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Louis Untermeyer

What's So Great About America

By Dinesh D'Souza
Regnery Publishing, 218 pp, 2002

Dinesh D'Souza has written a powerful and well-reasoned defense of America and Western civilization. He takes on objections and criticisms from all ideological corners, such as liberals, conservatives, and Muslim fanatics, and answers them all.  If you're wondering why America is great and why so many people want to live here, read this book. 

In the introduction, D'Souza compares the American situation - facing an implacable foe in a war against terrorism - with Athens facing the Spartans. He quotes a funeral oration by Pericles. The parallels are striking. Some examples from Pericles' speech:

  • In describing Athens: "Our system of government does not copy the institutions of its neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone." Sounds like America. 
  • Pericles brags about Athens' freedom and openness: "The greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products." Buy a Sony TV lately?
  • Pericles makes this request: "What I would ask is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her." Everyone knows America isn't perfect, but most Americans love her anyway.

D'Souza then asks that popular question: Why do they hate us? He lists three schools of foreign criticism of America: 

  • The European, or French, school fears that American culture will obliterate local culture and languages. Too many McDonalds and no more French cuisine.
  • The Asian school approves of American-style commerce and capitalism but not social and cultural problems. The Asian school seeks America's material benefits while maintaining social order.
  • The radical Islamic school hates our support for Israel and undemocratic regimes in the Middle East. It rejects all modernization as American and therefore bad. America is a subversive idea that undermines cherished traditional and cultural morals. It destroys society and replaces it with a worse one.

D'Souza concedes the radical Muslims have a point:

What stands out about the Islamic critique is its refreshing clarity. The Islamic thinkers cannot be counted in the ranks of the politically correct. Painful though it is to admit, they aren't entirely wrong about America either. They say that many Americans see them as a bunch of uncivilized towel heads, and this is probably true. They charge that America is a society obsessed with material gain, and who will deny this? They condemn the West as an atheistic civilization, and while they may be wrong about the extent of religious belief and practice, they are right that in the West religion has little sway over the public arena, and the West seems to have generated more unbelief than any other civilization in world history. They are disgusted by our culture, and we have to acknowledge that there is a good deal in American culture that is disgusting to normal sensibilities. They say our women are "loose," and in a sense they are right. Even their epithet for the United States, the Great Satan, is appropriate when we reflect that Satan is not a conqueror - he is a tempter. The Islamic militants fear that the idea of America is taking over their young people, breaking down allegiances to parents and religion and traditional community; this concern on their part is also justified.

According to Sayyid Qutb, a radical Muslim who founded the terrorist group Muslim Brotherhood, America and the West have "separated the realm of God from the realm of society." Religion plays no role in public affairs. To Qutb, Islam demands that Allah is the ultimate ruler. Allah and the state are one. America and Islam are therefore incompatible and a threat to each other, and cannot coexist. Qutb's solution: kill the infidels.

Now, this is the terrorist Muslim talking, not the far more numerous and reasonable traditional Muslim. But it's interesting how various American critics agree with segments of this argument. For example, conservatives criticize America for its crime, abortion, illegitimacy and pornography. The left says America is sexist, racist, homophobic, and oppresses people all over the world. Both groups concede Muslim wacko claims about America, and raise this question: Is America worth fighting for? If so, what makes America worth fighting for? In essence, what's so great about America?

Before answering, D'Souza, who was born in India, offers two cheers for colonialism, which is cursed by multiculturalists for most if not all the evils in the world today. American students are taught multiculturalism, which asserts that all cultures are equal and good, and are not taught the truth, which is that Western civilization rules the world, and most cultures want, at the very least, the material advances and freedom offered by the West. D'Souza cites a funny example by going back to the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. To win over the locals, both fighters researched their African heritages. When the plane landed, Ali and Foreman disembarked wearing what they believed were traditional and contemporary Africa outfits - the headdresses and robes and so forth. I'm sure that puzzled and amused the Africans who met them, who were dressed in suits, in the garb of Western civilization. 

But why is Western civilization dominant? There are two theories and both appeal to America's critics.

The environmental theory says the West is blessed with natural resources and good weather, but that doesn't explain anything, because the West has always had those but has not always been dominant. 

The second theory is oppression, because Western civilization is evil and "grew rich and powerful by beating up on everybody else and taking their stuff."

The West thinks they're best! cry the critics. Well, yes. Ethnocentrism may be a sin but everybody's doing it. All civilizations have practiced it by thinking they're the best. But only the West has transcended it by examining and learning from other cultures. The ancient and advanced Islam and Chinese civilizations had little desire to learn from others because they felt the others had nothing to offer.

But the West practiced colonialism and slavery! But colonialism and slavery also are not unique to the West - both have existed and flourished everywhere. England was the eighth or ninth colonial power to rule India, for example. What is unique to the West is abolition. African chiefs who profited from the slave trade sent delegations to the West opposing abolition! Slaves were in no position to free themselves - they had to rely on white strangers willing to die so black strangers could be free.

Colonialism was oppressive to those who lived under it, but beneficial to later generations. India learned about freedom, democracy, rule of law, self-government, from their oppressors, giving them the tools to fight for their own freedom. In other words, "the colonialists brought things to India that have immeasurably enriched the lives of the descendants of colonialism. Colonialism was the transmission belt that brought to India the blessings of Western civilization." 

D'Souza asks why the West has become so rich and powerful. Not because it stole anything - there wasn't enough to steal. It's because the West created three vital institutions: science, democracy, and capitalism. Western colonialism and imperialism were not the cause of the West's fortune, but the result of it.

If America and Western civilization are so controversial and unpopular, why does everyone want to liver here? One reason: people know they can have a better life in America. Money is not the end in itself, but the means to achieve a better life.

Another reason: life in the Third World is largely constrained and predetermined. Life choices are available within a strict parameter established by parents and community. Not in America. 

D'Souza also argues against reparations for slavery, and indeed turns the question around by asking what blacks owe whites for ending slavery. The American founders were not hypocrites, as many critics charge. For example, the American Constitution's notorious three-fifths clause was anti-slavery and pro-black in intent and effect by limiting slave states' representation in Congress. 

The American founders faced a dilemma: If they abolished slavery without the consent of the governed, they'd commit a gross violation of representative democracy. So they "found a middle ground, not between principle and practice, but between opposition to slavery and majority consent. They produced a Constitution in which the concept of slavery is tolerated in deference to consent, but not given any moral approval in recognition of the slave's natural rights. Nowhere in the document is the term "slavery" used. Slaves are always described as "persons," implying their possession of natural rights. The founders were also careful to approve a Constitution that refuses to acknowledge the existence of racial distinctions, thus producing a document that transcended its time." 

D'Souza maintains that racial preferences and affirmative action disguise the fact that merit is responsible for racial imbalance in many areas of life. He believes the merit gap is caused by cultural and behavioral differences among the races. The civil rights movement should embrace the Booker T. Washington school of thought and concentrate on black self-improvement and responsibility rather than political gains.

Finally, D'Souza answers those critics who charge that American culture is rife with trash. Choice and moral relativism are the supreme values, regardless of the quality of the choices. Morality is undermined and society becomes "debauched, demoralized, and unhappy." What's so great about that?

Technological advances and capitalism have brought about moral change in America, supposedly for the better. That and the 1960s brought about a new new morality of authenticity, which is based on a benign reading of Rousseau. This new system leaves people free to pursue their own dreams and their own virtue.

So, what did I think of this book? Overall, I liked it. I appreciated his defense of America's founders, who I think were the greatest Americans ever. I wasn't totally sold on his morality of authenticity, because I believe there is still a moral code that transcends human behavior. It tells us when we do wrong. Most of us pay attention and follow it - some do not. Those who do not produce the moral decay that disgusts so many Americans and non-Americans.

Overall, this is a well-reasoned, refreshing, and much-needed defense of America. 

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