Category Archives: Personal Development

A Sumptuous Painting Surrounded by Stories – WSJ

Sounds like what my “Art Salon” is all about!


There is plenty of speculation about the unknown sitter’s identity in Titian’s glittering ‘Portrait of a Lady in White,’ a work that flaunts the artist’s technical skills.

Sometimes the stories and speculations that surround works of art can deflect from our interest in the work itself. That’s certainly true of Titian’s glittering “Portrait of a Lady in White” (c. 1561), currently in Southern California on loan to Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum from the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery) of Germany’s Dresden State Art Collections—home to some of the world’s best-known old master paintings. The lady’s enigmatic glance and lavish, yet monochrome, attire provide ample excuse for conjecture as to both her identity and the assertively rhyming nature of her costume. It’s unusual to have a catalog for a single-painting exhibition, but this one is exceptionally rich in resources for information about the canvas’s history, travels and recent conservation, as well as details about the sitter’s costume, jewelry and possible identity.

‘Portrait of a Lady in White’ (c. 1561), by Titian
‘Portrait of a Lady in White’ (c. 1561), by Titian Photo: Elke Estel/ Hans-Peter Klut

Born around 1488/90, Tiziano Vecellio, known to us as Titian, was apprenticed as a youth to Venice’s most eminent painters, the brothers Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, and by the time of his death during the 1576 plague epidemic he had spent years as the most internationally acclaimed of many great Venetian Renaissance artists. This portrait is among Titian’s late works, and there is documentary evidence suggesting that this is the same painting the artist sent to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, in 1561. When August III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, purchased a hundred works from the Este Collection in 1746, the “Lady in White” was included, and it is already listed in the elector’s paintings catalog of 1765. The work remained in Dresden until 1945, when it was among the art taken to Moscow by the Soviets, who returned it to Dresden, then part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), in 1955.

The depiction of such an elegant lady inevitably leads to speculation as to her identity, and there have been suggestions that she was a model, a courtesan, or one of the artist’s daughters. Moreover, there had been two versions of the work—the presumably slightly earlier one, sent to Philip II of Spain in 1559, is long lost and now known only via a 1628/29 copy by Rubens (now in Vienna). As the Gemäldegalerie’s curator of Italian painting, Andreas Henning, writes in the catalog, the fact that Titian not only painted the same subject twice, but “took up the same model…in various other paintings, clearly shows that the woman portrayed is not seen as much as a real person as an ideal.”

That appears evident to this viewer, based on the various lyrical effects that coalesce to give this painting its impact. Despite eyes that peer forcefully to the viewer’s right, the lady’s beauty doesn’t suggest anything much about her personality. The red lips, rosy cheeks and finely plucked eyebrows could serve as an ad for a cosmetics company. Even the gossamer covering of the lady’s shoulders and décolletage seems primarily about Titian’s painting virtuosity; the lack of tension on the decorative lacing across the front of her corset tells us that the artist has only the faintest interest in visually defining her bust. Rubens’s copy of the lost, slightly earlier, version shows no such restraint, as he manages to slightly emphasize the contours of her bosom and dangles a gemstone pendant between her breasts. Was this a characteristic “Rubenesque” interpretation or was Titian’s earlier now-lost version also a tad racier?

Discussions as to whether the lavish white dress might be wedding attire seem beside the point. This is a visual feast replete with generous servings of old-fashioned visual rhymes. The pearl hairband, earrings and necklace rhyme with the fabric puffs at the top of her left sleeve and continue on the ruching of the bodice. The gold bracelets rhyme with the bits of gold thread and the lady’s golden hair, and even the clearly delineated gold that holds the left earring’s pearl, and the gold ring on her left hand. The deep red stone in that ring, in turn, rhymes with the lady’s red lips and paler red cheeks, fading into the barely palpable rose tone of her face and bodice. The flag/fan she holds appears in other paintings of the time, but it’s also suggestive of the lily held by the archangel Gabriel in Annunciation paintings; in those works, Gabriel generally displays minimal affect, in contrast with the Virgin, and that’s how this lady appears as well.

This may not be the earliest painting that suggests an intoxication with the challenge of painting gorgeous satin. But surely Titian was flinging down a gauntlet that was picked up with great panache in the 17th century by a range of artists such as Rubens, Van Dyck, Ter Borch and others, vying for the most dazzling displays of that fabric. These effects remained a staple of show-off portraiture through the 18th and 19th centuries. Both Whistler and Sargent, for example, were challenged in wholly different ways by painting ladies in white dresses. An art wag’s hybrid of Sigmund Freud and Frank Stella might pronounce that “sometimes a painting is just a painting.” In the case of Titian’s “Portrait of a Lady in White,” we can only respond, “But oh, what a painting!”


Not to Late to Quit Social Media – Cal Newport

Should be required reading for all. [As in ‘everyone’].
WSJ 1/26/2019
by By Kate Bachelder Odell

Americans may not agree on much, but here’s one point of consensus: Social media isn’t entirely wonderful. Facebook has its privacy scandals, and who would join Twitter for the camaraderie? This week an ugly online mob demonstrated the point by setting upon a group of boys on a field trip to Washington from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School.

“Because I don’t have any social-media accounts,” says Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer scientist, “my encounter with the Covington Catholic controversy was much different than most people’s.” He read about it days later, in a newspaper column. “I learned that the social-media reaction had been incendiary and basically everyone was now upset at each other, at themselves, at technology itself. It sounded exhausting.”

Mr. Newport, 36, appreciated the downsides of social media sooner than most. In 2010 he published “An Argument for Quitting Facebook,” a blog post that came with a graphic of the “deactivate account” function on an amusingly out-of-date Facebook version. “Technologies are great,” he wrote, “but if you want to keep control of your time and attention,” you should “insist that they earn their keep before you make them a regular part of your life.” He has been proselytizing against social media ever since. His book on the subject, “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” hits stores (and e-readers) next month.

He has never had a social-media account. (“It turns out that this is allowed,” he once joked on his blog.) But he noticed that social media seemed to impair others’ ability to concentrate—an essential skill for professional and personal success. “Right around the transition to mobile” from desktop computers, he tells me, he observed that for many people a passing interest in social media was morphing into “compulsive use.”

“Old social media was a much slower-moving medium,” he says. “You would maybe update your profile occasionally. So if you went on to check what your friends were up to in the morning, there would be no reason to check in the afternoon. Nothing had changed.”

Then came the smartphone—a pocket-size supercomputer that travels everywhere. Social media became a ubiquitous presence. That suited the commercial interests of social-media companies, which “couldn’t triple or quadruple the user-engagement numbers if people log on Monday just to see if someone is back from vacation.” They needed to reel users back in. “And this is where you get the rise of, let’s say, the ‘like’ button or tagging photos,” or retweets and heart buttons—what Mr. Newport calls “small indicators of approval.”

These created “a much richer stream of information coming back to the user,” which proved seductive: “Now you have a reason to click the app again an hour later.” The reinforcement is all the more insidious for being intermittent. Sometimes you’re rewarded for checking in, sometimes you’re frustrated. “It just short-circuits the dopamine system,” Mr. Newport says—which feeds the compulsion. He likens using social media at work to “having a slot machine at your desk.”

Facebook introduced a feature that recognizes faces in photos and encourages users to tag their friends. “That’s a really hard computer-science problem,” Mr. Newport says. “Why would you spend millions of dollars to try to master that problem?” Because, he maintains, it’s another indicator of approval that lures users back to the site.

Mr. Newport says he used to write “earnest” blog posts asking readers what he was missing by not having social media, and he “couldn’t get a straight answer,” aside from the question-begging one that he might miss something. But in recent years skepticism has been growing. Facebook is on the defensive, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg offering reassurances like “I believe everyone should have a voice and be able to connect.”

Yet all those voices can add up to a grating din, as in the Covington Catholic fracas. “Is anyone better off for having wasted hours and hours of time this past week exhaustively engaging half-formed back-and-forth yelling on social media?” Mr. Newport asks. It sounds like a rhetorical question, but then he answers it: “On reflection, the answer is yes for one group in particular: the executives at the giant social-media conglomerates, who sucked up all those extra ‘user engagement’ minutes like an oil tycoon who just hit a gusher.”

Political engagement, however, is a mixed blessing for social-media companies. Mr. Newport says public skepticism reached critical mass “about six months after the presidential election.” Everyone had something to dislike: “If you’re more on the left, it was the election manipulation; if you’re more on the right, it was these stories about ‘Are we being censored?’ ” he says.

Those complaints brought to the surface deeper sources of dissatisfaction. “When I talk to people now who are very distressed about their digital life,” Mr. Newport says, “it’s not those original political things that they care about. It’s not that ‘I don’t like what Russia did in the election’; it’s, ‘I’m on this more than is useful, more than is healthy. It’s keeping me from my kids, It’s keeping me from my friends. It’s keeping me from things I used to enjoy. I think it’s hurting the quality of my life.’ ”

In hindsight, Mr. Newport says, “we should have been more wary about this idea” of taking human sociality—“incredibly powerful and shaped by a million years of evolution”—and allowing 22-year-olds in California to reinvent it.

So what now? Mr. Newport laments that everyone “writes the same article” with tips for turning off notifications or some such. “This is not working.” What people need, he thinks, is “a full-fledged philosophy” of how to use technology. About a year ago Mr. Newport invited his blog’s readers to participate in an experiment he called a “digital declutter.”

The prescription: Take a month off from all digital technologies you don’t absolutely have to use—including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even casual texting with friends. Spend the days figuring out what you’d like to do with your time. At the end of the experiment, resume technologies only to the extent that they’re the best way to accomplish something you value deeply.

A couple hundred readers sent Mr. Newport detailed reports. One theme he noticed is that time online had crowded out activities like joining a church committee or a running club. Mr. Newport calls them “analog social media,” an amusing retronym. But he isn’t being cheeky. He says people had failed to realize the extent to which the internet “had subtly pushed the analog leisure they used to like out of their life.”

Human beings “crave high-quality leisure,” he says, but they can do without it “if you can fill every moment with distraction.” When the digital declutterers regained time to cook or see close friends, “they essentially lost their taste” for staring at the screen and scrolling.

When I meet Mr. Newport, I’m on Day 17 of my own declutter experiment. Facebook was the easiest platform to dump. I’d already stopped posting and visited only occasionally, mostly—this is embarrassing—to keep up with a group run by my dog’s breeder, where other owners post photos of their dogs.

Mr. Newport says I’m not unusual. “Man, I’m glad I don’t own their stock,” he says. “They’re worth a lot of money,” he allows, but they seem to have “a very weak connection to their user base. It’s a much more fickle user base than they probably want to admit. Because people—I get this experience all the time—people are fine walking away from it. They’re really indifferent.” That may be less true of other Facebook-owned services like Instagram, which I’ve found tough to ditch, or WhatsApp.

How about Twitter? For journalists, it’s an office water cooler, except that everyone yells. It can also be a valuable tool for gathering news. “Everyone I know in media is having this exact same crisis with Twitter,” Mr. Newport says. “It’s either ‘Burn it to the ground’ or ‘It’s at the core of what I do,’ and they’re not sure.” Mr. Newport advises outlets to have entry-level employees monitor Twitter rather than let the site sap the entire staff’s productivity.

Though in his day job Mr. Newport writes technical works like the 2018 paper “Fault-Tolerant Consensus With an Abstract MAC Layer,” he’s been at the self-improvement game for a while. He started out writing books about how students could stand out in high school and college. His career followed his interests as he progressed from graduate student to professor and wondered why some people thrive professionally and others don’t. That led to his career-advice books, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “Deep Work.”

The latter takes aim at another technology that corrodes the ability to focus: corporate email. “We sort of gambled on this idea that the key to productivity is going to be faster and more flexible communication,” Mr. Newport says. “At any moment we can have fast and flexible communication with anyone on earth.” Yet productivity has hardly budged. “It’s actually probably going down.”

The statistics, he says, fail to “capture the sort of secret second shifts that people are doing at night and on the weekends just to try to catch up.” It turns out that “focusing on fast and flexible communication—my argument is—didn’t make us more productive.” Instead, “it made our brains much, much less effective at the actual work.”

To illustrate the point, he sometimes cites an interview with Jerry Seinfeld. “Let me tell you why my TV series in the ’90s was so good,” the comedian said. “In most TV series, 50% of the time is spent working on the show; 50% of the time is spent dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We”—he and Larry David—“spent 99% of our time writing. Me and Larry. The door was closed. Somebody calls. We’re not taking the call. We were gonna make this thing funny. That’s why the show was good.”

To have an excellent career, Mr. Newport argues, you need periods of uninterrupted concentration to produce work of unambiguous value. Many jobs lack a clear measure of value, so that employees treat “busyness as a proxy for productivity” and let email distract them from real work.

Yet as with social media, the thought of giving up email stirs a fear of missing out. Some may protest—as I did—that if they quit Instagram they’ll lose track of old friends. Mr. Newport replies that “this idea that it’s important to maintain hundreds or thousands of weak-tie connections” is recent and untested. “I can’t see any great evidence that this is important to have.” And it can keep you from “investing more time into the types of relationships that have defined human sociology for centuries, which are close friends, family members and community.”

Fewer people “will send you a digital happy-birthday note,” he concedes. “But that’s about it.”

Mrs. Odell is an editorial writer for the Journal.

Appeared in the January 26, 2019, print edition.


How to Make a Living

One of the best articles on the value of being able to write clearly and concisely that I have read in a long time.

WSJ 8/30/2018
As a 20-year-old graduate student in creative writing, I asked a professor how to submit work for publication. “If you’re already worried about publishing,” he said, “you’re not a serious writer.”

I was serious—and desperate to learn how to make a living with the literary craft I’d been studying. But nobody in my program would discuss it. After two degrees in six years of higher education, I didn’t even know how to write a cover letter to submit the pages I’d spent years perfecting. It took decades of missteps and failures for me finally to figure out how to pay my bills as an author, freelancer and adjunct professor.

Later, teaching journalism myself, I wanted to help my students get on a faster track for success. I was disappointed by the administration’s dismissive attitude about helping students get bylines, jobs, literary agents or teaching gigs. My department heads pushed me to assign my classes 8,000word, third-person term papers instead of the shorter pieces editors wanted. “We don’t care about publication or payments,” one said. “We’re not a trade school.” Many in liberal-arts education cling to this lofty, elitist opinion that it’s sinful to discuss any remuneration. Top journalism schools and master’s programs in the fine arts charge as much as $60,000 a year for tuition—similar to that of business, medical and law schools. But unlike those other fields, they rarely teach their students how to gets jobs and income.

I remember how confused and frustrated I was by the discrepancy between what top schools offer and what’s needed to launch a profitable career. It’s a glaring gap, as if the faculty believe wanting to support yourself with the subject you study is greedy and shameful.

That’s why I began sharing practical information in my journalism, nonfiction and creative- writing classes. I found that helping a diverse group of students land articles, internships, jobs, agents, editors and teaching positions was empowering and transformative.

An African-American Navy vet landed a full-time job in a hospital after writing a poignant op-ed describing how he’d become temporarily homeless when he returned home with service-related injuries. A 21-year-old protégée of mine wrote an essay explaining why she dropped out of college after a sexual assault, and was able to help other young women with a book and paid lectures for the Rape, Abuse & Incest Network. A Latino mother’s articles about her prepartum depression landed her a literary agent and a teaching job. A Bosnian Muslim survivor of ethnic cleansing became a spokesman against genocide after his published articles struck a chord, earning as much as $7,000 for speeches around the country.

Learning to write succinct three-page essays, strong opinionated arguments and concise emails can be useful in any field. In all of my classes and seminars, I assign short cover letters, too. Every year it astounds me that top colleges neglect this simple art. An expensive university education should at least arm students with the skills they’ll need to pay for it.

Ms. Shapiro, a New School professor, is a co-author of “The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks.”


Digital sages | WORLD News Group

Digital Sages

Interesting article in World Magazine – which I do recommend.
Aug 18, 2018
The first time Youp Timmer heard Jordan Peterson speak in a YouTube video, he thought his voice sounded like Kermit the Frog’s. And like Kermit, this 56-year-old University of Toronto psychology professor was a skilled communicator, hands gesticulating and brows furrowing as he spoke about personal responsibility and bearing one’s suffering.

At the time, Timmer, a 30-year-old data analyst in Nijkerk, Netherlands, was battling suicidal thoughts, desperately clicking through streams of motivational videos for inspiration to live on—and he says he found it in Peterson. In that video, Peterson was unpacking the meanings behind the Biblical story of Noah and the Flood. Be prepared, he warned, because storms of tragedies are coming. Life, he declared, is “really complex, short, finite, full of suffering, and beyond you.” It doesn’t take much effort to suffer, but if you lie around merely suffering, “then it accumulates. … It turns into the dragon of chaos. It waits until you’re not at your best, and then it eats you.” Timmer was transfixed. Every word from Peterson struck close to heart: He had been doing exactly that—lying depressed, mulling over how he had gotten the job he wanted but still couldn’t find meaning in it. He was struggling with marriage and financial issues, tension with his parents. He felt unhappy and directionless—until he heard Peterson’s challenge: “Pick up your [profanity] cross and walk up the hill.” Yes, life is painful and unjust—“So what are you gonna do about it? Accept it voluntarily and try to transform as a consequence.”

It’s a message that falls far short of the gospel, but it spoke to Timmer. Nobody had been able to reach him in his darkness, not even psychologists or his baby daughter, but for some reason, Peterson did. The way Peterson used Biblical stories to illustrate his points made sense to him: “It felt as though he told me what I knew for a long time, but couldn’t phrase correctly.” Something about the way the man spoke—that straightforward, unapologetic manner, like a stern father to a delinquent son, spiced with a thick Albertan accent and old-fashioned swear words, shook Timmer awake: “I realized I was only making things worse by my own choice.”

From then on, Timmer listened to every Peterson lecture, some more than 10 times. He credits Peterson for saving him from suicide twice, once under suicide watch at the hospital. He set up specific life goals, starting with cleaning up his room. His parents told him he became a more pleasant presence. After being a “very earnest” Muslim for 10 years, he now concludes that Islam is “not the right tool.” He estimates having spent 600 hours poring through Peterson’s materials. And he wonders, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?”

Timmer is one of thousands of young people tuning in to Peterson’s lectures, podcasts, interviews, and books. When Peterson went on a global speaking tour across North America and the United Kingdom, many venues (1,000- to 2,000-seat auditoriums; cheapest ticket in Los Angeles was $55) sold out weeks ahead. His new self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, a string of essays on how to live one’s life, has already sold more than 700,000 copies in the United States. The book reigns as the No. 1 best-read book on Amazon in North America. He now has more than 790,000 Twitter followers, 340,000 followers on Facebook, more than 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube—and many are willing to support his work financially: Peterson earns about $80,000 a month on Patreon, a crowdfunding platform where “patrons” fund influencers to create content.

Why is a middle-aged guy like Peterson commanding such influence on young minds? To understand the larger movement, I listened to hours of Peterson’s work, read his book, and spoke to about a dozen of his followers ages 22 to 35. I also met with two other influential thinkers, Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro. What I found is that neither Peterson, Prager, nor Shapiro is hawking new truths. Nothing they say is a smack-the-head revelation. Instead, they seek to help people understand what they already know deep within their souls—timeless, elementary, common-grace truths and values that are embedded into our very being, nature, and substrata of consciousness. Their messages won’t save a single soul, but they appeal to people because of the law of God written on the listeners’ hearts.

People have hailed Jordan Peterson as a father figure, a modern-day prophet, a free speech warrior. Stripping all those fancy titles aside, Peterson is a grim-looking Canadian scholar who lectures in a quaint three-piece suit. He was an obscure professor until he criticized a bill in Canada that proposed banning discrimination based on gender identity and expression. He said the bill threatened free speech and was a slippery slope toward totalitarianism. Student activists heckled Peterson on campus, and a video of that confrontation gained millions of views and comments.

Then in January, journalist Cathy Newman attempted to paint Peterson as a misogynist during an interview with him on Channel 4 News. That video attracted more than 10 million views on YouTube, and Peterson’s book soon topped the bestseller charts.

Peterson is obsessed with Jung, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky, and his house is reportedly a showroom of 20th-century horrors: A massive collection of original USSR propaganda art hangs on every wall, even ceilings and bathrooms—a solemn, grotesque self-reminder of what devastation the pursuit of utopia can wreak.

Peterson’s three-hour lectures center on ideas such as: (1) All human beings are capable of unspeakable evil, especially in the name of good. (2) Change starts with the individual. (3) Ancient stories, from the Bible to Egyptian mythology, hold profound, still-applicable truths about human nature and life. He weaves together social science, neuroscience, his own clinical experiences, Biblical literature, and evolution to present a systematic understanding of the world and us in it. But his theories are not ivory-tower abstractions. He drills those ideas down to practical, traditional values: hard work, personal responsibility, and virtue—hardly the most endearing or sexy subject matters.

Yet those ideas are captivating thousands of fans, mostly young men. They’re flocking into Facebook groups, Reddit chatrooms, and Meetup gatherings to discuss all things Peterson, often spouting “Petersonisms” to encourage and motivate each other, like Bible study group members quoting Scriptures. That’s extraordinary, given this age of postmodernism, ever-chirping 280-character commentaries, and pursuit of instant gratification.

To hear the media describe them, Peterson’s fans are mostly right-wing white males shaking their fists at a new social stratum that no longer benefits them. But the people I spoke to were diverse: They were male and female; white and Asian and Latino and Jewish; self-defined conservatives, moderates, liberals, and apoliticals. They work in fashion, tech, construction, film, music.

Meet Irina Hernandez, for example. Hernandez is a 22-year-old fashion design assistant in Brooklyn who grew up nonreligious. She calls herself “left-leaning” and has a brother with whom she shared a close relationship until they began debating politics. When her brother argued that the wage gap between men and women isn’t a gender issue, “I really started to see him as a bad person,” Hernandez recalled.

Then she watched a YouTube video in which Peterson explains the many variables such as personality, interests, and skills that lead to wage gap. For the first time, Hernandez saw someone “bluntly questioning these ideas and doing it in such a mature and empirical way”—without resorting to ideology. She clicked on more of Peterson’s videos, and spent 50-plus hours listening to him outline the biological and psychological differences between men and women using history, psychoanalysis, neuropsychology, and storytelling. Those videos taught her more than all her classes in college combined, she said, and that made her angry: “I felt like before, I was consuming a lot of misinformation.”

A career-driven, “super independent” woman who cared deeply about gender equality, Hernandez said Peterson’s lectures provoked questions about her future: “Do I want marriage? Kids? Women my age, we’re so caught up in being equal … but do I really want to be a CEO in a Fortune 500 company?” Those thoughts changed the way Hernandez dated her then-boyfriend, and now they’re engaged.

But whenever Hernandez tried to talk about Peterson with her more liberal friends, she felt shut down. In the last several months, Peterson has become the No. 1 person the media loves to hate. (When I requested an interview with Peterson, his publicist told me they’re cutting down on media interviews.) Forward magazine published an article titled, “Is Jordan Peterson Enabling Jew Hatred?” Vox stated that Peterson’s views “weaponize the grievances of the kind of young men attracted to the alt-right.” Current Affairs called Peterson a “tedious crackpot,” and several publications suggested that Peterson is “dangerous.”

Perhaps that’s also why Peterson is so popular: People don’t like being told what to think. They recognize that what Peterson is saying is not only important but makes sense, and when a dominant culture so strongly denounces him as a sexist racist transphobic charlatan, they start to wonder what’s missing in modern society.


THE SAME HOLDS TRUE for former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro. He also saw an uptick in Twitter followers and podcast downloads with each big controversy. When he came out as a Never Trumper and castigated the alt-right movement, he became the No. 1 target of anti-Semitic tweets aimed at a journalist. Each time protesters tried to shut down his speech on college campuses (UC Berkeley spent $600,000 on security for Shapiro’s visit), he earned more fans.

When Shapiro first started his news site The Daily Wire, he had five employees. Now he employs 50. The Ben Shapiro Show, a conservative daily talk show program, gets about 350,000 downloads per day on SoundCloud and YouTube each, and up to a million views on Facebook Live—and about 70 percent of the audience is under 35 years old.

I joined the 34-year-old Shapiro at his Sherman Oaks office where he films his show. He was in a rampage mood that day over the media’s “nonsense” coverage of Trump’s comments on MS-13 and stormed into the studio joking about bringing a sledgehammer next time.

He needs no sledgehammer: Once the camera began rolling, Shapiro raged out an hourlong impromptu monologue—with nary a stutter or pause for air—about media bias, the Mueller investigation, and the Israel-Gaza clash, then signed off with a Bible talk segment on Joshua 2:8-11. He did this completely unscripted, letting me peek at his notes: a single page with little more than links to video clips.

Even off-air, Shapiro is constantly interacting with his audience, mostly on Twitter. In between penning articles, visiting his personal trainer, and writing his new book, his thumbs are ever-scrolling through his iPhone, retweeting things he finds interesting, mic-dropping snarky remarks, and responding to both fans and haters. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working: Three years ago, Shapiro had about 100,000 followers on Twitter; now he has 1.4 million.

Part of Shapiro’s appeal is his willingness to buck his own conservative party if it violates his principles: “I’m not going to be sucked into your tribal mentality, even if you think I’m part of your tribe. I’m not.” Taking an anti-Trump stance was “a risky move,” but he gained respect from millennials who saw him holding his ground based on values and virtue, not ideology or politics.

Even as a pundit, he presents other people’s arguments against his own views, then explains why he disagrees with them. He says he’s interested in what certain current events imply about society’s deeper values. To explain anti-Israel sentiments, for example, he reviewed the evolution of nationalism over the last 400 years. He recommends highbrow books such as The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas and The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes, plays compositions by Bach and Brahms, and provides weekly commentary on the Bible and the Federalist Papers.

That sort of honest intellectualism is attractive to his young audience members, who tell me they’re sick of surface-level political jabberers who saturate the media. Joshua Charles, a 30-year-old writer and historian in Sacramento, said he doesn’t see many “intellectually serious” media personalities in the spotlight. Many pundits “throw out applause lines that their particular audience wants to hear, but they don’t challenge their audience.”

Like Peterson, Shapiro appeals to many millennials because his approach seems less drivel and more brains, less red meat tossing and more enlightenment. In a generation ravaged by divorce and sexual misconduct, he also seems like a clean family guy—the kind who’s notorious for jettisoning men’s poker night for family time. He’s an Orthodox Jew who says he remained a virgin until marriage, and he prays every day, observes Shabbat, and is devoted to his wife and two children.

Though some modern folks might call his values old-fashioned, Shapiro says they should have never become outdated in the first place: “There are eternal, unchanging values that are important to human life, and if we don’t return to these eternal, unchanging human values, we’re destined to be rolling around in the mud.”

BEFORE ANYONE EVER HEARD of Peterson or Shapiro, there was Dennis Prager, a conservative talk show host who kick-started his public speaking life as a 21-year-old Jew from Brooklyn. Today, at age 69, he may be the longest-lasting public intellectual. In a time of blustery political talk, Prager rarely raises his voice, preferring to speak in a calm baritone, crack jokes that make even himself chortle, and pontificate about relationships and happiness.

Prager is a large man with a full presence at 6-foot-4. He has a belly-shaking laugh and the kind of genial social adroitness that’s just as comfortable smoking cigars alone in his study humming Brahms as he is asking an immigrant which language she cusses with when she stubs her toe. He has a bad hip and snowy-white hair but also floor-to-ceiling bookcases overflowing with books that keep his mind sharp, expansive, and curious.

Prager, like Peterson, is obsessed with human evil and suffering. Ever since as a 10-year-old he watched a Walter Cronkite program on Hitler, Prager hated evil—and he determined to “influence as many people to do good as possible.” His lifelong goal, then, is to convince as many people as possible to take seriously the Torah, which he calls “the greatest repository of goodness and wisdom in human history.” In fact, Shapiro was a little boy when Prager inspired his parents to attend an Orthodox synagogue and become more religious Jews.

Prager might not be as hip and technologically savvy as Shapiro—he barely uses Twitter and had to ask a 19-year-old production assistant what “LMAO” means—but he’s constantly gazing into the future. He’s the co-founder of PragerU, an online media portal that condenses complex ideas such as racism and climate change into five-minute videos with nifty graphics and diverse presenters such as comedian Adam Carolla, MIT meteorology professor Richard Lindzen, and economics scholar Walter Williams. PragerU’s 300-plus videos have collected more than 1 billion views since its founding in 2009, and about 65 percent of its viewers are under age 35.

Like Shapiro, Prager says day-to-day news doesn’t interest him, and he realized most young people don’t care much for it, either. Rather, they’re interested in “the big issues”—What is good? What is evil? What is true, what is false? What is the meaning of life? “My task is to communicate very old ideas in a fresh way. You have to make it relevant”—and young people respond with hunger “because they don’t hear this elsewhere. They don’t get wisdom, and they don’t know that they even want wisdom, but everyone wants wisdom.”

Prager and Shapiro say wisdom comes from divine revelation, while Peterson prefers to stick to scientific and symbolic language, but all three share a common message: Traditional values exist for a reason. We cannot invent our own values, and we do so at our own peril. Read the Bible, because it reveals important and relevant truths. And people are listening.

Still, when Prager’s new book The Rational Bible: Exodus, a 559-page line-by-line commentary on the Torah, became the second-best-selling book on Amazon for weeks, he called it “the best shock of my life.” He said that with a delighted grin and bright eyes: There’s hope for our civilization yet.
Sophia Lee
Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.
Digital sages | WORLD News Group.