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Jewish World Review April 23, 2002 / 12 Iyar, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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10 minutes with ... Dinesh D'Souza


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | America doesn't just deserve our love, former Reagan White House policy analyst Dinesh D'Souza argues in his latest book, "What's so Great About America."

It also deserves to be defended from foreign and domestic critics -- on the right and left -- who blame it for every ill on the planet and hate it for spreading its subversive Western ideas and culture around the world.

D'Souza, a research scholar at the Hoover Institution, makes a strong moral case for America's superior values, freedoms and opportunities in his new book, which asserts that America, more than any other society, "makes possible the good life, and the life that is good."

As he says, America is "a new kind of society that provides a new kind of human being" -- one that is "confident, self-reliant, tolerant, future-oriented" and "a vast improvement over the wretched, servile, fatalistic, and intolerant human being that traditional societies have always produced and Islamic societies produce now...."

Q: What's the main message of your book -- in 60 seconds or a little more?

A: The book is an examination of the major critiques of America, both from abroad and from home. The critiques I focus on are the Islamic critique of America, the multicultural critique of American history, the left-wing critique of American foreign policy and also the cultural conservative critique of American culture.

These critiques are all saying that America is bad for one reason or the other: America's history of slavery. America's harsh treatment of other countries. Or because American morality and culture is going downhill.

All these questions are raising the issue of why we should love America. I cite a line from Edmund Burke, where he says, "To love our country, our country should be lovely." This book is a defense of patriotism. It is a rebuttal of those critiques and it's an effort to show that we can love our country not just because it is ours, but also because it is good.

Q: What is it that makes America so good, so great, so noble?

A: Well, I'm partly writing as an immigrant who has grown up in Bombay, India. For me, what makes America unique is that in most countries in the world, your destiny or your fate are to a large degree given to you.

If I had never come to America but stayed in India, most of my life would have been shaped. I probably would have become a doctor or engineer like my father. I probably would have married a girl who was of my same socioeconomic and religious background. I probably would have a whole set of political and social and religious opinions that easily could have been predicted in advance.

By coming to America, I find that I'm in a different situation. In America, I can write the script of my own life. What that means is that in America, questions such as what to become, who to love, who to marry, what to believe, what religion to follow, are all decisions that people make for themselves.

Purchasing this book
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To me, America is a country defined by the self-directed life. In America, we are the architects of our own destiny. That to me is one of the great ideas of America.

Q: What is our key value - freedom in all of its senses?

A: I would put it this way: America's key value is freedom, but freedom can be understood in two different ways.

There is one notion of freedom that basically says that freedom is valuable because we have the right to do what we damn well please. That is a view of freedom that is indifferent to how freedom is used. In other words, it is a defense of choice that doesn't care about the content of choice.

That is not my view of freedom. I would defend a different kind of freedom, which is to say that I would offer a defense of freedom as the necessary foundation, or necessary precondition, for choosing the good.

In other words, some of the Islamic critics will say about America that "America is a free society, but we in the Muslim world are trying to create the virtuous society. We are trying to implement the will of G-d."

It seems to me the flaw of trying to establish the virtuous society, if you will, is that the Islamic societies are establishing it by coercion. But you can't have virtue with coercion. If a woman in Iran is required to wear a veil, she is not being modest, she is being compelled.

So it seems to me that virtue requires freedom in order to realize its moral luster. My defense of freedom is ultimately a moral one: it creates the conditions to achieve the good.

Q: When you say America is a subversive idea that poses a threat to traditional societies like Muslim ones, what do you mean?

A: Traditional societies are based on the notion of what could be called "the other-directed life." Someone else, whether it's the religious authority or political authority -- or in the case of Islam, the shariah, the holy law -- determines not only your spiritual beliefs but essentially the whole contours of your life.

The thing about Islamic law is that it is not just about Islam. It is also about contracts, and property rights and inheritance and divorce. Islamic law covers the religious law, the civil law, the constitutional law, the commercial law as well. It's a comprehensive view of society.

Those regimes are defined by an external authority, in a sense choreographing the pattern of your life. America, by contrast, is based on the notion of people being the architects of their own destiny, of people being in the driver's seat of their own life.

I think this helps to explain why the idea of America is so tantalizing and attractive to young people around the world, because young people around the world love the idea of being the authors of their own destiny.

Q: In your book, you stick up for the terrorists in the sense that you say they are not idiots, not mindless fanatics. They know what they want, and they know what America is and why they don't like it. The Islamic thinkers -- bin Laden included - seem to know us better than we do.

A: Yes, it seems to me there are two types of patriotism. There is an unreflective patriotism, which is my country right or wrong. Reflective patriotism is based on the idea that one has good reasons for one's beliefs, and that's the kind of patriotism I'm defending in the book.

It's the kind of patriotism that needs to defend America against the best critiques that are launched against America. Some people for example will say America is great because America is prosperous, or America is diverse, or America is pluralistic, or America gives rights to women. But the most intelligent Islamic critics will say, "Sure, America does all those things, but who cares? Those are not the most important things to do. American society is based on freedom. Our society is based on virtue. And virtue is a higher principle than freedom."

I take this argument seriously and try to answer it on its own terms. I also believe that the terrorists are an interesting group. Many people have said that this is the wretched of the earth, the poor people lashing out against the rich.

But of course Bin Laden is one of the richest guys in the world. His deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, is from one of the oldest, wealthiest Egyptian families, and most of the Sept. 11 terrorists came from middle- to upper-middle class families.

The other thing that's interesting to me is that terrorists in some ways resembled the Japanese kamikazes. We wouldn't call the kamikazes cowards. We might call them fanatics, but there is a kind of warrior mentality here.

What is interesting to me about Islam is that Islam has gone even beyond the example of the Japanese in being able to convince ordinary civilians to become suicide bombers. The Japanese kamikazes were all military men.

Those were the only two civilizations that I know of that have been able to generate the suicide bomber. Even the Nazis and the Communists, who had a lot of fanatics behind them, did not generate suicide bombings.

Q: Can Islamic and Western societies ever coexist?

A: They can in principle. Islamic societies and Western societies have common roots. All the religions of the world come out of two places, either India or the Middle East. The Middle East has given birth to Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and those three have important things in common.

For example, Islam, Christianity and Judaism all believe that salvation is an individual matter, that the individual soul achieves salvation by giving free assent to G-d.

That is a very important idea and it is an idea that contains the seeds of liberty.

That's why I think that the case of trying to convince the Islamic world about the importance of liberty and the idea of consent is not a hopeless task, because there is some warrant for it within the foundations of Islam itself.

That being said, I think that Islam is a humiliated civilization that was once great, and in fact once greater than the West, and has been surpassed and eclipsed by the West and is trying to come to terms with this cataclysmic change.

One camp in Islam says that we have to copy the West - we have to embrace science and capitalism and democracy. That is the liberal camp, the pro-Western camp.

But that camp is losing right now to the fundamentalists, who say, "No. The reason we were great in the past was because we were following the true will of G-d. And the reason that we have fallen down in the last couple of hundred years is because we have fallen away from the true faith. And so only by recovering the true faith can we recover our true glories of old."

This is a clash of civilizations, to use Samuel Huntington's term, but it is not a clash of civilizations between us and them. It is a clash of civilizations within the Muslim world.

Q: You say you believe America's harshest critics are wrong and that America is a superior civilization. What is your proof?

A: Well, one simple proof of which culture is better - and we're running up against the multicultural slogan that all cultures are equal and that no culture is either better or worse - is immigration.

Think about this, the immigrant is naturally disposed to his own native culture. That's where his family is, that's the world he knows. Yet the immigrant who voluntarily picks up his bags and moves to another culture; what is he doing but in the most decisive way possible, voting with his feet, against his own culture in favor of another culture.

And why would he do that, if he didn't think at some fundamental level that this other culture was better and provided, on the whole, a better life?

I think that cultures that are drawing immigrants, like America, are through that demonstrating their cultural superiority. No one is breaking doors to get into Angola or Syria, so we have a very human measure, a very empirical and verifiable measure, of which countries are more attractive and which countries are not.



JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

04/19/02: Saddam starting to show his age
04/12/02: Newsweek puts suicide bombing in perspective
04/09/02: How polls distort the news, change the outcome of elections and encourage legislation that undermines the foundations of the republic
04/05/02: Looking into the state of American greatness
03/25/02: The American President and the Peruvian Shoeshine Boys
03/22/02: Troublemaking intellectual puts Churchill in spotlight
03/20/02: 10 minutes with ... Bill Bennett
03/18/02: Suddenly, it's cool again to be a man
03/12/02: 10 minutes with Ken Adelman
03/08/02: TIME asks the nation a scary question
03/05/02: 10 minutes with ... Rich Lowry
02/26/02: 10 minutes with ... Tony Snow
02/12/02: Has Soldier of Fortune gone soft?

© 2002, Bill Steigerwald