AMERICA: EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD OR EXCEPTIONALLY EVIL?
Dinesh D’Souza zeroes in on 2 competing, utterly opposite visions for America
I am defining anti-Americanism not pejoratively, but clinically, as referring to antagonism to American ideas and institutions. Here I am not concerned with the anti-Americanism of some Bolivian radical, Russian apparatchik or Iranian mullah. That could be written off as ignorant prejudice. Rather, I am speaking of the anti-Americanism of Americans who know their country really well, and have well-considered objections to its historical and contemporary conduct.
Progressives sometimes sound anti-American, but they are not simply advocates of destruction. In destroying one America, they seek to construct another. In other words, their unmaking is a prelude to a remaking. So there is a vision of America that progressives affirm. It just happens to be very different from, indeed antithetical to, the ones that the other group – the conservatives – affirms.
Contrary to what we frequently read and hear, the great American divide is not a clash between conservatives who advocate liberty versus progressives who oppose liberty. Rather, the two sides each affirm a certain type of liberty.
One side, for example, cherishes economic liberty while the other champions liberty in the sexual and social domain. Nor is it a clash between patriots and anti-patriots. Both sides love America, but they love a different type of America. One sides loves the America of Columbus and the Fourth of July, of innovation and work and the “animal spirit” of capitalism, of the Boy Scouts and parochial schools, of traditional families and flag-saluting veterans. The other side loves the America of tolerance and social entitlements, of income and wealth redistribution, of slave-revolts and the civil rights movement, of Indian rights and women’s rights, of sexual liberation and abortion, of gay rights and gay marriage.
I recently debated Bill Ayers – 1960s radical and Obama mentor – at Dartmouth College. Our topic was “What’s So Great About America?” Ayers began by celebrating what he considered to be great about America. He did not, in this context, make any reference to the Founding Fathers. He didn’t mention Abraham Lincoln. Rather, he invoked a protest tradition in America, going back to the 19th-century socialists and continuing through the 20th-century progressives right up to, well, himself.
If patriotism isn’t the dividing line, neither is American exceptionalism. Again, both sides believe America is exceptional, but one side believes America is exceptionally good while the other believes that America is exceptionally evil. Even here, the former group hates certain aspects of contemporary America while the latter affirms those same aspects, such as government-administered national health care or heterosexual and homosexual promiscuity advanced under the banner of “moral freedom.”
How can we compare and contrast these two Americas – the one that conservatives uphold and the very different one that progressives cherish? Oddly enough, we can do so by comparing the journeys of two Frenchmen to America. One of them, Alexis de Tocqueville, was an aristocrat who traveled widely in America in the early 19th century. Tocqueville visited a few decades after the founding, so he was in a position to observe how the founding principles had imprinted themselves into American life.
The other Frenchman, Michel Foucault, was a celebrated intellectual, author and philosopher who taught for several years at the University of California at Berkeley and lived in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s. Foucault also returned to lecture in America during the 1980s, when I met him as an undergraduate at Dartmouth. Foucault obviously saw a very different America than Tocqueville, an America reshaped by the tumult of the 1960s. Moreover, Foucault’s interests were very different than Tocqueville’s. Indeed much of what Tocqueville found most interesting, Foucault found most repulsive. America, in a sense, illustrated many of the things that Foucault considered most objectionable and repressive about Western civilization.
But Foucault should be not written off as an anti-American. On the contrary, Foucault found himself wildly enthusiastic about America for a single reason. That reason was enough to cause Foucault to rave about America to his French colleagues to the point where they considered him madly pro-American. For Foucault, America was great because America was a place to transcend all sexual limits so that adults could not only have sex with each other, but also with young boys. Foucault, as we shall see, considered this such a noble ideal that it was even worth dying for. Together, these two men illustrate the very different Americas that are being affirmed by conservatives and progressives today.
Let’s begin with Tocqueville, who observes at the outset that America is a nation unlike any other. It has produced what Tocqueville terms “a distinct species of mankind.” Tocqueville here identifies with what will later be called American exceptionalism. For Tocqueville, Americans are unique because they are equal. This controversial assertion of the Declaration – that all men are created equal – Tocqueville finds to be a simple description of American reality. Americans, he writes, have internalized the democratic principle of equality. They don’t bow and scrape in the way that people in other countries – notably in France – are known to do. In America, unlike in Europe, there are no “peasants,” only farmers. In America, there are employees, but no “servants.” And today America may be the only country where we call a waiter “sir” as if he were a knight.
Tocqueville noted, with some disapproval, that Americans have an “inordinate” love of money. Yet he could not help being impressed in observing among Americans the restless energy of personal striving and economic competition: “Choose any American at random and he should be a man of burning desires, enterprising, adventurous, and above all an innovator.” Competition, Tocqueville notes, produces unequal outcomes on the basis of merit. “Natural inequality will soon make way for itself and wealth will pass into the hands of the most capable.”
Tocqueville is especially impressed at the fact that rich people in America were once poor. What makes success possible, he writes, is the urgent striving of the ordinary man. The ordinary man may be vulgar and have a limited education, but he has practical intelligence and a burning desire to succeed. “Before him lies a boundless continent and he urges onward as if time pressed and he was afraid of finding no room for his exertions.” In fact, Tocqueville observes what he terms a “double migration”: restless Europeans coming to the East Coast of America, while restless Americans move west from the Atlantic toward the Pacific Ocean. Tocqueville foresees that this ambitious, energetic people will expand the borders of the country and ultimately become a great nation. “It is the most extraordinary sight I have ever seen in my life. These lands which are as yet nothing but one immense wood will become one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world.”
While Americans cherish their freedom, Tocqueville emphasizes that they do not consider themselves immune from moral obligation or moral law. “It was never assumed in the United States that the citizen of a free country has a right to do whatever he pleases.” Americans, however, derive their obligations not from government mandate but from religious morality and social pressure. There are innumerable religious sects in America, but “all sects preach the same moral law in the name of God.” Moreover, religion balances entrepreneurial striving: the latter teaches how to better yourself, for your own good, while the former teaches obligations to others, for the good of the community. Therefore, quite apart from its theological function, Tocqueville writes that for Americans religion “must be regarded as the first of their political institutions.”
Everywhere in America Tocqueville is struck by how Americans look to themselves rather than the government to get things done. Initially people try and do things for themselves. If they can’t, they rely on family. (Tocqueville notes that from the outset it was families, not individuals, who settled America.) Americans also employ what Tocqueville calls the “principle of association” to form countless voluntary groups – religious groups, recreational groups, philanthropic groups, educational institutions and so on. Unlike in Europe, Tocqueville observes that in America “when a private individual mediates an undertaking, however directly connected it may be with the welfare of society, he never thinks of soliciting the cooperation of the government; but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. … In the end, the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the government could have done.”
At one point, Tocqueville is amazed – he thinks it must be a joke – to see a large group of men gather together and vow to avoid intoxicating drink. Then he realizes that temperance is best achieved through this kind of voluntary social effort than through compulsory laws. “There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society.”
Tocqueville finds the same participatory spirit when it comes to democracy – the people get involved. Their involvement, however, is most active and most effective when it is at the local level. This is the spirit of the New England town meeting, sometimes involving dozens of elected officials including judges and justices of the peace, for towns with only a few thousand residents. Democracy works well at this level because people know their own situations. They know what the problems are, and they know how to solve them.
Tocqueville takes a completely different view of an expanding central or federal government. He terms it “an immense and tutelary power” which seeks to control people by promising “to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate.” Its power may seem mild at first, but it gradually expands until it becomes “absolute.” Its promises are illusory. “It would be like the authority of a parent if … its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood.” In sum, an overweening federal government makes itself the provider and arbiter of the happiness of Americans, but what it does is “to spare them all care of thinking and all the trouble of living.”
Michel Foucault first came to America in 1975 after a meteoric career in France. For many years, Foucault taught at the University of California at Berkeley. He first came in 1975, then returned in 1979, again in 1980 and again in 1983 – and during this time he lived in the city of San Francisco, regularly sampling its gay neighborhoods. Eventually Foucault got AIDS, and it is probably during this time that I met him.
He came to lecture at Dartmouth while I was a student there. I worked for the press office at the college, and got to take Foucault around campus and to his public event. I recall him as brooding and obsessive, and he had a rancid, sneering laugh that signaled both despair and a personal sense of superiority. He read his lecture from notes in a soft monotone, and when it was finished I had no idea what he had spoken about. One of my friends unkindly remarked, “He’s the kind of philosopher who gives bullsh-t a bad name.” Now I realize why Foucault seemed so fragile and his voice so soft – Foucault had contracted AIDS, and he would die of it the following year.
Foucault spent much more time in America than Tocqueville, but he said nothing interesting about America and he wrote nothing substantial about America. Part of it could be that he found America dull and vulgar; he would not be the first modern Frenchman to feel that way. But I believe the reason goes deeper than that. If we read Foucault’s work, we see how he may have found America to be characteristic of what he considered most repressive and tyrannical about Western modernity.
Foucault hated capitalism and free trade, detecting in ostensibly free exchange a hidden form of oppression. Work, Foucault said, should not be about earning money. It’s cruel and exploitative to make people do work that they don’t like in exchange for money. Foucault insisted that work be about self-fulfillment. In this he was echoing the early Marx, and proving himself a true child of the 1960s. Foucault also hated American foreign policy on the grounds that it was, you guessed it, repressive and tyrannical. Foucault vehemently denounced America’s involvement in Vietnam, and he supported and participated in demonstrations organized by the French left against the war in the late ’60s and early 1970s.
In the late 1970s, Foucault went to Iran when the pro-American Shah was being ousted by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow mullahs. Foucault met Khomeini and praised him lavishly. He also rhapsodized about the Iranian revolution, insisting that it would not result in a rule of mullahs. “By Islamic government,” he wrote, “Nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control.” Iran, Foucault insisted, would be a fount of liberty. “With respect to liberties, they will be respected to the extent that their exercise will not harm others; minorities will be protected … between men and women, there will not be inequality with respect to rights; with respect to politics, decisions should be made by the majority.”
It was only when the Khomeini regime started executing liberals, leftists and homosexuals – using the very technologies of surveillance, propaganda and force that Foucault condemned in other contexts – that Foucault lost his enthusiasm. He went silent on Iran, moving on to other topics. Never, however, did he apologize for backing a tyranny far worse than that of any American institution.
But why did Foucault find himself attracted to Khomeini in the first place? I suspect the reason has little to do with Iran. Foucault somehow converted his hatred for America and the West into admiration for America’s deadly adversary. Surely the man who called America the “great Satan” had to be a great guy; after all, that was pretty much Foucault’s view also. Foucault’s blindness can be summed up in writer Saul Bellow’s remark, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”
Foucault’s anti-Americanism may have remained undiluted if not for some of his actual experiences in America. Those experiences actually convinced Foucault that, at least in one crucial respect, he was completely wrong about America. Previously Foucault had considered Europe to be the center of global sexual liberation, and America to be a relatively uptight, puritanical country. (This is still a view held by many in Europe and some in America.) Foucault’s years teaching at Berkeley and living in San Francisco completely changed his mind.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Foucault discovered a part of American life that, in a sense, represented a complete vindication of his life work. Foucault’s work focuses on the distinction between the “normal” and the “abnormal.” In his early work, Foucault wrote about madness, and how madness was once considered normal in the West, as madmen freely roamed about during the Middle Ages, but now the West institutionalized mad people, criminalizing them for simply being different. Yet Foucault was a walking refutation of his own theories – in previous eras, he would most likely have found himself in a madhouse, yet somehow modern France saw fit to lionize rather than confine him.
From the madhouse Foucault proceeded to examine the prison system, and here he arrived at the startling insight that people are thrown into prison merely for being “abnormal.” For Foucault, the prison system was basically a metaphor for modern life, in which we – who consider ourselves to be free subjects – are in reality subjected to various forms of subtle institutional control, all in the name of distinguishing what is normal and expected and obligatory from what is abnormal and eccentric and forbidden.
From madhouses and prisons, Foucault generalized to the conclusion that pretty much all institutions – schools, banks, factories, retail stores, health-care centers and military barracks – resemble madhouses and prisons. Foucault’s work was devoted to unmasking these hidden and not-so-hidden forms of power, and to championing transgression and deviancy as mechanisms for breaking down power systems.
One may have guessed by now that all of this elaborate rigmarole was basically Foucault’s lengthy apologia for homosexuality, or more precisely in his case, pedophilia. Foucault, you see, was a pedophile who liked to have sex with young boys. He devised an elaborate theory about how Western civilization had made a bogus distinction between heterosexual and homosexual, and also between adults and children, and how in reality everybody is sexual from birth and has the ability to fluidly move from heterosexual to homosexual to perhaps pedophilic and even more outlandish inclinations.
Foucault’s biographer James Miller reports that Foucault spent his days teaching, and his nights plunging into San Francisco’s violent sadomasochistic culture. Here was a guy who was in slacks and tweed in the morning, and leather in the evening – complete with jockstrap, tit-clamps, handcuffs, whips, paddles, riding crops and more. (I am not making this up; Miller is very specific.) Foucault liked to get drugged before sex. He said in 1975, upon first trying LSD, “The only thing I can compare this experience to in my life is sex with a stranger.” In San Francisco, he discovered he could have both. Foucault especially enjoyed sadomasochistic sex because he saw it as a “limit experience” and his philosophy was all about breaking rules and testing the limits. At one point, Foucault lamented that heterosexuals were missing out: “It is regrettable that such places do not yet exist for heterosexuals.”
Foucault knew that he was taking health risks, but he didn’t care. Even as late as 1983, when AIDS was devastating the gay neighborhoods and Foucault was informed about that fact, he declared, “To die for the love of boys – what could be more beautiful?” Miller writes that Foucault may or may not have known, until the very end, that he had AIDS. Foucault’s longtime companion, Daniel Defert, said he had a “real knowledge” that he was infected. The point, however, is that he didn’t seem to care. It’s one thing to risk your own life, but Foucault seems to have been willing to risk the lives of others as well. Apparently he felt that others too should enjoy “limit experiences,” even if those experiences kill them.
Tocqueville and Foucault – two very different men, separated not only by different temperaments, but also by a century and a half. Tocqueville visited a very different America than Foucault did. In a way, they each witnessed and celebrated a certain type of freedom. Tocqueville celebrated the spirit of 1776 – a spirit of enterprise and voluntary organizations and religious freedom. Foucault celebrated the spirit of 1968 – not freedom of enterprise or America as a force for freedom in the world, but rather pelvic freedom – the freedom of gay promiscuity and pedophilia.
The preceding is reprinted from the July issue of WND’s acclaimed monthly Whistleblower magazine, titled “THE REAL AMERICA: The world’s most awesome engine of prosperity and freedom is waiting to take off once again.” Subscribe to Whistleblower.
Dinesh D’Souza is the author of “America: Imagine a World Without Her.” He is the creator of the film “2016″ and also the new film “America,” which opened nationwide July 2. His bestselling books include “What’s So Great about America” and “Obama’s America.”