Thursday, February 01, 2007

Converts are the worst kind
By now, enough has been written about Dinesh D'Souza's new book The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 that I don't need to go into a detailed description of its failings. We've all noted the irony of the fact that, since 9/11 right wingers have taken to calling the left "the blame America first crowd," and that when one of them writes a book about 9/11, his thesis is to blame Americans. We've all noted that this is a divisive, dishonest, and essentially anti-American argument. We've all noted the additional irony of him embracing the critique of American culture put forth by radical Islamists, in an effort to "blame the victim," while claiming to defend American culture against those same radical Islamists.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that someone as obsesses with identifying the causes of the decline of Western Civilization as D'Souza keeps an enemies list.
D'Souza identifies more than 100 people and organizations as part of a "domestic insurgency" that is "working in tandem with [Osama] bin Laden to defeat Bush." Among them are such well-known terrorists as Sharon Stone, Henry Louis Gates and Cindy Sheehan. If you've ever given money to Planned Parenthood or the ACLU, D'Souza wants you to know, you've been aiding groups "at least as dangerous as any of bin Laden's American sleeper cells."

Anyone the least bit familiar with the basic dishonesty of all D'Souza's arguments will also be unsurprised to find that he manages to accuse us of "working in tandem with bin Laden" in one breath and then say, with a straight face, "I am not accusing anyone of treason or even of anti-Americanism." Ed Brayton does a superb job of picking apart the dishonesty of that approach and deconstructs his list.

I first became aware of D'Souza in 1991 or '92. He came through the place I worked on a book tour and no one showed up for his talk, so a bunch of the bookstore employees sat in on his talk to fill chairs. Although he was selling his book Illiberal Education at the time, the gist of his talk was practicing the anti-affirmative action arguments for is next book The End of Racism. D'Souza's act was to play the wide-eyed, naive foreign guy who thought America was a land of perfect equality, and that inequality was something that he had never seen in America, but only read about in history books. Since none of us knew his background, our first impression was to think his naiveté rather precious. Later a couple people got curious enough to look into his background and figured out that it was all an act.

I bring this up, because D'Souza represents, to me, a dangerous type of standard character in history: the nationalist convert. D'Souza is an immigrant to the United States. He was born in a different culture, to parents who were part of that culture, and not part of American culture. Despite his origins, he has embraced American culture with the passion that only a convert can muster. He feels that he is qualified to write books defining real American culture and to excommunicate anyone who he feels is bad for the culture that he has defined. In his zeal he has become the worst kind of nationalist chauvinist. The problem is that the culture he defined does not, and never did, exist.

The nationalist convert has been a dangerous figure in Europe and other areas for the last two centuries. The founding father of this mindset was Napoleon, who was born in a non-French border region of the empire and oversaw the creation of the modern form of statist nationalism. The most notorious nationalist convert was Hitler, an Austrian who sought to define Germany. Most countries of Eastern Europe have experienced members of the diaspora who returned to have an outsized influence on the politics of the old country. Many of the architects of apartheid in South Africa were first generation immigrants.

Nationalist converts come upon their dangerous illusions by worshiping from afar. The state or culture to which they attach their affections is an intellectual construct, a figment of their imagination. They fail to recognize the compromises and varied interests that exist in any vibrant, living society. When they actually enter that culture, they are shocked and offended that the pure ideal of their dreams does not exist and they dedicate themselves to purifying the culture by removing the influences that they deem foreign or contaminating. Not all nationalist converts are genocidal maniacs. In fact, most content themselves with far more mundane forms of bigotry such as banning foreign words, dictating a heroic history curriculum for the schools, and sticking national symbols on every surface the can.

D'Souza, as a new citizen, has every right to participate in American culture. And that includes free speech, which in case is the right to spout his inane and dangerous ideas (just as much as I have to call his ideas "inane and dangerous"). He has just as much right as the Hispanic new citizen who wants to demand bi-lingual education for his kids. Of course, I know which one of those new citizens I'd rather have as a neighbor.

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