How Dinesh Gets
or about a decade now, Dinesh D’Souza has been vexing serious left and liberal intellectuals. D’Souza’s meteoric rise—from Bombay-Rotary Club exchange student at the University of Arizona in 1978 to media-renowned political “expert” and Rishwain Scholar at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution today—might be cast as one of the great immigrant success stories of our times. That along the way D’Souza has, as he puts it, “harpooned” battalions of liberals and left Americans in the process, is his peculiar distinction. After all, it isn’t everyday that liberal and left America should draw its most enthusiastic and anointed critic from the ranks of third-world university exchange students. Equally distinctive to D’Souza’s profile is that he has remained immune to serious counter-attack. This is not to say that he has not been criticized, but only that the most energetic efforts to curb his increasing influence have been undertaken by student activists unhappy with student fees underwriting his campus appearances—a questionable tactic that often backfires. D’Souza’s immunity from more serious challenge is in part the result of the choice made by noteworthy liberal and left intellectuals to ignore him based on two core assumptions: (1) no one could possibly take him or his work seriously; (2) serious engagement will only bring him more attention. But ignoring D’Souza has not diminished his influence. D’Souza’s books continue to make best sellers’ lists while his professional credibility only increases.
explanation for the fact that retaliation has largely passed D’Souza by
might be that liberal and left intellectuals remain attached to a type
of civility unrecognized by D’Souza. It is not typical of people holding
academic positions—left, right or center—to commit to print the kind of
no-holds-barred polemics for which D’Souza is best known. Without
sinking all standards, it may be due time, then, to give Mr. D’Souza a
little of his own medicine. After all, one who lives by the harpoon,
might expect to see one coming now and then. And now in his latest two
titles, D’Souza has provided ample reason, both political and
professional, for, as they say, taking off the gloves.
There is nothing typical about Dinesh D’Souza’s ride to the top. His is an exceptional journey, but exceptional only in the sense of odd or irregular. He holds the post of “scholar” but has earned only a BA in English from Dartmouth where he eventually transferred. At age 26, he served as Senior Domestic Policy Analyst under Reagan without a shred of serious policy training. In fact D’Souza, the political “expert,” has no training whatsoever in social science. Moreover, he has been appointed to two research institute positions without a single peer- reviewed essay or publication. And, perhaps not surprisingly, he is treated as a serious intellectual in the media and publishing world despite the remarkable lack of research that goes into his books.
As an immigrant “success” story, his is more reminiscent of the political patronage and smoke-filled backroom promotions of over a century ago—only this time ethnicity and tribalism are denounced and denied as the source of D’Souza’s power. In reality, D’Souza has little in the way of credentials or training to merit any of his promotions.1 In transparent violation of his own meritocratic-fanaticism, D’Souza’s rewards are, in the end, a result of his willingness to fill the role of brown-skinned provocateur for the Right. The rest of his booty comes in the forms of both party-paybacks and the ironic glory bestowed upon him by a low-brow media (including a profit-anxious publishing industry) he bashes. Though race, ethnicity and identity are all liberal bogeymen for the Right, it is they who so skillfully play the “race” card. If Dinesh D’Souza were not East Indian, he would simply have no role to play for the Right: there would be no White House credentials, no appointments as “scholar,” and no press. Nothing can testify to the truth of this perhaps disquieting charge more than the evidence of his own poor scholarship, philosophical inconsistency and his signature but shamelessly sophomoric panache. In the two titles he released in 2002—What’s So Great About America (Regenery Press) and Letters to a Young Conservative (Basic Books)—D’Souza has really outdone himself. Indeed, the real story between these two books is the utter laziness and flouting of academic integrity their author displays.
A few things dawned on me while reading these two works in the space of two weeks. One was, what a much greater investment decision it would have been for the Right had they funded a proper graduate education for Dinesh rather than permitting him to hone his “writing” and oratory while on staff at the American Enterprise Institute and more recently at the Hoover Institution. With proper graduate school training in, for example, political science, D’Souza would have experienced three years of seminar reading, writing and evaluation; a year of preparation for and completion of rigorous qualifying examinations; another year of guided doctoral research; and finally, in another year’s time he might have produced a scholarly dissertation reviewed and approved by a committee of senior faculty.
Had any of this happened, Mr. D’Souza might have gone on to become a truly formidable foe. Certainly, he would have harnessed the scholarly standards he and other conservatives like Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney hysterically defend. He might also have picked up some social science research skills in the meantime. And maybe, perhaps, a graduate school education would have softened the arrogance that characterizes so little effort in these pages. Among the many things a Ph.D. education can bestow upon someone is the humility of reason in the face of a political passion.
In the scholarly universe, it is not enough to be deeply committed; you must skillfully search for the most reasonable, most consistent and most demonstrable argument possible. Scholarly standards in the service of a political cause also keep one honest. Contrary to D’Souza’s cartoonish characterizations of left scholarship, it is the left that has historically cherished reason and the attendant standards of verifiability. Contrarily, the Right’s strategy, historically, has rested with appeals to faith and sentiment—most often in the form of nationalism, religious zeal, and patriotism. Assertion not argument, passion not reason, and symbolism not evidence have long been the building blocks of right wing ideology. In the absence of reasoned argument, patriotism and nationalism are more than wholesome passions; they are threats to the very Enlightenment ideals D’Souza tortures to fit his agenda. Perhaps this is because D’Souza doesn’t really understand the Enlightenment tradition’s cosmopolitan legacy? This explanation is preferable to the alternative which would suggest D’Souza knowingly engages in the capricious denial of the egalitarianism inherent in the tradition in order to protect his own unearned privilege and power? Regardless, in the course of these two titles he plays to fear, chauvinism and provincialism while advancing a set of dangerously unreasonable claims, which I will discuss below. Equally unreasonable, moreover, is the “scholarship” D’Souza pastes together to defend god and country.
This brings me to the second thing that dawned on me while reading these two texts back to back: how they began to blend. At first I simply thought this was just the effect of D’Souza’s narrow and shallow range of topics (why multiculturalism and anti-racism are evil, why Reagan was great and why capitalism and the “West” are as good as it will ever get). But for anyone familiar with D’Souza’s methods of operations, the feeling of a rehash—be it a rewrite of a transcript from the lecture circuit or a TV appearance, or the re-positioning of a previous book’s argument—isn’t a surprise.2 D’Souza has gotten the game of publishing down to a near science of efficiency. He has been a virtual pulp-machine the past five years in particular—after the lull between his first smash-hit Illiberal Education (1991) and The End of Racism (1995), he put out Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (1997), The Virtues of Prosperity (2000), and now these two titles in one year.
But what at first seemed like a an eerie repetition in the current two texts, then turned out to be hundreds and hundreds of words in verbatim passages appearing without note in both books. Given that these books were put out by different publishers I began to think that Dinesh might not have imagined that anyone would actually read both books all the way through—including his editors.
That D’Souza’s editor at Basic Books, Liz McGuire, brought him to Basic from the conservative Free Press where she served as his previous editor might have contributed to the lack of oversight.3 While plagiarism of one’s own work is unlikely to produce a lawsuit, it is a violation of academic culture and, under normal circumstances, contractual standards. Though I can only speculate based on the evidence presented by these two texts, I venture to guess that if some eager researcher were to scan all of D’Souza’s books, and perform google string search across them in chronological order, the type of verbatim repetition without notation seen here might be traced back even further.
there is a high crime here or not, it is evidence of the sloppiness and
laziness characteristic of D’Souza work generally. That a “scholar” like
D’Souza, whose arguments in both What’s So Great About America
and Letters to a Young Conservative celebrate
standards, merit and virtue, should provide such a poor example should
bother, at the very least, the Hoover Institution. As a trade author
who has pulled down $250,000 in advance money for a single book , it is
also clear that the standards of the marketplace are less than
meritorious. It is a lovely example of how the twin souls of modern
conservatism—moral virtue and market principles— simply do not abide in
the same house.
What’s So Great About America?: The Empire Strikes First
In this post-September 11th defense of U.S. policy, culture and might, D’Souza begins with a preface in which he likens the U.S. role in the “War on Terrorism” to that of the Athenians facing Sparta. In long excerpts from Pericles’ funeral oration, D’Souza dramatizes the conflict today as one of clashing moral orders: one premised on freedom and the other on militarism. Like Athens, America is “… a unique civilization that holds itself up as a universal model for civilized people everywhere.” (p. xii) Despite the obvious incongruity of the analogy in military terms, D’Souza’s mission in this book is to convince readers that America today offers the “best life” possible and that America deserves absolute defense by its citizens, including the willingness to give their lives in the fight against its enemies. That the terrorists of 9/11 were willing to make this sacrifice for their “side,” D’Souza suggests, is not in itself “…contemptible or ridiculous; indeed it raises the question of what we in America would be willing to give our lives for. No serious patriotism is possible that does not attempt to answer that question.” (p. 7)
Though the initial question is fair, the suggestion that its answer requires a renewal of patriotism—or love of fatherland above all—is an entirely different proposition. Despite his promise to deliver a “reflective” (sic), “…thoughtful and affirming patriotism” based on “first principles” (p.30) we end up instead with attacks on procedural liberalism and freedom of expression, and a unconditional privileging of what D’Souza argues is the Constitution’s foundation in property rights.4 Equally defining for D’Souza are the prerogatives of might that unfettered accumulation delivers to whichever party garners the greatest wealth. In this sense, D’Souza’s assertions are in keeping with the current assertion of American unilateralism based on naked power.
Despite the urgent need for a new politics of multilateralism in an era of globalization and international terrorism, the world watches the American Right—most notably from within the Bush Administration—vigorously assert the prerogatives of might in a demonstration of unilateralism grounded in nationalism and militarism. The Administration’s obsession with a “pre-emptive ” U.S. war on Iraq dramatically illustrates the shift. As Philip Golub of the Institute of European Studies, in Paris has observed:
The “operational response to 9/11 has been accompanied by systematic unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy, that is the single minded pursuit of narrowly defined American national interests, and a complete disregard for the concerns and interests of other members of the international community, including the U.S.’s historic allies in Europe. …In effect, the U.S. has abandoned multilateralism and law, that is institutionalized cooperation, or “soft” forms of global governance, in favor of purely coercive methods of management of the world system. 5
This shift in foreign policy under the Bush Administration has its domestic policy and ideological counterparts as well—such as the infamous Patriot Act of 2002 with its extraordinarily broadened state surveillance powers. And now D’Souza does his best in this work to construct a new definition of American patriotism suited for the era. But just as the new Bush doctrine of American unilateralism ultimately rests on the use of force in the face of international law, D’Souza’s claim for American moral and cultural superiority is only possible by way of willful, ad hoc assertion in the face of established standards of reason. Little in these five chapters can possibly fit together in any reasonable philosophical frame. Indeed, D’Souza’s “talents” as a polemicist have always dominated anything like a theoretically cogent argument. This is not D’Souza’s problem alone but the problem of American conservatism generally with its two internal and contradictory impulses—one of attachments to religion, the traditional family and virtue; and one of attachments to the market, individualism and antistatism.6
Accordingly, there are the constant praises for capitalism as a system of merit and progress; but there are also the episodic and histrionic indictments of the widespread decline in America of respect for external moral authority, i.e., God. D’Souza’s Herculean task in this book is to simultaneously hold the U.S. up as a model while diagnosing serious moral decline. More challenging will be his task of distracting readers from the spectacle of corporate dominance that marks our era and of finding a convincing “other” to blame the moral decline on; after all, corporate America doesn’t have an ethics problem, does it? How he meets this challenge is classic D’Souza.
“moral” decline, by the way, is relevant to a discussion of global
terrorism because, D’Souza reveals, the real Achilles’ heel of the
otherwise impeccable “American way of life” is indeed its lack of moral
virtue. This is what Al Qaeda insightfully identifies and so should the
rest of us if we know what’s good for us. Of course, some groups in
America are more responsible for this decline than others—below I
discuss D’Souza scapegoating of African-Americans, liberals and the left
generally. But how is D’Souza going to square his beloved capitalism
with the loss of morality in American life? What follows in these pages
is the magic of D’Souza’s ipso facto, ala-kazam philosophical
reasoning. With the wave of the wand, D’Souza can make claims that range
from the preposterous to outrageous. Examples include: Nietzsche is a
liberal and Frantz Fanon is, literally, the Western intellectual behind
bin Laden. And then there are claims like the Three-fifth’s Compromise
was a favor to black Americans, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—yes,
Rousseau—is the real culprit behind the “torment and division” in
contemporary American society.7
Such flamboyance characterizes the broader argument as well—and all of
it is equally forced.
How the West Won: Ipso Facto, Ala Kazam
What is revealed almost immediately in this book is its hyper-national framework. In these chapters, D’Souza attempts to place the U.S. on such hallowed ground that its actions, domestically and internationally, are always justifiable—unless of course they are the result of liberal policies. The pedestal is provided by D’Souza’s inventive and incredible narrative in which all civilizational developments are credited to the US, and, tautologically, the U.S. is the most civilized nation on earth. It is a cartoonish world in which Europe, once past its colonizing period, simply does not exist and every developing nation is depicted as either hopelessly mired in barbarism or desperate to be like “us.” The only redeemable developing nations are those upon which European colonialism has left its indelible marks—like D’Souza’s own India of course.
It is actually creepy the way the terms “the West” and “America” are interchanged throughout the book. D’Souza’s privileging of America as the ultimate expression of the “Western tradition” serves as both claim and defense. But what characterizes this thing “the West” that D’Souza demands America represents and, therefore deserves our lives to defend? The “Western tradition” turns out to be valuable not because of the contribution of Enlightenment ideals per se; nor is it the political embodiment of those ideals in Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law. No, instead D’Souza casts the Western tradition in less expansive terms which, it should comes as no surprise, look a lot like the principles of real politick—only with a dollop of a Christian God on the side.
D’Souza’s defense of the West/America begins with a new version of the history of civilization. It is a story in which he concedes that the West/America isn’t the only “one” to contribute to civilization, its just that America does civilization better than anyone else. D’Souza’s narrative on pages 42-45 pays a kind of lip service to what classicist Martin Bernal, in his two volume study Black Athena, has termed the Afro-Asiatic roots of Western culture (a work I’m betting D’Souza has not bothered to look at). Still, D’Souza’s strategy is to claim all credit for the “victors” of history and, it follows, enshrine that victory as moral. Despite their early developments, Asia, Africa and Latin America just didn’t have what it takes to become really civilized. He explains: “…civilizational development does not always go to the group that invents things. It frequently goes to the people who are able to take the inventions and run with them.” (p. 51) Indeed, it is Western ingenuity—and America as the highest expression of that can-do spirit—that ultimately packaged the “inventions” in the winning combination: science, democracy and capitalism. This recipe for civilization triumphs, D’Souza suggests, because science, democracy and capitalism each reflect a natural and universal human impulse—the desire to inquire, the desire to be heard and to the desire to barter (?). And what scholarly evidence for this set of naturalist claims does D’Souza offer? Of course, none. The only justification is yet again another tautological reference but this time he manages to fit God into the otherwise secular sounding formula: You see, the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only tradition to grasp the universality of these three natural impulses which ipso facto explains why wherever there was Christianity there too rose civilization.
In an effort to give some intellectual “credibility” to this very silly justification of American hegemony, D’Souza relies on Francis Fukuyama’s Hegelian-like end of history thesis. While Hegel’s philosophy of history was premised on a dialectical unfolding of “world spirit” which, he argued came to “rest” in the German constitutional state of 1828, it is a claim that admits teleological closure based on a metaphysic. In contrast, Fukuyama’s end of history is justified only by the “last man standing” post-Cold War reality. More importantly, as with any philosophy of history, the horizon of possibilities—future invention, creative progress, and freedom itself—is eclipsed in the name of the status quo. While Hegel’s philosophy of history denies freedom’s future possibilities in philosophical terms, the damage it could have inflicted as public or state ideology was constrained by Germany’s contestable military power. Whereas the German constitutional state of 1828 (and subsequent regimes) was militarily disposed, there were other nation-states who could and did contest any purported universality and future efforts to control the “world.” But in our context, Fukuyama and D’Souza are rationalizing an empire which really has no match, no genuine military competitor and one which possesses every ability to impose its will—nuclear or otherwise—on the entire planet. End-of-history premises like theirs in today’s context rationalize a whole host of chauvinist claims and iron-fisted forays abroad—and they threaten worse. Given this, D’Souza’s simple minded conclusions are really more dangerous than silly:
In Fukuyama’s view, history had ended, not in the sense that important things would cease to happen, but in the sense that the grand ideological conflicts of the past had been forever settled. Of course, the pace of liberalization would vary, but the outcome was inevitable. The destiny of Homo sapiens had been resolved. We are headed for what may be termed Planet America. (pp. 13-14)
Planet America? Lest we be put off by D’Souza’s suggestion a few paragraphs later that confidence in the Planet America thesis has been shaken recently by the realization that there are “people, especially in the Muslim world that apparently hate our guts and want to wipe us off the face us the earth” (p.14) he assures us by page 175 that Planet America remains uncontested:
Moreover, given the things that people want, it is entirely reasonable to assert that some cultures (say, capitalist cultures with a Protestant heritage) are superior to other cultures (say, African socialist regimes or Islamic theocracies) in achieving these shared common objectives.
D’Souza loads our choices here, his entire argument is loaded with
the pre-ordained conclusion that the world is unable to achieve higher
standards for human organization than those found in the American
state. That conclusion ultimately permits the current U.S. regime to
impose and defends its interests however and wherever it sees fit.
One Book for the Price of Two
D’Souza’s self-serving and cock-eyed attempts at constructing a new patriotism are only part of the problem with this text. After the first chapter, the book lapses into old and really stale material. There are the all-too-familiar and vitriolic attacks on “multiculturalism” throughout. It is as if D’Souza, having scored big with the P.C. assault in 1991, just can’t stop running the same play. This continued assault seems particularly gratuitous given the fact that the fictionalized multiculturalists he’s been shadow boxing for ten years now, haven’t even a shadow anymore. Since Reagan, the Right in America has been taking, holding and conquering new ground almost without pause. And it’s not like the Democrats’ move-to-the-right strategy hasn’t helped them. Hasn’t D’Souza noticed that all the actually-existing liberals are now, officially, demolished and in total disarray? Especially after the last two election rounds? As for the left, access to power has long been severed. Let’s be honest here: the Right has the Presidency, both chambers of Congress, the high and most lower Courts, and is dominating in the international arena. In this sense, D’Souza reminds me of Senator Joe McCarthy. And like McCarthyism, the attack on multiculturalism was never an attack on the enemies of democracy, but an attack on democratic dissent. In that sense, even after the dissident elements have been marginalized, the chill—or confusion—requires renewal. I suppose that giving up the fight against the imaginary mutliculturalists would mean giving up a whipping boy, and whipping boys are good insurance against the possibility of dissent in the future. The only other reasonable explanation is that D’Souza has no new cash-worthy ideas.
Once again, in What’s So Great we are subjected to a full round of multicultural bashing. Whereas D'Souza has always had a bad habit of beginning his arguments with false propositions—usually in the form of hyperbolic characterizations of American liberals and the left (and black Americans in general) this time the multiculturalist argument is so stretched and extreme that, hopefully, the excess itself will be enough to put this dead horse to rest. First, D’Souza repeats the same definition of multiculturalism which has been loaded from the start; he insists that the “multiculturalists” contend that “all cultures are equal” and therefore are guilty of cultural relativism. On both counts D’Souza has always been wrong. To the degree that “mutliculturalism” is an actual paradigm, the notion of respect for the genuine contributions of other cultures has never amounted to a claim of cultural relativism. Second, D’Souza yet again claims that this non-existent movement of “cultural relativists” is the intellectual paradigm of choice among American liberals and the left—who also happen to dominate college faculties and public education. The idea that cultural relativism is the dominant intellectual paradigm in post-secondary, humanities and social science curriculum or that it is dominant in American primary and secondary public education is utter nonsense. It is a charge he has never mustered any actual evidence to support and therefore requires no detailed refutation. It is he who owns the burden of proof. The purported damage being caused by this fictional movement is, therefore, even harder to take seriously.
Still, D’Souza has managed to outdo his own past definitions of multicultural crimes. In this book, what was first identified as a threat to the freedom of expression of conservative college students on American campuses in the 1980’s, turns out now to be a domestic threat to American security likened to the threat of the militant Islamacists of September11th. This smearing is accomplished by placing all critics of America in the same category. (The chapter in which most of the smearing occurs is titled “Why They Hate Us: America and its Enemies.”) This attempt to liken American intellectuals to Islamic terrorists is performed explicitly and by inference. For example, after quoting one critic of American military interventions abroad D’Souza quips: “Could bin Laden have put it better?”(p.26). More explicitly, D’Souza labels all critics of U.S. policy—whether reasoned or extreme—the “Blame America First” crowd:
But who are the American multiculturalists that he tars with the bin Laden perspective? Among the many he targets in these pages are Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, and “literary critic [sic] Cornell West”—all of whom are also charged with the high crime of “cultural relativism.” D’Souza’s effort here to tar some of America’s most well known left intellectuals with the terror of September 11th ranks among D’Souza lowest and most provocative slurs to date. To suggest affinities of any sort between these intellectuals and those who embraced the September 11th attacks on innocent U.S. civilians shows a total lack of scruples. And, as a matter of some significance, not one person on this list could ever conceivably be labeled a cultural relativist. D’Souza’s claim to the contrary is either simply idiotic or knowingly dishonest. This kind of unprincipled baiting might be tolerated in a college newspaper, like the Right-wing Dartmouth Review (where D’Souza picked up his political panache), but it is entirely beneath anyone with the title “scholar.”
And so goes the tone in the rest of What’s So Great. Old arguments and insults are dressed up for the post-September 11th climate. There is nothing new here except the opportunism D’Souza displays in hawking his old stuff in the midst of a crisis. To be fair, there is the new twist of taking up the “identity” of immigrant as credential to speak to the virtues of American life—a profound irony given his relentless denouncements of the politics of identity. But so much of the remaining chapters rehash D’Souza’s past three books: all the passages about the evils of multiculturalism (Illiberal Education), all the references in chapters three and six as to how techno-capitalism produces “mass affluence” (Virtues of Prosperity), and the tirades against black families, black intellectuals, black SAT takers, black activists in combination with the obligatory attacks on Left intellectuals and activists (Illiberal Education and The End of Racism) are all here and just as overwrought as they were the first, second and third time around.
Indeed, African-Americans, for whom D’Souza has always reserved his most puerile and vindictive rhetoric, receive the same shameful treatment here they did in D’Souza’s The End of Racism. There, he argued that given the state of black culture in America today, private individuals are rational to discriminate. The law should permit such discrimination—in order to accomplish that D’Souza calls for the repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Other examples of D’Souza’s race-baiting commentary include his response to the idea that lower-income African-Americans could benefit from federal jobs and recruitment in the private sector:
…it seems unrealistic, bordering on the surreal, to imagine underclass blacks with their gold chains, limping walk, obscene language and arsenal of weapons doing nine-to-five jobs at Procter and Gamble or the State Department.8
D’Souza’s commentary on African-Americans can be so inflammatory and derogatory that it led black conservative Glenn Loury to resign from the American Enterprise Institute where D’Souza was on staff at the time.9 But instead of an admonishment, D’Souza’s career took an upward turn when he was promoted to the far more prestigious Hoover Institution. Little wonder he repeats himself; it works.
The only remaining section of the book that actually seems “new” is D’Souza’s “reading” of Rousseau in chapter five titled “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness.” Though “new,” I must say I almost felt embarrassed for D’Souza after reading it. D’Souza somehow manages to blame (credit?) the 1960s rebellions on Rousseau. With Marx seemingly out of the picture, it is obviously difficult for the Right to find a major thinker to revile—let alone one that can be linked to the imaginary domestic assaults on Western civilization currently be waged by the “mutliculturalists.” But this is a stretch beyond stretches and one that D’Souza’s painfully amateurish “interpretation” of Rousseau (and total ignorance about the actual movements of the 1960s) makes even more ridiculous. Here Rousseau is turned into a navel-gazing, new age hippie, concerned not with virtue, law, community and limits but its opposite—atomistic, self-referential authenticity. Though he grounds this claim in a discussion of Rousseau’s Confessions, he does so in total disregard of those works which in fact were politically influential: The Discourses and, most importantly, The Social Contract. But even still, the idea that the mass movements for civil rights, peace and women’s rights were actually influenced by Rousseau and that this influence is evident in the decline in American culture of obedience to external moral authority is, to the say the very least, inventive. D’Souza is weakest when he tries to act like an intellectual; his efforts here demonstrate pointedly that he should really stick with the street-corner polemics he is so good at—or please go to graduate school.
What is even more annoying is that I had to read this stuff twice since this is one of those many verbatim sections that What’s So Great and Letters to A Young Conservative share in common. One of the more minor consequences of D’Souza own pilfering is that such moments make for a rather awkward transition between books.
Letters to a Young Conservative: Déjà Vu All Over Again
i am far more comfortable with D’Souza in his role as a seasoned polemicist and right-wing prankster giving advice to undergraduates (after all, this is at least a more honest description ) than in his grandiose role as scholar. At the same time, Letters to a Young Conservative reflects the same choplogic of a politico with little respect for the responsibilities of reasonableness that we find in his other work. The format for the book is a series of “personal” letters from D’Souza to a fictional but beleaguered campus conservative named “Chris”. It is a fairly self-congratulatory set-up in which D’Souza gets to talk a lot about himself, his family, his friends, his great pranks, his promotions, and his courageous choice to become a writer and not go to Wharton business school (most of which we also get to hear about in What’s So Great). But there is greater honesty and even less couching of his prejudices here than appears in his other titles. There are no scholarly pretensions—no footnotes, no studies cited, and no grand argument. One might even call it refreshing given the subterfuge of credibility D’Souza yearns for elsewhere. This is pure unadulterated polemics often delivered to the imaginary “Chris” in the form of “how to” advice. For example, D’Souza suggests that “Chris” develop a guerilla strategy just as he and pals did at Dartmouth in the 1980s:
Where to start? I don’t know. Conduct a survey to find out how many professors in the religion department believe in God. Distribute a pamphlet titled “Feminist Thought” that is made up of blank pages. Establish a Society for Creative Homophobia. Prepare a freshmen course guide that lists your college’s best, and worst professors. Publish Maya Angelou’s poems alongside a bunch of meaningless doggerel and see whether anyone can tell the difference. Put a picture of death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal on your website and instruct people who think he deserves capital punishment to click a button and execute him online. (p. 36)
This is the real D’Souza who reminds us less of the wide-eyed Jesuit-trained school boy who arrived in America in 1978, and more like a southern posse-leader on his way to a round-up. Perhaps D’Souza’s parents were right to have worried what America might do to their boy?
The book contains thirty-one letters whose titles include “Pig Wrestling at Dartmouth”, “Fighting Political Correctness”, “How Reagan Outsmarted the Liberals”, “How Affirmative Action Hurts Blacks”, “More Guns, Less Crime”, “How to Harpoon a Liberal”, “Against Gay Marriage” and “Why Liberals Hate America”. As you might guess, while more brash in tone, the fare is not new. It reads like a condensed version of D’Souza’s most provocative charges: why gay men shouldn’t marry? Because “marriage isn’t what civilizes men, women do.” On the quality of immigrants coming to America today? “Immigrants from Thailand are, in general, greater assets to America than immigrants from Tijuana.” On the self-esteem of black males? “..self-esteem in these students is generated by factors unrelated to studies, such as the ability to beat up other students or a high estimation of one’s sexual prowess.” On U.S. support for Somoza, Pinochet, Marcos and the Shah? “This support is fully justified when we consider the operating principle of American foreign policy…is the doctrine of the lesser evil.” Yes, Dinesh, that worked well with the Taliban, too.
The list goes on and the great temptation for critics is to try to refute his more outrageous and provocative comments; but in this book there are so many that one could spend many more pages than D’Souza has in fact written in an effort to set the record straight (after all, argument always takes longer than assertion). But I am not interested in debating D’Souza in an effort to show why he is manipulative and racist in his handling of the data on SAT outcomes by race, ethnicity and class; or how his reading of the Three-fifth’s Compromise (and much of what he says about the American founding is not only factually incorrect but excruciatingly twisted so as to justify the unjustifiable—slavery; or why his refusal to acknowledge corporate responsibility for widespread environmental damage is a cruel gift to his seven year old daughter; or why he should be embarrassed to put into print statements like “ordinary people from Asia, Africa and Latin America are conspicuously absent from demonstrations against globalization.” It is an endless and largely futile thing to argue with unreasonableness. Beyond unreasonable, D’Souza is a huckster. He is literally pedaling the same mean-spirited and academically-vacuous material for profit. over and over again. Just to give you an idea of the repetition and insulting arguments he traffics in, I present just two passages: the first from Letters to a Young Conservative (LYC) and the second from What’s So Great About America (WSG). The topic here is the Three-fifths Compromise. If you are interested in a few more choice examples of D’Souza’s self-plagiarism, please see the appendix. But for now, behold and wonder:
(from LYC, p. 146)
—on the question of whether the Constitution of 1789 was racist:
But the charge is totally false. The notorious three-fifths clause of the Constitution makes no denial of the equal worth of African-American. Indeed, it has nothing to say about the intrinsic worth of any group. The clause arose in the context of a debate between the northern states and the southern states over the issue of political representation.
The pro-slavery South wanted to count blacks as whole persons to increase its political power. The North wanted blacks to count as nothing, not for purposes of rejecting their humanity but to preserve and strengthen the anti-slavery majority in Congress. It was a northerner, James Wilson of Pennsylvania who proposed the three-fifths compromise.
The effect of the compromise was to limit the South’s political representation and thus its ability to protect slavery. Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, understood this. He praised the Three-fifths clause as a “down right disability laid upon the slave holding states” that deprived them of “ two-fifths of their natural basis of representation.” So the notion that the three-fifths clause demonstrates the racism of the American Constitution is both wrong and unfair.
(from WSG, pp. 109-110)
Are the founders guilty as alleged? Let us consider the evidence fairly beginning with the notorious Three-fifths clause to which [John Hope] Franklin alludes. To the modern mind, this is one of the most troubling pieces of evidence against the founders. And yet it should not be, because the clause itself has nothing to say about the intrinsic worth of blacks.
The origins of the clause are to be found in the debate between the northern states and the southern states over the issue of political representation. The South wanted to count blacks as a whole person, in order to increase their political power. The North wanted blacks to count for nothing—not for the purpose of rejecting their humanity but in order to preserve and strengthen the anti-slavery majority in Congress. It was not a pro-slavery southerner, but an anti-slavery northerner James Wilson of Pennsylvania who proposed the three-fifths compromise. The effect was to limit the South’s political representation and its ability to protect the institution of slavery Frederick Douglass understood this: he called the three-fifths “a downright disability laid upon the slave-holding states” which deprived them of “two-fifths of their natural basis of representation.” So a provision in the Constitution that was antislavery and pro-black in intent as well as effect is today cited to prove that the American founders championed the cause of racist oppression.
conclude, D’Souza’s latest two titles testify to his salesmanship, not
scholarship. His ability to produce at the rate he has is a result of
his knack for selling the same couple of manuscripts over and over
again, in varying combinations. And the products he hawks have been
successful in America not because America is a meritocratic nation, but
because D’Souza has been anointed an intellectual by a commercial
culture interested only is what sells. D’Souza’s media success is
related to his shock-value which now dominates the pop-culture
industries’ sensibilities. D’Souza’s mean-spiritedness and chauvinism
happen to now enjoy a political context backed by a party-of-the-same
which controls all levers of institutional power. If D’Souza’s
caricature of the “U.S. as moral and cultural superior” was hard to
square before, his own slacking in these two books further discredits
the claim. One can only wonder why the Hoover Institution keeps him on.
Besides their obvious deficiencies as credible arguments, each of the passages excerpted below also serve to demonstrate D’Souza’s re-sale of a previous product. Following each passage, you will discover the related passage as it appeared in What’s So Great (WSG). Each will give you a taste of D’Souza’s standards for scholarship; my intention here being only to let D’Souza’s work speak for itself.
Then something happened that pushed women into the male sphere and career women aspired to compete effective with men for the most lucrative rewards of the male sphere. According to feminists, the large-scale movement of women into the workforce was the consequence of the great about this: only a few decades ago, housework was a full time occupation—cooking and cleaning took up virtually the whole day. The vacuum cleaner and other domestic appliances changed all that. Until recently, work outside the home was harsh and physically demanding. Forklifts and other machines have reduced the need for human muscle. Finally, before the invention of the pill, women could not effectively control their reproduction, and therefore, for most women, the question of having a full-time career simply did not arise.feminist revolution that stormed the barricades of the patriarchy and won a glorious victory, although the battle is ongoing. This is a lovely fairy tale, but when exactly did the battle occur?…
Let us put this buncombe aside and talk a little sense. Technology not feminism paved the way for mass female entry into the workforce. The vacuum cleaner, the forklift and the birth-control pill had far more to do with this than all the writings of Betty Friedan and all the press releases put out by the National Organization for Women. Think about this: until a few decades ago housework was a full time occupation. Cooking alone took several hours. The vacuum, the microwave over and the dishwasher changed that. Until recently work outside the home was harsh and physically demanding. Forklifts and other machines have reduced the need for human muscle. Finally, before the invention of the pill, women could not effectively control their reproduction and therefore, for most women, the question of not having a full-time career simply did not arise.
(from WSG, p. 138)
Technology has also helped to change women’s roles and thus destabilize traditional “family values”. Here the great catalyst of social transformation was the mass movement of women into the workplace. Feminists fought for women’s right to have careers, but their success was made possible by the pill, the vacuum cleaner, and the forklift. Think about this: only a few decades ago, housework was a full time occupation—cooking and cleaning took up virtually the whole day. The vacuum cleaner and other domestic appliances changed all that. Until recently, work outside the home was harsh and physically demanding. Forklifts and other machines have reduced the need for human muscle. Finally, before the invention of the pill, women could not effectively control their reproduction, and therefore, for most women, the question of having a full-time career simply did not arise.
The second liberal revolution in occurred in the 1960’s. Its watchword was liberation and its greatest prophet was Jean Jacques Rousseau. Before the 1960’s most Americans believed in a universal moral order that is external to us, that makes demands on us. Our obligation was to conform to that moral order. Earlier generations right up to the: greatest generation” of World War II took for granted this moral order and its commandments: work had and try to better yourself, be faithful to your spouse, go when your country calls and so on.
But beginning in the sixties, several factions—the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, and the gay activist movement, and so on—attacked that moral consensus as narrow and oppressive. They fought for a new ethic that would be based not on external authority but on sovereignty of the inner self. This is the novel idea that received its most powerful expression in Rousseau’s writing. To the American list of freedoms, Rousseau added a new one: inner freedom or moral freedom. Rousseau agues that we make major decisions by digging deep within ourselves and listening to the voice of nature. This is the idea of being “true to yourself.” It is the new liberal morality.
(from WSG, PP 140 & 145)
The 1960’s & 1970’s witnessed a moral revolution in the United States in which the idea of freedom was extended beyond anything the American founders envisioned. The change can be described in this way. The American founders set up a regime dedicated to three types of freedom—economic freedom, political freedom and freedom of speech and religion—so that people could pursue happiness, or what we call the American dream.
But this notion of freedom was radicalized in the 1960’s. The change was brought about by the “counter-culture”, the melange of anti-war activists, feminists, sexual revolutionaries, freedom riders, hippies, druggies, nudists and vegetarians. Rebels they all were and bohemians of one sort or another. The great thinker who stood behind them, the philosopher of bohemia was Rousseau…The counter-culture did not reject morality; it was passionately concerned with morality. But it substituted Rousseau’s conception of the inner compass for the old rules of obligation. Getting in touch with one’s own feelings and being true to oneself were now more important than conforming to the preexisting moral consensus of society.
1 D’Souza “political” career began under the tutelage of English professor Jeffrey Hart of Dartmouth College who happened to be a senior editor at the National Review. It was Hart’s contacts, which landed D’Souza a post at the Review following his graduation. After a short stint there, D’Souza went into the Reagan White House for two years, then onto the American Enterprise Institute from 1989 until his recent post in 2001 at Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
2 Of course, something like a re-hash can be tolerated under academic standards. Frequently the seminar paper turns into a dissertation chapter, and then is re-framed again as a journal article, which might yet again appear in a final version as a chapter in a full-length manuscript. But when published material is republished verbatim, standards require a note of previous publication.
3 Liz McGuire and D’Souza publicist at Basic, Johanna Pinsker declined comment when contacted except only to indicate they were not aware of previously published material in the text.
4 D’Souza makes the broad claim: that “[t]he American system is founded on property rights and trade, and The Federalist tells us that the protection of the unequal faculties of obtaining property is ‘the first object of government’.” (p. 90)
5 For Golub’s complete analysis see “From Neo-Wilsonian to Militarism: Shifting Patterns of U.S. Governance” Cited here from unpublished English translation. Publication in French forthcoming in Global Dialogue, (Paris) March 2003.
6 For a concise and clear discussion of the conservative tradition and its challenges in the American context see Stephen Eric Bronner’s “The Conservative Disposition: Custom, Stability, Markets” in Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).
7 For a more detailed discussion on this embarrassing reading of Rousseau, see the section below, “Two Books for the Price of One.”
8 Quoted in Michael Berube, “Extreme Prejudice”, Transition, v.0, Issue 69, 1996, (p.93).
9In particular, Loury condemned the phrasing D’Souza chose to dramatize white reaction to black’s IQ scores: “We can almost hear the roar of white supremacists. Forget about racism and discrimination. These people are naturally stupid.” (PBS Transcript , THINK TANK)
The author would like to thank Research Assistant Lisa Mycyk for her
considerable help. Thanks also to Frances Fox Piven and Stephen Eric
Bronner for their comments.