Literary and intellectual excellence often look simple, not to say simple-minded. It is, in fact, a hallmark of literary confidence to stake out a seemingly simple territory in a seemingly simple way, and thereby produce something astounding. With What's So Great About America (Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2002), Dinesh D'Souza has done just that.
Begin with the audacious title, with its implicit challenge to the wisecrackers who might have said the same thing with the addition of a question mark. What might this book be? A playful Tom Wolfe-ish paean to consumer culture? A critical examination of the Constitution? A call to arms? It is all those things, as well as a breathtaking overview of world philosophy, religion, and history. And it concludes with a stunning clarification -- an essential, Platonic questioning -- of what it means to be a conservative today. All this in scarcely more than a pamphlet (195 pages), in a style so assured and masterful it is nearly invisible, and written at speed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
It is a book that can, and will, change lives. If, in time, What's So Great About America gets absorbed into the policy establishment, it may change the world.
D'Souza does so many things so well that to select a few is to cheat the totality of the book. But select we must.
First, the book presents the clearest available description of the Islamicist fanatic culture that challenges the West.
D'Souza dismisses the easy, and politically expedient, description of the September 11 attackers as "cowards or lunatics." They were, rather, "deeply religion Muslims … armed with an idea … the weapons, the strategy, and the ruthlessness that are required to take on the United States and the West." This dedication, D'Souza rightly notes, "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."
But why Islam, why this, why now? Islamic thinkers, D'Souza says, view America (modernity, the West) as "a subversive idea that, if admitted into a society, will produce a tremendous and uncontrollable social upheaval. It will eliminate the religious basis for society, it will undermine traditional hierarchies, it will displace cherished values, and it will produce a society unrecognizable from the one it has destroyed."
This, America will do as a matter of conscious foreign policy (treaties, military action, etc.) and unconscious existence (Britney Spears, McDonald's). "America is a subversive idea," D'Souza concludes.
We are subversive in two distinct and different ways. First, since we are a culture based on Christianity, we have developed and grown by incorporating some distinctive Christian ideas in our culture -- then detaching those ideas and their implications from their original religious roots. Key among those ideas are those of progress, scientific inquiry, self-directed exploration, and capitalism. By contrast, the Islamic model sees the world under Allah's control, down to the very outcome of the simplest happenstance -- the apple falls on Abdul Newton's head because Allah wills it so; to inquire into an independent law for the bump amounts to a heresy.
Second, especially since the 1960s, America has been a country directed by people bent on discovering their own "authenticity." We tolerate this; we tolerate this to a high degree; it is indeed the model for American behavior today across the political spectrum. And here D'Souza presents the implicit challenge to contemporary conservatism: Even those of us who have come to embrace a traditional, seemingly outer-directed life (many religious conservatives, for example, myself included) have come to this set of beliefs and actions after a period of searching, of confusion, even of wild acting-out. Closely as my point of view resembles Dr. James Dobson's, Dr. Dobson was born to his -- and I chose it.
The Islamic fundamentalist has no choice but to kill people like me and you, because we are a virulent virus. Our task in the world is to move Islamic countries to the embrace of modern secular liberalism. This conflict cannot be resolved without war, not now.
To summarize even this single line of argument in What's So Great About America is to do it an injustice. There is so much more, as the chapter headings indicate. Here are only three: "Two Cheers for Colonialism (How the West Prevailed)"; "The Reparations Fallacy (What African-Americans Owe America)"; "When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness (Freedom and Its Abuses)."
Read this book. Then read it again. It is so fine that it could, all by itself, revive the battered study of Western Civilization in our universities.