Monday, April 10, 2006

Denish D'Souza: "What's So Great About America"

Denish D'Souza: What's So Great About America"
Washington: Regnery, 2002 ISBN 0-89526-153-7 hardbound, 218 pages incl. index


Well, this is a good one for a book report in, say, a civics class.

Dinesh D’Souza is a former White House domestic policy analyst and currently the Rishwain Research Scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Mr. D’Souza immigrated to the United States from India and some of his book gains credibility by his own account of the improvement of his life by immigrating.

I would summarize his argument as a kind of moral and political history of individual freedom. He is particularly concerned about how our culture reconciles or “authenticates” freedom with virtue and with the apparent criticism from other cultures that individualism and freedom imply a breakdown of moral order. He believes that western civilization and particularly America, with democratic liberal capitalism, has indeed moved in the direction of this authentication, despite all of the criticisms.

Since the 9-11 tragedy, discussion of freedom has centered often upon balancing it with the need for security. But D’Souza is more concerned with clarifying the principles of freedom and seeing how they play across the record of history. But a major part of the discussion concerns the challenge from radical Islam.

Commentators give different accounts on whether Islamic theology implies violence against the West. A more optimistic assessment can be found in books like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam, by Vahiya Emerick, or Islam and the Discovery of Freedom by Rosw Wilder Lane and Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. The Qur’an and other scriptures might lead to multiple interpretations just as does the Bible. Historians often speak of Islamic societies a millennium or so ago that lived in peace with Jews and Christians, as in Spain. And much of the hatred of some of Islam against the west can be attributed to very wrong things done to the Palestinians when Israel was recreated, as well as American and western support for corrupt regimes. Nevertheless, Islam seems to be conspicuously concerned with not just ritual observance but with the idea that religion should answer all questions for the individual, whereas Christianity (with Judaism) has over the centuries become more sophisticated in the way it deals with the rights of the individual to make his or her own choices.

Militant Islam apparently derives some intellectual rationalization in the writings of scribes like Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, who maintains that external virtue, through strict observance of religious order, is the only object of governance, and that democracy therefore contradicts the idea of virtue. Indeed, European history traces the gradual discrediting of the idea that some people are divinely entitled to be superior to others and to rule others. Militant Islam (as a part of Islam), at least, maintains that superiority and even patriarchy are ordained by Allah. So American public culture, through movies, the Internet (including this web site) remain an infectious threat (literally to its idea of male potency) even if Israel disappears and American presence in places like Saudi Arabia goes away. Militant Islam, which certainly has the loyalty of younger males in a large part of the Islamic world, holds that Islam must either conquer all and bring it under its pre-ordained order, or else the Islamic world must become like another planet, separated from the West by parsecs. Perhaps it could take over Titan or Europa.

By contrast with Islam, there are many historical reasons for the gradual growth of individualism in the West. The complexity of European political history, in conjunction with the growth of science and technology after the Renaissance, gradually led to an increase in notions of individual freedom, not only among the colonist in the New World but in other places like France during its revolution (and the Netherlands with the worlds first stock market). The printing press would make possible the private practice of religion and prayer with a hardcopy of the Bible, with private thought and without the requirement of public celebration requiring approval of priests. It would be Rousseau (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality), as D’Souza points out, who would be particularly articulate with the notion that “each of us has an original way of being human.” Western civilization was generally and continuously open to the idea that things can get better, even for the “average person.” It is this openness to change, especially through science as well as the growth of intellectual culture (especially music, from the Baroque and classical eras through Romanticism) that makes it possible to talk about freedoms in societies that still show a lot of residual oppression.

How can you say this, the left maintains, when it argues that modern capitalists are tainted by their parasitic behaviors. Workers are enslaved and exploited, the races remain segregated even after slavery formally ends. But freedom and democracy are a growth and changing process. Democracy, in the early days of a constitutional republic, was indeed challenged by the paradox of slavery. It required consensus even as it had to respect the rights of every individual. Therefore awkward, if temporary, compromises had to be accepted, like counting 3/5 of the slaves for representation, and banning slave trade after 1808.

D’Souza points out that disadvantaged peoples were generally better off in America than their ancestors or relatives in third world countries. A Ted Koppel Nightline broadcast where a mother in the Congo earns 9 cents a day by working as a porter—enough to feed her children piga’ feet or snails—comes to mind. Milton Friedman has often made similar comments about how the process of free enterprise can gradually increase living standards anywhere, even if individuals make “sacrifices” along the way. So freedom at any point in time contains a large prospective element—a belief that with further learning and openness to new ideas and opportunities, things can get better for anyone. This is not true in closed societies like those of the Taliban.

As a gay man, I still perceived myself as “free” even in the worst days after my William and Mary expulsion and reparative therapy at N.I.H. about the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It seems like an irony now that it was probably the combination of the Civil Rights movement, Cold War brain race, Vietnam, and the military draft in my adolescent and early adult years that brought young men together in a changing social environment and made the idea of gay liberation possible – ironic inasmuch as I would be drawn into the fight to lift the military ban in 1993. But even in my own life, freedom was an evolution, first into privacy and fantasy and then self-expression and only now do the costs and obligations of freedom come back into focus.

When I wrote Do Ask Do Tell in 1997 and introduced my last chapter early on with the question, “Is it safe?” I was concerned with threats to freedom, all right. I had proposed a paradigm where individualism is “authenticated” when every person can account for his own acts. But freedom for our culture as a whole had global, collective threats. Even then I saw epidemics, global warming, asteroids, and maybe even extraterrestrials (don’t expect them to be as “gentle” as gifted teenager Clark Kent—Pie ‘O’ Pah is more typical) as conceivable threats. More seriously, and closer to terra, I suspected military threats from Iraq or Iran, North Korea, China, and a collapse of Russia back towards communism or super-nationalism. I knew about Osama bin Laden but saw him as only one of many threats, and a minor one in the scheme of things, and I was wrong there. But I was concerned about how one rebuilds a set of principles and firewalls to contain individual freedoms in view of the inevitable threats – moral and external – that would some day come.

It’s here that D’Souza’s term “authentication”—something that sounds like a step in a computer security protocol for single sign-on—comes into play. One is authentic as an individual if his or her self-expression is valid and rewards (whether monetary of psychic, as with public or local recognition from others) therefrom deserved. We can speak of “karma” here. But one’s just desserts will invariably call for readiness to care for others besides oneself, and that’s where issues like national, community or military service as well as family values come into play. There is a call not just to “pay one’s dues” but sometimes to suspend one’s own motives and opportunities to defend the freedoms of others, and that is where morality itself becomes open-ended. We come to make fine distinctions between concepts like honor and integrity. One can be honest or courageous, but for the wrong, self-serving motives. Integrity requires fidelity to one’s obligations to others, from which honesty can provide a convenient escape. But integrity requires the individual to discover truth and right, including interpretation of these obligations, for himself and act on it. When may we have to accept situational ethics?

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