PRAGER U WILL
MAKE YOU DUMBER
Prager U Is Not a University
How do you consume information? Why are you inclined to go to the sources that you go to? Most of us don’t actually ask ourselves these questions, opting instead to learn passively and choose sources from force of habit. We should aspire to be conscious thinkers when consuming information. But because at best we forget to think for ourselves, and at worst we don’t care to, Dennis Prager has seized the opportunity to do the thinking for you.
Hello humans! I'm Dan From The Internet, and I go to UC Berkeley (a real school). I’m going to talk about Prager University (not a real school), but this is bigger than one man or a single YouTube channel. This is about the hijacking of American discourse happening at the blink of an eye, at scale, on the endless feeds of our existence. This is about an ecosystem of cunning evangelists who shamelessly proclaim to be the last remaining champions of free speech and the marketplace of ideas. This is how Prager is poisoning politics.
PART ONE: SUPERVILLAIN ORIGIN STORY
Dennis Prager started doing radio in the 1980s, preaching that Judeo-Christian values have played and must continue to play a dominant role in American history, society, and politics. After all, nothing is more unamerican than the separation of church and state. My last two pieces centered on Ben Shapiro, who repackages tired right wing talking points in exactly the way you’d expect from a lawyer running damage control for a dimwit. (PS: This report features Ben Shapiro and a puppy, so stay with me.)
Prager on the other hand is nowhere near as sophisticated or subtle, something you’d quickly realize by browsing some of his written columns, such as “When I Was a Boy, America Was a Better Place,” “Is Donald Trump a Misogynist?,” and “When a Woman Isn’t In The Mood, Part I.”
In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf chronicled Prager’s complete 180 on Trump and his many transgressions: profanity, adultery, lying, torture, and basic moral character. Which is really funny coming from the Judeo-Christian-values commentator who has spent his entire broadcasting career claiming the left is grabbing America by the morality.
But back to you. As a consumer of the younger more secular internet, you probably aren’t in the older, more religious target audience for Prager’s radio show. Chances are (and by watching this, you’re giving me data) you’re under the age of 35 and enjoy this brand of flashy sub-10 minute informational content that’s become dominant for disseminating knowledge. With this in mind, Prager U was created to spread nationalistic propaganda in five minute chunks. That’s not my hot take, that’s almost their mission statement.
PART TWO: FIAT CUX
“... in five focused, entertaining minutes. Cutting edge media and marketing on our side for a change. Each week, we teach what isn’t taught but should be. Why America is exceptional. How capitalism promotes economic equality. How faith, reason, and science are fully compatible.”
For time’s sake, let’s ignore the fact that a history major who left college in 1972 believes more than 40 years later that his extensive experience in talk radio puts his finger right on the pulse of campus climate in the 21st century.
Visitors to the Prager U channel will find hours-long playlists categorized in the vein of real college majors. (It’s not a real school). Prager U’s Economics track teaches that income inequality is a good thing because it rewards success. Prager U won’t tell you that the top 1% kept 24% of America’s income in 2016, and that the US is way behind other western countries in economic mobility.
A philosophy major with no science background presents one of their environmental science videos, “Why You Should Love Fossil Fuels,” which claims that the climate science community is largely skeptical about humanity’s role in rising global temperatures. They aren’t. He also argues that humans are “mastering nature,” by continuing to use fossil fuels. Solar, wind, nuclear, and other renewable energies? Not mastering nature. Dinosaur juice? Mastering nature.
Prager U on Race Relations, you ask for some sadistic reason? Of the interestingly few videos they have on the topic, one is the same tired whitewashing of history that Republicans use to veil the Southern strategy; in which the party deliberately courted racist southern Democrats to gain political power. It’s a part of Republican history that many party loyalists magically have amnesia over, even though in 2005 the party chair himself acknowledged and apologized for it. Prager cherrypicking from the 7% of African Americans who identify with Republicans is a textbook case of the ol’ “I’m not a racist, my son has a black friend” ploy.
I chatted with Marcus, who hosts The Uncorrupted Report on YouTube. Subscribe to it, because he’s intelligent, skillful, and goes into more depth debunking Prager U than I really ever want to. He helped me get a sense of patterns in Prager U’s videos. “They always try to make it seem like they respect the other side, and that they’ve actually considered the other side, and that they aren’t approaching the topic with confirmation bias,” he explains. “If you watch all Prager U and you’re more inclined to the right, I think that their main goal is to make it seem as though right wing conservatism in general is sorta perfect. And that everything bad that has ever happened has been the cause of the left.”
Thanks to the addiction algorithms YouTube, Facebook and other online platforms utilize to show you more of what you want to see, this warped, unrealistic message can reach millions of young minds. It works so well because of something that Prager has understood about politics long before Prager U fans were born. Which reminds me of something.
PART THREE: HISTORY, STUCK ON REPEAT
I promised you a puppy, and I try not to disappoint. So here's Ben Shapiro with a puppy awkwardly sandwiched *next* to his lap while Dennis Prager lights a cigar. Not much seems surprising, Shapiro even does...the thing again, but this exchange had me shook:
Prager: “By the way, is it fair to say that I had a role in your life prior to your being born?”
Shapiro: “Yeah absolutely, my parents … started becoming orthodox, in that direction, by listening to your show.”
P:“[...] So...I have a long time in the Shapiro family”
S:“Yeah absolutely. And I listened to your show ever since I was capable of listening to talk radio.”
P:“Which was what when you were about three?”
S:“Well in utero.”
Everyone’s political beliefs, yours and mine, come from our deeply held morals. When religion becomes intertwined into political conversations, political beliefs must satisfy moral/religious ones, giving pundits the opportunity to either swap out actual evidence for values and history, or misconstrue the evidence to fit a worldview.
Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins (real political scientists) published a book called Asymmetric Politics, that contextualizes this well. Yes, they talk about how university professors, scientists, and journalists tend to lean left. Yes, this bias holds true for me. Shifting to the right, they found that the GOP actually used to have a neutral view on the press. Then, in the mid 1960s, things got shaken up.
Republican party activists and evangelical religious leaders attacked the press and fanned the flames of tribalism. Arizona senator Barry Goldwater took on this strategy for himself, clenching the presidential nomination in 1964. The party’s elite saw the political gain that could be achieved by eroding public confidence in research, the media, and universities. Not only have they been going at it ever since, they’re creating their own entities to replace the ones they try to destroy.
Now, Prager U’s not an accredited institution — but it is part of a larger apparatus built to serve the interests of billionaires and corporations. I’m not saying there’s some elaborate conspiracy just because Dennis the Menace chuckled while ruminating about his life-long influence on rising Republican talking head Ben Shapiro in a literal dark smoke filled room. The evidence is almost as conspicuous though, and I almost forgot to tell you: there’s money in it, too.
PART FOUR: THE GILDED BOOTSTRAPS
Ben Shapiro, Adam Carolla, Steven Crowder, and Charlie Kirk (just to scratch the surface) are all contributors to Prager U, sharing and growing each other’s audiences by weaving the same message into their respective shticks. Crowder reaches over a million and a half people on his personal YouTube channel, which has featured Prager numerous times. He’s also not funny; change my mind in the comments, trolls. Carolla hosts a popular podcast and is collaborating with Prager on the documentary “No Safe Spaces,” the same kind of campus publicity stunt that more and more college students are beginning to see through thanks to content like this (why not share this video?)
Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA -- which has the weakest meme game of all time -- received $275,000 over a two year period from conservative mega-donor Richard Uihlein, who was also a top donor to the super PAC of unpunished child molester for senate Roy Moore. Uihlein has already donated $14.8 million just in 2018 according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and the midterm election season has barely just started.
Remember philosopher bro Alex Epstein from that fossil fuels video? He’s the president (and also founder) of the Center for Industrial Progress, a rare *for profit* think tank, which was listed in a subpoena against ExxonMobil in 2016. ExxonMobil’s CEO at the time was Rex Tillerson, Trump’s freshly ousted secretary of state.
Dan and Farris Wilks, who sold their fracking company in 2011 for $3.5 billion, donated to help start Prager U, and they might have gotten a good return on their investment. That ridiculous fossil fuel video was literally made possible by fossil fuel billionaires not like you. The brothers also own and fund The Daily Wire, Shapiro’s news outlet which happens to stand against scientific consensus on climate change.
In the Republican party machine, the super wealthy dump money into think tanks, interest groups, media outlets, and campaigns to put their finger on the scales of our political system. Republican tested, big-business approved talking points vertically integrated into our political discourse, all with the same underlying message: trust no institutions but ours. The icing on the cake? Many of these donations are tax deductible. It’s privatized propaganda being pumped into the brains of America’s next army of voters in a way that George Orwell couldn’t have dreamt up if he dropped 10 tabs of acid.
The right wing has made a caricature of Berkeley and college campuses at large. The news vans aren’t here when things are business as usual: when professors are exposing tomorrow’s future leaders to the complexities of our society. Numerous avenues exist for students to express their views for the public to commend or critique. The same is true at all universities. At least the real ones.
But Prager U is not a university. It’s a nexus for hard-line conservative messaging that closes minds and builds upon tribal identities, while accusing political opponents of doing the same. It’s a vicious cycle that can put violently extreme ideologies just an autoplay away.
Humans, this is serious. Carefully consider how and where you consume information, and don’t allow those with financial or political motivations to make those decisions for you. You don’t need to imagine what it’d be like to live in a world where people rejected all but their own sources of information. We live in that world today, and your diligence is more important than ever.
02 April 2018 by:
Dan From The Internet]
Credits for video:
Dan From The Internet
Featuring Interview of:
The Uncorrupted Report
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
Purple Planet Music