Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Dinesh D'Souza

Warren Bass, a senior editor at The Washington Post's "Book World" served on the professional staff of the 9/11 Commission. On Sunday he kicked the bejesus out of Dinesh D'Souza's latest screed, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. It is pretty tough to pull out just one representative excerpt from what Bass calls "the worst nonfiction book about terrorism published by a major house since 9/11," but I'll go with these paragraphs:

Of course, the ascetic bin Laden doesn't like American culture or values, including such far-left ideas as democracy or educating women, but he has a clear politico-religious agenda that's important to take seriously. You'd never know it from reading D'Souza, but bin Laden's February 1998 "Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders" -- the most considered summation of his casus belli -- laid out three main grievances for which al-Qaeda kills. First and foremost comes the post-Gulf crisis deployment of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, which are "occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories" and "using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against the neighboring Islamic peoples." Second comes the supposed Crusader-Jewish alliance's "long blockade" of the Iraqis, designed "to destroy what remains of this people and to humiliate their Muslim neighbors." Finally, America's anti-Muslim wars "also serve the petty state of the Jews, to divert attention from their occupation of Jerusalem and their killing of Muslims in it." See anything about Hollywood there?

D'Souza breezes past clearly articulated core al-Qaeda goals (such as toppling the "near enemy," as bin Ladenists call the impious regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt) to enlist bin Laden as an ally for D'Souza's side of the American culture wars. But the 1998 declaration bluntly states that "the purposes of the Americans" in their crusades against Islam "are religious and economic" -- not cultural. D'Souza is too busy projecting to really grapple with al-Qaeda's politics, strategy or ideological appeal; it's as if he read Mein Kampf and concluded that its author's main concern was not Aryan supremacy or genocidal anti-Semitism but distaste for Weimar theater.

For a Stanford fellow, D'Souza shows a surprising ignorance of the growing literature on jihadist ideology. One has to ask which is more likely: that such authors as Steve Coll, Lawrence Wright, Peter L. Bergen, Marc Sageman, Jessica Stern, Richard A. Posner and Bruce Hoffman could have scrutinized al-Qaeda ideology and somehow failed to notice that bin Laden's main beef was with America's corrupt cultural left, or that the grinding sound you hear off in the distance is D'Souza with an ax. Or consider the work of another heavyweight, Michael F. Scheuer, the tough-minded founding chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit, who advocates the massive use of the U.S. military as our principal tool for fighting al-Qaeda. (D'Souza, oddly, lumps him in with a bunch of lefties.) "Bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us," Scheuer has written. "None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but have everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world." There's a feisty and interesting debate among terrorism specialists about whether Scheuer has the balances right, but "The Vagina Monologues" isn't high on any serious analyst's list of al-Qaeda grievances.

I saw D'Souza last night on The Colbert Report. He was just awful. In addition to the inanities about the cultural left, D'Souza tried to claim that all Republican Presidents have bravely and successfully tried to wage war against terrorism while Bill Clinton, naturally, failed. In addition to being utterly intellectually dishonest, such an assertion shows D'Souza's absolutely blind fealty to a Ronald Reagan who never was. There are lots of reasons and lots of justifications -- no one could have anticipated the rise of radical Islam, in the waning years of the Cold War there were bigger issues, and so forth -- but the reality is that no presidency set the table for the modern crisis than did Reagan's.

D'Souza is a fatuous hack whose jeremiads have pretty consistently been little more than ideological puff pieces for the right and hatchet jobs on the left. It appears that in this book, D'Souza has reached a nadir. Good for Bass for not flinching from rigorous criticism of such slipshod, dishonest work.


montana urban legend said...

Far be it from me to defend D'Souza against charges of being an intellectual lightweight, but I would point out that while Al Q's C.E.O. outlined specific grievances - it's important that we not read too seriously into his itemized wish-list. For one, A.Q. does not represent any government. To the extent that their whims merge with Arab public opinion, we should listen, and to the extent that that opinion reflects a regional disdain for American military involvement, we should take the sentiment seriously. A.Q.'s popular appeal, however, is based on its willingness to take a brutal physical stand against the West generally, and in that regard conservatives (and Peter Beinert, etc.) are right to emphasize the superiority of the West as a modern civilization - since conflating grievances against Western civilization with grievances against Western military action is an all too inevitable part of the Middle-Eastern grievance mindset. D'Souza's approach, as simplistic as it is, is meant as much for domestic consumption as it could be useful to Middle-Eastern consumption.

I'm also not too sure that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism should have been seen as unpredictable - given the rise of Us "Others"; a modernity that came with that, which still eludes them; and the resulting, antagonistic need to instead appeal to the traditions (and the strong religious overtones therein) that accompanied their own lost but once-great civilization; a civilization that never merged or reconciled itself with the same West with which it was often in a state of antagonism and competition - when not outright conflict, and perhaps still is.

And finally, Scheuer, whatever his credentials and position, always seemed a bit too willing to me to think that we could go ahead with seeing Israeli concerns as expendable chips in exchange for winning an Arab public opinion that remains as ill-informed and unrealistic as ever.

dcat said...

MUL --
But how on earth does any of this validate D'Souza? You say that bhis book is as much for domestic consumption as for Middle eastern consumption -- but so what? If people in the US are consuming something that is just wrong when it is not absurd, so what? Bass outlines a list of far more serious people.
Sorry, but even if what you say is true, and much of it makes sense to me, that has little to do with D'Souza's work. People who understand terrorism much better also have a far better honed sense of proportion as to how culture fits into the equation. D'Souza is simply not an honest broker in this discussion.


montana urban legend said...

It doesn't validate D'Souza, dcat, and I'm not sure how well consumed (;-)) either his book is or will be or to what degree Americans even care to hear the "it's all about the triumph and survivial of Western civilization" meme pounded into them anymore. But until we do develop a credible, meaningful and successful way of dealing with terrorism and putting A.Q. and their dastardly acts behind us, I'm afraid that books like those which D'Souza has written will just continue to be a part of the loud, fuzzy background noise permeating American political discourse. I've already got used to tuning them out and that is why - honest or not - I think it it likely that even just a 20-second perusal through D'Souza's book would show how evident it was that he isn't approaching the level of brokering anything.

dcat said...

MUL -- I just find folks like D'Souza to be so loathsome. They actually think they have some sort fo moral or cultural superiority and then they use that to try to turn terrorism into part of their larger cultural ax.
but the other aspect is that it is often the left saying that "they hate us because of who we are" referring to things like gas guzzlers and what they perceive as imperialism or what have you. And of course the logical response to that from the right always has been that we do not adjust our standards to make the terrorists happy. Does someone like D'Souza really believe that part of the cultural antipathy isn't crass consumerism? And weren't we all told to shop after 9/11?
It is just infuriating and loathsome stuff.