Think a Second Time
by Dennis Prager
Regan Books. 255 pp. $24.00
Dennis Prager is the host of a leading radio talk show that originates in California. He also publishes Ultimate Issues, a quarterly journal; teaches courses in the Bible; and is the co-author (with Joseph Telushkin) of a popular introductory text, Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism. In this collection of 43 pensées, many drawn from longer essays in Ultimate Issues, Prager addresses the great questions of the day—among them race relations, capital punishment, abortion, pacifism, and religious extremism. He not only tells us what he thinks about them, but buttresses his thoughts with arguments and examples drawn from the great traditions of moral philosophy, Judaism in particular.
He is not one to mince words. Capital punishment, he argues, is a moral imperative, being both just and compassionate. Single women should not bear children—it is selfish to conceive a child without a father. Contrary to current practice, social workers should encourage rather than discourage interracial adoption. An unmoderated pacifism is immoral, for it involves acquiescence in evil. Whatever the revisers of biblical language may say, we must go on depicting God as a father; young men, the primary perpetrators of criminal behavior, need to be reminded of the father’s civilizing role.
These and other positions grow out of Prager’s belief that moral values emanate from the one God, Whose central demand is that people act decently toward one another. A religiously observant Jew, he identifies the primary mandate of his faith as ethical monotheism (“the only ‘ism’ I care about”). To illustrate what he means by this, he cites the response of Hillel, the great rabbi of the talmudic era, to the pagan who asked to be taught all of Judaism while standing on one leg: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others; the rest is commentary.”
One central lesson Prager derives from this golden rule is that actions and their results, particularly as they affect others, are much more important than personal feelings, or even motives. Perhaps his strongest indictment of contemporary American society is that we tend to embrace abstract notions like love, compassion, and self-esteem while neglecting self-discipline and ethical behavior. Worse, we rush to espouse any philosophy that will exempt us from moral responsibility for our own actions. The great “Lie of the Left,” Prager writes, is the claim that people “do bad things because of outside forces, especially economic ones”—in an extreme formulation, that “poverty causes crime.” This, in his judgment, is exactly backward: rich or poor, people do bad things because they have bad values, and lack self-control.
When they do bad things, moreover, they should be punished. To Prager, one’s attitude toward punishment in general, and toward the death penalty for murder in particular, offers a Rorschach test of one’s commitment to ethical monotheism. He rehearses the various arguments against capital punishment—innocent people may be executed; it does not accomplish anything because the victims cannot be brought back to life; it is a form of state murder, mere societal revenge; blacks are affected by it disproportionately; other societies manage nicely without it—and answers them one by one.
First, he contends, “far more innocent people will be murdered if there is no death penalty than if there is.” Next, the death penalty does have deterrent value, even if that value is hard to measure; and while it is true that the victims cannot be revived, executing the guilty goes far toward alleviating the anguish of their loved ones. Quoting William F. Buckley, Jr., Prager observes that if capital punishment is state murder, imprisonment, by the same logic, is state kidnaping; besides, society should take just “revenge” against those who flout its most basic mandate. Black murderers, as it happens, are not executed in disproportionate numbers, as definitive studies have lately shown. Finally, Western societies that do without capital punishment should count themselves lucky—perhaps they can afford the luxury; America, alas, cannot.
In case there is any doubt about where all this puts Prager politically, he spells it out by aligning himself in this book with what he calls classical liberalism. This tradition, he asserts, is a complement to the dictates of ethical monotheism. But he distinguishes sharply between classical liberalism and the contemporary variety, whose doctrines and policies he deems “in large part” responsible for the problems of widespread welfare dependency, the increase in out-of-wedlock births, the erosion of public-school standards, and the Balkanization of society along racial and ethnic lines.
Since the late 1960’s, Prager writes mordantly, “liberalism has become identified with positions that were always regarded as Left or even radical, but not liberal, and sometimes not even moral.” Nowhere is this discrepancy more salient than with regard to race:
The liberalism I learned held that the skin color of a person is no more important than his or her eye color; that the American ideal is integration, and that liberals must oppose segregation, yet today liberalism supports racial quotas, race-norming (grading an exam differently for members of different races), and segregating students in college dorms by race and ethnicity.
In holding that racial identity matters more than individual behavior—color more than character—today’s liberalism is the very antithesis of ethical monotheism. Indeed, the racial philosophy of the contemporary Left, Prager notes, ironically echoes what was once the great “Lie of the Right”: the one which “enabled the Nazis to view ‘Aryans,’ no matter what their behavior, as inherently superior, and Jews, no matter what their behavior, as innately ‘subhuman.’”
The disastrous turn taken by contemporary liberalism is especially painful to Prager as a practicing Jew, and as one whose central philosophy grows out of Judaism itself. The United States, he asserts, is “facing a struggle for its soul” between, broadly speaking, the values of a secular-liberalism and the values of a religion-based or religion-tinged conservatism. In that struggle, sadly, American Jews have generally allied themselves not with the moral imperatives of traditional Judaism but with the dominant secular-liberal culture. As one egregious example, Prager mentions the growing tendency in some denominations to condone or even to sanctify homosexual marriage, in flagrant contravention of Jewish religious law and teaching. But there are many other areas as well in which American Jews, by turning their backs on their own tradition, have also “too often taken positions that hurt America.”
Think a Second Time is a consistently engaging book. This is not to say that Prager’s analysis is immune to criticism. He takes no account, for example, of ethical systems that are not monotheistic; yet millions of Buddhists, Hindus, and Confucians live by moral codes that are presumably compatible both with the dictates of their (multiple) divinities and with Prager’s notions of human decency. Nor does he grapple sufficiently with the occasional tensions between monotheistic theologies and the ethics he espouses. After all, in ordering a death sentence for Salman Rushdie, the Ayatollah Khomeini was only carrying out the Quranic command to take the life of the blasphemer; to dismiss Khomeini with the observation that “like all religions, . . . Islam contains xenophobic elements and doctrines that are incompatible with ethical monotheism” is rather to beg the question than to answer it. Finally, the book necessarily suffers the defects of its virtues: while the short-essay form allows Prager to be pungent and succinct, it does not encourage the sorts of discriminations from which discussion of these topics could sometimes benefit.
Notwithstanding these minor quibbles, Think a Second Time is a success. Prager not only writes fluently, he brings a cogent mind and a humane sensibility to bear on whatever he surveys. Most importantly, he has eminently satisfied the goal he set for himself in writing this book: to make his readers rethink their fundamental positions on the most profound issues our society now faces.