Which Guru Does Dennis Prager Most Resemble?

I'm thinking of the filmmaker Adam Curtis. The website LittleWhiteLies.com published Oct. 27, 2016:

He comes across as a combination of two things: a maverick educator like Indiana Jones who exploits his tenure to partake in more exotic travails; and a stone-faced doomsayer stationed at Speaker’s Corner proclaiming that the End is Nigh. The two halves just about balance each other out, resulting in the soothing impression of bloke-down-the-gastropub normalcy.

Curtis is a big-picture filmmaker, driven by grand ambition. He embraces obscure intellectual concepts over banal storytelling. He likes to name the unnamable. He searches for patterns rather than conventional revelations. His films are constructed like Tetris walls, with misshapen blocks inelegantly falling into place…

He offers the impression that he is reporting from the other side of the looking glass, a privileged position where the eccentric shifts of global power can be viewed with chilling clarity. Yet the way he presents his arguments suggests that he trades on the ignorance of his audience. He knows that as long as he frames himself in a position of authority, he can say anything he likes and we’ll swallow it whole.

But how does he do this? It’s a question of tone. Curtis believes that declaiming something with conviction imbues it with the essence of truth. His work is the cinematic embodiment of the Milgram experiment, in which subjects continue to electrocute unseen victims at the behest of a lab-coated authority figure. His wall-to-wall voiceover narration is rife with sweeping statements which act as the teetering tentpoles of his thesis.

He seldom resorts to qualification – for him (or, perhaps, for the purpose of his films), history is a finite continuum where events either happened or they didn’t. There is no dual perspective. Plus, it would be dramatically counterproductive to introduce qualification. He often talks about “the people” and “everyone” and “politicians” and “bankers”. He lumps demographics together and generalises in exactly the same way as those he criticises.

May 8, 2021, the New York Review of Books published:

The Paranoid Style in Adam Curtis

His films choreograph archive footage, charismatic pop, and portentous commentary in pursuit of a dark, totalizing narrative—all the seduction of conspiracy theory without the substance.

Aside from a small stream of skeptical reactions, the mainstream press treats Curtis as a cutting-edge filmmaker and public intellectual. He has a following that accepts him as such; there is a steady stream of commenters on Reddit and YouTube attesting to how Curtis is blowing their minds…

Curtis reduces the viewer to a kind of flustered traffic cop, constantly yelling, “Wait!” His narration constantly leaps from a minor detail to a wide claim that sweeps everything off the table. The effect is a bit like being buttonholed by a child who begs to skip homework by presenting an impromptu lecture…

Flat-fee conspiracists like Curtis are obsessed with elites and politicians and “the system,” like kids under the covers overhearing grown folks talking, reducing complex relations to Star Wars set pieces…

We know that Curtis always asserts he is a journalist. But as the narrator of his own films, he feels compelled to dismiss journalists. This is pure paranoid fragmentation: a paranoid individual like all other paranoid individuals but insisting on being unlike all others. He is everywhere and nowhere.

For Curtis, all human behavior becomes a monochromatic cloud of intention that can be tracked like a flight. Distinct forces play against distinct forces without the complications of chance or the constraint of specific details. One scientific blunder becomes the failure of science itself. One overeager journalist becomes the field itself. Eras and cohorts and ideas are smooth circles, rounded off by the totalizing buff of power’s sneaky omnipotence.

The appeal of conspiracizing for Curtis and his followers is exactly this unverifiable fog, this woolen hug of futility. If nothing can be done, inactivity looks normative. Conspiracism is the enemy of collective action. The group takes action and counts its wins and losses after the day. The conspiracist, answers scrawled on his hand, hangs back and cynically tells a story about why it never would have worked anyway. Curtis and his cohort love the idea of a grand story that never needs to be revised or reported out.

The darkest and largest force always wins, has always already won. Curtis simply confirms the bad news.

Other gurus that Prager resembles include his friend Dave Rubin, Malcolm Gladwell, the Freakanomics pair, and Jordan Peterson.

Quillette profiled Dave Rubin Dec. 15, 2022:

On September 9th, 2015, shortly after he arrived at Ora.TV, he published a video in which he committed himself to 10 ethical ground rules that would inform the spirit of open debate and inquiry that he hoped to encourage…

Revisiting it in 2022 is strange. I close the tab and switch to Rubin’s Twitter feed. His most recent tweet describes California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, as a “genuine psychopath” and a “soulless evil cartoon villain.” Scrolling down, I discover that Democratic congressman Eric Swalwell is “a complete fucking idiot,” that Noam Chomsky is “a truly disgusting human being,” and that Anthony Fauci is “evil incarnate.” In a reply to an anti-Zionist tweet from Mia Khalifa, the former porn star he defended from “haters” in 2015, Rubin remarks: “you’ve had too many loads blown on your face.”

…we find Rubin announcing that “vaccines work” is a lie circulated by “the Dems and media.” On his show, meanwhile, Rubin has taken to declaring that the war in Ukraine is “part of The Great Reset,” that Dinesh D’Souza’s dismal election conspiracy film 2000 Mules is “very compelling,” and that “It is not a giant leap, after two years of demonizing certain people who want a medical choice [not to get the COVID vaccine], … to compare them to the Jews before the Holocaust.”

…The Rubin Report only really became a hit when he refocussed his attention on the online Right, whose flamethrowers were invited onto his show to denounce the intolerant excesses of the online Left.

Although Rubin likes speaking to intellectuals, he is not one, and this makes him ill-suited to stewarding serious intellectual discussions. He is a talk-show host, and his softball interviewing style—affable, accommodating, agreeable, and eager-to-please—seems to be the product of general, not strategic, ignorance. Throughout our interview, almost regardless of topic, his answers return to shallow talking points…

Rubin, like most of us, is slow to acknowledge the unreliability of his own worst instincts, and has allowed himself to become entangled in powerfully corrupting incentives…

All that matters is the never-ending quest for maximum engagement. His formerly professed values were just baggage so he threw them overboard.

May 15, 2023, Dennis said: "The electrical grid cannot support the demands being made because of environmentalists…" He read from this Substack post by Robert Bryce

On May 4, members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission delivered stark warnings to the members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The agency’s acting chairman, Willie Phillips, told the senators, “We face unprecedented challenges to the reliability of our nation’s electric system.”

FERC Commissioner Mark Christie echoed Phillips’ warning, saying the U.S. electric grid is “heading for a very catastrophic situation in terms of reliability.” 

Dennis: "This is completely because of Joe Biden and the Democrats… Why do these people want to destroy the economy? Because it is all about chaos and power… We are in for quite a ride. What happens when you don't get electric power? Do you understand we won't have enough electricity?"

Does anyone without an agenda believe that Joe Biden and the Democrats want to destroy the economy and that the Democrats are the sole reason for strains on the electrical grid?

Dennis: "It's shocking that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told the truth."

Prager's agenda is epistemic sabotage. He wants you to know that you are being lied by Big Government, Big Media, Big Law, Big Academia and the like, that he is on your side battling the nefarious elites, and that he will give you the truth to the best of his ability while the establishment sources will not. 

Once Prager successfully conned himself that he was uniquely qualified to discern the truth and that the powers that be were lying, my guess is that this transformation happened in high school through the massive social reinforcement flowing from his charisma, it was easy to con the rubes.

April 3, 2008, Dennis said: “I was more Americanized than his parents. Joseph’s mother’s reaction to me when we first met, she said to him [privately], ‘He’s very charming but is he deep?’ I am Mr. Enthusiast and conquer the world.”

“I took the salutatorian to the Senior prom,” said Dennis Jan. 5, 2010. “And I finished in the bottom 20% of my class, which shows you how far charm can get a guy.”

“I was blessed with wisdom at an early age,” said Dennis June 28, 2010. “I knew at an early age that doing well in high school would not amount to a hill of beans. On the bulletin board, they would publish the rankings. They didn’t care about humiliation. The guy who finished 120th out of 120 ended up as the head of the Miami Board of Education.”

“I have a strong sense of dignity. I did in high school too. The biggest reason I didn’t cheat on tests was dignity. I felt like I was groveling to ask another kid.”

In the 2011 movie Baseball, Dennis and the French, Dennis said: “I had one notebook for all four years of [high school], which I never filled with a single homework exercise.”

Dennis found his life purpose in lecturing about right and wrong and attaching his values to Judaism. In his 20s, as Dennis found he could both earn a nice living lecturing about morality and simultaneously date many pretty adoring women, he came to the belief that society’s greatest task was moral education. It just so happened to coincide with his chosen profession. He could do good and make good through what came most naturally to him — talking, charming and intimidating — without any one entity having veto power over him.

On Nov. 23, 2011, Dennis said: “When I was in my 20s, I met a terrific woman. I adored her. We had a wonderful relationship and time together. She said to me that she was very wary of charming men and that I was the first charming man she trusted.”

Jewish Journal, March 14, 1986 cover story: “But it was not simply Prager’s youth inspired controversy. Nor was it Prager’s personal style, alternately charming and abrasive, inspired and, some say, demagogic. Rather, implies [William] Chotiner [Brandeis-Bardin’s first president], perhaps Prager’s most vociferous critic, the issue was nothing less than a fight for the soul and future of Brandeis-Bardin.”

Dennis: "Was this reported in the New York Times? The LA Times? Washington Post? CNN? MSNBC? NPR? PBS?"

Like the typical guru, Dennis tells you that competing sources of influence are lying to you while he gives you the truth. 

Though this particular committee hearing was not reported in these outlets by May 15, 2023, they've all done numerous stories on strains to the electric grid. Between May 16, 2022 and May 16, 2023, the New York Times, for example, published 20 such stories, including:

We Desperately Need a New Power Grid. Here’s How to Make It Happen.

Winter Forecast: Gas and Electric Bills Will Soar

The U.S. Has Billions for Wind and Solar Projects. Good Luck Plugging Them In.

Amid Heat Wave, California Asks Electric Vehicle Owners to Limit Charging

Just How Good for the Planet Is That Big Electric Pickup Truck?

California Narrowly Averts an Electricity Crisis Amid Scorching Heat 

In school, Prager's classmates were amused by his big mouth, but they didn't look up to him, and it never occurred to them that he was a good source for truth or morality. In the more than 50 years since his high school graduation, none of them, to the best of my knowledge, have changed their minds on this score. 

Decoding the Gurus (DTG) is a podcast by two academics (Matthew Browne and Chris Kavanagh) that began in 2020. Much of their analysis applies to Dennis Prager and explains in a few paragraphs exactly what he's doing with his audience. They note:

A guru will often put some effort into signalling a close and personal relationship with their followers — essentially encouraging the development of parasocial ideation… Feelings of frustration and oppression, being excluded and disregarded, and deprived of one’s manifest rights and recognitions, represent a potent set of negative emotions. Gurus too, will sometimes rely on narratives of grievance pertaining to themselves and their potential followers in order to drive engagement. After all, a worldview in which all is essentially fair and just is not one that will encourage people to search for alternative ways in which to view the world.

Gurus sometimes also engage in personal grievance narratives. These are especially convenient, in that they not only encourage emotional connection and sympathy for the guru, but they provide a convenient explanation for why someone of their unique talents has not been well-supported or given the recognition they deserve by the outside world. They also relate to conspiratorial ideation… in explaining why the special ideas and perspectives shared with followers have not been recognised and accepted by the outside world. It is because their ideas have been suppressed by malevolent and powerful actors for selfish reasons.

The role of being a guru involves cultivating praise and attention, and demands a certain level of charisma and charm. Another trait of narcissists is a belief in one’s uniqueness, and that only special people can appreciate them. It is therefore not surprising that one tends to see other narcissistic traits in gurus, such as having a very thin skin when it comes to criticism, or expecting that the world should be recognising one’s talents far more than it does. Our tentative hypothesis is that narcissism is the key personality trait of gurus. People without at least some degree of over-confidence and attention-seeking will find the role of guru very uncomfortable and eschew it, even if it is thrust upon them. People who are not narcissistic, but with genuine expertise and insight in a given domain, may find the spotlight an unwelcome distraction. People ‘on the spectrum’ of narcissism, however, will find any attention and regard highly satisfying, and this is the motivating factor for engaging in going beyond whatever talents they may have, to engage in the pseudo-profound bullshitting techniques described here. The lack of self-awareness common among narcissists also seems to explain why gurus seem to ‘believe their own bullshit’. Just as a narcissist loves themselves, they are in love with their own ideas, and may be incapable of seeing the degree to which they are bullshit.

Gurus like to claim prescience among their many talents. Their heightened insight gives them a superior ability to predict the future, and they will enjoy dwelling on those instances in which they made a purportedly correct prediction… A heightened sense of how the world is not right, and ought to be fixed, and that they are the persons to do it, is a common feature. Unfortunately, the broader public fails to recognise their genius and heed their advice, and thus the world lurches from calamity to calamity. Combining these features, we will often see that a guru positions themselves as something of a Cassandra – seeing the future and warning of possible calamities, that could be avoided if only they were heeded. The followers also gain a positive role for themselves, in supporting, defending, and promoting the guru, they can help make the world a better place… Whilst the ‘revolutionary theories’ and ‘galaxy brainness’ describe the content of their discourse, PPB [psuedo-profound bullshit] describes the form of their discourse. It is typified by language that is cognitively easy to process, superficially appears to be something profound, but upon analysis turns out to be trite, meaningless, contradictory, or tautological.

[Gurus] are greatly attracted to claiming that they have developed game-changing and paradigm-shifting intellectual products. This is, in a sense, the credentials and the resume of a guru.

[Gurus] are most comfortable in the role of armchair opinionator, the wise man (or woman, but usually man) graciously offering their advice to eager seekers of wisdom…

To gain real insights, real special knowledge that nobody else can see – that’s hard work. For normal people, even a lifetime of study and research only provides scant few original intellectual contributions. That is not nearly enough for a guru, who needs a steady supply of fresh, original content to supply to their followers and justify their status. To be a guru, they must set themselves up, not only as uniquely insightful, but above and apart from orthodoxies, including established political or ideological groups. Thus, they are encouraged to go beyond standard heterodoxy, contrarianism and scepticism, into the realm of conspiratorial ideation. This is because the expert consensus – though naturally not infallible – but definition, tends to supply the most reasonable and evidence-based view, based on current information. The guru is in the position of needing to provide a strongly contrasting perspective, and then to supply the argumentation that backs up their bold claims in a compelling way. This leads them inexorably down the path of bespoke conspiracy mongering, with an alternative view of events that authoritative sources either can’t or won’t tell you about. Conspiracy theories require a ‘suppressive network’ to explain away the lack of evidential support, and why almost nobody else is willing or able to accept their theories.

Wikipedia notes:

A parasocial interaction, an exposure that garners interest in a persona, becomes a parasocial relationship after repeated exposure to the media persona causes the media user to develop illusions of intimacy, friendship, and identification. Positive information learned about the media persona results in increased attraction, and the relationship progresses. Parasocial relationships are enhanced due to trust and self-disclosure provided by the media persona. Media users are loyal and feel directly connected to the persona, much as they are connected to their close friends, by observing and interpreting their appearance, gestures, voice, conversation, and conduct.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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