Skip to comments.Punctuating Thoughts: 'What's So Great About America'
Posted on 05/20/2002 8:23:47 AM PDT by Stand Watch Listen
Toward the end of his concise and generally sanguine state of the union address, What's So Great About America (Regnery, $27.95, 232 pp), Dinesh D'Souza suggests that the Cold War was but a short hiatus from the larger conflict that has dominated world politics for more than a millennium the conflict between Christendom and Islam. Christianity no longer is the organizing principle guiding the civilization now known as the West, and Islam is a shadow of the empire that dominated the Middle East, Northern Africa and much of Asia in the 16th century. Still, D'Souza argues, the new war on terrorism is better understood as the resumption of an ancient conflict between cultures.
"The enemy conducts its operations in the name of Islam," writes D'Souza, arguing that the terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were neither cowards nor lunatics, but deeply religious Muslims. "They were armed with an idea, and their colleagues have the weapons, the strategy and the ruthlessness that are required to take on the United States and the West." Militant fundamentalists are prepared to die for their religion and their society. "This in itself is not contemptible or ridiculous," D'Souza continues. "Indeed, it raises the question of what we in America would be willing to give our lives for. No serious patriotism is possible that does not attempt to answer that question."
What's So Great About America is D'Souza's answer, which he gives in two parts: first, in the form of a rebuttal to America's critics, both inside and outside the United States; second, as an affirmation of Western civilization, particularly as it has been expressed in his adopted country. A native of India, he came to the states as an exchange student, graduated from Dartmouth College and soon was working in the Reagan White House, where he met his future wife. He went on to become a best-selling author and, currently, a fellow at the Hoover Institution in California. His experiences as an immigrant, a person of color and a prominent conservative give him a unique perspective on his subject.
The United States, he begins, has solved the problem of material need. By embracing science, democracy and capitalism the three ideas that define the West America has extended the benefits enjoyed by the rich and privileged to the common man, in itself "a moral triumph." Affluence, of course, is first cousin to avarice, and the primacy of the marketplace in American life has coarsened American culture, which D'Souza admits can be vulgar and pernicious. He expresses his own fears about raising his 7-year-old daughter in a self-absorbed society saturated with violence and pornography, and recognizes that the economic and political systems that have generated so much wealth also have diminished social institutions such as marriage.
And that's the rub, D'Souza says. Islamists are correct in describing the West as godless and pagan. "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." Even the Islamists' epithet for the United States the Great Satan is appropriate if one considers Satan to be 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."
The difference between the two worldviews is clear and irreconcilable. "The West is a society based on freedom whereas Islam is a society based on virtue," D'Souza writes. By freedom, he means the West's insistence on human rights, self-actualization and tolerance, which devout Muslims consider a recipe for social chaos. By virtue, he means Islam's injunction that divine authority regulate all human activity, from the administration of the state to the ablution of the soul. "Is reason or revelation a more reliable source of truth?" D'Souza asks. "Does legitimate political authority come from God or man?"
Defending freedom requires the author to address not only Islamic objections but also endemic criticism from groups on the right and left: multiculturalists who see America as hegemonic abroad and fascistic at home; liberal intellectuals who decry the West's imperialist past; conservatives who reject moral relativism and rampant individualism; traditionalists who fear the subversion of the founding principles of the country. D'Souza explains why colonialism has a positive as well as negative legacy, why reparations for slavery is based on a misconstrued premise and why the "melting pot" is superior to diversity as a cultural metaphor.
He is less absolute when recounting the effects of technology and commerce on the United States in the last century. The automobile helped ruin notions of family and community, for example, and material abundance enabled recent generations to concentrate on what has become the all-American "quest for authenticity." Indeed, the imperative to achieve a righteous autonomy in the vernacular, to "find oneself" now trumps all other concerns and obligations. "Getting in touch with one's feelings and being true to oneself were now more important than conforming to the pre-existing moral consensus of society," D'Souza writes. " And as this new generation inherited the reins of power, its ethos entered the mainstream. As a consequence of this change, America became a different country."
D'Souza worries about this change but has faith that, when faced with adversity, Americans will meet the challenge. Freedom, for all its flaws, is preferable to virtue, for virtue freely chosen makes freedom virtuous. "The millions of Americans who live decent, praiseworthy lives deserve our highest admiration because they have opted for the good when the good is not the only available option," he writes. "Even amidst the temptations that a rich and free society offers, they have remained on the straight path."
Well, yes, and lets pray D'Souza is right. Still, one is tempted to quote Hemingway: "Isn't it pretty to think so."
Rex Roberts is the New York correspondent for Insight.
When Irony Fails
An impassioned "love letter" argues that it's time to give up our favorite cop-out and roll up our sleeves.
Review by Stephen Lyons
For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today
by Jedediah Purdy
Last year I testified at two public hearings regarding land use and development in the county of eastern Washington State where I live. The hearings were emotional--testy eve--and dragged on deep into the night. Citizen after citizen spoke eloquently in favor of preserving open space. The three county commissioners appeared to listen attentively to our testimonies, then voted in favor of the minority view, in favor of uncontrolled growth. We were heartbroken.
When the next public hearings concerning development were held, I instead attended a Suzuki piano recital performed by a six-year-old. Although I felt guilty, I thought, "Why bother?"
What will it take for me to return to public hearings, to give up my cynicism and comfortable evenings; to sift and sort through piles of proceedings in an effort to stay informed and empowered? A good beginning would be twenty-four-year-old Jedediah Purdy's book of current-affairs essays, For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today. Purdy's plea for a return to public and civic involvement is so idealistic that it almost sounds foreign. He unabashedly calls his plea "a love letter."
"I have written this book for two reasons: so that I will not forget what I hope for now, and because others might conclude that they hope for the same things."
With a surgeon's precision, the author dissects our current collective distaste for all things public. Calling on Emerson, Tocqueville, Thoreau, and his own home-schooled upbringing in West Virginia, Purdy traces our devolution from citizens who held to the common good of a public life to the isolated private life of the self-promoting freelancer, what the contemporary marketing guru Tom Peters champions as "brand You."
Purdy argues that apathy leads to an absence of politics. The "unhappy reputation" politics holds in our minds is "undignified, disreputable, vaguely ridiculous, and thoroughly outmoded." Business gives us instant gratification; politics makes us sick. When these two prevailing attitudes converge, the results can be not only morally destructive, but also environmentally catastrophic, as in the horrific case of Purdy's native state of West Virginia, where mountain after mountain is being leveled in an insatiable corporate land grab for coal.
If Purdy had simply spent two hundred pages criticizing us for becoming more ironic because we watch too many Seinfeld episodes, then For Common Things could easily be dismissed as the rantings of yet another angry GenXer. What elevates his discourse are his sensible correctives: a return to reality while turning away from the fantasy of a perpetual feel-good world. The real world of attending evening meetings or organizing neighbors is not always fun, but, as Purdy writes, the work ultimately can shape a rich and satisfying life. Public action is organic work, which is often messy, but at least it has dignity.
The pronoun "we" is a dangerous reference in these times of "me, myself, and I," and Purdy leans too heavily on the collective second person pronoun. "We" are not all watching "South Park," and many of us have tried to effect changes for the public good only to be met with the overriding brute force that money has in our culture. Our cynicism is well earned.
Perhaps the greatest hope found in Purdy's persuasive argument is the author himself. His command of language, political history; his uncanny grasp of the subtleties and twitches of America's past and present moods contradict his years--but not his passion. For Common Things will endure because we need a guide out of our present morass. Read it slowly, often, and with pleasure at knowing that a young man, wise beyond his years, can still speak without a hint of irony about preserving what we love--and remembering what that love requires. Then, for the common good, venture out into that fitful evening to begin, once again, the work that calls us back together. It is good work that waits.
Stephen J. Lyons, a frequent contributor to Hope, is a regular columnist for High Country News? Writers on the Range syndication project.
from For Common Things
...imagine an environmental impact label, like a nutrition statement, on the package of every product in a store. The label might include an estimate of all fuels consumed, all poisons used, and all natural resources employed in the manufacture of the product, as well as a description of its byproducts and their disposal...the label might identify the processes, such as global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer, or the development of acid rain, to which the product contributed...