As I mentioned earlier, Dennis Prager was our commencement speaker at Trinity School at River Ridge this year.
I was actually looking forward to what he might say, but was ... well, "disappointed."
In his address, he talked about what he described as a cultural assault on Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
It began well.
And I'm not even sure if I disagree with his underlying point.
But as he started to unpack his ideas, several things became clear that were confirmed by many conversations I had about the speech at graduation parties throughout the day, long into the night and over the weekend.
I guess I would call what follows a critique of five 'subtexts' or presuppositions of Mr. Prager's speech that in my opinion significantly undid any possible good that could have come out of his address (except the good of discussing it with other reflective persons.)
First of all, he badly confused intellectual, aesthetic and moral relativism with subjectivism.
I agree with him that Truth, Beauty and Goodness are absolute.
I disagree with him that these things are accessible to human beings in some sort of easy, obvious or common-sensical fashion. It is a critical intellectual skill to be able to recognize the inherent subjectivity in any human approach to the True, the Good or the Beautiful. Such a recognition of subjectivity and its role in our understanding of what is True, Good and Beautiful fosters humility, openness and a dialogical attitude towards the great conversation in which we have been involved for centuries.
To those who would fear that embracing the reality of subjectivity is a significant step onto the slippery slope of full blown relativism, I would say two things. First of all, if we do, in fact, always bring a subjective disposition to our understanding of the True, the Good and Beautiful, then this is a 'truth' which we should uphold. Secondly, the slippery slope argument is one generally motivated by fear and not by devotion to the truth. It has some credibility, but must be closely examined whenever employed and here I think it is invalid.
Secondly, Mr. Prager, in a dismissive and largely uninformed treatment of abstract or expressionistic art in the 20th century, made the significant category mistake of associating art narrowly with Beauty. Except for select moments in the history of art in the West, artists have not thought with any uniformity in terms of creating beauty or making contact with some Platonic form of the Beautiful. There were moments: classical Greek sculpture, High Renaissance painting and sculpture, and (ironically) 20th century suprematist art; but these are exceptions to the rule. In general, artists have asked question not about what is beautiful, but about what we see and how we see it and what that means about who we are. Artist have always been more akin to prophets than philosophers.
Also ironic was Mr. Prager's use of Rembrandt as some sort of ideal of upholding the beautiful in the visual arts. Contemporary critics scorned Rembrandt for his attachment to the ugly and unseemly. Consider, for instance, his placement of a pooping dog in the foreground of a 'sacred' painting of "The Good Samaritan."
Properly speaking, the very 'scatological painting' that Prager was so particularly dismissive of goes all the way back to Rembrandt.
Third, and on a related note, beneath many of Mr. Prager's criticisms of the 20th and 21st centuries was the assumption that there was once, if not a golden age, at least a time when things were 'better' with respect to the True, the Good and the Beautiful. He denounced contemporary journalism for editorializing reality and losing sight of accuracy in reporting, but when has this not been true of journalism? In the days of William Randolph Hearst? In the British press? In the pre-Civil War era political reporting? I would suspect, frankly, (though it would be nice to have some evidence here) that given media scrutiny, scientific advances, the Internet, bloggers, etc. that the factual accuracy of news reporting is much higher now than at any other time in the history of journalism. I could say similar things about his view of art and even morality. Look at the number of brothels and prostitutes in Victorian London. In Italy during late middle ages, prostitution was so common that not even Thomas Aquinas thought it could be outlawed with any credible enforcement or even that to outlaw it would be good.
Fourth, in a criticism I was intially very hesitant to level at a speech given by a Jewish-American but now feel that I must, Mr. Prager's comments betrayed the kind of racial insensitivity that it is very difficult to put a finger on initially and is very common among many conservatives, including, unfortunately, many Christians. The comments that were most problematic came as a part of Mr. Prager's critique of what he would call 'revisionist' American history texts. While a thorough discussion of the change in American history textbooks over the past fifty years would require not only its own post but probably its own blog, in which changing attitudes towards history itself, towards sociology, anthropology, war, conquest, colonialism, etc. were all addressed, I think I can summarize Mr. Prager's position in a way that is both fair to him and captures what I objected to. His view is that American history has been rewritten to include the contributions of African Americans, women, and other minorities in such a way as to diminish the 'truth' of the 'fact' that the majority of our founders were white Christians coming out of the European Christian traditions. Mr. Prager believes that to do so is to lie; and he believes that lie is based on the attempt to make minorities "feel good."
One of the serious problems with his approach to the change in history textbooks, however, is that it completely dismisses the greater, more fundamental lies which are the very context for these changes - lies about manifest destiny, white supremacy, and all-encompassing European cultural superiority. If contemporary revisions of American history textbooks have led to a situation in which some necessary correctives have perhaps gone too far, this can only be understood in the context of much greater and much more damaging lies. There were lies wrapped into the story of America upon which textbooks were based seventy five years ago, lies not about the degree of contribution various minorities or ethnic groups may or may not have made but about the very nature of what it means to be human, to count as a person in a political context and to possess the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Can we honestly believe that the American story was more faithfully told once-upon-a-time by those who assumed that blacks did not have the right to drink at the same public drinking fountain as whites?
In the context of Mr. Prager's speech, he made it seem as if all the gains in civil rights and racial understanding and all the work by African Americans and on behalf of all minorities was not about justice or truth but about attempting to appease people who have had their feelings hurt. To offer such a backhanded ad hominem dismissal of a serious and very complex issue in American history, American letters, American politics and American education is not justifiable. Though I do not believe Mr. Prager's intentions were bad, the great personal damage that was done to some in the audience is no less real because Mr. Prager did not intend it.
Finally, not in what he said but in the way he said it Mr. Prager created categories of right and wrong, black and white, enlightened and unenlightened that shut off at the outset any reasonable engagement with his remarks. If I believe that smoking should be legal in private businesses and someone at a party or in a speech says something like, "Only an idiot would defend the position that smoking should be legal anywhere but in the home or outdoors," then we have nothing to talk about. There is no possibility for dialogue because from the outset I know that I am a categorical idiot in the mind of the person who was speaking. Much of Mr. Prager's rhetoric fell into this category. "If someone has to explain it to me, it's not art." "I could have this argument in my sleep." "They are naked emperors." These sorts of statements set parameters for any subsequent discussion that invite in only back-slapping affirmation or angry rebuttal.