Letters to a Young Conservative by Dinesh D’Souza
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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In his new book, Letters to a Young Conservative, Dinesh D’Souza uses the structure of short letters from him to a college students as a way of presenting the compelling case of conservatism by an articulate advocate to an open minded person. I surprised myself when I paid attention to the ways in which I was agreeing with D’Souza on more pages than I care to recall.
Here’s an excerpt of an entire letter, all of Chapter 6, titled “Bogus Multiculturalism”:
I remember, during my first year at Dartmouth, going to meetings sponsored by the International Students
Association. I enjoyed these meetings because they presented a fine opportunity to eat good ethnic food. It was in these venues that I first encountered that most intriguing creature, the multiculturalist. The multiculturalist that I remember most vividly was a white guy who wore a pony-tail and a Nehru jacket. He was visibly excited to meet a fellow from India.
"So you're from India," he said. "What a great country."
"Have you ever been there?" I asked.
"No," he confessed. "But I've always wanted to go."
"Why?" I asked, genuinely curious.
"I don't know," he said. "It's just—so liberating!"
Because I had a happy childhood in India, I have many nice things to say about my native country, but if I had to choose one word to describe life there, I probably wouldn't choose "liberating." I decided to prod my enthusiastic acquaintance a little.
"What is it that you find so liberating about India?" I asked. "Could it be the caste system? Dowry? Arranged marriage?"
My purpose was to challenge him, to generate a discussion. But at this point he lost interest. My question ran into a wall of indifference.
"Got to get another drink," he said, racing toward the bar.
I tried the same experiment several times, always with a similar result. And as I reflected on the matter, a thought occurred to me. Maybe these students weren't really so interested in India after all. Maybe they were projecting their domestic discontents with their parents, their preachers, or their country onto the faraway land of India.
Maybe they imagined India to be something that she was not: a land of social liberation, where conventional restraints were completely lifted. While I sympathized to some degree with these aspirations, I also resented this exploitation of India for political ends. "You are entitled to your illusions," I wanted to tell the pony-tailed guy, "but
India simply is not like that."
I mention this anecdote because it was an early indication of a phenomenon I was to investigate later, the phenomenon of bogus multiculturalism.
The multicultural challenge is one that conservatives must meet because it is central to what a university is all about. Multiculturalism is a movement to transform the curriculum and change the way things are taught in our schools and universities. Some people think that its triumph is inevitable. Thus sociologist Nathan Glazer a few years ago wrote a book called We Are All Multiculturalists Now. Glazer is not entirely enthusiastic about multiculturalism. He is convinced, however, that because America has become so racially diverse, multiculturalism is unavoidable. Glazer's mistake is to confuse the fact of the multiracial society with the ideology of multiculturalism. The two are quite distinct, and the latter is not necessarily the best way to respond to the former.
To understand the multicultural debate, it may be helpful to begin with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the
American Mind. Bloom argued that American students are shockingly ignorant of the basic ingredients of their own Western civilization. Even graduates of the best colleges and universities have a very poor comprehension of the thinkers and ideas that have shaped their culture. Thus Ivy League graduates know that Homer wrote the Odyssey, and that Aquinas lived during the Middle Ages, and that Max Weber's name is pronounced with a "V" But most of them aren't sure whether the Renaissance came before the Reformation; they couldn't tell you what was going on in Britain during the French R.evolution; and they look bewildered if you ask them why the American founders considered representative democracy an improvement over the kind of direct democracy that the Athenians had. Bloom concluded that even "educated" Americans were not really educated at all.
Bloom's ideas came under fierce assault, and leading the charge were proponents of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is, as the name suggests, a doctrine of culture. Advocates of multiculturalism, such as literary critic Cornel West and historian Ronald Takald, say that for too long the curriculum in our schools and colleges has focused exclusively on Western culture. In short, it is "Eurocentric." The problem, multiculturalists say, is not that students are insufficiently exposed to the Western perspective; it is that the Western perspective is all they are exposed to. What is needed, multiculturalists insist, is an expansion of perspectives to include minority and non-Western cultures. This is especially vital, in their view, because we are living in an interconnected global culture and there are increasing numbers of black, Hispanic, and Asian faces in the classroom. Multiculturalism presents itself as an attempt to give all students a more complete and balanced education.
Stated this way, multiculturalism seems unobjectionable and uncontroversial. It is controversial because there is a powerful political thrust behind the way multiculturalism works in practice. To discover this ideological thrust, we must look at multicultural programs as they are actually taught. Several years ago, I did my first study of a multicultural curriculum at Stanford University. I pored over the reading list, looking for the great works of non-Western culture: the Quran, the Ramay ana, the Analects of Confucius, the Tale of Genji, the Gitanjali, and so on. But they were nowhere to be found.
As I sat in on classes, I found myself presented with a picture of non-Western cultures that was unrecognizable to me as a person who had grown up in one of those cultures. Our typical reading consisted of works such as I, Rigoberta Menchu, the autobiography of a young Marxist feminist activist from Guatemala.
Now I don't mean to understate the importance of Guatemalan Marxist feminism as a global theme. But were students encountering the best literary output of Latin American culture? Did I, Rigoberta Menchu even represent the culture of Guatemala? The answer to these questions was no and no. So why were Stanford students being exposed to this stuff?
It is impossible to understand multiculturalism in America without realizing that it arises from the powerful conviction that bigotry and oppression define Western civilization in general and America in particular. The targets of this maltreatment are, of course, minorities, women, and homosexuals. And so the multiculturalists look abroad, hoping to find in other countries a better alternative to the bigoted and discriminatory ways of the West.
And what do they find? If they look honestly, they soon discover that other cultures are even more bigoted than those of the West. Ethnocentrism and discrimination are universal; it is the doctrine of equality of rights under the law that is uniquely Western. Women are treated quite badly in most non-Western cultures: Think of such customs as the veil, female foot-binding, clitoral mutilation, the tossing of females onto the pyres of their dead husbands. When I was a boy, I heard the saying, "I asked the Burmese why, after centuries of following their men, the women now walk in front. He explained that there were many unexploded land mines since the war."
This is intended half-jokingly, but only half-jokingly. It conveys an attitude toward women that is fairly widespread in Asia, Africa, and South America. As for homosexuality, it is variously classified as an illness or a crime in most non-Western cultures. The Chinese, for example, have a longstanding policy of administering shock treatment to homosexuals, a practice that one government official credits with a "high cure rate."
Of course, non-Western cultures have produced many classics and great books, and these are eminently worthy of study. But not surprisingly, those classics frequently convey the same unenlightened views of minorities and women that the multiculturalsts deplore in the West. The Quran, for instance, is the central spiritual document of one of the world's great religions, but one cannot read it without finding there a clear doctrine of male superiority. The Tale of Genji, the Japanese classic of the eleventh century, is a story of hierarchy, of ritual, of life at the court: It is far removed from the Western ideal of egalitarianism. The Indian classics—the Veins, the Bhagavad Gita, and so on, are celebrations of transcendental virtues: They are a rejection of materialism, of atheism, perhaps even of the separation of church and state.
What I am saying is that non-Western cultures, and the classics that they have produced, are for the most part politically incorrect. This poses a grave problem for American multiculturalists. One option for them is to onfront non-Western cultures and to denounce them as being even more backward and retrograde than the West. But this option is politically unacceptable because non-Western cultures are viewed as historically abused and victimized. In the eyes of the multiculturalists, they deserve not criticism but affirmation. And so the multiculturalists prefer the second option: Ignore the representative traditions of non-Western cultures, pass over their great works, and focus instead on marginal and isolated works that are carefully selected to cater to Western leftist prejudices about the non-Western world.
There is a revealing section of I, Rigoberta Menchu in which young Rigoberta proclaims herself a quadruple victim of oppression. She is a person of color, and she is oppressed by racism. She is a woman, and she is oppressed by sexism. She is a Latin American, and she is oppressed by the North Americans. And finally, she is of Indian extraction, and she is oppressed by people of Spanish descent within Latin America. Here, then, is the secret of Rigoberta's curricular appeal. She is not representative of the culture or the great works of Latin America, but she is representative of the politics of Stanford professors. Rigoberta is, for them, a kind of model to hold up to students, especially female and minority students; like her, they, too, can think of themselves as oppressed.
This is what I call bogus multiculturalism. It is bogus because it views non-Western cultures through the ideological lens of Western leftist politics. Non-Western cultures are routinely mutilated and distorted to serve
Western ideological ends. No serious understanding between cultures is possible with multiculturalism of this sort.
The alternative, in my view, is not to go back to the traditional curriculum focused on the Western classics.
Rather, it is to develop an authentic multiculturalism that teaches the greatest works of Western and non-Western cultures. Matthew Arnold penned a resonant phrase: "The best that has been thought and said." That sums up the essence of a sound liberal arts curriculum.
Probably Arnold had in mind the best of Western thought and culture. There is no reason in principle, however, that Arnold's criterion cannot be applied to non-Western cultures as well.
Personally, I would like to see liberal arts colleges devote the better part of the freshman year to grounding students in the classics of Western and non-Western civilization. Yes, I am talking about requirements. To heck with electives: Seventeen-year-olds don't know enough to figure out what they need to learn. Once students have been thoroughly grounded in the classics, they have three more years to choose their majors and experiment with courses in Bob Dylan and Maya Angelou. My hope of course, is that after a year of Socrates and Confucius and Tolstoy and Tagore most students will have lost interest in Bob Dylan and Maya Angelou.
Whether you agree or disagree with D’Souza and his politics, you’re likely to enjoy reading his articulate presentation in Letters to a Young Conservative. And if you find someone writing Letters to a Young Liberal, please let me know.
Steve Hopkins, December 23, 2002
ă 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the January 2003 issue of Executive Times
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