Yet Another Visit to Prager Universe


As we have seen in the two previous discussions of the topic, PragerU is a festering cauldron of misinformation, misdirection and smugness — disguised as a benevolent, informative “university”. Its coterie of “credible thinkers” (also known as “course presenters”) pontificating in 5-minute videos reads like a partial Who’s Who of contemporary lunatic demagoguery. The roster includes Ben Shapiro, Steven Crowder (see below), Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, Dinesh D’Souza, Jonah Goldberg, Charlie Kirk, Michelle Malkin, James O’Keefe,  and Candace Owens, among many others.

PragerU very well might be thought of as the anti-TED. Whereas TED Talks is a symposium on the human potential for creativity, progress, expansive mindset, vision, constructiveness and love, PragerU is a symposium on the human potential for destructiveness, regression, reductionist mindset, purblindness, division and hate. And the Pragerists don’t even have the decency to be forthright in their aims; their mission is cloaked in pseudointellectual pretensions of patriotism, piety and moral high-mindedness.

Tune in and you’ll find videos rehashing the same inane talking points you’ve heard (and heard debunked) many times before — in support of a border wall, and the electoral college, and theocracy, and capital punishment, and other tireless bastions of right-wing bigotry and intellectual bankruptcy. A video on nationalism tries to make it sound benign by drastically shifting the semantic goal posts.  One video on the electoral college observes that:

In a pure democracy, bare majorities can easily tyrannize the rest of a country.

Never mind that merely electing a president by popular vote by no means would constitute a “pure majority”. The thing is that the present arrangement (as has become painfully evident) can help a distinct minority tyrannize the rest of the country.

All of this is blended with a (very) small amount of material that really is informative or at least harmless. We previously mentioned a video affirming that the Civil War really was about slavery (which is something there really shouldn’t even be any debate about). Another one purports to teach you (in 5 minutes) how to develop more resiliency to avoid being thrown for a loop by catastrophic events. It’s essentially fluff, but evidently well-meaning enough.

The many talks that Dennis Prager himself has delivered include a regular series of fireside chats (no, seriously) in which he expounds upon all manner of topics on which he considers himself the ultimate authority.  Looking like Santa Claus groomed for a job on Wall Street, he follows in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps in demonstrating that an avuncular persona can mask all manner of devious machinations.  And PragerU itself often demonstrates the banality of evil; while posing as a cheery self-help site, it subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) goads its viewers to loathe half of their fellow Americans.

One of these “courses” is a whole series of cutesy little “man on the street” videos by Will Witt, who is officially PragerU’s “social media influencer” (a title that speaks megabytes). You know the type of video: the intrepid sleuth sets out with a certain premise, interviews people he hopes will confirm that premise, selects the few who do and discards the others, sprinkles it all with a bit of selective editing, and voila! proves himself to be a great sage and visionary.

Witt’s customary narrative is that them librulz iz dumm; he’s particularly obsessed with trying to establish that college students are naive librulz being force-fed propaganda by sinister librul professors. He himself claims he dropped out of one such university because he was being indoctrinated with facts that didn’t fit his worldview. (Does the word snowflake mean anything to you, Will?) So now, by god, he works for a real university where he can learn, teach and manufacture his own facts.

In one video, he asks students whether they can name one good thing the forty-fifth White House Occupant has done in office, and they have a hard time coming up with one. Imagine that. (Give them a break, Will — this was before he helped the Democrats regain the House.) In another, he ridicules a “leftist” book that “brainwashes” little kids by telling them about the concept of… wait for it… activism. You know, such as he himself attempts to practice. Another of his videos is titled “Do College Students Support Abortion Or Life?” Yes, that’s the actual title. (If you don’t see anything wrong, please read our two discussions of abortion and the one on straw men.)

History, shmistory

But of all the PragerU videos I have watched so far, surely the most egregious is one that was posted for the occasion of Columbus Day. It was designed to ridicule the “politically correct” efforts to question the wisdom of celebrating such an occasion, and to defend the myth of Columbus as a noble, heroic figure. This talk was delivered by Steven Crowder, who has a website called Louder With Crowder — a name perfectly exemplifying the notion these people have that being louder and more obnoxious makes you more accurate and morally defensible. He’s labeled Christine Blasey Ford a “lying whore” — while acknowledging that her accusations could be true — and suggested that by denouncing her attacker, she was guilty of name calling that was equally vile. Credible thinkers, every one.

Here’s how he begins his little homily on the austere occasion of Columbus Day:

Thanksgiving. Independence Day. Memorial Day. Holidays are a great time to riddle Americans with needless, oppressive guilt.

Not a hint as to exactly how those holidays inflict “needless, oppressive guilt” on people.  It’s one of those things you’re supposed to just believe because you’re supposed to just believe.  And clearly a tribute to the popular straw man of “liberal guilt” we discussed previously. And here’s what he’s leading up to:

But the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest is Columbus Day—the day where progressives indoctrinate your children into believing Columbus to be Satan incarnate, the USA to be his evil spawn, and the Native Americans to be pacifists.

Wow. There’s almost too much horseshit packed into that one sentence to adequately dissect it all. But let’s whip through it briefly. First, notice the cute red herring/ straw man tacked onto the end. Who exactly is claiming that Native Americans were uniformly pacifist? And what exactly would that have to do with respecting Native heritage and culture and the Native peoples alive today? It’s very telling that Crowder and his like consider it “indoctrination” when progressives try to set the record straight. But for the record, progressives generally just want the truth to be known, whether about Columbus or anyone else. If someone concludes that he was “Satan incarnate”, that’s a conclusion they would be drawing from his actual record — and there is plenty in his record that might warrant such a characterization.

The most interesting thing about this sentence, however, is its bald illustration of the propaganda technique of flag waving, wherein the perpetrator presents himself as impeccably patriotic because of his ideology, and proclaims that anyone who does not concur with his beliefs is unpatriotic or even anti-American. In this silly extreme example, he is claiming that anyone who dares to expose the seamy side of Columbus is trying to paint America itself as the “spawn of Satan”. Indeed, he’s declaring that it’s even worse than that:

Feeling the urge to self-inflict grievous bodily harm yet? That’s only natural, because the whole charade has become an exercise in hating Western civilization, which is really just an exercise in hating yourself.

Got that? If you want the facts told, you hate not only America, not only all of Western civilization, but even yourself. Instead, you should deal yourself a huge dose of love by believing this:

First, as far as Columbus goes, the guy deserves some credit, right? Flawed, to be sure, but he was the greatest navigator of his age—the first person to cross the Atlantic from the continent of Europe. And he did so without any maps and only three small ships. If you can name them, by the way, comment below, as I’m sure your professor can’t.

Clever, huh? Simultaneously taking a dig at those sinister liberal professors teaching liberal facts to impressionable students, while also putting in a blatant plug to drum up viewer interaction by challenging them to respond to a simplistic trivia question. Don’t worry, Steve — if you and the other Pragerists can’t name the three ships, just about any fifth grader can bail you out.

But there are indeed some “liberal” facts that he can’t spin away.  To call Columbus the “greatest navigator of his age” is, to put it charitably, a wee bit of a stretch. Among other things, Columbus grossly miscalculated the dimensions of the globe. It would be more accurate to say that he was a ruthless, greedy egomaniac and a lucky bungler who stumbled his way into the history books (not unlike the forty-fifth White House occupant). We’ll discuss the myths about Columbus (who, by the way, never even set foot on the continent) in a future post; for now, let’s just remind the venerable Mr. Crowder that there’s actually a reason the Native peoples of America are now known as “Indians”.

He goes on to apply a very interesting and illuminating double standard. He acknowledges on the one hand that Columbus and crew were far from perfect, and suggests that we therefore should be willing to excuse them for knocking off a few indigenous people. And on the other hand, he insists that the Natives were not perfect either, and therefore, we should be willing to overlook the fact that many of them got knocked off by European immigrants. It’s a technique related to what is known formally as tu quoque, though it’s more commonly known as”bothsidesism” or  “whataboutism” or “it takes one to know one”, or “I’m rubber, you’re glue”, or “so’s your old man”. However you phrase it, the idea is that you can somehow exonerate someone from charges of wrongdoing by pointing out that someone else did something wrong too.

Nobody is suggesting that the Natives were perfect or that they were all benevolent, peaceful souls. They were human, and any large enough group of humans is going to have a few rotten eggs. So yes, some of them did commit their own atrocities. And guess what? Not a single one of them is even remembered today, much less exalted as a hero or honored by a major holiday.

As far as the genocide by violence, you can look at any historical account of even the most one-sided battles and find that they were still just that—battles. Take Wounded Knee (although hundreds of years later, I only bring it up because I know that if I don’t, you will). It’s become ubiquitous with the idea of Native Americans’ genocide. After all, there were 150-350 Aboriginals killed or wounded. That’s terrible, but there were also 25 American soldiers killed and 39 wounded. That’s not genocide; that’s a one-sided beatdown with Old Glory wielding the hammer.

Aside from the fact that his math is a little questionable (somehow he regards 128 years as “hundreds of years”), he illustrates how you can argue just about any kind of absurd premise if you’re willing to redefine your terms and cherry pick your facts drastically enough. If you’re going to transform a massacre into a “one-sided battle”, it helps if you forget to mention that the altercation began as an official visit; and that the army was trying to confiscate the tribe’s weapons, to go along with the confiscated lands; and that many of the 300 or so Native casualties were women and children.

And he offers an even more absurd deflection:

Not only did the Natives brutally take out PEOPLE, but they took out entire forests and hunted species to extinction.

So the Fifteenth Century Natives deserved to be slaughtered because they didn’t apply Twenty-First Century knowledge of proper environmental management? One must infer that what he’s implying here is that anyone who exercises a “politically correct” effort to respect Native Americans and their heritage is subscribing to the silly stereotype of the “noble savage”, which enjoyed a brief vogue a couple of centuries ago.  And just in case he hasn’t already convinced you how bigoted and clueless he is, he sums up thus:

Columbus is not the issue here, and never was. This whole “Indigenous Peoples Day” charade is about teaching your children to despise Western civilization and anybody who dare defend it.

And then he wraps up with an uncharacteristic touch of candor, intended to be ironic but actually much more accurate than he realizes.

But then again, that could just be my Western civ privilege talking.

No shit, Sherlock.

Reactionaries like Crowder often try to give you the impression that Columbus Day is a timeless, quintessentially American occasion ordained by the Founding Fathers themselves. In reality, it did not become a federal holiday until 1937, and the motivations for making it one were largely political, and based almost entirely on myth. This sums up very nicely what these people classify as “patriotism”.

Summing it up

Within three months of its being posted, this bigoted and brainless little video had been viewed in excess of three million times. It’s been shared, praised, tweeted and et cetera-ed countless times. PragerU videos overall have received more than 1.8 BILLION views.  What’s even more disturbing is that if the site’s stats are to be believed (and it’s clearly by no means a given that anything PragerU says can be taken at face value) 70 percent of viewers report that they’ve had their minds changed on some issue by one of the videos. In short, it’s an extremely successful propaganda machine.

And that includes, of course, being financially successful. It’s been reported that each video (there’s a new one spawned every week) costs in the range of $25,000 to $30,000 to produce. They wouldn’t be spending that kind of cheddar if they weren’t raking it in.  (Don’t be fooled by the smokescreen of nonprofit status — churches are nonprofits too, and some of them are filthy rich.) Indeed, PragerU’s faithful flock is constantly subjected to dire fundraising pleas, built on the absurd claim that “conservative” material is being censored and repressed by social media, search engines, mainstream media, and the chronosynclastic infundibulum. To emphasize the point, one of its panhandling ads features photos of some of those “credible thinkers” with their mouths taped. If only.

Such absurd claims have been debunked eight ways from Sunday — even though a great deal of right-wing Internet content inspires violence and other harmful actions, right-wingers actually have an advantage in the cyber world. (The reason you’re reading about PragerU right now is that it kept rearing its ugly head in my Facebook feed, quite uninvited, over and over and over.) But they want more than an advantage. They want absolute and total domination. And anything less than that will prompt them to wail about censorship and repression — and even conduct congressional hearings to look into such poppycock. And they will continue to play the censorship card as long as there are plenty of Kool-Aid guzzlers to fleece out of cash.

It’s often said that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. To this aphorism we should add the corollary that nobody ever went broke overestimating the gullibility of ideological fanatics.

Playing Ostrich on Race

Ferguson protest

Whenever an unarmed black teen gets shot by a white guy — which seems to be becoming a trend these days –you can count on two things happening. First, there is an outrage among the public. Second, there is a campaign by many in the media, and other right-wing extremists, to gloss over the incident and the public reaction. It’s really no big deal, they try to tell you. Get upset over something else instead, they say. We saw this with the killing of Trayvon Martin. And more recently, we’ve been seeing it with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Fox “News” and company have gone into hyperdrive declaring how sick and tired they are of all the media coverage of protests in Ferguson even as they offer endless coverage of Ferguson, and how the real racists are the ones who talk about racism even as they go on and on about racism.  Fox bit off more than it could chew in one priceless unscripted segment in which Steve Harrigan was, in the condescending words of a colleague,

trying to explain the reality of what is happening now — that in the middle of the night, a bunch of people are out for show.

When Harrigan patronizingly referred to the protests as “child’s play”, he was overheard by an angry participant who confronted him and schooled him in very blunt terms — asking him, among other things, “Who’s the child playing with toys? Us or them?”

Fox, of course, is not designed primarily as a news organization, but as the voice of the “conservative movement” (one of my favorite oxymorons) which likes to play ostrich with racial tensions. Republicans sometimes bill themselves as “the party of Lincoln”, forgetting (if they ever knew in the first place) that the party has undergone a radical makeover in more recent decades, and Abe wouldn’t recognize anything about it except the name. The GOP — and Fox — often trot out the scant handful of African-Americans in their midst and pretend that they are a much larger contingent than they really are, and that everything is just peachy keen.

But anyone who’s attended a Republican convention can vouch for the scarcity of dark faces among the delegates, though there might be plenty of them in the service staff — for whom black delegates are often mistaken.  I recall reading about one African-American attendee of a state GOP gathering in recent years who, though he was wearing a badge that clearly identified him, was asked to carry bags or call a taxi six times. But if you shine a light on this lack of ethnic diversity, then wingers, rather than trying to address it, are likely to upbraid you for “playing the race card”.

The trigger-happy cop in Ferguson didn’t even give Michael Brown a chance to carry his bags. What he did was shoot an unarmed teenager — not once, but SIX TIMES, who according to witnesses, was holding up his hands and moving away from the officer. The friend who was with Brown reports that when the cop drove up he yelled at them to “get the fuck on the sidewalk”.  One witness says that he then started driving away, but abruptly reversed his vehicle, after which the confrontation started. After Brown was gunned down, his body was allowed to lie in the street for FOUR HOURS.

Now suppose you didn’t know anything about the color of the parties involved, or you knew that everyone was the same race. Wouldn’t you find it alarming that law enforcement personnel could conduct themselves in this manner? Hell, there are lots of Libertarianoids out there who seem to be on a fulltime campaign to convince people that police in general are jack-booted Storm Trooper thugs; they scout out and publicize every little instance of alleged police misconduct they hear about, and tout it as representative of police activity in general and proof that all police forces should be totally emasculated. And yet they’ve been rather behind the curve when it comes to outrage over the death of Michael Brown. Why? (It isn’t true, as some have suggested, that Libertarians have been totally silent on the matter; but they haven’t been nearly as vocal as one might expect given their obsession with all things constabulary.)

The really extreme right-wingers, however, certainly have not ignored the incident. Instead, they’ve done their best to convince you that there’s really nothing to see here, so move on. And that includes trying to convince you that the dead kid “got everything he deserved”, in the words of pundit Pat Dollard. As phrased by an article in AlterNet (“4 worst Right-Wing Reactions to Michael Brown’s Killing and the Ferguson Protests”),

Conservative media has never met a young black man it couldn’t retroactively [i.e., posthumously] enlist into the shadowy urban gangs of its fevered imagination.

The campaign to smear Michael Brown is virtually a carbon copy of the campaign to smear Trayvon Martin. They’ve claimed he had a criminal record. Not true. They’ve claimed he had a gang affiliation. Not true. they’ve claimed he had marijuana in his system. Possibly true, but irrelevant. They’ve circulated photos of another, more menacing-looking individual, and falsely identified them as Brown. They’ve claimed that he broke the eye socket of the policeman who killed him. Not true. They’ve circulated still frames taken from a surveillance video which they claim depicts Brown robbing a convenience store earlier that day. But the video does not prove any such thing. It shows a young man fitting Brown’s description bringing merchandise to the counter, having a discussion with the clerk, then leaving — pushing the clerk, who has come out and gotten into an altercation with him. In any case, the officer who shot him did not stop him because he was suspected of robbery; his crime that cost him his life was walking in the street.

Yet pretend that all of the rumors about Brown are true. Say that he really was as monstrous as the wingers would have you believe, and then some. Even so, is it justified to shoot him six times when he’s unarmed? Would anyone ever say that a white teen, because he lived a less than exemplary life (like most teenagers) deserved to be pumped full of lead? Would people say (as some have of Brown) that slaughtering a white teen amounts to “taking out the trash”?  It wasn’t very long ago, lest we forget, that many of these people were manufacturing all the outrage they could muster because the Obama administration gunned down Osama bin Laden. So now they high-five over the same thing happening to an unarmed American kid who apparently never hurt anyone?

“Conservatives” loudly insist that race is not a factor in slayings of this type, yet they undermine their own narrative by trying to justify the perception of the victims as suspicious characters on the basis of their appearance. Fox’s Geraldo Rivera speculated that “the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as [the killer] was”. The rumors of Michael Brown being a gangster have been bolstered by the fact that he sometimes wore red clothing. And LiberalLogic 101, a site that purports to expose flaws in “liberal” reasoning but only exposes its own utter lack of reasoning skills (we mentioned it previously in the post on straw men), suggested that judging someone for wearing a hoodie or a red shirt is no worse than judging someone for wearing a Klan robe. Such is the “conservative” logic behind LiberalLogic 101. And if you really think like this, you have your head stuck in something worse than sand.

Incidentally, the folks at LiberalLogic 101 also recently ran a cartoon depicting President Obama saying, “My position on beheadings is that I be heading to the golf course”. Coincidentally, researches in one study found that they were able to manipulate the favorability/ unfavorability with which many participants viewed Obama by subtly altering the skin tone in his photograph.

Such individuals have a habit of treating each shooting of this sort as an isolated incident, wrenched free of social context, But as many people, including the author of the AlterNet article have pointed out, the killing of Michael Brown did not occur in a vacuum. Jon Stewart, spot on as usual, goes into a bit of detail about what a vacuum it didn’t occur in.

Forget that in Ferguson, 94 percent of the police are white, and 63 percent of the people are black. Forget that 92 percent of police searches and 86 percent of car stops are for black people.

He goes on to present an account of an incident in which 4 Ferguson police officers beat a 52-year-old man and then cited him for defiling government property by staining their uniforms with his blood. Indeed, the Ferguson P.D. has an apparent history of heavy-handed behavior. Its strained relations with residents, particularly with those of the African-American persuasion, was a time bomb waiting to detonate. And it has.

Stewart also hands Sean Hannity his testicles on a platter for the umpeenth time (not a particularly difficult feat to pull off) and punctures another popular right-wing talking point: that the attention focused on an event like Ferguson or the death of Trayvon Martin is way out of proportion to the attention given to the killings of black citizens that occur in some cities on a daily basis. In the words of one clueless Foxster:

If I were African-American, I would be outraged that more journalists aren’t covering what’s happening in Chicago, and more outraged that people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson don’t head to those areas.

Which is an amazingly brainless comment for at least three reasons. First, as Stewart facetiously asks, “Why all the interest in holding police officers to a higher standard than gangs?” And second, it’s not an either/ or proposition; and as it turns out, those African-American leaders whom the wingers so often upbraid for not addressing gang violence have been very involved in, um, addressing gang violence. Third, there are good reasons for the discrepancy in media coverage: see Trayvon Martin and the “Double Standard “Standard, Part 1 and Part 2.

Okay, we’re being hard on right-wingers here, but there’s a simple explanation: they’ve earned it.  Yet observers on both the left and the right tend to cloud the issue by conflating racism with racial bias. Racism is blatant and deliberate, and as such is readily noted. But racial bias is more subtle and unconscious, and therefore does a lot of damage under the radar.

Racism suggests that the Ferguson cop killed Michael Brown because he was black. That’s probably not true — although it doesn’t speak well for him that the KKK and other racists are rushing to his defense. What’s much more likely, however, is that Brown’s ethnicity contributed significantly to his being a “suspicious character” in the first place. No matter how you slice it, it’s quite possible, if not probable, that if he had been white, he’d still be alive. Compare what happened to him to what happened when a white man walked down the street brandishing a gun, threatening and insulting police and daring them to shoot him. And what did the police do? They negotiated with him for 40 minutes, pleading with him to put down the gun, and all but invited him home for tea.

The killers of both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown have, thus far, walked free. Compare this to John McNeil, a black man who is serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a white man (who was not a teen) who was armed and threatening on McNeil’s own property. Once again, let me quote Jon Stewart (Don’t you get tired of having to get the facts about current events from comedians?) because he puts it so memorably:

I guarantee you that every person of color has faced an indignity — from the ridiculous to the grotesque to the sometimes fatal — at some point in their,,, I’m going to say last couple of hours. [to the Foxsters] You’re tired of hearing about it?? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is to live it.

As he mentions, this blatant racial profiling occurs even in the “liberal bastion” of New York City.  Indeed, it’s everywhere. Research indicates that people with darker complexions are more likely to be considered untrustworthy or suspicious, and are more likely to be convicted of crime when accused. This bias is often present even among African-Americans themselves. It’s not a simple problem, but it’s a very real, and sometimes deadly problem. And I don’t know what the solution is — although I suspect that an increased awareness would go a long way toward a remedy. Whatever the solution, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve playing ostrich.