A review of The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, by Dinesh D'Souza
The Left's response to Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home has been predictable. Alan Wolfe, reviewing it for the New York Times, all but declared that decent and honorable people should banish D'Souza from public life. The Right's response is more interesting. A reviewer for the paleoconservative journal Chronicles writes in "Dinesh the Dhimmi"—no subtlety there—that D'Souza is a "phony conservative" who has "joined" with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization with reputed terrorist sympathies, to wage war against America. Many right-wing bloggers have been even less kind.
Yet if D'Souza is a "phony conservative," it's hard to know who the real deal is. A former policy advisor for Ronald Reagan, editor of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review (before it moved to the Hoover Institution), a conservative gladiator on the campus speaking circuit, and the author of some of the most successful conservative polemics of the last twenty years, including Illiberal Education (1991) and The End of Racism (1995), it seems unlikely that D'Souza was a covert liberal in mufti all along.
His latest book's much-discussed argument is that American licentiousness—not our alliance with Israel, or U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, or any of the other more familiar complaints—is fostering radical Islamic anti-Americanism. He is not subtle on this point, writing from the outset that "the cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11." And while he does muse about how the Left is "secretly allied" with "the movement that bin Laden and Islamic radicals represent" he doesn't quite go so far as to claim the Left is actually fighting for the other side in the war on terror. Rather, it is our "pagan" depravity that most drives Islamic radicals to kill us and it best answers the tiresome but unavoidable question, "Why do they hate us?" D'Souza is unconvinced that widespread poverty, resistance to modern science, or Islam's own internal imperatives play much of a role in jihadism's rise (although he acknowledges that our weak, vacillating foreign policy in the face of Muslim violence hasn't helped, because it signals that our cultural rot has softened our spines). Basically, it's all about the decadent culture that we foist upon the rest of the world.
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D'Souza is largely right as far as his argument goes. The problem is that it doesn't go nearly as far as he thinks it does. But let us at least acknowledge that he is surely correct that many Muslims are disgusted by the American spectacle, just as many are fascinated, titillated, and enticed by it—sometimes all at once. As Bernard Lewis has noted, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini started calling us the Great Satan because Islamic theology emphasizes Satan's role as a seducer. The overly sexual hurly-burly of American life must surely be deeply horrifying and yet also seductive for cultures so—what's the right word?—Repressed? Dysfunctional? Evil? Misogynist? Old-Fashioned? Well, whichever word you think best finishes that sentence will say a lot about your reaction to this book.
It needs to be said that the problem with D'Souza's case is one of emphasis. If one were to make a list of important reasons why the Muslim world or Islamists in particular want to kill us, just about every reasonable person would put the D'Souza thesis on the list, though partisans of particular schools might rank it higher or lower depending on their agendas. But very few would rank our alleged pagan depravity at the top of the list. And virtually no one, save D'Souza himself, would say that our pagan depravity is pretty much the entire list.
D'Souza tries, sometimes valiantly, to dispel competing explanations for jihad. For example, he says several times that Islamists don't hate democracy; in fact they've embraced it. But as he concedes, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah have only called for more democracy because they know "their group can win." Embracing electionsso you can gain power and keep it permanently is not quite the same thing as embracing democracy. Every party, including the Nazis, gushes about democracy when it wins an election, but constitutional government means abiding by the rules when you lose an election. One man, one vote, one time, is not democracy; it's will-to-power masquerading as ritualized lever-pulling.
Many of D'Souza's arguments are equally problematic. He pooh-poohs President Bush's statement that "they hate our freedoms" and complains that the Islamists aren't "anti-modern." The 9/11 hijackers had considerable technological expertise, he notes. But this is a fairly pinched argument about what constitutes "modernism." Nazi ideologues embraced technology, too, from poison gas and V2 rockets to the Autobahn and the X-ray machine. But they also subscribed to a deeply reactionary vision of the pre-Christian, pre-Enlightenment German soul. Jeffrey Herf famously dubbed the Nazis "reactionary moderns" for their ability to simultaneously embrace the accoutrement of modernity while harboring barbarously backward ideas. The Nazis represented, in Goebbels's words, a "steel-like romanticism of the twentieth century." And it should be noted, the Nazis were not suffering from cognitive dissonance, but perverse ideology. Similarly, the Islamists seem like perfect reactionary moderns. They wage jihad, using laptops and IEDs, to impose the burka, destroy art, and crush homosexuals.
D'Souza has a grating tendency to take the Koran as well as jihadist writings and propaganda at face value when they support his thesis. When Islamist rhetoric turns to the Jews or Christians or oil or troops in Saudi Arabia, he becomes dismissive. This sort of cherry-picking has a familiar feel. In an eloquent review in these pages, Gerard Alexander noted how liberal students of anti-Americanism tend to see the things they don't like about America reflected back in the perverted narcissus pool of global anti-Americanism ("Blame America First," Winter 2006/07). In other words, anti-Americanism is the voice the world gives to my grievances. This seems to be what D'Souza is doing. He is identifying things about America he does not like—divorce, pornography, abortion, etc.—and saying: see, this is why they don't like us.
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Liberal critics have gloated over the book's argument as a glaring example of conservative hypocrisy. After all, conservatives have long complained that the Left "blames America first." But cries of hypocrisy tend to be among the weakest forms of refutation since the critic is basically castigating the hypocrite for accepting the critic's own position. In this case, liberals find it outrageous to blame America first when it's their vision of America getting blamed. In this way, D'Souza lucidly applies liberal logic to what he believes are conservative ends. For decades, liberals have argued that there is a powerful connection between America at home and America abroad. Particularly in the Cold War's early years, leftists and liberals alike argued that American racism at home was hurting our efforts to win hearts and minds abroad. (To be sure, leftists cared about civil rights, but they were also powerfully motivated by the desire to beat up on America and bolster the image of Communist regimes, many of which were scoring enormous public relations victories from Jim Crow.) But given the weight the Left gives to solidarity and its animosity to the idea that one good might come at the expense of another, they cannot accept that Muslims, Third Worlders, and other brothers in the Coalition of the Oppressed might be even more put off by a gay pride parade than by the suppression of a civil rights march. In short, D'Souza is right that the bawdy spectacle of Hollywood and the Left sometimes makes America's job harder.
But here's my primary objection: I don't care. There's something about The Enemy at Home that gets the Irish up, even in a guy named Goldberg. I can criticize and complain about my brother all I like, but if my brother bothers somebody outside the family, well, that's just too bad. Similarly, Ted Kennedy may or may not be a Caligulan carbuncle, but if the jihadists want to behead him for it, they'll have to get through me first. In short, if our debauchery fuels Islamic terrorists to kill us, the blame for that still resides entirely with the terrorists. One can wholeheartedly agree that some Americans make poor use of their freedom, and that certain behavior shouldn't be promoted, but that's our problem. And if it makes it harder for us to make our case to the Muslim world, then harder it must be.
In the end, President Bush was right. They do hate our freedom. They hate other stuff too, to be sure. But quite a bit of what offends the jihadis flows from the fact that we are free. Indeed, even our support of Israel—which as D'Souza notes baffles many in the Middle East—is in the end the result of our freedom. Free countries support free countries. Or at least they are supposed to. "We understand your interests," a Muslim lawyer who is baffled by our support for Israel, allegedly in defiance of our national interest, tells D'Souza. "We don't understand your ideals." Just so.
For example, D'Souza's claim that when it comes to "core beliefs" he has more in common with the Grand Mufti of Egypt than with Michael Moore, simply won't hold. Which beliefs? Sure, Ali Gomaa is against gay marriage, but he also thinks sculpture should be banned and believes Jews are "bloodsuckers." D'Souza would have to keep the conversation pretty constrained for him to stay eye-to-eye with the Mufti.
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Lastly, something needs to be said about the angry reaction from certain quarters on the Right. Criticizing such a prominent fellow conservative could be a sign of conservatism's own intellectual health, but it could also be a sign of a new, right-wing political correctness. The Islamists reportedly proselytize with the slogan "Islam is the solution." For some on the Right the mantra is "Islam is the problem." They will not stomach D'Souza's fine distinctions between good Muslims and bad ones. The use of the word "dhimmi" is a good example. Muslims use this term to describe non-Muslims who agree to live under the yoke of Islamic rule and Sharia law. Some right-wingers have begun using it in much the same way their counterparts in previous eras referred to "collaborators," "Commie symps," or "fellow travelers." We aren't near the point where a respectable conservative says "the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim," but one can smell the whiff of sulfur bubbling to the top of certain swamps.
Dinesh D'Souza should be congratulated for starting from the premise that not every Muslim is our enemy simply because he is Muslim. The West can't get rid of Islam, nor should it try to. Unlike Communism, which ran against the traditional grains of the societies it conquered, Islam is the tradition of these societies. Hence, D'Souza's argument for reaching out to moderates and traditionalists in the Islamic world is a defensible approach given the paucity of alternatives. The problem, as critics often very capably demonstrate, is that there is also a severe paucity of moderates and traditionalists on whom the U.S. can rely. So, we've got a big problem. The Left wants to say we don't really have a problem at all. And some on the Right want to make it much bigger than it is. Unfortunately, D'Souza's analysis doesn't succeed at finding a defensible middle ground. But he deserves credit for trying.