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The PragerU goal: “Indoctrinate kids at a young age into a far-right belief system”

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Since at least the 1960s, the American right has worked to create a parallel set of civil society institutions: think tanks, interest groups, foundations, educational institutions, many forms of media, churches and religious communities and much more. Their ultimate goal all along has been to transform American society to fit their vision.

Liberals, progressives, and others who believe in a genuine democracy and humane society have no comparable network of institutions.

The right-wing social engineering project is predicated on such ambiguous concepts as “traditional” American values and untrammeled “freedom,” which in practice means a society dominated by the moneyed classes and specifically by white Christian conservatives. In an increasingly global, pluralistic, and diverse society, that goal is clearly antithetical to democracy and the long-term health of the nation.

Because leading figures on the right understand that time and changing demographics are not on their side, in response their plan is to capture the hearts and minds of young people, who they can then develop into the future leaders and foot soldiers for their counterrevolutionary project.

As seen in Florida and numerous other states, PragerU, the powerful right-wing media, advocacy and pseudo-educational organization, is playing an integral role in that project. PragerU is clear in its mission, which it describes as being “a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education.”

In this conversation, John Knefel, a senior writer at Media Matters for America, explains the origins of PragerU, its relationship to the larger right-wing revolutionary project (especially under Ron DeSantis in Florida), and how education is being weaponized by the global right-wing.

Towards the end of this conversation, Knefel highlights two specific examples of the ways PragerU’s “educational” videos and other materials are literally whitewashing African-American history and Christopher Columbus’ role in the genocidal white European colonial and imperial project that decimated the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

How do you locate Ron DeSantis and his Orwellian attacks on public education, as seen recently with the claim that chattel slavery in America was basically a job skills program, within a larger story about the conservative movement today?

The things we’re seeing in Florida right now are either long-simmering or open goals of the conservative movement to attack public education. And that includes at the elementary school, middle school, high school level and at the university and college level as well. What see in Florida is an attempt to either destroy public education through defunding it and allowing parents to transfer public tax dollars to charter schools or private schools, or to just starve the public school system more broadly.

What the Republicans in Florida and elsewhere can’t starve in terms of public schools and education, DeSantis wants to capture with the right-wing propaganda being produced and disseminated by the likes of PragerU Kids. There is another component here as well because these attacks on public education are a labor story.

This move for “parents’ rights” — which in reality is a euphemism for the concerns and anxieties and bigotries of wealthy white suburban parents — comes out of the COVID lockdowns and the school closures. The right wing blamed teachers’ unions for those lockdowns. These efforts by DeSantis also consist of an attempt to propagandize children at a young age into right-wing beliefs and lies about history.

What do we know about how the Republican Party and conservative movement have been propagandizing and recruiting young people as part of a largert strategic plan?

PragerU has been at the forefront of a lot of those efforts. It was founded in 2009 by Dennis Prager and his longtime radio producer Allen Estrin. They initially wanted to create a physical university. Pretty early on they realized that was prohibitively expensive. In 2011, very early in the digital media boom, PragerU saw an opportunity to target young people, millennials and now Gen Z, to try to counter the myth of the liberal “politically correct” media and educational system and society more generally. For the entire decade of the 2010s, Prager amassed a huge online viewership. Prager continues that growth by bringing in right-wing personalities such as Ben Shapiro, Charlie Kirk, Tucker Carlson, Candace Owens, Jordan Peterson and others. PragerU’s longer-term goal was to infiltrate public school classrooms. There was some successful infiltration, but that came with pushback. 

When PragerU Kids launched in 2021, they switched their target audience from college and high school students to elementary school kids. It appears that PragerU is afraid of public backlash because in some of their ads on Facebook, they say, “We are now an approved vendor and teachers can’t get in trouble for showing our videos in class.” PragerU knows that for parents outside the right-wing media and echo chambers, many of these “educational” videos are going to be deemed offensive and ahistorical and clearly not fit for the classroom. 

While reputable and award-winning books by serious and acclaimed writers are being purged from the schools in Florida and elsewhere, Prager propaganda is being approved for teaching. How do we reconcile that? What machinations in the Florida school bureaucracy have facilitated this? 

The radical right-wing astroturf group Moms for Liberty is a very close ally of Prager. Dennis Prager, the organization’s namesake and founder, just spoke at a Moms for Liberty conference in Philadelphia in July. At that conference, Prager admitted that what PragerU does is indoctrinate kids. Now, it’s worth noting that a couple days later on his syndicated radio show, he downplayed the idea that there was any ideological component to PragerU’s materials, saying that it isn’t “right-wing.” it is just “responsible.”

Depending on the context and audience, PragerU and its executives tailor their messaging and try to naturalize the reactionary right-wing ideology that they present as being value-neutral. As for the networks and behind-the-scenes connections, we know that PragerU Kids saw Florida as an incredibly welcoming environment to try to infiltrate public schools in that state and to leverage their connections in the Republican Party and conservative movement, as well as DeSantis’ obvious presidential ambitions.

This is about ideology and also about money, right? This is a highly lucrative operation. Always follow the money on the right. 

Prager is blessed to have connections with Dan and Ferris Wilks, who are hydrofracking multi-billionaires. The Wilks brothers were the initial largest donors to Prager, and they gave at least $6.5 million as of 2015. The Bradley Foundation, a right-wing charity, is another top donor. One of the members of their board is [attorney] Cleta Mitchell, allegedly one of the top architects of Trump’s failed coup. Interestingly, there are PragerU and now PragerU Kids curriculum videos that totally embrace climate denialism. These videos are so extreme they could have been produced by the fossil fuel companies themselves. PragerU is absolutely raking in the money. They are a 501(c)(3), so we often don’t know exactly where their money comes from. But as of 2020, they had at least a $25 million operating budget, and a huge amount of that money goes to YouTube and Facebook marketing. Contrary to claims by the right that they are being censored by “big tech” — which is not true; we know for a fact that the algorithms amplify right-wing sources — they are making lots of money and getting lots of traffic and attention from social media.

What is the worldview and ideology being advocated by PragerU? 

The picture of the world painted by PragerU is one that naturalizes the status quo. It normalizes every existing system of hierarchy, especially in the United States, but also globally. The PragerU view of the world consists of an ideology that depends on telling kids that any inequality or power imbalances or injustices that they may observe either don’t exist or exist for good reasons. There is no such thing as structural inequality or racism.  Racism, sexism, class domination and class exploitation are all made up buzzwords of “the left” or the “woke mob.” Instead, what exists is a system of meritocracy: The United States is the shining city on the hill and the greatest country that’s ever existed. If the United States may have inadvertently committed sins in the past, they weren’t really committed by anyone. 

Moreover, any wrongs of the past cannot be deemed as such or judged because we can’t judge the past by the standards of the present. The result of Prager’s worldview is that if you tell kids that existing inequality is natural, and the United States is inherently good, then there’s no reason for them to organize to create positive social and political change. In fact, there is no political remedy for injustice at all.

The PragerU worldview also has an almost religious devotion to capitalism that equates capitalism as synonymous with freedom and democracy. PragerU also celebrates colonialism and imperialism, “Western civilization” and “Judeo-Christian values,” the latter of course interpreted through a right-wing, white supremacist frame, and in a propagandistic way. PragerU videos are also teaching kids “copaganda,” urging them to “back the blue” and support the Second Amendment. 

Let’s focus on the Booker T. Washington PragerU Kids video. That’s an especially foul example of using history as propaganda. If the implications were not so serious, the video would actually be funny, like material for a skit on the Dave Chappelle’s show or the golden age of “Saturday Night Live.” 

It’s incredible. The Booker T. Washington video is breathtaking for its inaccuracies. That video is part of a PragerU Kids series called “Leo and Layla,” the adventures of two fictitious white kids who travel back in time to meet historical figures and learn lessons from them. Sometimes the lessons are pegged to current events. So Leo and Layla travel back in time to meet Booker T. Washington and learn about slavery and the Civil War. There are so many offensive things in the video, but one of the worst is when Washington explains to Leo and Layla how proud he is to be an American, saying, “I was a slave and now I’m free.” Booker T. Washington goes on to give this talk about the Civil War in the passive voice that robs Black people of agency in fighting for their own freedom, as opposed to sitting around waiting to be saved by white people. 


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The PragerU Kids videos also remove any blame or moral dimensions to the Civil War and present the North and the South, anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces, as equivalent. The video goes even further and has this fake Booker T. Washington telling the white kids that they shouldn’t worry or feel nervous because future generations are never responsible for the sins of the past. Then Layla says, “Thanks, I’ll try to remember that and stop feeling guilty about all this historical stuff.” So what we have here is a complete dramatization of the DeSantis “stop woke” legislation in Florida and the effort to stop the teaching of accurate history and events, because white children can’t ever be made to feel uncomfortable.

The Christopher Columbus video is an abomination as well.

Here is a quote from the video: “The place I discovered was beautiful. But it wasn’t exactly a paradise of civilization. And the native people were far from peaceful.” So again, you have a justification for colonialism and for Columbus enslaving the indigenous peoples. Columbus is depicted as responding to existing violence, rather than himself being an agent of violence. The video starts with Leo and Layla talking about Columbus Day at school and a teacher correcting them that it is now called Indigenous People’s Day. As with the Booker T. Washington video, the overall thesis of PragerU is that teaching white kids about actual history produces anxiety that must be alleviated. Real history has to be ignored and buried, and these videos are a perfect tool to do that.

What is PragerU and Ron DeSantis’ vision for the future? What is the grand plan?

Where PragerU goes next is to try to get into other schools. They are explicit that they want to expand from Florida into other school systems across the country. It’s not hard to imagine them going after a state like Texas or Virginia. As far as DeSantis and PragerU, they want to indoctrinate kids at a young age into a far-right belief system. The goal is to create a generation of right-wing media consumers who adopt their framing on issues both historical and current, whether that’s the George Floyd uprisings in 2020, trans rights, feminism and women’s liberation or any number of other issues.

The PragerU vision is to have consumers of their product from K through 12 and then into college. There is also Prager’s radio show for adults. The ultimate vision is to create a completely closed information system that doubles down on white supremacy, patriarchy, unfettered capitalism and other extreme right-wing values. If this project comes to fruition, it will be much easier for conservatives and the extreme right to implement their regressive policies at the state and federal level across the country.

Read more

about Florida and the education wars

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