A Reply to Dinesh D’Souza

March 16, 2007 at 8:00 am

Read the entire symposium, “The Enemy D’Souza Knows,” at NRO.

In Excommunication for Thee…, I gave reasons for agreeing with Boston College professor Alan Wolfe, who, writing in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, concluded that Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home was a deeply flawed and incendiary book. At the same time, I defended D’Souza against Wolfe’s call for conservatives to excommunicate him. In the process, I noted the irony that in a post-9/11 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wolfe himself, like D’Souza, had declared that America was endangered by an enemy at home, except that for Wolfe the enemy within was not the cultural Left but the fascist Right.

It turns out that D’Souza and Wolfe see eye-to-eye on another point, namely, that I am a vicious and clueless critic. As Wolfe, in responding to my essay in The New Republic, contrasted his generous liberalism to my rank partisanship, so now D’Souza, in his four part reply to conservative critics in NRO, touts his open-mindedness as against my closed-mindedness.

D’Souza’s contention that he is a paragon of intellectual virtue is as self-refuting as was Wolfe’s. For a hallmark of open-mindedness and the liberal spirit is the capacity to benefit from disagreement and debate. Yet like Wolfe, D’Souza is for the most part unable to treat his interlocutors with respect, and generally unable to draw insight or instruction from the objections that his arguments have provoked.

I will not trouble NRO readers with a response to D’Souza’s sneering asides, ad hominem attacks, and caricature of the criticism to which his book has been subject, except to note that his recurring rhetorical excesses belie his boast that he adheres to standards of scholarly excellence.

And my colleagues in this symposium have ably replied to many of the salvos that D’Souza aims at conservative critics of The Enemy at Home.

So I’ll focus on the chief criticism that D’Souza aims directly at me, which is that, on a crucial issue, I have put words in his mouth:

At one point, Berkowitz accuses me of holding that “the cultural left presents a threat to America as grave as that posed by radical Islam.” What? The Left is as dangerous to America as al Qaeda, the radical mullahs in Iran, the jihadist insurgents in Iraq, and the worldwide network of radical Islam? Nowhere do I say this, and I challenge Berkowitz to substantiate his allegation.

I accept D’Souza’s challenge. Let’s begin with page one of The Enemy at Home and its remarkable opening sentences:  

In this book I make a claim that will seem startling at the outset. The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11.

D’Souza’s preliminary elaboration of his thesis carries over to page two:

I am saying that the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the nonprofit sector, and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world.

In his book’s last paragraph, on page 292, D’Souza provides a summation of the “two-front war” in which America is now engaged. It is 

a military fight against the radical Muslims abroad and a political battle against the radical left at home. These two forces have formed a strange coalition—a kind of alliance of the vicious and the immoral—and they are now working together against us. We have to recognize this, and take them on simultaneously. There is no way to restore the culture without winning the war on terror. Conversely, the only way to win the war on terror is to win the culture war. Thus we arrive at a sobering truth. In order to crush the Islamic radicals abroad, we must defeat the enemy at home.

The very purpose of D’Souza’s book is to demonstrate that the cultural left is the flame that has ignited and sustained the jihadists’ rage, the source that continues to give life and meaning to the “world wide network of radical Islam.” The cultural left is a threat as grave as radical Islam, on D’Souza’s account, because its conduct drives the jihadists to make war against the United States. But for “the cultural left,” D’Souza says on page two, “9/11 would not have happened.” For readers who are interested in further substantiation, I urge them to consult pages 3-291 of The Enemy at Home.

But perhaps I misunderstand the cause of D’Souza’s indignation. Perhaps he threw down the gauntlet not on the grounds that I absurdly inflated the threat that he ascribed to the cultural left but because I significantly understated it. Since on his account the cultural left is the “primary cause” of radical Islam’s rage against America, perhaps D’Souza is aggrieved because I failed to appreciate that he views the cultural left as the graver threat.

Indeed, owing to the opportunity that D’Souza has presented to reconsider his argument, I realize that this is a better interpretation of his views. To substantiate it, one need only pay more careful attention than I originally did to the long epigraph that introduces his book.

D’Souza took the epigraph from a stirring address, “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” which, in 1838, the 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln gave to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. Alarmed by the intensifying conflict over slavery, Lincoln warned that the most dangerous threat to America came not from abroad but arose from within:

Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step over the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

By placing this passage at the front of The Enemy at Home, D’Souza could not more forthrightly or effectively have highlighted his belief that the cultural left is not, as I originally put it, a threat equal in seriousness to that posed by the enemy abroad, but a graver threat than al Qaeda, the Iranian mullahs, and the worldwide jihadist networks.

Indeed, thanks to D’Souza’s public challenge, which provided the occasion to reexamine his work, I now realize that his central claim is still more extravagant and incendiary than I initially appreciated. Reading his book in light of Lincoln’s discerning assessment in 1838 of the surpassing danger that the contest over slavery posed to the nation, it becomes clear that D’Souza believes that in our post 9/11 world the cultural left at home presents the gravest danger we face.

I stand corrected.

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Entry filed under: Book Reviews.

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