Q & A: The eloquent conservative

(Joe Piasecki/Valley Sun)

Author and syndicated radio talk show host Dennis Prager is one of the better conversationalists you’d ever meet, but he pulls no punches for political correctness’ sake.

“Ask me anything,” he invites during an afternoon meal at Ichiban Japanese Restaurant in La Cañada Flintridge — a favorite dining spot of his since moving here in 2007— handling chopsticks almost as deftly as he articulates deeply conservative politics and confident moral beliefs, relishing food and idea alike.

Though the afternoon’s topics are controversial and his answers likely objectionable to those who disagree, Prager’s manner remains steadily agreeable, conveying strength of conviction without the nastiness of a Limbaugh or the blustering rage common among cable-news pundits.

Prager’s gift with words goes back long before his embrace of La Cañada — “Norman Rockwell-ville” and “a beautiful slice of America,” he calls it — a city that is both the childhood home of his wife Susan (who as Susan Springett graduated from La Cañada High School, which her son now attends) and a stone’s throw from the KRLA 870 AM studios in Glendale, where from 9 a.m. to noon on weekdays Prager goes on the air.

Susan Prager prods her husband to tell the story of his start in media, a tale that begins with the 1967 break in Soviet-Israeli relations following the Six Day War. Fluent in Russian and Hebrew, then 21-year-old Prager answered a call for young Americans to travel to the Soviet Union to take in prohibited Jewish religious items and collect names of Russian Jews who sought passage to Israel.

On his return, Prager, who became a fellow at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, traveled the lecture circuit and attracted the attention of what was then the Brandeis Institute in Simi Valley, where he was appointed director at 27 and was a few years later recruited by KABC 790 AM to host its popular “Religion on the Line” program.

“I was abnormal,” the New York native says of his precocious 20s. “I’ve normalized since.”

Kidding aside, Prager, 62, has certainly retained a deep commitment to the Jewish faith.

Shortly after his arrival in La Cañada Flintridge, Prager initiated local celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2008 and 2009 at the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club. The event attracted hundreds, but very few of them locals, he said, and was moved west last year to Studio City.

Despite a small number of religiously and culturally active Jewish residents in this city, Prager says he is at home here.

“It has the very best small-town feel,” he says.

Valley Sun: How do conservatives who generally advocate Judeo-Christian values reconcile the religious imperative to care for the less fortunate with the push to lower taxes on society’s most fortunate, typically at the expense of social services? That seems to be a paradox.

A: It’s only paradoxical to those who went to college. To those of us who retained common sense and American values, it’s not only commonsensical, it’s the opposite: The smaller the government, the more people take care of each other. That’s why Americans give far more charity and volunteer more time than Europeans do. Europeans are so used to the government taking care of other people they do very little for other people. Americans are by far the most charitable and most volunteering of Western industrial democracies. In fact, Americans get more selfish as the government gets bigger. The liberal plan of help for the poor therefore backfires. I am proud to care for the poor, and therefore am conservative.

Everybody believes in some sort of a safety net, that if in the final analysis people and family and friends and communities and churches and synagogues can’t do the job, clearly there would be a role for the state. But the state is a last resort for conservatives; it’s a first resort for the liberal.

Q: You have argued that liberals deceive themselves into believing that man is inherently good because it conflicts with beliefs that outside forces such as poverty and racism are the catalysts of social ills. But aren’t changes in circumstances often cause for improvement?

A: In America’s history, the vast majority of poor people work hard and become perfectly functioning citizens. The citizens who resort to rape, murder and the like don’t do so because they live in poverty. They do so because they have awful values. And that’s a conservative/liberal divide. The left-wing view is the materialist view in the sense that matter and economics determine human behavior. The conservative view and the American view has been that values determine human behavior. My grandparents were impoverished. The thought that they would rape is so ludicrous as to be beyond description. And the reason that poor Jews didn’t rape is that they were raised with good values. For the same reason, poor Asians don’t rape — they become rich Asians because they have great values. In fact Asians do better in America. Poor Asians do better than rich whites in the Unites States. It has nothing to do with poverty. Crappy values make poverty.

Q: Don’t situations impact values, especially for kids as they grow up?

A: The issue is whether there is a father in the child’s life. There were far more fathers involved in black life prior to welfare. It’s absolutely correlative. If I can depend on the government, why should I depend on a man? The state became [single mothers’] husbands.

Q: You’re arguing welfare replaces personal responsibility?

A: How else does one explain that when there was far more racism in America, the black family was intact. There was an intact family that could withstand racism but it couldn’t withstand having the state take over for men. The same thing with whites is happening. It just happens a generation later. The biggest voting block for Democrats is single women, white or black.

Q: In one of your recent columns you advocate as fact notions that women are less inclined to excel at math and science and black men are more inclined to commit violent crime.

A: They are facts. The question is why.

Q: Many would say that’s sexist and racist.

A: That’s what, unfortunately, liberal education teaches people — not to ask, “Is it true?” They ask, “Is it sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic?” But they don’t ask, “Is it true?” The left does not pursue truth, it pursues racism and xenophobia. I don’t care if it sounds sexist. I care if it is true. You can’t make a good society based on lies.

Q: Can you explain why those things are true?

A: The male brain and female brain are observably different. There are areas wherein each has predilections. It’s not inferior or superior. That’s sexist, to say inferior or superior. But to say “distinct” is a fact, it’s not sexist. I have no mathematical or engineering ability. I don’t think I’m an inferior human being.

Q: The phrase ‘separate but equal’ comes to mind.

A: Separate can be equal. We have separate restrooms. I think that’s equal. … I’m a man but I’m not offended by the fact men are far more likely to commit violent crime. If any of your readers heard there was a shooting at a university, wouldn’t everyone assume it was a man and not a woman? Is it sexist, or is it reality?

Q: Your column was discussing black men committing violent crime. Why?

A: It’s a statistic. No father and no religion. No father in heaven and no father on earth.

Q: And you don’t think circumstances play a role?

A: My view is that it’s not poverty that causes crime, it’s crime that causes poverty. The more crime in a neighborhood, the more impoverished it will be. Poor Asian neighborhoods become rich Asian neighborhoods, poor Jewish neighborhoods become rich Jewish neighborhoods because they don’t have crime.

Q: It seems many of those who argue loudest for limited government also support laws to restrict or control personal behavior — having the state being involved in regulating marriage, for instance. Why should the state have anything to do with enforcing traditional values?

A: The ratio of liberal laws controlling personal behavior to conservative laws controlling behavior is about 1,000 to 1. A typical one is that [in San Francisco] McDonald’s can’t have a toy in its Happy Meal because it tempts kids to eat fattening food. A national law is what light bulbs we can use [phasing out of incandescent]. I don’t want the government telling me how to light my house. I find that an intrusion.

Q: But how is that any different than the state saying two people of the same gender can’t get married?

A: Because the state defines marriage. It always has. That’s why the state said you can only have two people. Utah allowed polygamy prior to its becoming a state. The government said Utah could not become a state if it allowed polygamy. If the state didn’t define marriage then there wouldn’t be marriage. Anyone could bond with anybody and call themselves married. You could bond with four people; a guy just married his dog.

You may say it should be expanded to same-sex — good people can differ on that issue — but you can’t differ on the question whether state should define marriage. Every society in recorded history defined marriage. Only American defines what light bulb I can have in my house. …I believe that gays should have the same rights, but I don’t want to redefine marriage. That is a step too far. I don’t want little girls to be asked in the classroom, ‘When you grow up are you going to marry a boy or a girl?’ That’s what they will have to be asked if this is passed, otherwise you’re a bigot.

Q: You have written that conservatives tend to be happier people.

A: We conservatives accept the fact that life is tragic far more so than liberals do. Liberals are like children and reject the inherent tragedy of life. There’s that Robert Kennedy phrase: “There are those that look at things the way they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not.’” Conservatives don’t dream things that never were. We’re happy that people aren’t murdering each other in the street because we have a very dark view of human nature. So we think American is unbelievably good because we compare it to our understanding of the jungle-like nature of humanity, whereas liberals compare it to a utopian vision of a country with no inequality, no poverty, no racism, no sexism, no any problem. And we believe such visions are nonsense.

Q: What do you think about living in La Cañada Flintridge?

A: I love it. I call this place Norman Rockwell-ville. This is a beautiful slice of America, that’s why. First of all, I like the way people treat each other. It has the very best small town feel. I like that a lot of times people know each other. I like the kids who work at Penguin’s yogurt, and I like the celebrations of July 4 and Memorial Day. There’s a lot to like here. It’s a decent place. A nice mixture of backgrounds. I live in a cul de sac, and one neighbor’s parents came from Syria, another came from Korea, and I’m Mr. Jew. We get along great.