By Luke Ford Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Seven B Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve 1994-1997 1997 1998 1998B 1999 2000 2001 2009
Over KABC radio one Sunday night I heard Dennis Prager's commanding voice and intellect. He used words such as "good and evil" that I wasn't used to hearing in academia or media. I called his show regularly because he seemed to have answers to the great questions of life which had long puzzled me.
Prager became the most powerful figure for me in a long line of father figures. I had looked for years for an older man to lay down the law. I particularly wanted to hear that Marxism was stupid.
Knowing that Prager specialized in Marxism in his graduate study at the Russian Institute at Columbia University, I called for the first time:
"Good evening Dennis. I'm a 22 year old Economics student at UCLA and I'm flirting with the doctrines of Karl Marx, who I take is one of your favorite philosophers."
"Yeah, he's the only man to be consistently wrong," said Prager.
I continued: "I came out of a strict Christian upbringing. Then at 18, I looked around and saw a world that didn't make sense to me. Two-thirds of its inhabitants suffered whether they lived under regimes of the right or left. You ask for an evil greater than communism [besides Nazism]. How about imperialism?
"'White Man's burden' sent Europeans around the world to Christianize it. In the process they slaughtered... millions... from my own country Australia where we slaughtered the Aboriginees to this country where we slaughtered the Native Americans... [to]... Africa and much of Asia...."
"The moral record of imperialism is light years ahead of the moral record of Marxism," said Prager.
"Though we have a world today where affluent western countries are richer than they need be... [while the rest of the] world is starving," I said.
Prager: "That's not the west's fault."
As I lay in bed that night listening to the rest of Prager's show, I felt good hearing many people comment on my call. But I felt stupid when I reflected on what I had said.
The pre-colonial world was not a beautiful one. I had read enough by age eight to know that. It took going college to learn something so stupid as the thesis that the rich countries of the northern hemisphere caused the poverty of the southern hemisphere.
Prager also hosted the "Religion on the Line" program which featured different priests, ministers and rabbis each week. I found the rabbis most impressive, particularly a blunt Orthodox rabbi, Y--zchok Ad--rstein.
After listening to a drawn-out Christian discussion on faith vs works, Rabbi Adl--stein made three sharp points that I still remember. First, that faith goes nowhere to gaining heaven. According to Judaism, each person is rewarded according to his deeds. Second, how do we know what is right and wrong? Judaism's detailed legal code provides answers. Third, because there's much more to this life than gaining after-life, Judaism concentrates on how to live each day, balancing the competing demands of family, work, friendship, education, play and worship.
In reply to a Pastor's insistence that only faith in Jesus Christ brings salvation, Rabbi Ad--rstein told the story of a Protestant minister from Canada who flew to Israel to provide Adolf Eichmann (the architect of the Holacaust) with last rites. Met at the airport by reporters, the minister said that if Eichmann confessed his sins and took on Christ he would be saved. And what about Eichmann's six million Jewish victims? If they died as Jews and without taking on Christ, could they too be saved? The minister replied with a pithy "no."
Rabbi Adl--stein's story made clear to me what I'd always felt - any system that makes beliefs more important than behavior will lead to evil. And he showed me a masculine approach to religion. The rabbi didn't get angry at people's differing theologies as much as he got angry at evil - gratuitous human cruelty.
At the time I perceived most religious men, particularly the pastors with all their talk about love, faith and relationship, as effeminate. Most of the guests on Religion on the Line, for instance, were nice but weak. But Prager, Rabbi Ad--rstein and Dr. Russell Roberts showed me that real men can take religion seriously.
Dr Roberts, an Orthodox Jew, taught me two classes in micro-economic theory. After hours, we engaged in wide-ranging discussions about economics, Marxism, God, Jews, and morality.
Dr Jules Zentner, a 63-year old Northern European expert and the Faculty in Residence person in my Rieber Hall dormitory, is the fourth wise man in my story.
I approached him first one Sunday morning in October to ask for tips on increasing my daily study limit past six hours. After his good advice, I asked his opinion of a book I'd enjoyed, The Closing of the American Mind by Allen Bloom. Dr Zentner liked it too. We became friends.
I shared with Dr Zentner a common belief in standards of objective excellence. For instance, we believed that there is bad art (for instance, the Mapplethorpe photos of men urinating in each other's mouths) and there is great art (such as classical music composers Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky, etc.). We thought Beethoven to be deeper, more profound music than the Beatles (which we were forced to listen to from omnipresent stereos).
Not only did we believe in standards of artistic excellence and literary excellence (Dr Zentner received his PhD in Scandinavian Literature from UC Berkeley) and academic excellence (which UCLA's undergraduate education, particularly in the liberal arts, frequently did not achieve) but we also believed in objective standards of moral excellence. We didn't know, however, where these standards came from as neither of us believed in God and revealed religion.
Dr Zentner's upbringing exposed him to many religions. Some Judaism, some Christianity...
(Note: I piece together from memory most quotes in this book. They are not fully accurate.)
"How wonderful," I said.
"No," he replied. "It was terrible. Just an extra day of school. And it left my brothers and me without religious roots."
Dr Zentner acted as a catalyst for my growth. He listened to my thoughts and then he asked me questions which showed me my inconsistencies.
Along with many of my dormmates, Dr Zentner listened to my increasingly intense discussions with Prager over KABC radio.
"I'm going to slam-dunk Prager tonight," I promised everybody.
Prager's thought was getting through to me by the Spring of 1989. I still wanted, however, to test the Jewish theologian by throwing at him in a vehement tone every objection that I or my secular leftist professors could think of.
I strode up and down my dorm on Saturday and Sunday nights preparing for combat. "Crucify him, crucify him," I muttered, referring to my intentions towards Prager. "Who appointed Prager Mr Morality? Who made Dennis the King of the Jews? Why can't you understand what I say, Jew boy? Because you are of your father the devil."
"Good evening Dennis. I think that we are watching events in China tonight to which the United States is irrelevant. They are a unique culture and we have no influence. They don't want your way of life, they don't want your system of government.... We've been naive about their Lady of Liberty to think that they want a U.S.-style two party democratic system with unlimited capitalism...."
"How do you know?"
"By reading the newspapers... Many students sing "Internationale," the communist anthem."
Prager: "I think those students are naive because everybody who has sung that song and gotten into power has deprived people of liberty and put them in concentration camps. They're allowed to be naive. I've met Vietnamese who supported the Viet Cong and then became boat people. There are many disgusting human traits but none is more pathetic than the inability of people to learn from others' errors... They [communist dictators] all deprive people of the most fundamental desire after living - freedom..."
"I don't know what freedom means," I said.
Prager: "The ability to work and speak and father as you like.
"I'm surprised that you don't know what freedom means. You seemed intelligent When you don't have freedom you certainly know what it means. The problem is that a lot of Westerners who have it, don't know what it means. That was a revealing statement you made."
"Freedom to you and me..."
Prager: "Is the same to the vast majority of human beings on earth. People don't like to be told that they won't get rations if they don't line up for the party."
Several dorm friends asked my girlfriend after that call: "Is Luke ok? He got destroyed tonight."
I walked around in shock for "daddy" had spanked me hard.
My girlfriend helped defuse my tensions.
I found help at UCLA not just from wise men, but also from a loving Asian girl. Tien (not her real name) lived down the hall.
Shortly after Valentine's Day 1989, I called Tien into my room, put my arms around her and asked her to be my girlfriend. Holding up her chin, I said, "I love you and I want to be with you."
Four and a half years later, Tien wrote to me: "I fell for your vulnerability, the part of you that you kept from everyone else... I was young and naive... Much of the person I fell in love with was in my mind."
My search for truth became more serious as my ability to think declined.
After a full year of testing, my doctors concluded in March 1989 through a diagnosis of exclusion that I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I left school in June and never returned.
My diagnosis of Judaism for what ails the world came similarly through exclusion. Every religion of which I was aware made the next life more important than this life, which, while reducing pain, also reduced purpose. I had left Christianity because I didn't see anything important in it for me to do.
Living for myself had been fine while I had my health, but now what? In whom could I believe now that I could not believe in Luke? Perhaps in the socialist vision of people organizing for the gigantic task of meeting human needs (such as CFS)? I longed to lead the workers into the promised land.
"Luke, you are a true believer," said Prager. "Just like the Christian waiting for Jesus, and the Jew waiting for the Messiah, you wait for socialism despite all evidence to the contrary."
I thought about what he said and on my last weekend at UCLA I asked Prager: "To what extent do you hold Karl Marx responsible for the Gulag Archipelago, that instrument of Stalinist terror which killed about twenty million people in the Soviet Union in the 1930s... who were inconvenient to the communist regime?"
"That's a question that is more worthy to be posed to God because God has to judge motives and acts that an individual did not directly cause," said Prager.
"I tried to talk to God but he wasn't in, and so..."
"In that case I'll try to play second fiddle," said Prager.
"Had Marx been a personally ethical type... who showed sympathy for moral values but had merely described a world in which economic equality reigned, I'd have a more sympathetic answer.
"But, there's an entire book on the racism of Karl Marx and...I'd offer you this thought:
"Any system that does not hold the individual morally accountable for his actions will breed evil. The essence of Marxism is that the individual is not morally accountable for his actions, and any notion of a [moral] system that transcends the society and economics is nonsense. [Marx] destroyed the two pillars upon which goodness can prevail...
"Have you seen my book [The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism cowritten with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin]?"
"No," I answered.
"Though the stuff on Judaism may not interest you," said Prager, "I have a chapter comparing Marxism with Judaism... based upon an essay I wrote at Columbia University.... You might like it."
By Luke Ford Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Seven B Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve 1994-1997 1997 1998 1998B 1999 2000 2001 2009