Book review of Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph by Dennis Prager, Washington Times
April 13, 2012
by Max Singer
Dennis Prager, author and host of a nationally syndicated talk show that focuses on moral and religious issues, says American values are in danger of being defeated by leftism. In "Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph," Mr. Prager argues that three incompatible value systems are competing in the world: leftism, Americanism and Islamism.
Mr. Prager's discussion of why Islamism is less desirable than its competitors is sound, fair-minded and useful, but it breaks no new ground - and is not the main point of the book.
It is important to define leftism, Mr. Prager says, because it is what might be called a "stealth religion" (not his phrase) that receives much of its support because the media and academics present leftism as the normal and accepted way to think, challenged only by "rightists" or "conservatives." Another reason Mr. Prager needs to define leftism is that it usually is not presented as an overall ideology - normally speaking more about goals than about values.
It is even more important, Mr. Prager says, to define and advocate Americanism because many people who believe in its values do not articulate or teach them. No other country advocates for American values, and in the United States, leftists who don't share American values dominate the press, the universities and the educational system.
The heart of Mr. Prager's book is a systematic contrast between leftist and American values. He does a valuable service by presenting dozens of ways in which the values asserted by leftism conflict with American values, and reasons why leftist values are less likely to increase goodness in the world.
The trinity that summarizes American values, according to Mr. Prager, is stated on American coins: "liberty," "In God we trust," and "e pluribus unum" (from many one). Leftists, he asserts, are more concerned with equality of results than with liberty - that is, personal freedom - which Mr. Prager says explains why much of the left has been so tolerant of leftist dictators - from Stalin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez - as well as Islamist tyrants.
A central leftist value, even for religious leftists, is to exclude religious values and any recognition of God from public discussion. Americans traditionally, back to our founding generation, have believed that some kind of religion is essential to America's well-being. In his book "Americanism," David Gelernter goes further, arguing that Americanism is a religion replacing Puritanism and that the United States is a biblical republic. But Mr. Prager does not see Americanism as a religion, although one of its major values is belief in some version of ethical-monotheism and it has been nurtured by knowledge of the Bible.
E pluribus unum, which originally referred to the federal principle of the United States, Mr. Prager uses to stand for the principle of welcoming all kinds of individuals to join in the "unum" of the American community. Leftism, Mr. Prager says, divides us by its emphasis on dealing with people as members of separate categories defined by gender, race and class, rather than as individuals. It also rejects the idea that our "unum" has any special virtue or any special responsibility to the world.
Mr. Prager also argues that the traditional American understanding that "right and left share the same ends and ... differ only in their ways to achieve that vision" is no longer true. Right and left, Mr. Prager says, "differ in their vision of America." Therefore, America can be united "only when the great majority affirm either left-wing or conservative values." If this radical view is correct, it is a great challenge to the American political system and it may be part of the explanation for the polarization of politics and intellectual discussion observed in recent years.
This summary may give the false impression that Mr. Prager is a Manichaean extremist who sees everything as black and white. But his seeming oversimplification does not come from a failure to understand that almost all differences - whether policy or value - are matters of degree, emphasis and balance of competing considerations. It is the inevitable result of his mission to sharpen recognition of underlying conflicts.
Mr. Prager carefully states that he does not think leftists are unpatriotic. Mostly they love America but think it should be, in President Obama's words in his 2008 campaign, "fundamentally transformed." This is an example of the problem of sharpening issues. Almost all Americans - not just leftists - think there are important changes in America that should be made. But how many changes add up to a "fundamental transformation?" The fact that emphasis and degree are critical increases the value of the formulations Mr. Prager uses to enable people to recognize fundamental differences.
"Still the Best Hope" makes an important contribution by encouraging believers in Americanism to stand up for their values and helping them understand the ideological challenge they face. But it is not likely to convert many convinced leftists because, even though it is much less one-sided than most political discussion these days, it obviously is a work of advocacy reflecting the strong values of the author.
Max Singer is a Senior Fellow and Trustee Emeritus at Hudson Institute. He founded Hudson with Herman Kahn in 1961.
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