D’Souza on Freedom and Virtue

The observation is trite, but nonetheless true. It often takes an outsider to appreciate the value of the happy circumstances and good fortune we all too often take for granted. Dinesh D’Souza is one such person.

D’Souza grew up in a middle class family in India. When he was seventeen, he managed to attend a high school in Arizona as a foreign exchange student. He was so taken with the US that he enrolled in Dartmouth College in 1979, where he majored in English. Once there, he help found the Dartmouth Review, a Conservative gadfly publication that ultimately found itself embroiled in campus controversies. After graduation, he wrote for a number of Conservative publications and by 1986, he was on the White House staff for President Ronald Reagan. It was a remarkably far trip from India to the White House taken in a remarkably short time.

Recently, the University of California at Berkeley came under criticism when students decided to issue white, rather than red, white, and blue ribbons in remembrance of the attacks of September 11. Ostensibly, red, white, and blue ribbons would be exclusionary. Fortunately, adults intervened and red, white, and blue ribbons will also be issued.

D’Souza recognized the silliness and meanness of political correctness on campuses earlier than most. He became a conspicuous personality when he wrote Illiberal Education: Political Correctness and the College Experience in 1992. There is no quicker way to be embraced by Conservatives and reviled by Liberals than to poke fun at the pretentious and closed-minded political correctness on college campus.

Even the title of D’Souza’s new book, What’s So Great About America, causes irritation among some who question that there is anything of America worthy of emulation. D’Souza systemically plows through the conventional criticisms of America. While acknowledging that the US, like all human institutions is imperfect, over the last 200 years, the government and culture has proved to be self-correcting. One and a half centuries ago, it fought a bloody civil war to rid itself of slavery and forty years ago it largely rid itself of government sanctioned racial discrimination. In the last century, it also managed to play a pivotal role in defeating Nazism and in the collapse of Soviet Communism.

D’Souza has been most loudly criticized for his treatment of slavery, largely because he has drawn from his own ethnic roots. D’Souza explains how his grandfather retains a strong animosity for white people, particularly the British. No doubt this feeling is explained by the arrogant and racist treatment his grandfather received at the hands of the British.

D’Souza recognizes the reasonableness and rationality of this attitude. However, he also acknowledges that democracy and respect for individuality introduced by the British radically increases the personal opportunities for him.

By analogy, D’Souza argues that American slavery was an immoral, brutal, and cruel institution, but two hundred years later the descendants of the slaves that suffered so much are economically better off and politically freer than most of their counterparts in Africa. D’Souza has been unfairly criticized as an apologist for slavery.

The rancor surrounding this discussion, unfortunately, has clouded the real thesis of his book. His argument is far more important, subtle, and directed at the critique of America and the West in general by fundamentalists in the Islamic World. There is no real dispute that countries that have adopted tolerant and commercial societies that respect individual rights have been more materially successful. The wealth disparity is apparent to all.

The critique is that in the process of creating wealth, Western societies have contributed to personal alienation, attenuated important family ties, and nurtured decadence and indulgence and other self-destructive behavior. The West may be free, but it is not virtuous. Islamic fundamentalists argue that Islamic government would serve the higher value of virtue, not freedom.

This argument is not trivial or unimportant. Western culture as projected in music, movies, and television can promote violence and casual promiscuity, as well as nurture an adolescent preoccupation with self-indulgence and the ethos of materialistic accumulation. You do not have to be an Islamic fundamentalist to acknowledge that respect for individual choice means enduring the consequences of many bad choices.

D’Souza’s response is that a society that tries to impose virtue by creating a theocracy does not produce virtue at all. If behavioral norms are externally imposed, rather than rise from within, they cannot truly be a sign of virtue. Virtue must be freely selected. It is only by allowing the freedom to be evil, that there can be virtue. D’Souza’s argument echoes the words of John Locke who aptly pointed out, “Neither the profession of any articles of faith, nor the conformity to any outward form of worship … can be available to the salvation of souls, unless the truth of the one and the acceptableness of the other unto God be thoroughly believed by those that so profess and practice.”

The response of the West and D’Souza is that the choice is not between freedom and virtue. Rather, one cannot have virtue, without respect for individual freedom. The most important thing that the state can do to encourage virtue is to provide for freedom. Thus, D’Souza reminds us of something we should have remembered all along.

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