Saturday, March 7, 2009

What's So Great About Dinesh D'Souza?

[Note: The Heritage Foundation is Rush Limbaugh's brain trust This is the first in a series of articles that explores its writings and their effects on America.]

Rush Limbaugh says the Heritage Foundation are scholars, but not eggheads, brilliant geniuses, but not elitists. But Limbaugh is a reliable judge of what makes a brillian scholar or a genius. Like other conservatives, he appreciates people because they agree with him, not because their ideas are sound or their arguments persuasive.

Heritage House advertises itself as “Washington's preeminent think tank”, but some of its writers are less than stellar. A case in point is Dinesh d'Souza, who has written the first essay in the Heritage House series, “First Principles.” His article, entitled “What's Great About America”, exposes him as a gifted writer but mediocre thinker.

In the view of America's critics, he says, “America can do no right”. Many of America's critics are patriots who believe that their country has made mistakes that should be rectified. But D'Souza frees himself from having to answer their criticisms by creating a straw man who thinks everything about America is wrong. So all he has to do to win the argument is to show one single thing about the country that is right.

America's greatest weakness, says D'Souza, is a lack of moral self-confidence.
Americans cannot effectively fight for their country without believing that their country is good and that they are fighting in a just cause.
Apparently D'Souza approves lying to our troops to improve their morale, just as he lies in this essay to make his arguments more convincing. But others are not so certain; they argue that lying about our goals and methods to encourage our troops is immoral and cannot be tolerated in a democracy.

So D'Souza sets off to examine the charges of America's critics. He is in a good position to do this, he says, because he is an immigrant, who “is in a good position to evaluate American society.” This may be true, in the case of a brilliant observer like Alexis de Tocqueville. Even so, Americans have far more experience on which to base their opinions of their own country. If D'Souza wants us to believe that his position as an immigrant gives him special insight about our country, he needs to show us something special.

But in the very next sentence, D'Souza shows us that his insights are pedestrian:
As a “person of color,” I am competent to address such questions as what it is like to be a nonwhite person in America, what this country owes its minority citizens, and whether immigrants can expect to be granted full membership in this society.
His insights are flawed because he does not have adequate experience on which to base his opinions. The experience of a “person of color” in America is a group experience. We learn about the effects of race on our lives in our families, our neighborhoods, and our shared experiences over a lifetime. We can't draw conclusions from what people say at cocktail parties or how we are treated by the staff in luxury hotels, or even at elite think tanks like the Hoover Institute.

D'Souza admits his differences:
Unlike many of America’s homegrown dissidents, I am also acutely conscious of the daily blessings that I enjoy in America.
In other words, people who complain about racial discrimination are ungrateful; they should count their blessings. This is exactly what African Americans did for decades after the Civil War, until they decided to start speaking out about their problems and conditions started improving.

Notice that D'Souza hasn't mentioned anything that makes America great yet, but has already insulted Americans by claiming that he, as an immigrant, knows more about our country than we do and insulted African Americans by telling them they should keep quiet about racial discrimination.

D'Souza now takes a couple of paragraphs to explain how hard life is in the developing world:
For most poor people on the planet, life is characterized by squalor, indignity, and brevity.
This may be true, but it has nothing to do with the question at hand, namely, what makes America a great country? D'Souza has not promised to tell us how life in America is materially better than life in India. I don't think anyone questions that. What we would like to know is what makes America great; not just better, but great. Remember, I didn't ask D'Souza to tell me this; he volunteered.

D'Souza stumbles on with a description of how good things are in America:
The place is full of countless unappreciated inventions: quilted toilet paper, fabric softener, cordless telephones, disposable diapers, roll-on luggage, deodorant.
Quilted toilet paper? Disposable diapers? That's what makes America great? Is D'Souza joking? Laundry lists of curiosities may make America interesting or even unique, but they can't make it great.

D'Souza finally lists some things he believes make America great:
The moral triumph of America is that it has extended the benefits of comfort and affluence, traditionally enjoyed by a very few, to a large segment of society. Few people in America have to wonder where their next meal is coming from. Emergency medical care is available to everyone, even those without proper insurance. Every child has access to an education, and many have the chance to go to college.
Here at last we have some observations that might help us decide if America is great. But we also find some problems. Calling something a moral triumph does not make it one, but if it is, then the morality surely comes from American liberalism. Morality does not happen by accident; it must be intentional. Liberalism intentionally uses government to ameliorate the conditions of the less advantaged. If “few people...have to worry about where their next meal is coming from,” then food stamps, social security, food banks, unemployment, and other liberal programs must be the reason.

D'Souza proudly proclaims that emergency medical care is available to all, but fails to note that this is a defect of the system, not a virtue. Poor people go to emergency rooms because they don't have access to other forms of medical care. The care they receive is costly to the general public, which would be much better served by medical plans that provide non-emergency care to everyone, thus reserving expensive emergency care to those who really need it. Furthermore, those who can pay for emergency care will be billed if they make use of it, and the costs are steep.

Although it is true that every American child has access to an education, not all have access to a first-rate education. Many go to college, but every child of rich parents has the opportunity to go to college, while many children of the poor are forced to work to support their families. Besides, not all college educations are equal. Only a few colleges and universities, because of their reputations and connections with wealth, can promise their graduates good careers on graduation.

D'Souza notices that
we live in a country where construction workers regularly pay $4 for a nonfat latte, where maids drive rather nice cars, where plumbers and postal workers take their families on vacation in Europe or the Caribbean.
But here again he seems to believe that these things are merely accidents of society, not products of intentional actions. In many places, a maid must have a reliable car to make a living, but it is a huge expense, not a benefit; her car takes money away from her children, food, clothing, and other necessities of life. Besides, having a car does not mean you have insurance for it, or even a license. If plumbers or construction workers can afford some cheap luxuries, it is most likely because the construction industry is heavily unionized. We can't be sure of that because D'Souza is vague about such details—D'Souza does not mention trade unions in his essay—but it is a reasonable inference. We can be certain, though, that postal workers belong to a strong union that has worked to get them those vacations in Europe.

In all of these examples, D'Souza reminds me of Republicans who voted against the stimulus package and then took credit for the benefits provided to their constituents. Far-right conservatives admire America as it is, not as they would make it.

Up to this point, D'Souza has merely been uninformative. He makes a few observations, but tells us nothing about their causes. Now, however, he becomes dishonest:
As a result, people live longer, fuller lives in America.
There are 41 other countries in the world with longer life expectancy than the US. So life expectancy in the US is neither unique or exceptional. It is deceptive to imply that it is. Here again the US is being compared to India rather than other developed economies.


Having closed his section on America's good life with a deceptive statistic, D'Souza plunges into America's history. He starts out by denying the genocide of the American Indians:
Let’s begin by asking whether the white man was guilty of genocide against the native Indians. As a matter of fact, he was not.
His extraordinary thesis: The American Indians were wiped out by epidemics, not genocide. But even a cursory reading of American history reveals numerous genocidal events, among them
  • 1637. Puritans massacre 500-600 Pequod Indians at Mystic Fort.
  • 1835. 4,000 Cherokee die during forced march from Carolinas to Oklahoma known as the Trail of Tears.
  • 1864. American Cavalry murders 134 at Sand Creek, Colorado Territory.
  • 1868. American Cavalry murders 103 Cheyenne at Washita.
  • 1890. American Cavalry murders 146 Sioux at Wounded Knee.
These events were genocidal under the definition established by the UN General Assembly resolution 260 A (III) of 9 December 1948. It should also be understood that deaths from disease, such as those on the Trail of Tears, are also considered genocide if they are caused by direct government action.

With regard to slavery, D'Souza commits even greater blunders. First, he excuses American slavery by saying that "everyone does it":
No one will deny that America practiced slavery, but America was hardly unique in this respect.
But American slavery was not like everywhere else. Alexis de Tocqueville, himself an aristocrat and conservative, nevertheless severely condemned Southern Americans for their treatment of African slaves:
The legislation of the Southern states with regard to slaves presents at the present day such unparalleled atrocities as suffice to show that the laws of humanity have been totally perverted.
Those are strong words. De Tocqueville contrasts the treatment of slaves by the ancient Romans, who educated their slaves and frequently liberated them, with that of the Americans of the South,
who do not admit that the Negroes can ever be commingled with themselves, [and] have forbidden them, under severe penalties, to be taught to read or write; and as they will not raise them to their own level, they sink them as nearly as possible to that of the brutes.
It is this unrivaled ferocity of American Slavery, which we recognize today as racism, that sets us apart from the rest. Without excusing that for which there is no excuse, D'Souza raises a new argument:
What is distinctively Western is not slavery but the movement to end slavery.
So instead of describing slavery as it was in the South, D'Souza emphasizes the good done by the people of the North, namely the abolition of slavery. He then quotes Mohammed Ali, whom no one ever accused of being a scholar, to support the incredible conclusion,
though slavery was oppressive for the people who lived under it, their descendants are in many ways better off today.
This statement is not only morally repugnant, it is demonstrably false. It is morally repugnant because almost any atrocity could be justified by saying that some distantly related good came from it. It is false because between 5 million and 65 million Africans died during transport to America. These people had no descendants, so their descendants are not better off in any way.

For his next attempt to falsify history, D'Souza repeats the commonly held belief that
For a few decades now, blacks and some minorities have enjoyed more rights and privileges than whites. The reason is that America has implemented affirmative action policies that give legal preference to minority groups in university admissions, jobs, and government contracts.
This stands history on its head. The reason that affirmative action policies have been implemented is precisely because these groups continue to lack equal opportunities, due to poverty, poor schools, language difficulties, and discrimination. African Americans demonstrably lack the same opportunity with whites. The US Census shows that the median income for an African American household is just 60% of the median white income. If it were true, as D'Souza suggests, that African Americans have enjoyed more rights and privileges “for a few decades”, surely they would be richer than whites, but the opposite is true. Clearly, African Americans still carry the burden of prejudice.

D'Souza enlists Jesse Jackson as a witness to the lack of racism in America. Once again, he chooses a celebrity, not a scholar, as a source. He says he challenged Jackson to show him
how racism today is potent enough to prevent his children or mine from achieving the American dream.
Any number of scholars could give a detailed answer to that question, but Jackson could not, and D'Souza never asked anyone better qualified. Jackson may have been stymied because his children, and D'Souza's, being children of celebrities, did not face the same problems as most African Americans.

Finally he mentions de Tocqueville and his famous depiction of American equality. Whereas the earlier writer draws conclusions about the negative aspects of equality, D'Souza gives an example that just isn't true. In India, he says,
the rich enjoy the gratification of subservience, of seeing innumerable servants and toadies grovel before them and attend to their every need.
But in America,
If [Bill] Gates were to walk the streets of America and stop people at random and say, “Here’s a $100 bill. I’ll give it to you if you kiss both my feet,” what would the typical American response be? Even the homeless guy would tell Gates to go to hell.
This is a marvelous image, but reveals a misunderstanding of American culture. There are many humiliating things a homeless guy would do for $100—apparently D'Souza never watched Survivor. Furthermore, most Americans would not enjoy the gratification of subservience the way an Indian might. But more importantly, D'Souza assumes that because he cannot see something at first glance, it does not exist. As the CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates not only had innumerable toadies, but he probably had a hard time finding anyone to disagree with him, even when they knew him to be dead wrong. I doubt that Gates ever heard one of his employees tell him to go to hell.

The Pursuit of Happiness

D'Souza next relates a number of stories that might be prefaced, “Only in America...” But it is all anecdotal evidence that can easily be refuted with statistics. He nevertheless draws the conclusion that
Most societies offer limited opportunities for and little chance of true social mobility.
Once again, D'Souza proves that the US is better than India and invites us to conclude that the US is a great country, and again he mindlessly recites a conventional wisdom. But Miles Corak presented research showing that the possibility of upward (or downward) mobility in the US is actually smaller than in several other countries, including France, Germany, Denmark, and Canada. The probability of an American born into the poorest 20% of the population rising to the top 1% was, in 2000, only 1%. The odds, in other words, were 100-1 against it. On the other side, the probability of an American born into the richest 20% remaining in the richest 20% was 51%.

This may seem trivial. After all, D'Souza only claims that many Americans acquire wealth, not that all do. But he is clearly using this as an example of why America is great. If Germans or Danes have a better chance to improve their fortune than Americans, why isn't he talking about economically developed countries, instead of going on about the Founding Fathers? America did not invent the blueprint for a successful economy. We received one from European thinkers like Adam Smith, John Locke, and J. S. Mill, to name only a few.

D'Souza cannot admit this. His task is not just to show that America is a great country, but also to provide support for the beliefs of right-wing conservatives. One of their beliefs is that we can't look to Europe for inspiration or leadership. If Sweden (or Japan) have gone through economic crises similar to ours, we can't use their experiences as examples because America is, somehow, different. So D'Souza must prove that America is great by omitting all references to other countries similar to our own.

Right-wing conservatives, like those associated with the Heritage Foundation, pretend that all wisdom begins with the Founding Fathers and Milton Friedman. All of their arguments for monetary policy and morality rest on this premise. If there is some other way to find truth, their entire belief system falls apart, primarily because it cannot stand criticism from outside its own carefully prescribed limits.

The Ethics of Work

Having described how America is better than India and other developing economies, D'Souza begins to attack antiquity. Once again, his arguments are more effective if the reader knows nothing about history. He announces, without proof, that
[i]n the cultures of antiquity, Western as well as non-Western, the merchant and the trader were viewed as low-life scum,
This is certainly true for the middle ages and for Islamic societies where religion is paramount. In societies where trade is difficult, as it was upon the fall of Rome, the merchant and the trader have nothing to do. But in antiquity, this was not the case. Athens (and many other Greek city-states) rose to prominence through trade. The mosaics at Ostia testify that merchants were not shunned at Rome. Among famous Romans, the triumvir Crassus obtained his great wealth by running a sort of insurance company. The Medicis during the Renaissance obtained their great wealth as bankers. While Crassus lost out to Caesar in the struggle for absolute rule, the Medicis achieved high status, titles, respect, and even the Papacy. In Northern Europe, the mercantile cities of the Hanseatic League held monopoly power between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the South, the trading cities of Genoa and Venice became the leading powers in Italy. Mercantilism, an economic system that places trade at the center of state policy, was dominant in Western Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

Trade became ever more important as the middle ages receded. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise when D'Souza claims that
In America, it is different, and the American Founders are responsible for the change.
Once again D'Souza is ambushed by right-wing mythology. Since that mythology states that the American Founders are the fount of all wisdom, he ignores all evidence to the contrary. In this instance, however, he does give a nod to the English philosophers, although he insists that the Founding Fathers, drawing on the inspiration of John Locke and Adam Smith, “altered the moral hierarchy of the ancient world.”

The Americans did not need to change anything from the way the English regarded trade. English law had favored business interests for centuries. The wealth of the nation came from trading slaves, spice, rum, and anything else they could buy, seize, or steal. English government policies favoring trade helped start the Industrial Revolution in England. An important part of the motivation for the American Revolution was the desire of American merchants to compete with their English counterparts. In order to do this, they had to make laws favoring American trade over British trade. It's hard to see how this “altered the moral hierarchy of the ancient world”; rather, it altered the balance of economic power in favor of the Americans.

D'Souza gives more credit to the Founding Fathers than they deserve. They were primarily practical men. The theorists whose ideas led to the American Constititution were Europeans. D'Souza implies that they were inventors, not just followers, when he says that they “devised” a system of checks and balances:
In the public sphere, the Founders took special care to devise a system that would prevent, or at least minimize, the abuse of power.
But the Founders did not invent the idea of separation of powers. The Roman Republic incorporated it into its system of government in ancient times. In modern times, the idea was discovered and elaborated on by the Baron de Montesquieu in 1748. He invented the name, “separation of powers”, and described as well a system of “checks and balances”.

Freedom of Religion

Finally D'Souza hits upon an idea that truly originated with the Founding Fathers, one that has proven to be a great boon to American society: The idea of separation of church and state, attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Religious tolerance in America attracted many of its early settlers. Their combined and peaceful efforts contributed to the rapid growth of the colonies. But separation of church and state was not envisioned until the Founders realized that any other solution might prevent acceptance of the Constitution by the States.

D'Souza interrupts his description of religious tolerance to bring up what he sees as an instance of intolerance:
Of course, Americans have not always lived by these principles, and there are exceptions, such as affirmative action. Such policies remain controversial because, in a sense, they are un-American.

D'Souza apparently believes that it is un-American to favor one ethnic group over another; but he is wrong. Discrimination was written into the Constitution, where it is famously stated that slaves are worth three-fifths of free men when apportioning representatives and taxes. After the Civil War, the former Confederate states passed Jim Crow laws that legalized descrimination against African Americans. Some states adopted poll taxes and literacy tests to keep African Americans from voting. So passing discriminatory laws is hardly un-American.

But perhaps D'Souza means that affirmative action regulations are unjust As stated above, these laws are intended to counter the injustices of poverty, inadequate schools, and housing that African Americans must deal with in our society. These injustices continue, and the few examples of affirmative action make hardly any difference to the African American community.

Ideals and Interests

D'Souza begins this section with his boldest lie yet:

America has the kindest, gentlest foreign policy of any great power in world history.

All great powers have their own interests at heart and never hesitate to crush anyone who gets in their way. Even when they appear to be magnanimous, great powers usually have ulterior motives. Like America, they clothe their true motives in high-sounding words like liberty and morality. When France aided the American revolutionaries, it did so as part of a world-wide struggle with England. But ordinary Americans believed they acted out of friendship and idealism.

America itself has fought one-sided wars with the Indians, with Mexico, and with Spain, primarily to seize land and power. Terms of peace were equally one-sided, requiring Indians to give up their lands and relocate to distant reservations, requiring Mexico to cede half its territory, requiring Spain to hand over naval bases around the world. America's treatment of allies is not always kind, either. During World War II, America took advantage of Great Britain's desperate plight to acquire naval bases in return for food and munitions.

America has refused to set up a legal way for Mexicans to enter the country and work, instead requiring such workers to undergo hardships to perform tasks useful to the host country. It has installed a rigorous trade embargo against another neighbor, Cuba, for 60 years, even though the embargo clearly has no effect on Cuba's internal politics other than to stiffen their resistance.

After World War II, America loaned money to European nations to help them recover from the effects of war, but this was almost entirely through selfish motives, since the economic troubles in Europe after World War I led to another catastrophic war within 20 years, and since America also required the assistance of Europe to combat the emerging threat of Soviet Russia.

During the post-war era, America helped destabilize the governments of Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, and others. It also prosecuted a bloody war in Indochina that led to the deaths of millions, and sponsored a guerilla action in Nicaragua and a terrorist regime in El Salvador.

These actions may have been justified, or even necessary, given the political climate of the time. But they were not kind and gentle. D'Souza understands this, so he has taken care to claim that American foreign policy is the “kindest [and] gentlest”, instead of simply “kind and gentle”, which would have been impossible to defend. Certainly some acts of violence and treachery are kinder and gentler than other, more vicious acts, but they are nevertheless violent and treacherous. The governments of Vietnam and Cambodia killed far more of their own citizens than did America, but we did kill our share.

But here again D'Souza uses a rhetorical trick to bolster his case. He compares America with some of the worst foreign policy offenders:
Imagine how the Soviets would have acted if they had won the Cold War...Thus, if the Chinese, the Arabs, or the sub-Saharan Africans slaughter 10,000 of their own people, the world utters a collective sigh and resumes its normal business. We sadly expect the Chinese, the Arabs, and the sub-Saharan Africans to do these things.
When praising America's economic conditions or quality of life, D'Souza compares us with India. When praising our political policies, he compares us with China and Russia. But Mao's China and Stalin's Russia were two of the most vicious dictatorships in the history of the world. Almost any country would seem kind and gentle in comparison with them. In order to show how great America is, D'Souza ought to compare us with other democractic empires, such as England or France, or even with the anti-militarist policies of Japan and Germany in the last half-century.

D'Souza should recognize the weakness of this argument:
On occasion, the U.S. intervenes to overthrow a tyrannical regime or to halt massive human rights abuses in another country, but it never stays to rule that country. In Grenada and Haiti and Bosnia, the United States got in and then got out.
Because he is an Indian, D'Souza knows that a great power does not need to govern a country in order to benefit by trade and military bases. The British ruled India only through intermediaries. They seized no territory. What they wanted was the right to exploit India's riches; they left the governing to others. In the same way, when America acts to defuse possible catastrophes in international hot spots like Bosnia or the Middle East, it does so out of self-interest, not charity. D'Souza admits as much:
However one feels about these cases, let us concede to the critics that America is not always in the right.
Shouldn't a great country always be in the right?

America's Virtue

At the start of each section of this essay, D'Souza makes another dubious claim. For this last section he makes two.
America, the freest nation on earth, is also the most virtuous nation on earth.
Here, D'Souza doesn't bother to prove his first claim, that America is the freest nation on earth. This isn't as easy to prove as it might seem. The Heritage Foundation itself ranks countries on the basis of how much freedom they have from government interference in economic matters. They rank America fifth in this year's list, behind Hong Kong, Singapore, Ireland, and Australia. One doubts whether we will remain so high next year, after quasi-nationalizing the banks.

Other measures of freedom are just as difficult to determine. Any independent country is free, of course. We consider that citizens in a democracy have more personal freedom than under other forms of government. But there are degrees of personal freedom. India itself is one of the freest countries on earth. Its government is weak and unable either to raise taxes or enforce laws. In the matter of traffic laws, for example, Indians do as they please, knowing the government is powerless to stop them. There are no effective rules about how many people can ride on a bus, or which side of a divided highway to drive on, or how fast a vehicle must travel on the roads.

But D'Souza here is only interested in religious freedom, since that is what leads to virtue.

Similarly, when D'Souza claims America is the most virtuous nation on earth, he sets himself an impossible task. There are endless shapes and forms of morality. Trying to decide which is best has been the neverending quest of moralists since we began keeping records of such things. To extricate himself from this confusion, he compares America to the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran. Then he uses another rhetorical trick to win his argument.

D'Souza assumes that we all have free will. This is a Christian concept, and once he has made this assumption, the claims of another religion to superior virtue vanish.
In externally directed societies such as Iran, the absence of freedom signals the absence of virtue. Thus, the free society is not simply richer, more varied, and more fun: It is also morally superior to the externally directed society.
This is true only if we accept the existence of free will and discount the validity of another's religious experience altogether.


D'Souza is an intelligent man with a certain rhetorical brilliance. But he is operating at a disadvantage because he cannot use any arguments to support his point of view that conflict with the tenets of far-right conservatism espoused by the Heritage Foundation. Furthermore, far-right conservatism preaches that America is the only great country, perhaps in all history. This would be a difficult point to prove in any event, but D'Souza does not even begin. Instead he sets up several straw man arguments which he has no difficulty in proving: Life in America is easier than in India; America's foreign policy is more moral than Soviet Russia's; and America has more individual freedom than Iran.

These points made, D'Souza is still far from proving that America is a great country. Nevertheless, I believe that America is a great country; but I also believe that D'Souza doesn't understand why.

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