Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Dennis Prager Brings Out Conflicting Emotions

How am I supposed to react when I see a person I went to school with for 16 years be the subject of an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times? And then, before I complete a blog about it, another Times article shows up in the Arts section Wednesday concerning a different controversy involving him. So what am I to feel?

Envy? Pride? Impressed? Depressed?

Conservative columnist Bret Stephens chastised Dennis Prager for recently tweeting the (liberal) media was a more existential threat to America and Western civilization than Russia. Among other things, Prager is dismissive of actions on college campuses that have shut down conservative speakers (https://nyti.ms/2tsxZIU and don’t forget to link to Prager’s online column for Townhall). 

For those who don’t know, Prager is a talk radio host, a prolific writer and co-author with Joseph Telushkin of two books on Judaism. Dennis and I were schoolmates through three different schools during our elementary, high school and college years. As high school freshmen, while our class was studiously trying to master French (ou est la bibliothèque?) at the behest of Mr. Rosenthal, Dennis was peering at a book under his desk teaching himself Russian. 

His intellect was what we would now call “gifted,” though back then, 55 years ago, it was unrecognized. We were in the B class. So was Telushkin. I spent the four years of high school in the same classroom with Joseph, but our ties go back even earlier. We were sleepaway camp bunkmates for four or five summers at Massad Aleph during our pre-teen years. Joe was not the best of athletes, but a fun guy to be around. 

In high school, he, too, never seemed intellectually challenged. One of my memories of Joseph was watching him play desktop golf during class. This was pre computer days. When I refer to desktop golf I mean there was a hole carved into the top of his wooden desk. He would make mini golf balls out of paper scraps, and from different spots on his desk would flick the wads of paper with his finger toward the hole. 

Aside from his dedication to the game, Joseph’s other defining characteristic was a spot of white hair at the front of his otherwise dark locks. He’s balding now so you’d never know it was there.

I’ve known for years, decades actually, that Dennis Prager held and espoused conservative views. Many, too many, of my Brooklyn Hebrew high school classmates do.

But I must say it goes beyond the pale (an intended pun, as the phrase “beyond the pale” comes from the tsar’s restriction on where Jews could settle in Russia) that anyone could equate a free and vibrant press with existential threats. It is widely agreed that democracy, a central platform of Western civilization, is strongest when the press is diverse and unfettered. 

Of course, voices on the left decry press outlets that advocate restrictive voting rights and repressive prejudicial laws while supporting a strong man president unchecked by Congress or the courts.

But let’s not give liberal media and activists a pass. Liberals have their own set of biases playing out in another Prager chapter. 

One of Dennis’ lifelong passions has been classical music. Often he conducts orchestras for charitable causes. He signed on to lead the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra August 16 at the world renowned Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

But his writings and rantings, specifically about LGBTQ issues, offend several members of the volunteer orchestra who refuse to play for him and want his invitation to conduct rescinded (https://nyti.ms/2vdl1OL).

So far Prager and the leaders of the orchestra are standing firm. Good for them. And bravo to those musicians who decline to participate. We should not condone intellectual boycotts no matter how repulsed we are by someone’s political or social stances. No one is forcing anyone to attend the concert or a lecture or watch a cable news station. 

Nor should we condemn individual musicians whose conscience does not allow them to perform. Keep in mind, members of Congress have chosen not to attend presidential addresses. Protest is a right enshrined in the Constitution. 

So, how do I feel? Sad, actually, that our country has devolved into a seemingly non stop pissing match where opponents barely respect their adversaries. Sad, because their antipathy often devolves into disrespect. Sad, because I doubt this condition will change in the foreseeable future.


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