- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002

WHATS SO GREAT ABOUT AMERICA

By Dinesh DSouza

Regnery, $27.95, 218 pages

REVIEWED BY HANS NICHOLS

In his contribution to the countrys latest round of self-analysis, Dinesh DSouza does not pretend to be high-minded or overly academic. Instead, he aims for a basic defense of both the idea and application of this thing called America. While the title "Whats So Great About America," is less of a rhetorical question than a declarative statement, Mr. DSouza leaves plenty of room to entertain the question fairly. Whats so great about Mr. DSouzas book is that he leaves the impression of not having reached any foregone conclusions.

True to his other works, Mr. DSouza skillfully sketches the oppositions argument and then deconstructs it lemma-by-lemma. In the past, his critics have accused Mr. DSouza of creating convenient straw men and then blowing them down, unpacking arguments no one has really made. But his targets in this book will find little wiggle room to flee from their own arguments.

In this book, Mr. DSouza concedes many of the points made by Americas Islamic foes. It is entirely understandable that parts of the world feel threatened by America, because "America is a subversive idea. Indeed, it represents a new way to be human." Add to that, the Islamic critique of America "shows a deep understanding of Americas fundamental principles — which is more than one can say about American understanding of Islamic principles." Elsewhere, he notes that many Muslims criticize the decadence of the West, calling our women "loose," and "theyre right."

As such, the author believes that we should think of radical Islam as a defensive movement. Echoing the economist Robert Nelson, Mr. DSouza recognizes that America, with its secular devotions and capitalist creed, is its own church. Americas religious virtues —commerce and material progress — feed on themselves and disseminate, threatening the way of life suggested by pure Islam.

But even if the Islamic world understands the West, the West does not understanding Islam. Of all the misunderstandings, perhaps the most dangerous is that "Islam means peace." Relying on the scholarship of Bernard Lewis, Mr. DSouza contradicts the politically correct cliche. He writes that "the terrorists who profess the name of Allah and proclaim jihad are operating squarely within the Islamic tradition,

"Indeed, they are performing what Islam has typically held to be a religions duty." Since there is little hope of countering this ideology with mere words, Mr. DSouza looks to military force to keep America safe from the violent intentions of Islam.

After explaining why the Islamic world hates America, Mr. DSouza confronts Americas domestic critics. He does so by offering "two cheers for Colonialism." Mr. DSouza explains how and why the West has leapt past Muslim and Chinese dynasties in the last 500 years. He argues that the West — at the time known as Christendom — evolved past other cultures because it invented three institutions: science, democracy and capitalism.

Of course, the Brahmins of multiculturalism explain the ascendance of Western dominance with words like ethnocentrism, colonialism and slavery. But Mr. DSouza demonstrates that ethnocentrism, colonialism and slavery have been present in every civilization since the beginning of time. What is unique about the West, and in particular America, is that these bugbears were programmed for self-destruction. So while the U.S. Constitution contained its infamous three-fifths clause regarding "other persons," it also was imbued with the ideas that led to the dissolution of slavery. Similarly, native populations in colonial provinces won their independence by appropriating the language of their occupier.

True, the West and Islam have many irreconcilable differences. But Mr. DSouza does not spend much time exploring them. Instead he trains his sights on the sort of domestic critiques that he (apparently) finds more subversive than Islam. Chief among these is the movement for slave reparations. Once again, Mr. DSouza painstakingly outlines the opposing arguments and then dissects them one fallacy at a time.

It is here that one wishes Mr. DSouzas opponents actually had the courage to respond to him. Yet, thus far, few of his ideological opposites have bothered to take the time. Indeed, his book hasnt been mentioned, let alone reviewed, in any of the leading left-of-center magazines. Apparently, the New Republic, the Nation and the American Prospect would prefer that Mr. DSouzas arguments didnt exist.

While the left has been conspicuously indifferent, the same cannot be said of the right. Mr. DSouza has ran afoul of some conservatives who dont appreciate his understanding of Americas religiosity, not to mention his blithe treatment of the difficult question of how to convince man to lead a virtuous life. How should any society encourage its citizens to pursue virtue over material excess? This is an old, and at times tiresome, debate — both within conservative circles in America and dorm rooms the world over.

It seems unfair to fault Mr. DSouza for not tackling these questions with more intensity and interest. After all, the celebrated philosopher Isaiah Berlin spent a lifetime writing and wondering about the limits of mans right to choose. It drove Leo Tolstoy mad and gave Plato a profession. Fresh legions of undergrads fail to offer a definitive answer.

Still, Mr. DSouzas parsing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau may make some conservatives uneasy. For the right, Rousseau is the culprit behind the 60s counterculture — the original spokesman for the "If it feels good, do it" ethos. While theres little in Mr. DSouzas book to suggest that he subscribes to this Rouseauian view of self-expression, he does not seem sufficiently enraged by it. However, he does see the selfless acts of the firefighters and police on September 11 as evidence that Rousseaus hold on our times is not as great as many of his critics — and devotees — have maintained.

Mr. DSouza is at his best defanging the multiculturalists and exposing their tortured logic. Offering a grand blueprint for a return to virtue is not yet his specialty. Still his book is such a potent elixir for multicultural hobgoblins that readers should wait for it to arrive in paperback. That way, it can be folded into ones back pocket, ready for reference should a devout multiculturalist be spotted on the lam, hiding from debate.

Hans Nichols is a reporter for Insight magazine.

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