This is my first blog post. It started out as a Facebook commentary to a friend whose insights and perspectives I have always respected even when we have not always agreed. Being that I had invested a greater amount of time and research in composing it, I ultimately decided to turn it into a blog post, as well, in hopes to encourage a civic and constructive dialogue between people of different perspectives.
On January 7th conservative talk show host Dennis Prager wrote a blistering rebuke titled “Newsweek Hits a New Low” in response to an article written by Benjamin Fernow titled “Conservative Radio Host Ridicules Anne Frank: ‘I Don’t Get My Wisdom From Teenagers.’”
In his rebuke of the headline and article Prager explained the context of his comments and instructed readers: “next time someone challenges you for using the term “fake news” to describe mainstream media, just cite Newsweek and Fearnow.” However, the context did not leave me satisfied. There was something that was missing and I felt I needed to dig deeper to get the fuller picture.
My findings compelled me to offer some reflections from a different perspective in hopes to encourage a civic and constructive dialogue between people of different perspectives. It started out as a (somewhat lengthy) Facebook commentary to a friend whose insights and perspectives I have always respected even when we have not always agreed on the topic itself.
The context Prager provided was the following:
“To understand how terrible a lie this is, you need to know what happened:
Every week I do a video podcast for PragerU called “The Fireside Chat.” In it, I offer thoughts on life and then take questions from around the world (we have received questions from 52 countries). A few weeks ago, I received the following question from Sam in Meridian, Idaho:
On your most recent Fireside Chat, you said that people are not basically good. We’ve heard you discuss this topic before. Anne Frank is quoted as saying, ‘Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.’ How do you respond to her quote?
Here is my response (this is a word-for-word transcription, except for the words in parentheses added for clarity):
She wrote that in her diary, the most famous Holocaust document. (She was) a teenage girl, a Dutch Jewish girl, who hid with her family until they were betrayed by someone to the Nazis, who then shipped them to death camps. And she died, murdered by the Nazis in the death camps. She was about 16 years old, maybe 15. Her diary is very famous. It gives a face to the horror of the Holocaust.
I know she wrote that, and my answer is it doesn’t matter that she wrote it. I don’t get my wisdom from teenagers. That she was a wonderful young woman and wrote an unbelievably powerful document that will last forever is beside the point. I don’t expect 16-year-olds, unless they grew up in a religious Jewish or Christian home (where it is taught as basic religious doctrine that people are not born basically good). She was a secular Jew. Most kids believe that (people are basically good). But it is not true. So, it has never been an issue for me—‘Well, you disagree with Anne Frank.’ So what?
And, by the way, to be very serious for a moment, I would be very curious—I’ve thought about this a lot—if I were to be able to visit Anne Frank while in a concentration camp, would she have still believed that? We don’t know.
Only someone who deliberately seeks to smear someone would claim that what I said ridicules Anne Frank.”
Prager’s rebuke, even within the context he provided, left me somewhat restless. Something important seemed to be missing from that conversation. I felt there was more that needed to be said:
The headline by Fearnow was misleading given the larger context of Prager’s statement and unnecessary in reporting it. Yet, Prager’s statement about Anne Frank: “…it does not matter that she wrote it, I don’t get my wisdom from teenagers” was inappropriate in itself, more so when considering the circumstances under which Anne Frank’s rather remarkable reflections were written.
It might be worth noting that Newsweek had already changed the headline and article by January 8th, less than a day after Prager’s scathing rebuke. Nancy Cooper, global editor-in-chief of Newsweek spoke with him on the phone, listened to his concerns, recognized that Fearnow’s title was mis-characterizing Prager’s intent and took responsibility by changing the headline and article. Since January 8th the original article was no longer available and the updated one published under “Conservative Radio Host Counters Anne Frank’s View That People Are ‘Good at Heart.'”
Prager’s rebuke, however, remains online unchanged. Thus far I have not seen any recognition of responsibility on Prager’s part, regarding his unfortunate choice of words. A child, murdered in the Holocaust, should not be the subject of an radio host’s contentious debate of whether he agrees or disagrees with her private innermost feelings that she entrusted to her personal diary during times of tribulation, and that were never meant to be published for public debate and scrutiny. She is not a public philosopher or university professor whose established teachings he needs to refute.
I can share Prager’s biblical/Judeo views on humanity’s sinfulness and still find hope and beauty in Anne Frank’s writing. Hunted by the Nazis, her people being murdered, living in hiding and daily fear, she choose to state that “despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” This is not a theological doctrine we must accept or reject. This is a profound reflection of grace, humility and hope during excruciating times. Torn between people hunting to kill her and those hiding to protect her at great personal risk, Anne Frank was wresting with one of history’s oldest philosophical questions; whether man is mostly good or mostly evil. Yet, in the midst of trails and persecution she chose to believe that there is good in people.
Dismissing this as the belief of an uneducated child can indeed be demeaning. Similar views, right or wrong, have been held by notable philosophers throughout history. Yet, Prager seeks to discredit such view by attributing it to an unbelieving child lacking life experience, wisdom and spirituality. “She was a secular Jew. Most kids believe that. But it is not true,” he argued as if she was still believing in the Tooth Fairy. “While most secular Jews never learned this basic rule of life, religious Jews and Christians know by the age of ten that man is not basically good,” he wrote in another publication about Anne Frank’s diary entry. This could well be seen as condescending toward philosophical science in general, “secular Jews” in particular, and toward Anne Frank, her family and those promoting her thoughts and writings as a warning and inspiration to others.
I might humbly suggest that Prager might be mistaken on several fronts:
Anne Frank’s statement contains more truth than none. Christian and Jewish belief that men is inherently sinful does not necessarily contradict the secular philosophical view or a general societal belief, that man is generally good at heart, or at least that most people have a general capacity for goodness, kindness and compassion (such as those hiding to protect her.) It is interesting to note, that this view is passionately defended by conservative Christians and Jews in America when it comes to the 2nd Amendment. Their argument is that most people are good, decent and law abiding citizens who would never do harm and should therefore not see their rights to bear arms infringed because of the evil in the hearts of a few. I would assume that this conviction does not exclude the fact that even the good, decent and law-abiding citizens are still inherently sinful before God and in need of Salvation.
I think Prager might be conflating the spiritual with the philosophical argument. He also seems to equate liberalism with secularism and unbelief as if both were categorically the same. He is dismissing Anne Frank’s statement by arguing that she was a “secular Jew” who did not grow up in a religious family. But the Franks were “liberal Jews” who, also being Germans, did not practice all Jewish customs. That does not mean they had no faith, at all.
In her April 11, 1944 diary entry Anne Frank wrote:.
“Who has set us apart from all the rest? … It’s God who has made us the way we are, but it’s also God who will lift us up again. In the eyes of the world, we’re doomed, but if, after all this suffering, there are still Jews left, the Jewish people will be held as an example to the world. Who knows, maybe our religion will teach the world and all the people in it about goodness, and that’s the reason, the only reason, we have to suffer. We can never be just Dutch or just English or whatever, we will always be Jews as well. And we’ll have to keep on being Jews, but then, we’ll want to be.”
These don’t sound like the thoughts of a spiritually ignorant child to me. Here is a young girl hiding in an attic from those who seek to exterminate her people, knowing that Jews around her are getting murdered, wondering if any of them will be left when this is over, and yet seeing God’s hands and purpose in the midst of this tribulation for His chosen people to be a witness to the rest of the world. I wonder how many adult believers in America would be capable of such reflections in the midst of profound suffering.
In contrast there is Dennis Prager: a popular radio show host with a reported $10 million net-worth and 250,000 Twitter followers, publishing from the safety and comfort of his US mansion in the freest country of the world, yet feeling that he is the one persecuted, wronged and mistreated because a journalist critiqued his unfortunate choice of words with a less than noble headline. Thus he must lead his readers into outrage against the evil in humanity, demonize the media as “fake news”, dig up as much unrelated dirt as possible about the author, demean him as a “very very sick person” (because someone else said that about him it must be true) and a “useful idiot for those who hate America”, and diminish his most basic human dignity to discredit his critique.
Meanwhile Prager’s followers inundated Fearnow’s social media sites with insults, calling him a truly hateful, manipulative, deceitful, extreme leftist or stating:
“After reading how Dennis Prager exposed your ugly lying @#$ to the world, I just had to see what you look like. Sure enough, you look like an ugly lying left wing punk. Ha….you got exposed. Punk….liar.”
Can we pause for a moment to ponder this contrast?
And are we certain that this radio show host could not benefit at all from the wisdom, insight and compassion of this remarkable teenager or from her humility, inner strength and dignity in the midst of real assault and persecution?
Prager, as a populist millionaire in America, might never have experienced existential fear and suffering to the degree Anne Frank did. Yet, he seems unable or unwilling to show or teach a fraction of the grace towards those he believes have wronged him, than Anne Frank was capable of extending to mankind that was seeking to exterminate her people.
* * *
Anne Frank’s ability to see general good in humanity and her grace and humility toward men are so important for our times! She was the victim of the worst demagoguery, prejudice and men’s darkest impulses to find scapegoats and demonize others. Yet, while being hunted to be murdered, she refused to respond in kind. She rejected demagoguery and prejudice. She refused to judge all men by the actions of a few. She was able to look beyond the stereotype and personal anger that feeds our worst impulses and focus on the good humans are still capable of. Her ability to not loose faith in humanity while experiencing the worst (and best) of it is amazing and should leave us deeply humbled!
In contrast, Prager’s rebuke of Fearnow and the media was harsh and showed little grace. It was evoking the very demagoguery, prejudice and stereotype that Anne Frank so courageously rejected. Because a reporter, who appears ideologically at odds with him, sensationalized a headline about him to get views, Prager seeks to convince all of us to regard all media as fake news. He asks us to dismiss Anne Frank’s graceful example as childish, immature and unspiritual and instead follow the harsh mantra of those in power who teach us to never apologize, never admit fault, but double down and attack, discredit and demonize those who have criticized our words or actions even when such critique itself might have been warranted.
No doubt, Fearnow’s original article was equally void of grace and compassion for the rhetoric misstep of a fellow publicist. (And since Prager has demonized the Left for years as a malevolent, dangerous, and destructive force to society, there was probably some ideological payback in it, as well.) Nevertheless, mean-spirited as it might have been written, it was still reporting on a true story. Prager did say, “I don’t take my wisdom from teenagers.” That is not fake news. That is not “the most glaring example of a lie in a life time.” These are his exact words. Prager did dismiss her thoughts as those of a secular child who does not know better. He denied her personal faith. He portrayed her as a person from a secular home lacking insight, wisdom and spirituality.
I am not so certain that this might not even qualify as ridicule. Perhaps not ridicule toward Anne Frank “the Holocaust victim”, but toward the “secular Jew” Anne Frank’s philosophical musings we are privileged to read but which he so casually dismissed as childish and immature.
Already in a 2018 article, Prager cited Anne Frank’s statement ‘despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart,” as a reason “why most Jews have learned nothing from the Holocaust.” In an earlier book he expressed his beliefs that ‘secular Jews have lost their way and apply Judaism in ways that tend to be leftist, totalitarian, and destructive.’ In his publications he further decries leftists Jews as a “tragedy of Judaism, immoral people who pervert Judaism and poison the synagogues.”
Since Prager insists on context, he cannot ask of us to view his statements about Anne Frank and the harsh response he received, in isolation of his general disdain for the secular and leftist Jews, to which he seems to count Anne Frank and her family, – along with Karl Marx and Goerge Soro. And I would assume that this context might not be lost on his liberal critics, either.
History, philosophy and literature offers many thinkers that held similar views like Anne Frank expressed privately in her diary. These published thinkers are fair game to be debated and refuted on his radio show. But that Prager chooses Anne Frank, a child killed in the Holocaust, who never meant to speak publicly, as a negative example of what he perceives as a false and dangerous teaching corrupting orthodox Jewish minds, is admittedly a little perplexing to me.
I am also conflicted about his general demagoguery against the “secular and leftist Jews” as immoral people and a poison and destructive force to society. Is Prager aware that similar views about the Jews were adopted by those who eventually took Anne Frank’s life and the life of her people? Even at that time, many of such dogmas were derived from, or at least defended by, the writings of religious leaders like Martin Luther and what they perceived as their “righteous anger” against the unbelieving Jew, an anger also reflected in many of Prager’s writings.
It is possible that Prager might not be aware of the potential problem with some of the rhetoric he expresses in good faith to defend religious morality. “If Newsweek has any honor, it will remove Fearnow’s article and apologize to me,” he insists instead. But to be “Frank,” I am not so sure he is the only one deserving an apology.
It would be really nice if Prager himself could find the humility to express some regret and perhaps consider rewording his statements, as well, or rethink his less than honorable use of Anne Frank and her writings in his publications or his general demagoguery against secular and liberal Jews and everything “left-wing”.
Perhaps he still might. For right now, however, Prager choose to conclude his article with more demagoguery: “As I wrote 30 years ago, “Being on the left means never having to say you’re sorry.” This stereotype stands in contrast to the fact that so far only Newsweek admitted responsibility and offered a retraction and changes. He has not responded in kind but instead called for disciplinary actions against the author. His final message to his audience is more like a battle cry: “Next time someone challenges you for using the term “fake news” to describe mainstream media, just cite Newsweek and Fearnow.”
Yet, I am not so convinced that their reporting about his debate actually equates “fake news.” I think it testifies to the erosion of journalistic integrity in general and across society and politics, and is very representative of the current ideological warfare between both sides. Yet, I am still inclined to think that Prager’s harsh rebuke might better serve as an example of the demagoguery that ails our society today, and how easy it has become for public figures to demonize the media as “fake news” in response to unfavorable reporting, even if ones words or actions might have been worthy of critique.
I have no reason to doubt that Prager is a good person at heart, as well. Perhaps he might still come to recognize that in the midst of this heated political and ideological battle raging on both sides, and despite all the good and bad players involved across the playing field, and despite the frustrations and anger he (and his counterparts) might have personally experienced so often, there are still decent people with good hearts on all sides, who live their lives, go to work and generally want to do right and could all benefit from re-learning to treat each other with respect, civility and dignity.
And perhaps Prager himself could benefit at least a little from gleaning a bit of wisdom and hope from this Jewish teenager and her gentle humility amidst great suffering, even if that could cause him to forfeit an argument on his radio program now or then…
I sincerely thank you for your time and consideration and must apologize for the length in expressing my thoughts. Please do let me know if you think that there is any merit to these reflections at all, and please feel free to respond to them with reflections of your own…