Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.
Sunday, November 02, 2003
I attended Dinesh D'Souza's lecture at Monmouth College on October 23rd which was (roughly) based on his most recent book "What's So Great About America". D'Souza is an excellent speaker, he has an uncanny ability to pull quotes and facts off the top of his head and weave them right into the topic at hand. He was originally scheduled to speak only once, but because of the response, concerns for seating capacity led to the scheduling of a second lecture. Both looked to be at full capacity.
I can't weave it all together with near the precision that Dinesh D'Souza did but here is my summary of what he said in both lectures as well as some notes from the luncheon that I was able to attend with him:
History and Western Ascent
D'Souza began with some historical background on the current clash of civilizations of Islam vs. The West. Some may be tempted to draw comparisons to the Cold War, but that is not entirely accurate. He highlights this point with the phenomenon of the suicide bomber and asks, what movement in history, political or otherwise, produced suicide bombers? Not the Nazi's and certainly not the Communists. Kamikaze pilots were perhaps similar, but they were soldiers, not students or mothers. In other words, the Islamic militant movement contains an abundance of something that the others did not, true believers.
Today, America's power is unparalleled, politically, economically, and militarily. There is no rival. But of course we all know that it was not always this way, in fact, over the last 1000 years, Islam was the most dominant and advanced civilization. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Islam was born of success rather than defeat and at one time enjoyed 5 Islamic empires ruling simultaneously. The success of Islam was rivaled only by China, but they were geographically and politically isolated. There was no real rival and no real threat. In fact, Muslim travelers of that time often wrote about the West with a similar note of amused disdain that, centuries later, one would find among Westerners describing Sub-Saharan Africa. One described Europeans as "more like beasts than men" who lacked intelligence, understanding, and were generally uninteresting and primitive.
But in the late 17th century, that began to change. D'Souza cites the routing of the Turks, and the defeat of Islam at Vienna, as major turning points in the decline of Islam and a major global shift of power. For the first time, Napoleon, a westerner was able to stroll in and rule at will. The ascension of Western Civilization had begun, but what did they do to get there? Some charge that The West got its power and riches at the expense of minorities and the third world via crimes of slavery, exploitation and colonialism. But that charge implies that there is something distinctively Western about slavery and colonialism. Yes, The West had their empires, but so did the Turks, Mongolians, and everyone else. Yes, The West had slaves, as did every known civilization from ancient India to China, to American Indians. Slavery was common all over Africa then and still exists there today. Over the course of history, conquest and slavery are universal. Indeed the only thing unique about slavery in The West is that we ended it. Of course in any slave culture there were runaways and slave revolts, the slaves were certainly against slavery, but nowhere else did those with the power to be masters organize to relinquish that power. D'Souza quotes Abraham Lincoln "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master" and notes that a vast amount of resources as well as blood was spent to demolish the institution of slavery, as hundreds of thousands of white men died to bring freedom to African Americans.
If it was not slavery and colonialism, then what did bring power and riches to The West? Three things: Capitalism, Science, and Democracy. The three are certainly all natural human impulses, but Western Societies created unique and specific institutions that maximized their efficiency and hence their benefits, leading to an exponential growth in standard of living. The impulse to trade and barter is universally human, but it was the creation of property rights, courts, free trade, credit, etc that distinguishes the Western capitalist system. It was in the West where the scientific method of experimentation and verification, the invention of invention, as its been termed, developed. It is the combination of capitalism and science that delivers technological advances, advances in living standard, to the society as a whole. Democracy, free elections, free press, transfer of power by something other than violent means, separations of power, this is clearly a Western invention. It is these three pillars that gave birth to and continue to provide the foundation for advancement of Western Civilization as we know it.
This quantum leap forward that has now forced Islam to examine itself. Why has the once great civilization of Islam fallen? D'Souza describes two distinct camps of Islamic intellectuals. First is the classical (not American) liberal camp which believes that Islam needs to follow the lead of science, modernism, capitalism, and open tolerant societies that protect human rights as well as property rights. Islam must, at least selectively, embrace these institutions.
The second camp, which we'll call the fundamentalists, says that the liberal way has failed them, that the Middle East is ruled by oppressive dictators (is there any other kind?) propped up by the West. The Koran promises prosperity in this life, and paradise in the next for those faithful to Allah and for centuries the Muslim civilization clearly lived in prosperity. However, today they find that they've fallen significantly behind. Why is that? The fundamentalists consider the answer obvious – Muslims are no longer following the teachings of Allah, instead they have fallen away from their true faith in favor of the life of the infidel. The influence of the infidel must be purged.
The core idea of the West, of America, is one of self-determination, that the individual is the architect of his own life. The leaders of the fundamentalist camp do not dispute this, they acknowledge the freedoms of the West, and that America is what it is. But while America has freedom, Islam has virtue. Human nature is flawed, they say, and therefore freedom is used badly -- divorce, materialism, pornography, the trivialities of Western society, they contain no virtue and virtue is superior to liberty. D'Souza acknowledges these criticisms as legitimate.
But what is the value of virtue if it is imposed? A woman wearing a veil is not modest if it is required by law, she is modest only if she chooses to wear it when she has the freedom not to. In short, freedom is a prerequisite to virtue, it must be chosen, otherwise it is false.
This is why Western Culture is a threat to Islamic elites. Freedom says that you don't have to follow the Koran, you don't even have to believe in Allah if you so choose. This is the crux of our cultural conflict.
The Culture Debate
D'Souza also argues that western culture has made the world over better off, even through immoral acts of conquests and colonialism. He offers the personal example of his own life growing up in India, a former colony. Yes, his grandfather was worse off being ruled by British Colonialism in India, but his own life, as well as that of future generations, were made markedly better. He quotes Muhammad Ali who, after fighting George Foreman in Zaire, was asked by a reporter, "Champ, what did you think of Africa?" Ali replied brusquely, "Thank god my granddaddy got on that boat."
No one in their right mind would argue that slavery was good for the slaves, but it cannot be disputed that it paradoxically benefited their descendants. Just as African-Americans are better off today in America than they would be in places such as Ethiopia or Rwanda, so too are the people of Asia, India, and South America, for it was through colonialism that Western values of democracy, self-determination, and human rights were transmitted and spread.
D'Souza reflects on his own life and how it might be different if he had stayed in India. He would have likely spent his whole life within 5 miles of where he was born, married a woman with an identical religious, socio-economic and cultural background and become either a chemical engineer or a doctor. Materially his life would not have been radically different than it is now. However, his destiny would have been somewhat given, his life lacking the depth it has now, where travel is enjoyed by almost everyman, where one can meet individuals from different cultures and different backgrounds and the ordinary person can achieve extraordinary things. The social egalitarianism we enjoy here is unparalleled. Bill Gates, with all his money, could not make any of us kiss his feet. Where else could a C.E.O. of a company go to a restaurant and not be sure that he won't run into his secretary, also dining there? Indeed most wealthy people would be better off in another country where they could enjoy the pleasures of aristocracy. The triumph of America is that it has extended affluence and comfort to a large segment of society, where very few have to wonder where their next meal may come from, where every child gets an education, where our poor are overweight, own cars, and multiple T.V.'s.
The multi-culturalists, however, argue for cultural relativism. That we should respect and not influence other cultures, for none is superior to the other. Standard of living cannot be disputed, the West wins by knockout. Virtue can be, and according to D'Souza America is more virtuous, as it is freely chosen. We have opportunity for deeper, richer lives, and offer a much more open and tolerant society. He quotes Edmund Burke, "To make us love our country, our country must be lovely." The suggestion is that one shouldn't have a sort of unconditional patriotism, one shouldn't love his country simply because it is his, but also because it is good. D'Souza concludes that America for all its virtues and shortcomings rises to this standard. America is well worth loving.
In the second lecture of the day, D'Souza talks a bit more in detail of U.S. foreign policy and the prevailing anti-American sentiment. One criticism that is made, and D'Souza supports, is that U.S. foreign policy is couched in the language of morality but there are clearly hypocrisies. In making the moral case, the U.S. is losing. They are failing to reach and open sufficient channels of dialogue with the Arab world, to explain that we also seek virtue and that our different ways of life are indeed compatible. To be sure, D'Souza does not outright condemn U.S. foreign policy for its support of dictators, he defends some of it as alliances out of strategic necessity. We sided with Stalin over Hitler and the Mujadeen over the Soviets. In a dynamic world, with constantly shifting alliances, they were the lesser of two evils.
So what platform should U.S. policy be based upon? Some believe that our policy should strictly follow the line of doing only what is in our best interest, others lean towards intervention for only philanthropical purposes. One only needs to look to those who supported intervention in Liberia, but vehemently opposed the deposing of Saddam Hussein. According to D'Souza neither is correct. Intervention should meet two standards, first that it be in our interest, but also that it help advance the cause of liberty, that it make the U.S. AND the world a better place.
I agree with D'Souza's framing of this conflict as one of a clash of cultures. On one hand you have a civilization based in freedom and self-determination, on the other one that is based on man's interpretation and physical enforcement of God's law. One wants a society base on the individual, the other prefers 12th century theocracy. A clash was inevitable.
However, my one criticism of D'Souza is that he did not always answer questions directly, to be sure he addressed the subjects, but at times I found myself looking for more specifics. This was almost negligible however, because hardly any of the questions seriously challenged the substance of his lecture. Where were all my former lefty professors?
During the questions session of the second lecture I asked something along the lines of this: "You mentioned that one of the criticisms of U.S. policy is our propping up of dictators in the region, but now that we have actually deposed one and appear to be moving away from that policy, the militant movement is using that as a rallying cry to fight American Imperialism. It seems that the "America is Evil" meme has such a powerful grip, is there any way to break that other than the spread of democracy to the region?"
In answer, D'Souza referred to his above mentioned criticisms of U.S. foreign policy. In (very) short, he cited the "true believers" of the movement, and suggested that we put much more effort into opening up dialogue with the Middle East. Only by articulating our values will we sufficiently make the case of the moral superiority of our society, one based on the inalienable rights of the individual.
I think he is right, but I do take some issue with "true believers." That they exist I have no doubt, in every society there exists some religious fanatics. In the Middle East though I tend to think that much of this is indoctrinated, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism is a not small part of many Middle Eastern schools' curriculum. They live in closed societies, without a free press, and without free elections. Authoritarian rulers have much control over the flow of information, and open dissension is met with jail time, intimidation, and violence. Despair, hopelessness and poverty, the inevitable product of dictatorial regimes, is suffered by the general population, while the elites build lavish palaces. Authoritarian figure heads know that the anger and frustration born into the peoples must be directed elsewhere and with near full control over information, they point much of it West. It is because America is rich that the Muslim world is poor, so goes the myth. Blame is passed to a common foe that the dictator promises his people he'll help fight against. They rally around him, or face consequences, and that is what I was trying to get at in my question. How can we open that dialogue without the free flow of ideas, without a free press. How do you have open discussion when everything you say is filtered by the powers that be? Without those freedoms the door of discussion will remain mostly closed, democracy is, I think, a prerequisite to dialogue.
Of course, technologies such as satellite TV and the Internet are making it increasingly difficult to control the flow of information, even in closed societies. Thanks to science, democracy, and capitalism, these technologies are not only improving but also becoming more accessible world wide. It was the fact that America embraced these three so wholly, that led to the power shift from Europe to where we stand today, as well as providing great benefits for the rest of the world. It is the wealth of the United States and all of our "materialism" that is a customer to economies all over the world. It is American companies that open overseas and create jobs that locals are happy to take given that their other option is usually unemployment.
Think of medicine. It is the American capitalist system that spends billions of dollars on research and development in the health care industry. The benefits of improved treatments, new drugs, vaccinations, and the open sharing of this knowledge are extended to those well beyond our borders.
For as much as European leaders carp about the power of America's military, they should be cognizant of the benefits it provides. Knowing that they have the protection of the American military behind them, they can afford to reduce the size of their military and instead use those funds to support their sizeable welfare states. Which is to say nothing for the immeasurable benefits of living free of the Soviet threat in their own neighborhood. For it was the American economic engine and the arms race that the USSR could not keep pace with, that eventually led to Soviet collapse. America did all this and at the same time was able to keep market places stocked and its citizens out of soup and bread lines.
Even environmentalism was born of capitalism. The communists certainly never had a green faction. You only need to look at the toxic dumpings and other environmental disasters that occurred behind the iron curtain, sites that are still being cleaned up today. Saddam Hussein drained the wetlands in Iraq to punish the Marsh Arabs, taking away their means of subsistence and of course his burning of wells and dumping of oil into the Gulf has been well documented. Environmentalism is a luxury, it is only societies that have achieved a certain amount of stability and wealth that can afford to take up environmental causes. A person worried about his next meal has no time for the spotted owl. Who funds the Sierra Club? It's not communist China and it isn't anyone who made a fortune selling real estate in Sweden.
Without the wealth created by capitalism, where would these riches come from? How would organizations such as the ACLU or Human Rights Watch survive? Welfare does not create affluence - it is a product of it. That is the dilemma critics of capitalism face. They love the wealth capitalism creates, they want to redistribute it to anyone they see fit, but doing so would remove the incentive to be creative and the mechanism of wealth creation itself. To use an apt cliche' it kills the goose that lays the golden egg.
So until further notice, for all its imperfections, the Western way of human rights, self-determination, capitalism, and democracy is the best we know. The progress made by the human race over the last couple hundred years is stunning. Our standard of living, our income, our life expectancy, and a host of other quality of life indicators, are constantly improving and the march of human progress goes on. D'Souza gives us a quietly deep reminder of the foundations of our advancement and I think it should be our goal, as human beings, to extend the rights of freedom and self-determination to the Middle East, so that they main join and enjoy the benefits of that march.