»  National Review Online

April 17th, 2002

  Take Heart


What's So Great About America
by Dinesh D'Souza
Regnery; 220 pp. $27.95

I have a problem with anti-Americanism. Not just an emotional problem, though I have that too, but an intellectual problem. I mean, I don't get it. America — what's not to like? I can't even claim the interesting status of a reformed anti-American; I've always liked this country and her people, since I first made your acquaintance in the streets of Northampton, England, back in my childhood. "France is everyone's second country," some dolt is supposed to have said. Well, the hell with that; the U.S.A. is my second country, and always has been. Hundreds of millions of people all over the world think the same way.

The title What's So Great About America (there is, please note, no question mark) therefore strikes my eyes somewhat as might What's So Great About Dating Beautiful Women, or What's So Great About Eating Pâté de Foie Gras While Listening to Mozart on a Luxury Yacht in the Aegean. If you asked me to write a book on the topic, I wouldn't know where to start. I think I would probably do a lousy job, out of sheer lack of comprehension of the point of view I was trying to counter. Dinesh D'Souza, to judge from the general tone of his book, and from some occasional personal comments he has included, is of exactly the same cast of mind as myself. I therefore stand in awe of him for having done so brilliantly well what I do not think I could have done.

I had better say before proceeding that this book does not contain any striking or original insights. Most of what the author has to say will be familiar to anyone who reads conservative magazines or visits websites like this one. What's So Great is not pioneering political science: it is pop-political science. That's OK. There is hardly any work a writer can more usefully engage in than to bring to a large, general audience ideas that have been worked over and polished smooth by small cliques of interested parties. I am myself at the moment engaged in writing a pop-math book. If I can do as well with the Riemann Hypothesis as Dinesh has done with the conservative think-tank critique of anti-Americanism, I shall feel well pleased with myself.

As an immigrant himself (from India), D'Souza knows a thing that I know too, but that all too many Americans don't: he knows that this country has a very distinctive culture all its own, as peculiar in its own way as the culture of Japan or Russia. While Americans obsess about their differences, to the rest of the world you all look remarkably alike. A black American has far, far more in common with a white American than he has with a Nigerian, or even with a black Englishman. The way you talk, the way you think, the way you deal with each other, the way you fight wars — all are unique. Americans even have a distinctive way of walking — a thing Malcolm Muggeridge commented on, watching U.S. troops marching into Paris after the city's liberation in 1944.

It is an amazing thing that a country so far from everywhere else, with manners and folkways so different from everyone else's, should have created a culture that is so attractive — even, as D'Souza notes, to those who profess to be America's enemies. (Recall the old joke about the students of a Third World country — whichever one was in the news at the time — who spend their mornings at the front of the U.S. embassy throwing rocks, their afternoons at the back, waiting in line for visas.) He easily identifies the heart of the matter, which is of course freedom — the freedom to make your own life, rather than submit to having it made by others. The first time I ever went to the Far East, my host was a college student about the same age as myself, studying Hotel Management. How did he get interested in that? I asked him. He laughed. In Taiwan, he explained, all high-school seniors took a single examination. All were then ranked by their examination result, in a huge list. The top such-and-such per cent of the list was assigned to intense studies like medicine or science, the next tranche to history and literature, the next to law and accounting … That's how things work, out there in not-America — even in those parts of it not under the heel of oppressive tyrannies. D'Souza has similar tales to tell about India — a very free country by Third World standards, yet still one in which large parts of a person's life are decided for him (or, even more so, her).

In a chapter subtitled "Freedom and Its Abuses," D'Souza takes on the downside of all this freedom, and the conservative critique of modern American culture: the one arguing that: "[I]n America freedom has established itself as the highest value … at the expense of decency, community and virtue." Of course, when people are free to chose, a lot of them will choose things that are stupid, trashy, empty or ugly. A lot of them — look around you. D'Souza's approach to this is the one favored by Socrates: if you show people the Good, they will naturally choose it. We are just not showing it clearly enough.

Our freedom and autonomy are precious commodities, and conservatives better than anyone else recognize that it is a great tragedy when they are trivialized and abused. Their mission, therefore, is to steer the American ethic of authenticity to its highest manifestaion, and to ennoble freedom by showing it the path to virtue.

Virtue is already much more widespread among Americans than you yourselves realize. If I may be forgiven another China anecdote: After my first few weeks in the People's Republic, back in 1982, I found myself at the bar of the Beijing Hotel next to another Englishman, an engineer from Birmingham who had been in the country for several months helping Chinese firms install his company's equipment. "Well," I said breezily, after basic introductions, "And how are they treating you?" "Oh, fine," he replied. "Wonderful, really. It's the way they treat each other that makes me sick!"

The way they treat each other. Anyone that has lived in an unfree culture knows what that engineer was talking about. The snooping and spying, the endless maneuvering for petty advantage, the meanness and cruelty … Sure, you can find these things in the U.S.A. too; but they are way less common here than anywhere else in the world; and it is a wonderful thing to see — I have seen it with my own eyes, a dozen times — how they fall away from Third-World immigrants like the discarded fragments of some protective carapace no longer needed, as the reality of freedom sinks in and the human soul rises to meet the challenges of personal autonomy. As D'Souza argues in his final chapter, American liberty, under American law, actually produces a superior type of human being — one who, free to choose, chooses virtue and nobility of spirit much more often than not: "[A] vast improvement," as he says, "over the wretched, servile, fatalistic and intolerant human being that traditional societies have always produced, and that Islamic societies produce now."

D'Souza does anti-Americans the courtesy of taking their arguments seriously, and methodically refutes every one of them. Was this country founded in racism? No, he argues: the founders did not see themselves as establishing a finished thing, perfect and immutable, with the institutions of colonial racism cemented in, but a kind of country that could improve and rectify itself — as, of course it did, and continues to do. Does the U.S. throw its weight around? Considerably less than any other great power has ever done — imagine how much throwing-around of weight would have resulted if the U.S.S.R. had won the Cold War! Does this country act selfishly towards other nations? If "selfishly" means "in pursuit of America's own national interests," then yes, it does. What nation doesn't? And what nation has ever been so firm in the belief that the best way to advance its interests is not to oppress other peoples, but to help lift them up?

Early in WW2, a desperate Winston Churchill appealed to the U.S.A. for help. Roosevelt sent to Congress, and Congress approved, the "Lend-Lease" program, giving Britain easy access to American arms and supplies. Churchill described Lend-Lease as "one of the least sordid acts in history." There is, of course, plenty of sordidness to be found in American life, and in this nation's conduct of her affairs. It is none the less true that by comparison with other states past and present, and even with her own past self, America is the least sordid nation that ever was. This country has been going through some dark days recently, and no doubt has more tests ahead of her. In this fine, heartening and timely book, Dinesh D'Souza shows why America will survive these trials with her courage, magnanimity and good sense intact, confound her detractors, and show humanity the way forward to a saner, more secure world. Let freedom ring!