When a conservative’s book is lambasted in The New York Times book review section, as Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home was today, I can usually take it for granted that the review, if hostile, will probably be ridiculous and virtually self-refuting. Alan Wolfe has not disappointed me. In a review entitled, none too subtly, “None (but Me) Dare Call It Treason,” he excoriates D’Souza’s book as a “national disgrace” and calls the author “childish.” Tom Piatak had a very different reading of the “disgrace”:
Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 is really three separate books jammed together in one package: a persuasive though hardly original account of the Culture War in America; an engaging rendition of the Left’s hostility toward traditional cultures around the world and its attempt to break down the morality undergirding those cultures; and an unconvincing attempt to link the first two books to the third, a defense of the Bush administration’s policies in the Middle East. Because of this odd juxtaposition, there is much of interest in D’Souza’s book, though its parts are definitely greater than the whole.
However, my bad reaction to the NYT review does not mean that I am a great D’Souza fan, and I have already written a little about Tom Piatak’s TAC review of the same book. My impression of the book has not much improved with the reading of a second review, even though Wolfe’s tone and argument make me want to be sympathetic with D’Souza in spite of myself.
Let me start by acknowledging that I have not read D’Souza’s book, nor will I be rushing out to buy it. I am working from what these two reviews tell me. Based on those reviews, D’Souza seems to say some things that are true (it is true, for example, that Bin Laden has not launched any attacks on Israel and also true that few Americans are terribly distressed at the tens of thousands of dead Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan), but also unfortunately elaborates his “grand strategy” for a sort of international culture war in alliance with “traditional Muslims” that inevitably summons to mind the phrase “ecumenical jihad.” This is a very, very bad idea, but the proposal itself deserves some consideration so that we can understand fully just how bad of an idea it is.
Some of D’Souza’s irony is clearly lost on Mr. Wolfe. For instance, he does not seem to grasp what I take to be the point behind D’Souza’s remark about polygamy and Western sexual freedom. From Wolfe’s review:
Polygamy exists under Islamic law, but the sexual freedom produced by feminism in this country is, at least for men, “even better than polygamy.”
Perhaps D’Souza is simply being nihilistic here and saying: “They mistreat their women one way, and in certain respects we mistreat them even more in another, so why get on your high horse about their treatment of women?” On the other hand, he might very well be saying (though why he is saying this, I have no idea, so ripped from context is this excerpt), “A sane society would oppose polygamy on the grounds that it is a disgrace and travesty of the marital bond, which should be a monogamous and faithful union, but we are a deeply sick society that does so much to undermine and wreck the institution of marriage and we mistreat our women in some ways that are more degrading in the name of “sexual freedom,” but still have the gall to attack traditional societies for the practice of polygamy.” In other words, I think D’Souza probably accepts that polygamy is wrong–I am going to guess that he is not really engaged in cultural relativism here–but recognises that polygamy is relatively better, as a matter of social stability and public morality, than rampant mass fornication dressed up as “freedom.” Does Mr. Wolfe understand the difference between these two positions? Does he care about figuring out what D’Souza means? I assume he does not. He has the polemical bit between his teeth and he is racing down the track.
Ecumenical jihad is initially, but only very briefly, an appealing concept. Its core assumption, taken to its logical conclusion, is that a conservative would and should prefer “traditional Muslims” to, say, Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris. In a global struggle against the cultural leftists, Islam thus supposedly becomes the ally. This is a sort of Brzezinskian-Reaganite approach to a global cultural conservatism: support the mujahideen against the godless. The core problem with this idea, besides its complete impracticability, the damage it would do to our civilisation and the scorn with which it would be met on the Muslim side, is that it presupposes a common ground and a consensus on basic moral truths that don’t actually exist.
Strict conservatives in the West quite rightly have a very dim view of the sexual revolution. The trouble is that most “traditional Muslims” think, for example, that women appearing in public without accompaniment from a male relative is a form of absolutely unacceptable sexual revolution and indecency and that it can be punishable by violence. I assume that most conservatives, including many social conservatives, would view this as extreme and excessive. D’Souza’s alliance rests on the assumption that this is what most of us would like to establish in this country if only we could somehow manage it. I can believe that many social conservatives want a restored public morality and decency that would impose many, many strictures on people that have since fallen by the wayside without confusing what they want with the codes of Islamic fundamentalists.
D’Souza’s alliance only makes sense in the very limited, binary analysis of for/against. “Oh, Muslims are also against homosexuality–let’s join together with them to fight this abomination!” Except that their idea of the fight is to stone or otherwise execute sexual deviants. That does almost put them in the Old Testament tradition, or at least the punishment bears close resemblance to Leviticus, but then even the blackest of black reactionaries in the West are unlikely to bring back Levitical punishments that have been in abeyance for centuries and are unlikely to sympathise very much with those still inflicting such punishments.
As a matter of foreign policy, I am convinced that what Muslims do in their own countries is generally their business, which is why I find D’Souza’s weird combination of Islam and Imperialism so bizarre. In his view, we should go out of our way to make concessions to traditional Muslim sensibilities all over the place, but then also dictate the political and economic future of their countries through interventionist foreign policy that is sure to anger, humiliate and outrage the very same constituency D’Souza seems intent on satisfying.
But if D’Souza is incoherent, Wolfe is laughably silly. Here is Wolfe in high dudgeon:
Unlike President Bush, who once said he could not understand how anyone could hate America, D’Souza knows why Islamic radicals attack us. “Painful though it may be to admit,” he admits, “some of what the critics or even enemies say about America and the West … may be true.” Susan Sontag never said we brought Sept. 11 on ourselves. Dinesh D’Souza does say it.
Leave aside the strange contrast between Mr. Bush’s understanding–which is so widely respected as deep and penetrating!–and D’Souza’s. This is one of those cases where D’Souza says, “Some of what our critics say may be true” and Wolfe cries, “Anti-American!” faster than a neocon columnist on a deadline. From the excerpt given here, D’Souza does not say that we brought 9/11 on ourselves. It says that some of the criticisms of America and the West are not entirely without merit. That is a perfectly defensible statement, and it happens to be true. More might be said in this vein, but from what Wolfe tells us D’Souza did not say it.
Another excerpt that proves the book to be a disgrace? Wolfe recounts:
And the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement that the West has a taboo against questioning the existence of the Holocaust, while “pooh-poohed by Western commentators,” was “undoubtedly accurate.”
Here D’Souza has invited trouble for himself by even bringing up Ahmadinejad and failing to engage in a ritual denunciation. But, according to this excerpt, what did he say was “undoubtedly accurate”? Ahmadinejad’s claim that there was a taboo against questioning the existence of the Holocaust. That is “undoubtedly accurate.” There is a taboo against this. Wolfe presumably finds D’Souza’s comment about this offensive precisely because there is such a strong taboo that even mentioning that there is a taboo is frowned upon–it’s simply understood and left at that. Most people in the West happen to think this is a well-founded taboo, since the Holocaust (i.e., the mass killing of Jews in lands under Nazi German authority) did happen.
One might query (Wolfe does not) why D’Souza mentions this, since Ahmadinejad obviously does not make this observation out of a deep sensitivity about the problems of imposing what are effectively political limitations on historical inquiry. He uses it as a way to show that there are things “we” in the West consider unquestionable and inviolable and, so he would probably claim, thus our commitment to freedom of speech is a fraud. However, while I might say that locking people up for making statements about the Holocaust contrary to the generally accepted historical record is stupid and tyrannical, just as I consider the French law outlawing Armenian genocide denial to be foolish and counterproductive (not least since it allows members of the Turkish establishment to pose as some sort of defenders of academic or political freedom, when that is exactly what they are not), Ahmadinejad uses this inconsistency on the part of Westerners to advance the claims of Islam over and against us and to insist that we cannot violate their taboos in what we do because we are supposedly hypocrites when it comes to protecting freedom of speech. Many European countries are hypocrites about this, but that remains irrelevant. If Europeans lifted all hate-speech and Holocaust-denial laws tomorrow, Ahmadinejad and other Muslims with him would not change a bit. D’Souza exposes himself rather stupidly here to the obvious attacks that he had to know would come and doesn’t really make much of point, as far as I can see from this excerpt, except to say, “Ahmadinejad occasionally says things that are factually true.” This is not very interesting. It is a sad commentary on the pathetic, super-politicised state of Iran commentary that to say something as mild and inoffensive as this merits special derision from an agent of the Grey Lady.
D’Souza’s book evidently proposes a fool’s errand of allying with Islam as a path towards the defense of our own culture. Wolfe does make a couple of the same points I have already made before (e.g., the distinction between traditional and radical Muslims is largely illusory), but largely fails to focus on the central conceptual flaw of D’Souza’s proposal: you cannot drag the Islamic world kicking and screaming towards secular modernity while at the same time hoping that the “traditional” forces within Islam will strengthen or somehow aid in the conservative fight against the cultural left. This is an idea even more crazy and potentially disastrous than the tired cliche of the fine “family values” of Latin American immigrants who are coming fortify conservatism in America and become loyal GOP voters. That is why people should throw down D’Souza’s book and move away, and not because he has accused subversives of being just what they are.