For this week’s “Big Ideas with Ben Weingarten” podcast, Weingarten interviews nationally syndicated radio host, columnist, author of numerous books, teacher, film producer and co-founder of PragerU, Dennis Prager.
You can listen to the full interview on iTunes or read the transcript below.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ben Weingarten: As I understand it you were inculcated in an environment in Brooklyn growing up where you studied at Yeshiva. And obviously that religious background impacted your overall philosophy and your political beliefs, but on paper, a person would look at you and say, “You’re a Jewish American, Ivy League-educated, highly intellectual,” and that generally corresponds to and correlates with liberal, Leftist. So how did you end up where you are ideologically?
Dennis Prager: In in one sense you gave the answer actually: ‘Cause I took the Torah seriously. It is not possible, in my opinion…to take the Torah seriously, to believe as I do, that ultimately, it’s from G-d, and be on the Left. That’s why — I’m not Orthodox — but that’s why Orthodox Jews tend to be on the Right. They take their religion seriously. They believe God is the source, and they reach certain conclusions.
I’ll give an example, ’cause examples always make these things clear. Religious Jews and religious Christians know people are not basically good. The further secular you get, the more people believe people are basically good…I gave a talk at Berkeley…earlier this year, and they said, “Would you debate Left-wing students instead of giving a speech?” I said I would happily do that. That’s actually my first choice. And people can watch it on YouTube until YouTube takes it down. And at the very end, what I did was — and I do this all the time — I clarify where I differ with people rather than try to argue them because it’s much more effective. You don’t yell at each other, and the audience listens and all I care about is people understand the differences between Left and Right. Then if they’re open-minded and have good hearts, they’ll become Right.
So the last thing I asked them…I said, “I’d just like to ask you guys” — it was two guys, and they’re both nice guys — “Do you believe people are basically good?” They said, “Of course.” And I said, “This is really important,” and I told them, “You believe that because America is such a nice place and you’re naïve, and the Torah is not naïve: יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו — “the will of man’s heart is towards evil from his youth.”
And if you think human nature is basically good, you’re an idiot. You are a bona fide fool. I actually have no tolerance for that belief, especially among Jews after Auschwitz, to believe people are basically good. It shows you how much more irrationality there is in the secular world than in the religious world.
That’s the ultimate leap of faith that transcends logic and reason to believe that human nature is basically good. Now, I’m not saying it’s basically rotten. There’s goodness in human nature, but it has to be mined like gold. It’s very hard to bring out. So that’s an example.
You asked me how I…Let’s go back to the beginning, I’m sorry to give you such a long answer, but that’s how — I took the Torah and Judaism seriously. You cannot be on the Left. You can be liberal, but you cannot be on the Left. And liberal and Left have nothing in common except big government. Alan Dershowitz is a living example of a liberal who fears the Left much more than the Right. He said that to me. It’s on camera.
Ben Weingarten: The students at Berkeley I assume also never read the Federalist Papers, which say of course “If men were angels…” That is the starting point for the government, and they understood that because they had deeply thought about those exact Judeo-Christian principles that you were speaking to. Now, a corollary to this is a simple question: Is the attachment to and belief in the power of government, of the state, so great in America today because it has filled the void of religion in American life? That is, for progressives…I think progressives do sort of view the state as their church and secular humanism as their religion. So is it because it has filled the vacuum of a more secular nation, at the very least on the coasts?
Dennis Prager: Leftism has filled the void that secularism has produced. That is, all of the Leftist religions: Humanism, Marxism, Communism, socialism, environmentalism, feminism, these are all Left-wing religions. They have filled the void, and that’s why Jews are so attracted. Jews are the most religious people in the world, but unfortunately for most of them, their religion isn’t Judaism. Jews stayed religious, and they think that feminism, environmentalism, and socialism — all these “isms” I mentioned — they are secular messianic movements.
Karl Marx was the grandson of two Orthodox rabbis. People often don’t know that. It’s not irrelevant. And [Leon] Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg…Howard Zinn — it’s a “Wall of Shame” that Jews have been so active in producing such nihilist movements, which always end up of course anti-Semitic. There’s nothing as anti-Israel today as the Left. Nothing. So yes, it’s filled a void.
The government, you say, is that it? The state is the source of goodness. For the Founders, the individual was the source of goodness. I take care of me, I take care of my family, I take care of my community. And for the Left the state takes care of me, state takes care of my family and the state takes care of my community. The state is the source of goodness. For the Founders of America, the individual is.
Ben Weingarten: How do you explain the sort of paradox…where those who are conservative, classical liberal, etc. make arguments on materialist terms, that is, “We support X policy Because you will get Y benefit in your life from that policy,” whereas those on the Left — Leftist philosophy being a materialist philosophy — will not always point to “Your life is gonna be better for this,” but will make the argument that “This is moral” — so, moral relativists making the argument that the philosophy that they’re supporting is moral, is good, is just is virtuous?
Dennis Prager: The moment that one asks, “Does it work?” one has left the Left. That is not a Left-wing question. “Does it work?” “Does it do good?” is not a left wing question. “Does it make me feel good?” is the Left-wing question.
The minimum wage is a perfect example. The New York Times in the ’70s had an editorial, “The Correct Minimum Wage is Zero Dollars and Zero Cents.” [Editor’s note: The editorial ran in 1987] That was when The New York Timeseditorial page was not as Left-wing as it is today. Today it is radically Left, and today they are pro-minimum wage. What happened to The New York Times? Is there new evidence? Of course not, but they have become Left. Leftists don’t ask, “Does it do good?” They don’t care if something does good. They love ideas, not people. If you love people, you are a conservative. If you love ideas, you’re on the left.
And so, minimum wage is a great idea, it sounds beautiful. But it puts people out of business. It doesn’t hire people in the beginning of their work-life, so they don’t build the muscles necessary for the discipline of work. The downside is awful, but it feels good and it’s like recycling. Does it do good? Of course not. Does it feel good? Yes.
The essence of Leftism is feeling morally superior. [German Prime Minister] Angela Merkel let one million people, 90 percent of whom share none of her values, into Germany, therefore into Europe because — she essentially admitted it — she wants to show that Germany is now “good,” to wipe the stain of the Holocaust, and World War I and World War II away from its history. That’s why. Did it do good? Of course it didn’t do good. In fact, ironically — I drop ironically, it always happens — this foolish Left-wing policy is producing Right-wing governments. She may have killed the European Union by doing this.
But it never occurred to her. The question was, “Does it feel…” — a thousand Rabbis said America should do similarly with the tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants. Why did they sign it? ‘Cause it made them feel good. “Look, we are moral. We’re rabbis. We’re Jews. We were not let in when our ships of refugees wanted safe port. So we’ll do this for the Muslims.” That feels good, and I understand that. It does. I know some Rabbis who signed that. They knew that they had to — they would be ostracized from Jewish life if they didn’t sign that petition. But look at what has happened in Europe. These people, most of these people bring in Jew-hatred. Jews are signing a petition to bring Jew-haters into America.
If there is a stupider people than the Jews, I don’t know who it is, and I say it literally. I do not know of a stupider people than the Jewish people. G-d gave us brains, and we have blown it. Jews side with those who hate them. That Holocaust survivor… Hedy [Epstein]…went to Gaza to support them during one of the wars with Israel…Is this woman not sick? These people have announced they wish to annihilate Israel. They send up the kites. There’s swastikas on the kites…they say, “We want to eradicate Israel,” and you have Jews supporting the Gazans.
I debated at Oxford, the most prestigious forum of debate in the world, two against two. One of the two that I debated against was an Israeli Jew. And the topic was: Who is the greater threat to peace, Hamas or Israel? Here’s an Israeli Jew, professor of International Relations at Oxford arguing that Israel is the greater obstacle to peace. No group produces such a high proportion of fools as the Jewish people.
Ben Weingarten: To your point about the irony, but not really an irony when you understand the history and the mass psychology of inviting people into your midst who state that they wish to kill you, and then arguing that is a moral, just, virtuous thing — is that something in the Western psyche where we possess this perverse self-righteously suicidal philosophy?
Dennis Prager: It seems to be. I don’t know who else possesses this. It would seem to be that that’s right. We are so noble. It really — it’s ironic ’cause it’s a sort of imitatio Christ. “Let’s be crucified for the sake of our beliefs.” It really has an element of that in Western culture. It’s like the hair shirt — there’s something noble of suffering for your cause — and it is, it’s noble to suffer for your cause, if your cause is noble.
Ben Weingarten: In a recent column you wrote somewhat tangentially related to what we were just discussing about immigration in America…And you counter those who say that immigration restriction, or whatever you wanna call it — being more discerning, having a rational immigration system — that those who support that view are cast as xenophobic. And you said, “We’re not xenophobic. We’re value-phobic.” That is, our job is to bring in people who will add to the values and principles, and subscribe to the values and principles, that made this country what it is. I wonder if you’d elaborate on that argument a little bit.
Dennis Prager: Look, I write a column every week. I have for about 20 years. Every columnist wants to be read, but that’s one column I do wish everybody read, about the issue, why there is a problem at all with immigration and illegal immigration, and that it has nothing to do with xenophobia, but “values-phobia.”
And I gave the example — you see my theory, it’s not even my theory, it’s as obvious as the day is long — people, people who come into a culture can change the culture. Did Europeans change North American culture? Well, I suspect so. And by the way, many on the Left not only acknowledge that, they lament it. But they have to admit — let us say that the American Indian, the indigenous people as they’re called, Native Americans, had the power to stop European immigration into North America and South America, would the Left call them xenophobic? It’s an interesting question I’d like to pose to a Leftist. If Indians said, “No Europeans, you’re gonna change our culture, we don’t want your culture,” would they be called xenophobic? Of course not…It’s a phony — like everything the Left does, they use terms, and it’s a fraud. It’s a moral fraud. They don’t mean it…They have no idea what they’re talking about.
And I give a modern internal domestic American example: New Yorkers changed Florida’s values. Florida was a rock-solid conservative state, then Northeastern mostly New Yorkers started moving in, and now South Florida is as Left-wing as Berkeley, or Santa Monica, and it’s because New Yorkers moved in. Am I xenophobic because I don’t want New Yorkers in Florida? No, I’m values-phobic. I admit it, I fear values that I think are nihilistic, I think Leftist values are nihilistic. I think that Muslim values — acknowledging that there are any number of wonderful individual Muslims — but those are not my values vis-a-vis women, vis-a-vis gays, vis-a-vis theocracy. They’re not my values.
So whereas people came in the past to become American and adopt our values, today, the numbers do not necessitate that. The numbers allow you to bring Ecuador with you. That’s different.
Ben Weingarten: Next to the family, education is probably the seminal area that influences obviously what people believe, ultimately, the culture, and by dint of changing the culture, the politics as well. You created PragerU, which is just a tremendous service to society, and it in part helps educate people and in some respects, fixes the wrong ideas that they have been taught in their educational institutions and in pop culture. If you had an infinite budget, what would you do? What would be the single most important thing to do to change American culture?
Dennis Prager: All I would do is market more. I have felt — this will sound odd to many of your listeners, and I only say it because it’s true, acknowledging that it will sound odd — I felt since I was really a kid that there was a solution, I knew of a solution to cancer, and the biggest problem was getting people to know it exists.
I believe that the combination of Judeo-Christian, Torah and American values is the greatest combination of values ever devised, and is the solution to evil, which is the only thing that preoccupies me, evil. And therefore, we’re publicizing that in PragerU in every dimension of life: Economics, philosophy, religion psychology. So with an unlimited budget, we would saturate the world with the videos. They would be in Chinese, they would be in Japanese, etc., and we would publicize them on every forum, so that — this year we’ll have a billion views — but with an unlimited budget, I would want five billion, 20 billion views. That’s our dream. I just spoke in Romania to 1,500 young people because of PragerU videos, and they’re not in Romanian. I wish they were. But that’s all that’s necessary. The Left-Right battle is so easy to win if we can just expose people for five minutes at a time, to the conservative ideas as I just spoke of — Judeo-Christian and American values.
Many people often say to me, “You know, I listen to you on the radio and it just makes common sense.” I said, “Yes, common sense is conservative, they’re synonymous.” Leftism is not common sense. What Left-wing position is common sense? That’s the amazing thing, they all feel good, but they’re not the product of common sense. It’s not common sense to raise the minimum wage and then have restaurants close or use robots. That’s what’s happening more and more. And so the poor guy who needs a beginning job at the Burger King isn’t gonna be hired because he’s been priced out of the market, and now people will order on an iPad, which is what’s happening.
But the Left doesn’t care ’cause they love ideas, not people. I have known this my whole life, how much meanness is on the Left. When I see the way they go into restaurants and scream epithets at Republicans who are having dinner, scream in front of where they live, “No justice, no sleep,” we don’t do that. We just don’t do that. We’re nice. Dave Rubin is a gay, liberal Jew, and it was the revelation of his life that conservatives who didn’t even agree with same-sex marriage, like me, are nicer human beings than his team. This was revelatory to him.
Ben Weingarten: In order to compete, to educate, to advocate and to debate in a marketplace of ideas, the first thing that you need is of course the First Amendment. The First Amendment finds itself besieged on all sides, and in particular, it starts at college campuses. You’ve toured around the country in connection with your movie that will come out, “No Safe Spaces.” And you’ve seen these students, and the odious kind of philosophies around free speech and open debate — how perilous is the First Amendment today, how perilous is its position?
Dennis Prager: Oh, very. According to…Gallup…almost 50 percent of American college students do not believe in free speech for “hate speech,” not understanding that that means they don’t believe in free speech. I mean, it’s so absurd. This is a perfect example…the lack of intellectual rigor on the Left is truly frightening. “Oh, I believe in free speech, just not for hate speech.” But then you don’t believe in free speech — you’re determining what you call “hate speech.” So it’s at the end of the issue.
By the way, the Wall Street Journal had a very important piece recently that the ACLU has now become Left-wing. The organization is no longer preoccupied with free speech. When I was a kid, Nazis marched through Skokie, Illinois. They picked Skokie ’cause there were a lot of Holocaust survivors there, so they’re particularly despicable, the Nazis. And the ACLU was adamant that they be allowed to go on with their march, to march as Nazis in a Holocaust survivor neighborhood. And they were right. In America, Nazis can march. That’s the point of free speech. I don’t think the ACLU today would in fact argue that. They have bought the Left-wing position that hate speech is not protected speech, and by the way that’s obviously hate speech. The hate speech that the Left talks about today is this broadcast. This broadcast would be deemed hate speech by the Left.
Ben Weingarten: Which is a good segue into the litigation between PragerUand social media companies, in particular, YouTube/Google. And I’ve writtenpretty extensively and everyone knows, they see it in the news frequently, of the “wrong” ideas, “wrongthink,” “hate speech” getting taken down, censored, discriminated against, people being “de-platformed” in the digital realm. As someone who defends free speech quite eloquently and quite robustly, how do you square the idea of potentially regulating in some form or fashion, or litigating against the social media companies, when of course their position will be, “Look, we’re private companies, and we have the right to determine what is disseminated and what is not disseminated on our platforms?”
Dennis Prager: If they would say — let’s call for honesty: “We are not a platform, we are not an open platform on the internet,” that is, “We said we were, we were fooling you. We’re a Left-wing organization, and we will determine what is allowed,” then I have no argument.
But they want — even the judge that ruled in their favor said that this was…sort of like hyper… that this is just hyper stuff [“mere puffery”]. In other words, “We know it’s not true.” It’s like when a car dealer says, “This is the best car in the world.” Nobody believes it, but so they don’t mind it. That’s what she said. This is what YouTube and Google do: They claim they’re open, but that’s just hyperventilating. In fact, it isn’t the case. So they can’t have it both ways. They can’t lie to the world and get away with it.
So either you are open to ideas you like, not open to all ideas or you are open to all ideas. We’re asking for a clarification. You can’t be a national or an international conduit and be closed. You’re not an international conduit then. So does the government have the right to say, “Be open?” That’s an interesting question, but let’s at least begin with, honestly, you’re not open. So the question is, can you be a utility that isn’t open? If the water and power company said, “We will charge conservatives more money for their water and power?” can they do that? It’s a private company. Right? You’re allowed to discriminate on the basis of ideas, not race, so can the water and power company say, “We charge more for conservatives?”
Ben Weingarten: What do you view as the biggest threat to America, and the West today?
Dennis Prager: The left is. There are no other threats. But the irony is, when they’re honest, they admit it. They can’t stand Western civilization. The president said we have to protect Western civilization in the speech in Warsaw, and The New York Times, and every other Left-wing source editorialized that it was just a dog whistle for white supremacy. So for the Left, the concept of Western civilization is really identical with white supremacy. So they take down Shakespeare’s mural at the University of Pennsylvania English Departmentbecause he’s a white European male. But his picture was not up because he’s a white European male, it was up because he’s the finest playwright in human history. Japanese believe that. Chinese believe that. Hindus believe that. That’s why the whole world reads Shakespeare, the whole world listens to [Johann Sebastian] Bach. The best Bach today comes out of Japan. They don’t care if he’s a white European male, they care that he wrote the best music ever written.
Ben Weingarten: They don’t equate the Western canon, and actually the values and principles that the West is based on, with Western civilization. I found it ironic, [in] attacking the [President Trump’s remarks at the] G7 or attacking NATO, and the press will say, “How could you attack our Western allies?” But they’re Western allies in name only. The systems in these countries do not at all reflect anything that we talked about before, individualism, private property rights, rule of law, free speech and the like. So, it’s the most disingenuous argument that could be made.
Dennis Prager: Under “disingenuous,” in an accurate dictionary, would be synonymous with “Left.” They use whatever line works at the moment. All of a sudden they’re big protectors of the Western alliance, but the Left was opposed to [President Ronald] Regan calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” was opposed to Reagan bringing Pershing missiles into Western Europe. It’s a fraud. The whole thing is a fraud, but it’s truly — we’re blanketed by fraud because every network but Fox, every newspaper but the Wall Street Journal…it’s astonishing, is…blankets the country with these dishonest lines.
Ben Weingarten: Who are the authors or what are the publications that you read regularly?
Dennis Prager: I read everything. I mean, I don’t mean literally everything, in other words everything ideologically. In other words, I read The New York Times, I read the Wall Street Journal. I read The Washington Post, and of course websites of Right and Left. I have to…I wanna know what they’re saying, but they don’t wanna know what we’re saying. I’ve never met a Leftist who went to Townhall, or Daily Caller, Daily Wire, or Breitbart or the Wall Street Journal for that matter. They don’t. I don’t blame them.
See, when I read the Left, it reinforces my conservatism. But they have a deep suspicion that if they read us, it could shake them. That’s why they don’t want kids to even have five minutes of conservatism. Leftism is so thin, intellectually, that I think deep down many of them understand how fragile their intellectual edifice is, and that just letting us in for five minutes — a PragerU video’s five minutes, but it could shake their foundations.
Ben Weingarten: Lastly, what are the books that had the greatest influence on your thinking in life?
Dennis Prager: Well, I have a list of them at DennisPrager.com…first and foremost is the Torah. I have to admit, the older I get, the more I realize how it’s influenced me. That’s why I’m writing this huge commentary for non-Jews, and Jews and atheists called The Rational Bible, on the first five volumes of the Bible. It has so influenced my thinking, that’s number one, by far…
Viktor Frankl‘s book Man’s Search for Meaning had a very deep impact on me. The guy made me realize that we yearned for meaning as much as we yearn for food. In other words, right after food, before sex, we crave meaning. Sex is powerful, but there are people who have no sex who lead a happy life. But there is nobody without meaning who leads a happy life…This is why he’s so powerful, and he is one of the few that could be considered a classic. Man’s Search For Meaning — he’s died Victor Frankl, but that book is still a number one bestseller, and there are many other great aspects to the book…very brief book. He was a Jewish psychoanalyst who was in a Nazi camp.
George Gilder‘s, books on men and sex were transformative to me.
Ben Weingarten: Sexual Suicide.
Dennis Prager: That was its original title — that was the book, Sexual Suicide. Now, I don’t know, there’s another title for it, but Sexual Suicide I read in college, and he was like 32 when he wrote it… The guy is a genius, very deep man. That was very powerful — that and Naked Nomads, there were two of them.
…There’s only one biography on the list as far as I know, and that is of Mao. I think it’s that important, that book Mao: The Unknown Story. It’s a thousand pages. I don’t like reading thousand-page books. And it took me months because I marked it up a lot, but that was transformative.