Tuesday, July 04, 2006

What's So Great About America?

[I reviewed this for The Denver Post a few years ago. I thought it might be fitting to post on Independence Day, although a bit late in the day.]

Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About America. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2002. 218 pages. $27.95, hardback.

The terrifying infernos of September 11 did not merely breach our national security and jolt America into a war unlike any other. The savage attacks also raised urgent questions of good and evil, life and death—even heaven and hell. In the dreadful wake of undreamed-of horror, Americans began to take stock of themselves, their loved ones, their faith, and their nation. Many asked, “Why do they hate us?” thereby raising further questions about the nature, value, and destiny of what Abraham Lincoln called “The American experiment.” Our new motto is “United we stand.” But, as Americans, exactly what do we stand for, and whom do we stand against?

Dinesh D’Souza, of the Hoover Institution and a native of India, has written an insightful and controversial reflection on these questions. He doesn’t doubt America’s greatness, but neither does he rely on slogans or knee-jerk patriotism in his assessment of his adopted country. Whether the reader agrees with him or not, D’Souza supplies well-informed, substantial and thought-provoking arguments for his positions.

D’Souza begins by pondering Periciles’ funeral oration, which was given in 430 BC shortly after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. America, like ancient Athens, needs to fathom the measure of its freedoms and be willing to make the needed sacrifices to defend these freedoms against a ruthless and militaristic regime whose fighters would gladly die in order to kill their enemies. Like the Athenians, we need to know our enemies and know ourselves.

Who are these new enemies? D’Souza recognizes that “the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, but it is equally a fact that the vast majority of terrorists are Muslims.” Moreover, they are associated with a host of terrorist organizations around the globe engaged in what they consider jihad against the American “infidels” who have exported their culture of secularity and indecency, among other charges.

The rest of D’Souza’s book is a careful defense of American ideals—and in some cases those of the West in general—against the charges of radical Islamists and of those who think America has been, on balance, more of a force for evil than for good in the world. Against the prevailing winds of cultural relativism, D’Souza claims that all cultures are not equal. Western (especially American) culture has excelled in matters of political liberty and economic prosperity. This explains why immigrants from around the world continue to flood into the U.S., where they are afforded religious freedom and economic opportunity. D’Souza effectively argues against several commonly held criticisms against America and the West, including the charge that the original Constitution supports slavery and that colonialism had no beneficial consequences.

While D’Souza acknowledges that racism still exists in America, he (along with Thomas Sowell) argues that differential achievement between races is not due primarily to racism primarily or to any innate differences, but rather to matters of culture—the values and behaviors that shape people. Thus the most promising way forward for racial minorities is through constructive cultural changes within their own communities.

For D’Souza, America has offered the world “a new way of being human”—a way fraught with both promise and danger. D’Souza is well aware of both. As America’s enemies remind us, our freedoms allow for well-funded narcissism and ostentatious vice (consider much of popular culture). He addresses this worry in the chapter, “When Virtue Loses All Its Loveliness.” But America, despite all its foibles, also affords unparalleled opportunities to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful. No one is forced to be religious or irreligious. We decide for ourselves. Yet terrorists around the world today would give their very lives to see this all obliterated.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., heads the Philosophy of Religion MA at Denver Seminary and is the author of ten books, including, most recently, On Jesus and On Pascal, both published by Wadsworth.


David said...

Here is a short piece by D'Souza that is adapted from the book: http://www.taemag.com/issues/articleID.19267/article_detail.asp

David said...

OK, try this instead.

Ed Darrell said...

D'Souza's article ends with this: America’s founders solved two great problems which are a source of perennial misery and conflict in many other societies—the problem of scarcity, and the problem of religious and tribal conflict. They invented a new regime in which citizens would enjoy a wide range of freedoms—economic freedom, political freedom, and freedom of speech and religion—in order to shape their own lives and pursue happiness. By protecting religion and government from each other, and by directing the energies of the citizens toward trade and commerce, the American founders created a rich, dynamic, and peaceful society. It is now the hope of countless millions all across the world.

Now we are engaged in a great struggle to determine whether that nation or any nation so conceived may long endure. (Apologies to Lincoln, more for what his party has become than having borrowed his phrasing.)

Does D'Souza advocate turning off the televisions of the poor in America? Does he advocate keeping them poor, and fat? Should we?

Much of what makes this nation great also drives us, individually, to distraction. It is good to take a step back and get perspective.

Susan said...

What makes America great is the freedom to point out the ill effects of such things as TV, to question the status quo, to ask the questions few are comfortable asking (or answering)and so on. It's a free Country, even for Curmudgeons.