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What's So Great About America?

by Dinesh D’Souza, Robert and Karen Rishwain Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University

What I’d like to talk about is the special role of America in the world today, and the enormous controversy which surrounds the position of America as the world’s only super power. We are one year into the war against terrorism, and we have made some military progress, it seems, in this war. And yet, I want to suggest that we have not made very much intellectual progress in understanding the nature of this conflict, the nature of the enemy—what this fight is all about. You remember that right after the terrorist attack President Bush announced, “This is not a war against Islam.” Islam, he assured us, is a religion of peace. The Islamic concept of Jihad, we were told, does not record the holy war, but is a kind of moral campaign to cleanse one’s inner soul. Tony Blair, Prime Minister of Britain, said, “I don’t like the term Islamic terrorist, because the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists.” Now, I would suggest to you that all of these statements that set out the intellectual background of our understanding of this war are either dubious or manifestly untrue.

For example, it is certainly true that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, but isn’t it also true that the vast majority of terrorists are Muslims. The Islamic concept of Jihad is a fairly elastic concept. If you read the Qur’an and the Islamic commentaries, you can read about many different types of Jihad—the Jihad of the pen, the Jihad of the tongue—but right in the middle, right up there, you’ll read about the Jihad of the sword. And historically the Islamic empire, like most other empires, established itself by force. I think we need to step back for a moment and reconsider the true sources of this controversy, and one way to look at that is to ask this question, “What is it about America’s role in the world that is simultaneously the source of great magnetic attraction to many people and yet at the same time is a source of intense hatred and repulsion on the part of others.” I mean, think about it, America has this dual status in the world. Immigrants are drawn to America and come here from many different countries. You can go into a hotel in Barbados or Bombay and you’ll find the bell hop is whistling the theme song from Titanic.

There’s this fascination with the idea of America that has to be explained. But on the other hand, you have a certain intense criticism of America. Some of it comes from European intellectuals, some of it comes from Islamic radicals. Interestingly, some of it comes from people in America. How often do you turn on the television and see some professor of romance languages at Oberland College denouncing the United States’ foreign policy: our foreign policy is the cause of all these problems; we have been a wreck in these countries for centuries; no wonder they are lashing out at us.


This is what I want to look at, and I want to begin, perhaps, by looking at the three main schools of anti-Americanism abroad. The first is the European School. You hear it most intensely from the French. I know what the French are saying, they’re saying “We don’t like the threat of America because the thread of American ideas is making the whole planet look alike. We’re going to be planet America.” What’s going to happen to the French language, the French restaurant, and the French intellectual? All of these wonderful things are being overrun by the ugly golden arches of McDonald’s. The French are the European critics in the name of homogeneity.

Then you have the Asian critique. You hear them in Malaysia and Singapore and China—Asian critics like Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore. What they say is, “Look, America and the West are very prosperous, but they are also socially and morally decadent.” In other words, America and the West knows how to create wealth and knows how to create technology but doesn’t know how to create social decency. And if you look at America, you will find high crime rates, high divorce rates, a popular culture that is often trivial, if not disgusting. The Asian critics say, “We think we can do better; we think we can combine prosperity on the one hand with social order and social decency on the other hand.” That is the Asian view.

Then you have the Islamic critique of America. The Islamic critique of America is, in a way, the most timely, and I think, in some ways, intellectually the most challenging, because it is the most fundamental. It strikes at the root of what America is all about. The Islamic critics are saying two things. First, they’re saying, “Look, everybody else in the world is trying to selectively import Western civilization. Everybody else in the world wants some aspect of the West, but not the rest. For example, lets look at the Chinese. They want Western capitalism, but they don’t want Western democracy. The Islamic view is, “Listen, you can’t do that. The idea that you can selectively import America and the West is an illusion. If you import the West, then you import what America has to offer; you get the whole package. And if you get the whole package, hey, it is going to have a disastrous effect. It’s going to undermine faith in Allah; it will transform political and religious structures; it will create a moral revolution that will leave the whole Islamic world unrecognizable from what it has been since the days of the prophet Mohammed.” The Islamic critics fear this, and I will suggest this morning, that they are completely right. There is something that is subversive about the idea of America and the West.

And what I want to do is to try to say what that is. I want to begin by saying a few words about Western civilization, and then I want to say a few words about America. We live in a world that is decisively shaped by Western civilization. This is a little bit of a puzzle. You know, if you enrolled in the typical American school or college, you hear about the sin of Eurocentrism. I don’t know if you’ve heard the word “Eurocentrism.” What it basically means is putting Europe or the West, in the center. The only problem with this is that we live in a world where Europe and the West are at the center and does define and shape our universe.

Now what do I mean by this? Well, if you came to my native country of India and you walked around you’d see an amazing sight. You’d see millions of Indian men are going to work everyday in suits and sweating profusely. Why? Because the suit is, if I may say so, most ill-suited for the Indian climate. If you were to go into any of the Indian parliamentary buildings, you would see British-style parliamentary debates. And if you went to the Indian law courts, you would see dark-skinned fellows in white wigs issuing verdicts. You might say, “Well yeah, that’s the legacy of Colonialism.” Well yeah, but the British left India in 1947! The Indians could have easily said, “Well you know, the British are gone, let’s take off these hot suits, or let’s stop speaking English, or let’s go back to traditional Indian ways of resolving disputes,” but, my point is, the Indians didn’t do that. Apparently, voluntarily, they decided to continue, if you will, in the Western way.

That’s my question: How did Western civilization become the dominant civilization in the world? Now, historically it was not so. If you go back in history, let’s say to the year 1500, not so long ago, the two most dominant civilizations in the world were the civilization of China and the civilization of the Arab-Islamic world. These were the most advanced in learning, in knowledge, in exploration, in wealth, and literature. By almost any measure of civilizational achievement, these cultures were on top and Western civilization, then called “Christendom,” was the relative backwater. How did this backwater civilization accumulate so much economic and political and military and cultural influence that by the nineteenth century it was shaping—and having conquered—virtually the entire world? How did this happen?

One explanation, a very popular explanation that’s taught in American schools and colleges, is that Western civilization became affluent and became successful essentially through oppression. Western civilization is defined by these unique crimes of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. Basically, the idea here is that the West only got rich because it was able to conquer and beat up all the other fellows and take all their stuff.

This argument has become very timely today because it is a domestic, moral engine driving the so-called reparations debate. Jesse Jackson came back from the World Conference on Racism, and said, “Listen, I’m not going to focus on affirmative action. I want reparations—financial reparations for Colonialism for the Third World, financial reparations for slavery to be paid by whites to nonwhites in America.” And then abroad you hear the same argument, the same notion that attributes Western success to oppression when used to rationalize terrorism. The West has been oppressing these cultures for centuries; it should not be surprising when they try to lash out in a kind of belated retaliation against Western oppression. My question is, “Is this argument in fact true?” Did the West become rich in this way? If you look at history you see that there is nothing particularly Western about slavery or Colonialism. Both are, in fact, universal institutions.

Consider Colonialism. The British ruled India for a couple of hundred years, but long before the British came to India, India was invaded and occupied by the Afghans and the Persians and the Mongols and the Moguls and the Turks and the Arabs. I’m not a math major, but by my count the British were something like the eighth colonial power to invade India. There’s nothing Western about Colonialism, and, interestingly, there’s nothing Western about slavery. Slavery too has existed in every known culture. The Chinese had it; the Indians did; the Greeks and Romans had slavery. Slavery was common all over Africa. American Indians had slaves long before Columbus arrived on the continent. What I am saying is that there is nothing distinctively Western about slavery.

In fact, what is distinctively Western is the movement to get rid of slavery. Emancipation, abolition—this is the Western idea. Never in world history, outside the West, has there been an anti-slavery movement ever. Now, don’t get me wrong, in every slave culture, the slaves don’t want to be slaves. You’ve got runaways and slave revolts in every known slave society. But what I’m saying is that never in world history has a group of people eligible, not to be slaves, but slave owners mobilized against slavery. Think of what Abraham Lincoln said. He once said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” Lincoln doesn’t want to be a slave, we understand that. Interestingly, he doesn’t want to be a master either, and he’s willing to expend a lot of treasure and, ultimately, blood to get rid of slavery. All of this gives a bit of new light to the so-called “reparations debate.” My own view of reparations was rather neatly stated by, of all people, Mohammed Ali. You will recall that in the 1970s Mohammed Ali fought for the heavyweight title against George Foreman. The fight was in the African nation of Zaire—somewhat insensibly called “The rumble in the jungle.” Anyway, Ali won the fight and emerged victorious and returned to America. As he got off the plane, a journalist shouted at him. “Champ, what did you think of Africa?” Ali said, “Thank God my granddaddy got on that boat.” Think about it. This is Ali being Ali, but I want to suggest that behind the script Ali is making a quite interesting and provocative claim. He is saying, “Look, these institutions of slavery and Colonialism were oppressive for the people who lived under them, true. But by a strange paradox of history, they have left their descendants better off.”

In other words, what he is saying is that my grandfather living in India might have been worse off under British Colonialism, but isn’t it true that I, Dinesh, am better off. Isn’t it true that India is in many ways better off. Think about it, India today is a democracy. The educated middle class speaks English. India, like China, is making enormous contributions to Western technology. Look at the presence of Indians in Silicon Valley. An Indian entrepreneur was just quoted as saying that the computer revolution in India will realize Gandhi’s dream of wiping a tear off of every Indian’s face, which shows the degree to which India is looking to technology—and American technology—for its economic redemption. The same could be said of slavery. Obviously the slaves were much worse off as the result of slavery, but is Jesse Jackson worse off? Here’s a guy who flies around in a private jet, his boy’s son is a congressman, isn’t it true that he is a hundred times better off, and, by the way, not just materially. I’m also talking in terms of freedom—being able to speak his mind, being able to vote. Just look at any comparable group of Africans on the continent of Africa. Okay, I said a few words about the West, and now I want to say a few words about America and then open the floor for some discussion.

The question I want to ask about America is “Why is America simultaneously so attractive and so repulsive?” Why do some people love it and other people hate it? To answer this question, I began by reading some of the immigrant literature on America—being myself an immigrant to this country. The immigrant literature on America says that immigrants come to America for one basic reason: to make money, to get rich. This argument, by the way, is very popular with the critics of America, because it attributes the appeal of America to greed. I want to suggest that this is a partial and a narrow and perhaps even a wrong view of what is truly significant and appealing about America. Now there is a small grain or molecule of truth in this claim.

What is the molecule of truth? Well, the molecule of truth is this, that more than any other country, including, by the way, all of Europe, America provides a remarkably good life to the ordinary guy. What I mean is that the rich guy lives well anywhere in the world. Think about it, if you’re a rich guy, you’re going to thrive anywhere. In fact, let me suggest that if you are a really rich guy, you might be better off to live outside of America. You know why? Because you can buy some stuff abroad with money that you can’t buy in the United States. What is that? One such thing is the pleasure of being a superior human being; the pleasure of aristocracy. What do I mean by that? Well, consider the example of Bill Gates. If Bill Gates were to walk the streets of America and stop people at random and say, “Hey listen, I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you kiss both my feet.” What do you think the typical American response would be? The typical American response even from the electrician is going to be, “Bill take a hike, you know you might have more money than me, but you’re not better than me.”

In other words, money buys you a lot of stuff, but it doesn’t, in America, buy you the right to be better than anyone else. The social egalitarianism in America limits the prerogative of wealth. But be that as it may, the point I’m making is, the affluent person lives well anywhere. America is distinguished by the quality of life it provides to the common man. We live in a country where the construction worker will walk into a coffee shop and spend four dollars for a non-caf latte. We live in a country where the maid drives a car, and a pretty nice one. A friend of mine has been trying to come to America for several years—the poor fellow cannot get a visa—and I finally said to him, “Why are you so eager to come to America?” He said, “Because I am determined to move to a country where the poor people are fat.” Yes, it is true that America does, materially, offer a lot. But what I want to suggest is that is not the whole story. That is not even the main story.

Not long ago I asked myself a very simple question. “How would my own life have been different if I never came to America—if I’d stayed in India?” I grew up in a middle-class family. My father was a chemical engineer, my mom was a housewife; I didn’t have great luxuries, but I didn’t lack any necessities either. And while my life is better materially, in America, it’s not a radical difference. In fact, my life has changed a lot more in other ways. If I’d stayed in India, I would probably have spent my entire life within a one-mile radius of where I was born. I would have married a girl of my identical social and religious cast and ethnic background. I would today, without a doubt, be a doctor like my grandfather or an engineer like my dad, or maybe a computer programmer. And I would have a whole set of opinions and views on religion and politics in society that could be easily predicted in advance. What am I saying? What I’m saying is that my destiny would to a large degree have been given to me. Not that I would have no choice, but the choices would be within defined parameters.

By contrast, to the degree that probably most of us take for granted, in America, by and large, you get to write the script of your own life. In America, your life is like a blank sheet of paper, and you are the artist. In America, your destiny isn’t given to you, it’s constructed by you. This it seems to me, the idea of being the architect of your own destiny, this is the hugely important idea behind the appeal of America. And it is especially appealing to the young—anywhere in the world. If you corral a young person in Riyadh or Barbados or Baltic or anywhere, and you say, “Listen, you have two choices, somebody else can tell you how to live your life, or you can decide yourself. Is there really any doubt how virtually every young person would choose? This, in a nutshell, is to me the appeal of America.

I want to go on and say a word about what makes America so controversial and—for some people—so hated. Part of the dispute focuses on foreign policies. And many people abroad, certainly in Europe, some in the Arab world, some in America say, “America may be a good country, but American foreign policy is despicable. Because American foreign policy is basically based on hypocrisy. Essentially, America talks about one thing and does another. America talks about democracy and human rights, but she has supported and continues to support dictatorships and unelected regimes all over the world. In the 1970s and 80s we supported Somoza in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, and Marcos in the Philippines. Who are we supporting now? Musharraf in Pakistan, the royal family in Saudi Arabia, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The argument is, “America can’t be believed; America is hypocritical and duplicitous in its foreign policy; no wonder the rest of us are upset.”


Is there any merit to these criticisms? In my view, these criticisms are fundamentally misguided because they miss the central defining element of American foreign policy—a defining element that if you think about it is a deeply moral element—and it is the following: American foreign policy is based on the principle of the lesser evil. The principle of the lesser evil simply states that in the real world, which is not a philosophy seminar, we are often not choosing between the good guy and the bad guy but between the bad guy and the really bad guy. And the principle of the lesser evil says that it is sometimes, in fact, frequently permissible to ally with the bad guy to get rid of the worse guy. The classic example of this was in World War II, where we allied with a really bad guy, Stalin, to fight somebody who posed a greater threat at the time, Hitler.

And if this was morally defensible, as I believe it was, then I want to suggest that many of America’s alliances with surrogate dictatorships, and they were that, were fully justifiable because they were part of a great alliance against an evil empire—the Cold War.

By the way, we won the Cold War, and the world is much better off, much freer as a result. And you might say, “The Cold War is over.” Why are we supporting right now unelected regimes in the Muslim world? And my answer to you, once again applying the principle of the lesser evil is, yes, I agree that Musharraf is a dictator. Yes, I agree that the election that he recently held was a sham. But my question is, “What is the practical alternative?” What is the alternative to Musharraf? Is it Al Gore and Joe Lieberman? Well, if it were then we should support them. But what if the alternative to Musharraf is the Bin Laden guys? Then I would suggest that the principle of the lesser evil dictates that we should in good conscience support the lesser evil against the greater evil.

The classic example, by the way, of the failure of a purely moralistic foreign policy was given in the 1970s. Remember when Jimmy Carter became president, he said, “I’m concerned about human rights, and, by the way, I noticed that we are supporting the Shah of Iran. How can I, in good conscience, talk about human rights when we are supporting a man who undermines human rights? I can’t. Therefore I should work to get rid of the Shah.” And that’s what we did; we got rid of the Shah. And what did we get? Khomeni. We got the guy who lit the match that has set off the Islamic conflagration in the twenty-two countries of the Muslim world. Without Khomeni, I doubt that we would have had Bin Laden. Were human rights better off as a result of what Jimmy Carter did? In my view, clearly and emphatically no. That was a disastrous failure of U.S. foreign policy.

Alright, I said a word about foreign policy, and now I want to say a final word about virtue, because it seems to me that at the deepest level of the Islamic critique of America, one that many American conservatives can sympathize with, is the argument that America may be materially prosperous, but it is morally rotten. America may be an economically successful society, but, in terms of values, it is unsuccessful. And the most intelligent Islamic critics of America cannot be rebutted by many of the things that we hear President Bush and other people saying. If you read all the articles about America recently, you know we have the 4th of July and so on, “America is prosperous; America is free. America extends rights to women; America is pluralistic.” The most intelligent of the Islamic critics would reply, “Well, yeah, of course America is all these things, but frankly who cares. Those things are not the most important things to be. American society is based on freedom, but Islamic society is based on virtue.” They will say, “Freedom is a flawed idea, because freedom is frequently used badly.” Look around you in American culture. Isn’t it true that lots of people misuse and abuse their freedom? They will say, “Here in the Islamic world, we might be poor, but we are trying to implement the will of God. We might be failing, but at least we’re trying, and that makes us morally superior to you.”

I want to leave you with this question. “How does one begin to answer this kind of lofty argument?” I want to leave you with my own way of answering it. I think that the Islamic premise that virtue is an important goal of society is absolutely true. I further agree with the Islamic radicals that virtue is at some level a higher principle than liberty. However, I want to suggest that what the Islamic critics are missing, or ignoring, is that liberty is the essential prerequisite for virtue. To put it somewhat differently, without liberty there is no virtue.

Imagine the case of a woman in Afghanistan or Iran who is legally required to wear a veil, a hijab. In my opinion, this woman is not modest. Why? Because she is being compelled; she is being forced. Only when you choose freely can you choose what is good. This is the real moral argument for the free society, which is not just that we are more free, even though we are, or more prosperous, even though we are, or more pluralistic, even though we are, or we treat women better, even though we do. The real moral argument for the free society is that the free society is ultimately the only society that makes provisions for virtue, because a coerced virtue is not a virtue at all. It was Edmond Burke, a long time ago, who said, “To love our country, our country should be lovely.” And what he is saying is that a true patriot, the highest form of patriotism, is not based on the idiot assertion “my country right or wrong.” And the highest form of patriotism is not even based on loving your country just because it is yours. The highest patriotism in Burke’s view is based on loving your country because it is good.

Fundamentally, that is the interesting and important question facing us today—especially a relevant question in the university context, which is can we give rational and intelligent assent to the idea of America? Can we love our country according to this high standard, and the argument that I’ve been trying to hint at in my talk, and that I develop further in my book, is that at the end of the day we can. Enough of the American idea is an unflawed idea. It is in some ways a flawed idea. But applying a comparative or historical standard, the American experiment on balance, has worked better than any other experiment in the world. There have been many revolutions by the way, the Russian revolution, the French revolution, only one—the American revolution—has in a sense succeeded. Only one has produced a society that is today, in many ways, the hope for the world.

I want to leave you with the thought that this rational patriotism, this Burkian standard, can be met, and we can, at the end of the day, love our country, not just because it makes possible the good life, but also because it makes possible the life that is good.

This lecture, given at the Kennedy Center 19 September 2002, and the question and answer session that followed, are online at http//