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Sweet Land of Libertarians: A Conservative Critique of Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About America By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, June 07, 2002

AT A TIME when America is under a physical and ideological assault not seen since the days of nuclear-armed Marxism, it may seem a little churlish to quibble with a book that offers a bold and systematic vindication of our nation and our way of life. There is plenty to admire in this book, but at some point, America is going to have to get clear on one thing: conservatism and libertarianism are not the same. D’Souza styles his defense, and himself, as conservative. With all due respect to a man who has helped our cause immensely, this book is libertarian, and we are entitled to take it as a confession that this is what he himself is. As such, it contains elements of truth combined with dollops of seductive sophistry, precisely insofar as freedom is a, but not the, good.

The core libertarian defense of America, which D’Souza reiterates, is that America is good because it is that nation, par excellence, in which liberty flourishes. The first problem with this is that it is preposterously arrogant, in this day and age, to assert that America is the only country that enjoys personal liberty and social mobility. D’Souza seems to take his poor and caste-ridden native India as the paradigm for the entire non-American world. His understanding of European society seems to be frozen in a pre-WWII Masterpiece Theatre time warp. I lived in Britain for several years, and I can guarantee from personal experience that the British have almost as much freedom as Americans. So do a lot of countries these days. Liberal democratic capitalism is no longer an American monopoly. I’m very sorry if this offends anyone, but it is preposterous to say that, as D’Souza puts it, "the American idea is unique." We live in an era in which it is getting less unique every day. Indeed, the very notion of "the American idea" being unique is contradictory, since the propositions that D’Souza believes make up this idea are by their nature universalist. Claiming that the American idea is unique is a back-step necessitated by the fact that if America is an idea, and that idea is not American but universal, there is no fundamental reason that love of that idea should result in love for America. People like D’Souza obviously uncomfortably realize this on some level, so they have to claim that the American idea is unique. But one can’t have it both ways. And as for the notion that America is fundamentally an idea, please see my earlier article on the subject.

It is historically true that the idea of liberal democratic capitalism has subverted and in the end destroyed alternative forms of social organization, be they feudalism, aristocracy, monarchy, authoritarianism, fascism, or communism. It is also true that America has historically been the principal agent, rivaled in this respect only by Great Britain, of this subversion. But it is also true that this subversion is a purely negative project, made necessary only by the various tyrannies it fights, and cannot be understood as an end in itself. It has a natural terminating point in the moment at which liberal democratic capitalism is achieved. It is mischievous to take so much pleasure in the sound of crashing idols that one seeks to make subversion a perpetual agenda. What is most disturbing in D’Souza’s book to any reader of authentically conservative temperament is the glee with which he relates the idea that America is a "subversive" nation. He means this not in the familiar sense that conservatism subverts the ruling liberal orthodoxy, but rather in the sense that America subverts the traditional understanding of life and society held by practically the entire world. He thinks this is wonderful. There are two problems with this: the subversive forces are not essentially American, and subversion as such is not something to celebrate.

The subversive forces that D’Souza describes as in their essence American are in fact the universal subversive forces of modernity. They only look American because America is what Gertrude Stein called "the oldest modern country." Here we come to the crux of the disagreement between conservatism and libertarianism or liberalism, which converge on this point. Conservatives believe that the forces of modernity are by nature so powerful that they do not need anyone’s proactive efforts to egg them on. Rather, they need conservative forces to restrain them from destroying things that are essential to a civilized society. Conversely, liberals and libertarians believe that modernity needs a push from the proactive efforts of human beings to overcome the ossified structures of the past that hold it back from reaching its true potential. I incline to the former view, for a complex of reasons I cannot elaborate here which are ultimately Straussian (article) in nature. Modernity contains a philosophical crisis that requires our active effort not to be consumed by it. America is fundamentally a liberal society and needs a conservative government to balance it, not a liberal government egging it on.

Disturbingly, D’Souza’s conception of America is philosophically identical with al-Qaeda’s: the subversive forces of our time are American in essence. But if America is bent on subverting the entire world, its way of life, and its understanding of what it is to be human, is it not logical for foreigners to hate us? How would we respond to someone dedicated to subverting our way of life and understanding of our humanity? This supposition is clearly already the cause of a great deal of anti-Americanism. Almost every nation has complaints about modernity, and they choose to personify these complaints in America because it is easier and more emotionally satisfying to hate a nation than an abstraction. Forced to abandon socialism? American economic power is to blame. Cultural decadence spreading? American movies and music. Not able to throw one’s weight around? American military power. Old religion feeling the strains? American – Zionist conspiracy. Naturally, this equation of America with half the world’s discontents is something that Americans should be fighting with every intellectual resource at our command, not endorsing. We need to be explaining to the world that their problems are not our fault, not gloating at how we are "subverting" them.

D’Souza writes insouciantly, "American hegemony is unique in that it extends virtually over the total space of the inhabited earth." For a start, this is a prima facie falsehood that would result in laughter in any International Relations 101 class. I think D’Souza has forgotten what hegemony is; it is not the ability to purchase CD’s of Titanic. The United States does not have the unimpeded ability to impose its will on Russia, on China, on North Korea, on Pakistan, or on the Middle East, to name just a few examples that have caused us concern in the last ten years. D’Souza hedges his point by switching his line of argument in the next sentence from hegemony to cultural influence, but this only makes his error clearer: the Greeks had cultural influence over the Romans, but Rome ruled Greece and not vice-versa. This kind of fuzzy thinking could kill us. It is getting distressingly common, particularly among the sort of (pre-9/11) Wired magazine libertarians who think that if only enough people sell enough microchips to each other, the world’s political problems will melt away.

Next, D’Souza reveals an appallingly distorted idea of the nature of American cultural influence. He says, describing a villager somewhere in the Third World who wears a baseball cap and imitates the walk of an American pop-culture figure, that this person obviously "wants to be an American." Now I can remember, when I lived in London, seeing my neighbors kids imitate American pop stars, and I can remember knowing them well enough to know that none of them, however well-disposed they may have been towards America, actually wanted to become Americans. They would have told me so. They imitated American pop stars just like they imitated British pop stars: because they liked the music and the personalities. That’s it. Furthermore, they were bright enough to know that some of the pop stars they imitated, like Michael Jackson, were weird birds and that however much they admired his dance moves, they didn’t want to become him, let alone assume his nationality, which was one of his least interesting characteristics anyway. I can’t speak by experience about D’Souza’s Third World examples, but he offers no evidence they are any different.

And let’s think about those British pop stars for a moment: rock ‘n roll may have come from America, but the British, after taking it in, turned it into something of their own that cannot be simply described as an imitation of America. In some ways, it may sometimes even be better: that’s why we listen to the Beatles. American cultural influence, while profound, is not a one-way process of Americanization. Other cultures react to it, but in their own ways, not in ours. One could say the same thing of Indian Cinema or a dozen other things: even the most cursory acquaintance with Bollywood reveals that it is distinctively Indian to the point of being bizarre to a Westerner. Or look at the indigenous varieties of fast food available in China. One can think of the cultures of the world as particles in an electric field: they all respond to the field, but move in different directions according to their own charge, mass, and velocity.

A lot of what is mistaken for Americanization around the world is just modernization, and a lot of it just has to do with technique. Invent the movie camera, and you get cinema around the world, complete with the kind of stories that appeal to a mass, not elite, audience. You will have broad themes, easy-to-understand plots, and little of the subtlety that animated the old culture aimed at a small, educated elite. Same with TV. Once you have TV, you will end up using it in a limited number of ways, because these are the ways that work. America may have produced the first game shows, but it is inevitable that people will think them up all over the world. Invent cheap transistor radios, and you get music catering to children: simple, loud, and erotic, like rock ‘n roll. Urbanize the world and thereby make it fast-paced, and people will want fast food. Most of these things are American firsts, but they are not of their essence American. If modernity had come upon the world without there being an America, they would have eventually been discovered by someone else. They would continue to spread if America vanished from the face of the earth.

It is in fact true, and inevitable, that the American-ness of these innovations is currently in decline, as foreigners master the art of producing these things for themselves and stop having to import them from us. On a relative basis, for example, the ability to sell American TV shows abroad, for example, has declined dramatically in the last 10 years. We have probably just passed the high-point of American pop-cultural influence. And what influence we retain, derives from simple merit, not American-ness. Whatever one may think of them as culture, the Disney cartoons D’Souza mentions are clearly the best pieces of entertainment of their kind. There is no superior product from Japan, or Zimbabwe, or Belgium. If there ever was, (anime, anyone?) it would become internationally popular and the American-ness of the Disney product would not save it. Therefore being American is not the essential issue. Because we are rich, free, and discovered modern media first, America is unusually gifted in performers and cultural technicians who can produce salable product. But you could say the same of our computer chips, and no one considers those harbingers of Americanization in the lands to which they are exported, or signs that their purchasers want to become Americans. Is driving a Toyota a sign that the owner wishes to become Japanese? Is owning a Persian carpet a sign that he wishes to become Iranian?

Finally I can’t help but point out that thinking that foreigners want to become Americans is just incredibly arrogant on our part, and is precisely the thing that makes people turn anti-American. We are a big enough target for the world’s heavily-armed losers as it is, without pinning a "kick-me" sign on our back.

D’Souza writes that "The ideologues that proclaim the equality of all cultures simply cannot account for why so many people around the world seem perfectly willing to dump their ancient cultures and adopt new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that they associate with America." Multiculturalism is indeed absurd, but the first problem with this is that, as I argued above, the fact that these things are associated with America is incidental. Furthermore, D’Souza preposterously exaggerates the degree to which ancient cultures are being dumped. India has movies and computers now, but it remains Hindu, and has in fact been getting noisier about this fact in recent years. Likewise with the problem child of world religions: it is precisely because Moslems are not dumping their ancient culture that they are a problem. D’Souza is right in the case of some extremely primitive peoples that he examples, but these are atypical examples unconnected with the major issues of our time.

In describing what is so great about America, D’Souza makes a disturbing but highly revealing choice: he takes New York City as his example. This city is my home and I am devoted to it, but no one with any sense would ever pretend for a second that it represents conservative values. One can see quite easily how it would represent libertarian values, however. If New York is what you want America to look like, embrace these values. D’Souza’s rosy view of immigration derives, I think, from his tendency to take his own immigrant family as the paradigm case. But most immigrants to the United States are not highly educated and, by the sound of it, socially conservative Brahmins. (I pressed him on this point when I had dinner with him a few years ago, but he was politely evasive.) I also detect a slightly narcissistic strain in his thinking: the idea that what is essentially American is the fact that people like him can exist here. This is close to the idea that the purpose of America is to be a candy store for him and people like him, though he is of course not the only person who thinks this.

Which brings us to D’Souza’s discussion of bohemianism. He notes, in accord with what David Brooks and others have been saying, that America as a whole has become bohemianized. He argues that this is the logical consequence of taking freedom seriously. Against those who have identified mass bohemianism as just an attempt to make drug use, promiscuity, irresponsibility and paganism stylish, he asks,

"How can a political strategy that defines itself against America’s core value of freedom possibly succeed? Cultural conservatives must recognize that the new morality is now entrenched and pervasive, so that there is no way to go back to the shared moral hierarchy of the past, however fondly that era may live on in their memories."

Let us ignore for a moment the fact that the seeming impossibility of a moral reform is no argument against its desirability. Let us also ignore the fact that many seemingly impossible things, like the end of communism or a Republican House of Representatives, have happened lately. This is a clear confession of principles: freedom is the only value worth bothering about, it is what America is about, and we don’t have a choice, anyway. The "shared moral hierarchy of the past" is worth nothing, or at least not enough to be worth fighting for, and desire for it is only nostalgia, anyway. If this isn’t libertarianism, I don’t know what is. Conservatives can accept some bohemianism, but only for the few to whom it is appropriate, not for the masses, and as Allan Bloom wrote, it must justify itself with intellectual or artistic achievement. Anything else is just mass non-conformism, as self-contradictory as it is self-indulgent.

The answer to D’Souza’s rhetorical question, by the way, is by appealing to American values other than freedom. Freedom is, as libertarians hate to hear, only one of our key values. Another is family: anyone who has had kids knows that having a family means giving up an awful lot of freedom for 18 years. So is religion: the Ten Commandments are mainly in the form "thou shalt not." So is honor: to choose a military life means to take orders and possibly sacrifice the self entirely. So is excellence: to choose to be a top runner or scholar means giving up the freedom to loaf around all day. So is reason, which requires disciplining the mind to reflect the truth, not think what it will. So is prosperity, which requires submitting to a regimen of hard work. So is fairness, which recognizes that sometimes my freedom may be unjust to someone else. So is order. The list could go on. Libertarians will claim that these things are all forms of freedom because we freely choose them, but this just shows that even our freedom is wise enough to negate itself much of the time. Curiously, D’Souza concedes all this near the end of his chapter "America the Beautiful," perhaps to have something to point to to forestall criticism such as this, but he doesn’t draw the logically necessary conclusion that libertarianism is a half-truth.

D’Souza’s chapter "America the Beautiful: What We’re Fighting For," which is in fact an extended defense of the goodness of America against those who criticize it in the name of foreign nations and foreign cultures, seems to me almost wholly reasonable, being generally untainted by libertarian ideology. I object, however, to his admitting that some cultures are superior to others in some respects and then denying that this means that some cultures are superior simpliciter. He asserts that Papuans may be our superiors in face-painting or coconut juggling, even if their literature and science, not to mention government and economy, are inferior. Is anybody willing to accept the implication here that all skills are of equal value? Please, Dinesh: this is so silly I suspect you don’t mean it and are just trying to stay out of trouble. I agree with your claim that much anti-Americanism is driven by sheer envy: our success shows up their failure, be they socialist bureaucrats in Brussels or fundamentalist thugs in Kabul. I just think America is a success for more reasons than freedom alone. And as I argued above, I don’t think America is the real threat to Islam; modernity is. To say that we threaten their civilization concedes them precisely what they most wish to assert.

In the very last paragraph of this book, there is a curious passage:

"By making sacrifices for America, and by our willingness to die for her, we bind ourselves by invisible cords to those great patriots who fought at Yorktown, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima, and we prove ourselves worthy of the blessings of freedom."

I agree with these sentiments, but I notice that they sound more like the utterances of Shakespeare’s Henry V or Thucydides’ Pericles than anything that would logically follow from libertarianism. Minus the bit about freedom and changing the names of the battles, they could pass for a Shinto battle-harangue on the deck of a Japanese aircraft carrier in WWII. They are redolent of an organic, even mystical, concept of nationhood that, so far as I know, libertarianism has no room for. And yet D’Souza has no choice but to recognize the need for it. They bespeak a code of faith, honor, unity and self-sacrifice that is far older than libertarianism and without whose existence libertarianism could never have come into being. In the final analysis, there is hope for people like D’Souza, because he is wise enough to freely admit that freedom cannot survive without these values. If he thinks about this long and hard enough, he may even become a conservative.

Note: Before I get deluged with an avalanche of identical e-mails, let me state right here that I am well aware that there exist varieties of libertarianism, principally gathered under the name paleolibertarianism, which recognize the need for values other than liberty, if only that liberty itself may survive. It’s just that in practice, libertarianism tends to mean interpreting moral and political life as if freedom were the only value. Furthermore, 90% of the libertarians I have ever met refuse to follow their philosophy through to its logical conclusions, picking and choosing from among the permissions that it grants while ignoring its prohibitions. And they ignore the fact that some parts of libertarianism make no sense if society is not wholly libertarian: as the Nobel-laureate libertarian economist Milton Friedman said, it’s obvious you can’t have free immigration with a welfare state.

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