Dennis Prager's Commencement Address

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.


Jodi said...

I noticed you edited your post. :)
When Josh heard who was speaking I think he expected that outcome.

The more I learn and understand (which is SO limited) the more I realize that life is one steep slippery slope, don't ya think? The real issues of God and life seem to be positioned on the slimy incline between the high ground and the ditch. If it were not for the safety line of grace that holds us to God, we would all fall. I am afraid that many do not acknowledge this line of grace and are therefore afraid to step off the "safe" ground and, in humility of thought, approach the issues which will bring them into a deeper knowledge and trust of the God who holds them in His hand.

JPB said...

"I noticed you edited your post. :)"

Just ever so slightly.

Frankly, I don't know if I believe in the slippery or the slope. But I do believe in grace at every elevation.

Jodi said...

The boys have learned how to climb all over their bunks and have fallen off twice today.

I agree and disagree. However, I wouldn't believe in the term as it is generally used. (don't go there. You will fall) Thought should not be avoided.

Ian Ambrose said...

Ah, the problem with art...

There's a common notion that art must be easy to read and aesthetically pleasing, like a children's book or a Disney movie. These opinions are usually expressed as "art shouldn't need an explanation," or "art should be beautiful, this is ugly and profane." They're confusing beauty with Beauty.

Also, there is nothing wrong with art that is difficult to read. I don't understand a word of Cantonese. It's all gibberish to me. In order to understand a Cantonese poem, I would need to have it translated, or spend some time learning the language. English is not a better language on the grounds that I can understand it. Similarly, "Art" is not one unified language. Growing up in Minnesota, a picture of Canadian Geese migrating south in the fall makes perfect sense. In the 80's, Rocky IV made sense, too. Now, pictures of Canadian Geese are a dime a dozen, and Rocky IV wasn't the best of the series. Their clarity isn't a testament to their quality. They're simply part of our environment.

But the main problem I have with this attitude is how dismissive it is. You don't like Duchamp? Neither do I. Why don't you like him? Because he's an idiot?

Oh, ok...

I don't like much of his work because it's so damned nihilistic. I understand that he was disillusioned with the world and civilization, etc., and that it was a reflection of contemporary thought. He doesn't convince me, though. I don't buy it. I'm not a nihilist. I don't want to tear it all down. I don't like it because I disagree with it. However, I loved arguing with it.

I don't remember Martin Luther very well (high school was so long ago, wasn't it?). As a devout Catholic, I naturally have some issues with the guy (we don't need to get into that now). But it would be foolish of me to dismiss him on the grounds that he was an idiot. How unenlightening Humane Letters would be if this was how we discussed things we disliked!

Duchamp and Luther were trying to communicate Truth. That why Luther nailed stuff on church doors, and that's why Duchamp put a urinal in a museum and signed it R. Mutt.

You're absolutely right about humility. This is not to say we should commit intellectual suicide in an effort to make everyone happy. There is such a thing as bad art and crummy arguments. I've made quite a few of both myself.

meghangenevieve said...

i couldn't make it to commencement this year, so i can't comment directly on mr. prager's speech. however, i like what you say in this blog post, especially this:

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.

i started writing more, but it got too long. i may have to turn it into a blog post. i was going to talk about "revisionist" history, which is a topic i feel strongly about having majored in history and having loved it. history as i studied it might very well be called "revisionist" by mr. prager, but i would guess that i got a much wider view of the truth of humanity than i would have had i studied according to mr. prager's curriculum. this view allowed me to see humanity's chronic imperfections and the often subtle way those imperfections manifest themselves. it allowed me to learn how those who were not the "winners" in history lived. haha, i don't know what i'm trying to say.

i guess it's this: if there is an assault on truth, beauty, and goodness in today's culture, it is not being perpetrated by academics who are "revising" history. they are searching for the truth as earnestly as any of the rest of us. if there is an assault on truth, beauty, and goodness, it is being perpetrated by the vast majority of media output, media which do not even attempt to examine or portray in depth the complexity of real human lives. media which disseminate a simplistic view of the world and humanity. media which take us away from spending time interacting with and learning about and discussing this real world we live in. in short, most media not only distract us from the search for the truth, but furthermore offer something which superficially looks like the truth instead of the real truth.

meghangenevieve said...

i should clarify a bit: it's not that ALL media is bad. it's just that most media portrays the same, tired view of the world and doesn't inspire critical thinking. for example, there is not much range in the variety of shows offered on broadcast/network television, so there's no discussion or dialogue between them.

Janine the Bean said...

I edited my post too...deleted my last one as I found typos in it.

Gosh. I wish I could have been there. And yet I'm glad I wasn't at the same time.

As a lover of 20th century art, I'm sure his speech would have disappointed me. So, to to admit that I've cried over Mark Rothko's "Light Red Over Black" might make me an idiot or one who's taking part in the assault on Truth, Beauty, and Goodness? Maybe it's just two black rectangles surrounded by red to you, but I weeped when I saw it....weeped. To this day, it's hard to explain why, but that painting overwhelmed me and made me cry over my own broken life. Hard to explain, but to me it will always be beautiful.

I love this quote by you. I may have to write it down:

"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."

I hope this discussion continues. I can't even comment on the revisionist history bit right now.

Is there a way you can get the speech so we could listen to it?

Hey, didn't I give you a print of that Rembrandt work? Do you still have it?

Janine the Bean said...

And WHEN I edited my post, I left out in my new post that I do "embrace the reality of subjectivity" without apology.

A work of art can speak to my life in a way that it cannot to JJ. I think that what we view as true, beautiful, or good has much to do with our unique human experience.

Just another 2 cents.

And my word verification this time was...myjoysz

I thought that was nice. My joys.

Anyone else have trouble with typing in the characters correctly? I often have to do it more than once. :)

Janine the Bean said...

Now I'm laughing because I edited my post and there are STILL typos and a grammatical error...was I an English major?..."weeped" should be "wept" embarrassing.

Just had to point that out.

cliffordmc said...

Let's see....where to begin. Like you, Mr. B., at a basic level I agreed with the speaker's premises. I agree w/ your assertion that Truth, Beauty and Goodness generally DO have some degree of subjectivity associated with them. I would especially buy that argument about beauty and I think your support for that assertion with the Rembrandt examples was compelling. In terms of Truth, however, I think that attaining a fairly high degree of accuracy (I did not say absolute) around the truth is in most circumstances (not all)feasible. To be explicit, however, I don't believe that the Truth is always clear, that it always comes out in the end and in many cases harm can be caused by either of these unfortunate outcomes. So....Yes, while I agree that subjectivity cannot be completely eliminated in arriving at the truth, I do think that in practice a great deal of subjectivity can be eliminated in most circumstances.

I liked & agreed with what you said about what most certainly had to be true about many of the authors of history text books 50, 75 years ago: Those that accepted the status quo (blacks were inferior, unions should be banned etc.)invariably viewed contemporary and historical events through something less than a "pure" prism. IF Mr. Prager thinks for example, that because these people were "closer" in time to the Revolutionary or Civil wars and thus their insights or viewpoints are more valid.....Well, I think that's rubbish.

In conclusion, this is what I think:
1. On the 1 hand, there was no ambiguity about the speaker's views. He had some logical holes in his thoughts but you knew where he stood. On the other hand.....
2. His manner of speaking I think is a reflection of a broader breakdown in our ability to talk to one another in a civil manner. Most people readily point to Washington or various TV or Radio talking heads that talk at people and/or look to score false debating points as the obvious manifestations of this phenomenon. This poisonous approach, however, has for some time now broadly infected the body public and I am profoundly disturbed by it. As Mr. B said, if someone's operating premise "anyone who has this viewpoint is an imbecile" and I hold that viewpoint (my words), this doesn't advance people's ability to be civil and compassionate towards one another.

JPB said...

Thank you all! I am preparing a separate "comments on comments" post. I know for me this is very worthwhile dialogue. Keep posting if you like. Here or on the "comments on comments"

JPB said...

I've officially moved the conversation up in list:

MyxedChica11 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JPB said...

Just a note:

There was one angry post here at the end. I would be happy to restore it if the person who posted it would simply own up to it and sign their name. Otherwise it will remain 'offline.'


wcc said...

I don't much believe in regret as an element of life, but I do regret not having gotten to know you before my daughter graduated. I hope you are still at Trinity when my next one gets there.