By Arthur O’Sullivan
Behold, The Gravel Institute! Named after the nonagenarian former maverick senator, it is now the so-called “PragerU for leftists.” Debuting on September 28th, The Gravel Institute launched two videos: one a brief introduction to the Institute (why PragerU is bad and why they are good), and the other a five minute video asking “Is Big Government Really the Problem?” Both launched to modest success, earning tens of thousands of views at time of writing (and it’s only growing), with a largely positive reception to each… and that’s a bad thing.
For those not paying attention, PragerU is not a real university, but rather a non-profit organization founded by and named after conservative radio-show host Dennis Prager. PragerU creates short, slick videos hosted by “the greatest minds in the world,” as Prager says, who often argue in favor of various conservative or libertarian ideas. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t like PragerU. Their short videos often oversimplify, misrepresent, or sensationalize for the sake of engagement, especially as it became popular. It is, however, effective at spreading standard conservative views, especially to young people. Since its inception, PragerU has received almost 3 billion lifetime views, with 1 out of 3 Americans online having seen one of their videos, and roughly 7 out of 10 of those people report having their mind changed about an issue, according to their own annual report. Seeing the effectiveness of the PragerU formula, The Gravel Institute (which was formerly a progressive think-tank) seeks to copy it with, in their own words, “short, high-quality videos, presenting leftist ideas, and refuting right-wing lies…” as well as some big names to present said leftist ideas, including renowned socialist professors Richard D. Wolff and Cornel West, communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, democratic-socialist politician Bernie Sanders, and many more. In fact, H. Jon Benjamin, the voice of Archer from Archer and Bob from Bob’s Burgers voiced the introduction video of the Institute.
On the same day as its introduction, The Gravel Institute released a video titled “Is Big Government Really the Problem?” presented by socialist lawyer and former Sanders campaign press secretary Briahna Gray. Like advertised, it may as well be a PragerU video from a warped mirror universe, with similarly slick animations and figures, and left-wing talking points instead of right, only more radical. Another similarity between them is the oversimplifications, misrepresentations, and occasional falsehoods in the video. Often using correct-sounding slogans such as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” and citing controversial studies as uncontested fact in order to “prove it” (though at least they clearly cite their studies for some of their points, unlike PragerU). One of their main selling-points in the video is that the American system only benefits elites, and the way to fight elites is by… expanding government power? Like PragerU, the slick animations, the confident tone of voice, the arguments from authority, and further finely-polished rhetorical flourishes give the impression of an unassailable argument, but scratching a little below the surface tends to expose their gaping flaws. That is not to say that there aren’t strong arguments for everything asserted in The Gravel Institute’s video, but the intricacies and nuances can not be explored in a mere five minutes, and so we are left with conservatives and leftists valuing style over substance in their arguments, competing over who can be the greater sophists.
Sophistry is one thing, and if that was the only thing occurring, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article. There are two things, however, that concern me: the first is the radical ideologies the Gravel Institute regularly espouses; the second is the utter contempt for civility that the Gravel Institute holds. In regards to the radicalism, The Gravel Institute has explicitly stated that it will present leftist ideas in it’s videos, with many of the contributors being left-wing radicals themselves. This looks to me like an escalation against PragerU’s largely anodyne and moderate conservatism. They are likewise “radical” in the way they express their ideas, holding concepts like “civility” and “courtesy” in contempt, like their somewhat viral tweet, “shut the fuck up,” when responding to a PragerU advertising tweet. Not only did they squander the opportunity to write, “F.U., P.U.,” but they also justified such an attack by citing a controversial statement from Dennis Prager, with their twitter-audience advocating for attacks against the “nazis” that are PragerU. This idea of rejecting “civility politics” has been growing, especially on the left, where their opponents are dismissed as acting in bad faith (take the Gravel Institute saying that PragerU is funded by oil-billionaires and thus illegitimate, for instance), or that the ideas espoused by their opponents are so reprehensible that there can be no polite conversation, only ridicule and potentially violence.
I see a perilous path with this line of thought. It indicates to me that in the minds of many people, the “debate” is over, and that all that is left is for people to pick a side, theirs or the wrong/evil side. Civility is only a means of forestalling progress, and keeping the elites in power. As the Gravel Institute grows in popularity, they will continue to foster this culture of hostility and lack of good faith, justifying their increasingly uncivil attacks with five minute shorts and witty-sounding tweets. Exchange of actual ideas would begin to decrease, with polarized caricatures of opponents being represented as common ideas. The age of the audience which these videos target is also decreasing. PragerU and The Gravel Institute create their videos to convince college students and teenagers. These are impressionable minds that, if inculcated in the ideas that promote hostility and division by these videos, could cause great damage to the ideas of political tolerance and civil discussion in America.
I am not so alarmist that I think this will necessarily destroy the Republic, but it could become a severe problem if left unchecked. If I may torture an old cliché: the problem with “fighting fire with fire” is that everyone eventually gets burned.