As to religion, Prager says we need Judeo-Christian values, with the public believing in ethical monotheism. (He also claims the left doesn't believe in this, though I don't think it's that simple.) This is his greatest hobby horse, but he has a tough time of it.  He claims without belief in a single Supreme Being, there can be no absolute morality, no meaning to life, no wisdom, no free will, and a host of other things.  But there's barely a moral stance that religious believers don't disagree on, so how can he say religion leads to absolute morality or guarantees greater wisdom?  For instance, he's an absolute demon on claiming we must must must have the death penalty--I'd think this is an issue up for grabs which religious people can disagree over, but not in Prager's Americanized world.  For that matter, he allows for different religions--you can follow his concept of Judeo-Christian values without even being a Jew or a Christian. But many of these religions and their sects believe in mutually exclusive things, so what it amounts to is Prager saying you can believe in a false god and false prophets, and that will lead to the proper morality, whereas believing in the world that we can all directly experience will lead you down false paths.

Finally, there's E pluribus unum.  A wonderful idea.  But for a guy whose greatest fear is big government, it's somewhat odd that he wants the entire world to follow the American plan.

Prager may be correct that America is the world's last best hope.  I just don't think this is the book to prove it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The straw man lives.

and publishes

4:50 AM, September 09, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"democracy, private property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, open scientific inquiry, equal rights, due process"

Left and right believe in this? I find it hard to imagine a construct in which most participants even think of these things, much less believe in them. Not that they don't all have the words to haul out whenever they're upset at the other side.

So I wonder what the construct is that makes you feel comfortable taking these things for granted. It can't be the mean knowledge level of participants. Is it the threshold knowledge level of, certainly not the ceremonial heads. Then the quiet intellects? There, certainly most on the left do not believe in private property. I doubt that most on the right do, either, but perhaps. And democracy? Give me a break. No one believes in democracy. Interesting that you didn't include independent courts or constitutions. I suppose you feel it's covered under due process and equal rights. Yes, due process is certainly meticulously observed. Time to boost the public pensions.

8:46 AM, September 09, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Anon #2: The list wasn't exhaustive, it was just general principles everyone supports. Communists explicitly want to get rid of private property, but the left and right, while they might put burdens on property, still have it as a base for their society. Same for democracy or anything else on the list, even if radicals whine that it's not pure enough.

Of course there are arguments--does affirmative action move us toward or away from equal rights?, is abortion about equality for women or the life of the unborn child?--but these principles are still what everyone is fighting for.

11:34 AM, September 09, 2012  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I think the primary reason President Obama is likely to be re-elected is the average American is not seriously concerned that he can or would even try to effect a fundamental change to our society (despite all his talk about "change").

His biggest affront (to most conservatives) has been Obamacare, even though both parties concede the there is a need to improve the way health care is distributed (rationed) in America. I think the way the Democrats are going about it is a mistake, likely to increase cost and decrease quality of service, but especially now that we know the increased cost is covered by direct and indirect taxes, which have always been a part of our system, I'm less concerned over its impact on our liberties.

From the left, though they decry the Citizens United decision, the left in America undestands that the decision in rooted in the 1st Amendment and they fully support free speech, even if they disagree with the application of the principle in this case. I believe the US will rise out of current economic doldrums as a matter of course, regardless of who is in the white house. I do believe the Democrats have delayed the inevitable (as I believe they did in the 1930s), but the economy is too big and comlex a system to be permanently stymied by any government short of a totalitarian one enforced by military might used againstthe citizens.

7:48 AM, September 10, 2012  

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