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Letters to a Young Conservative
An interview with Dinesh D'Souza
11 January 2003
The author of the New York Times bestseller "Illiberal Education" has released another book this fall entitled "Letters to a Young Conservative." Dinesh D'Souza is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, and was the senior domestic policy analyst at the White House during the Reagan administration from 1987 to 1988. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1983.
What makes conservatism more important now than ever?
Conservatism is the governing ideology of the Republican Party, just as liberalism is the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party. The Bush administration is fundamentally guided by a conservative view of the world. Since the Reagan years we have had a conservative tide in America. Even Clinton, who swam against this tide in the first term, ended up signing welfare reform and free trade and declaring that “the era of big government is over.” Conservatism is important today because it sets the terms of debate.
What is the most serious flaw in contemporary liberal thinking?
Contemporary liberalism has three major flaws, all of which flow from its excessively benign view of human nature: the Big Government flaw, which was introduced by Franklin Roosevelt, the Give Peace a Chance flaw, which was introduced by the Vietnam protesters, and the Moral Irresponsibility flaw, which was a product of the “do your own thing” ethos of the 1960s. Even today, whenever there is a social problem, liberals look to the government for a remedy. Even today, when America intervenes abroad, liberals worry that it’s Vietnam all over again. Finally liberals seek to expand personal freedom but they don’t seem to recognize that it is equally important that people, especially young people, be taught to use freedom well.
How has the political and social landscape changed since the 1980s, when you were a co-founder of the Dartmouth Review?
The good news on campus is that the speech codes are dead. The bad news is that the faculty whose politics were shaped in the 1960s are now fully in charge. Conservatives can’t get rid of these people, so the best thing to do is to figure out what annoys them the most, and then do it repeatedly. Many of the issues that we dealt with on the Dartmouth campus—affirmative action, multiculturalism, diversity, feminism, gay rights—are still being debated today. On the national scene, conservatism has won spectacular victories. The two main pillars of the Reagan agenda—defeating the “evil empire” and ushering in an age of entrepreneurship and global capitalism—have both been realized. Islamic radicalism has replaced Soviet Communism as the greatest external threat facing America.
Did you ever think of yourself as a liberal?
When I was a freshman at Dartmouth I thought of myself as non-political. But in fact my views were mostly liberal. If you had said “Reagan” I would have said “washed-up former actor.” If you had said “capitalism” I would have said “greed.” If you had said “morality” I would have said, “Can’t legislate it.” These were not reasoned convictions. Rather, I was carried by the tide. A liberal current flows on most college campuses, and if you do not actively resist it you will be swept along. Thus my early liberalism was entirely uncritical. When I started thinking for myself, I stopped being a liberal.
Why should conservatives be “temperamentally radical” and what is the greatest challenge facing young conservatives today?
Usually the job of the conservative is to conserve, to maintain the status quo, to hold on to the values of the existing society. But what if the existing society is liberal? What if the existing society is inherently hostile to conservative beliefs? It is foolish for a conservative to attempt to conserve that culture. Rather, he (or she) must seek to undermine it, to thwart it, to destroy it at the root level. This means that the conservative must stop being conservative. More precisely, he must be philosophically conservative but temperamentally radical. The biggest challenge facing young conservatives is to develop their minds and enjoy life on the liberal campus even as they subvert the liberal culture on those campuses.
Do conservatives favor the rich and big business?
No. What conservatives favor is the chance to get rich. Conservatives believe that a society that encourages merit and entrepreneurship will be a prosperous, mobile society. In general, conservatives support business because business serves the interest of customers and creates jobs and wealth. (By contrast, government does not create wealth but only seizes the wealth of some people to give to other people.) But conservatives have no bias in favor of big business. Indeed the Republican Party draws most of its support from small entrepreneurs. Some big businessmen seek to use the power of government to impose protective tariffs or restrict their competitors. Conservatives oppose this. We support free markets and competition, not big business.
You title one of your chapters “The Feminist Mistake.” Do conservatives believe that women are not equal to men?
Women are, on average, just as intelligent and capable as men, but they are biologically different and this physical difference also produces differences of psychology, of temperament, and of interests. Social policy should give women and men the same opportunities while recognizing that the two groups may not avail themselves of these opportunities (say to be construction workers or major in engineering) in the same way. Moreover, I draw on intelligence research to show that men tend to be over-represented in the genius category and also in the category of dummies and mental retards. This would help to explain why men are so dominant in chess and the Westinghouse Science awards, and also why there are so many men in the nation’s prisons and asylums.
What’s wrong with gay marriage? Why not allow gay relationships to become more conventional and mainstream?
Journalist Andrew Sullivan argues that it is social ostracism that encourages the reckless promiscuity and socially destructive behavior of male homosexuals. If gays are allowed to marry like everyone else, Sullivan is confident that this outrageous element of gay culture would diminish. Sullivan’s argument can be condensed to the slogan, “Marriage civilizes men.” But Sullivan is wrong. Marriage doesn’t civilize men, women do. This point is even evident in the gay community: it helps to explain why lesbians are generally much better than male homosexuals in sustaining long-term relationships. The reason that society privileges marriage and gives it a special legal status is because marriage is the only known incubator for the raising of children. This arrangement works best when marriage is restricted to heterosexual couples who are of adult age and unrelated to each other. Polygamous arrangements, incest, and homosexual relationships do occur in society, but there is no reason to give them greater social acceptance, nor to give them the special legal status of “marriage.”
You have been a longtime foe of affirmative action. What is your view of reparations?
I do not favor reparations. Despite the enormous debt that African Americans owe America, I do not think it is fair to ask that blacks be asked to pay money in order to express their gratitude for American prosperity and American freedom. I guess I am sounding facetious, but I don’t think I am being unreasonable in casting the issue in this way. The crimes that blacks allege against America, such as slavery, are universal crimes. The West is unique not in having slavery but in abolishing it. Moreover, although slavery was terrible for the slaves, it has proven to be beneficial to the descendants of slaves because it was the transmission belt that brought them to America, where their lives are immeasurably better than if they were living today in Africa. When Muhammad Ali returned to America from Zaire after winning the heavyweight title, a reporter asked him, “Champ, what did you think of Africa?” Ali replied, “Thank God my grand-daddy got on that boat!”
What do you think of the anti-globalization protesters?
Some of them need a bath, but most of them need a horsewhipping. These fellows want to force American multinationals to pay Indian and Thai and Indonesian workers the same rates that they pay American workers. This would ensure that American multinationals stop hiring poor people in the Third World. Don’t the protesters realize that the foreign companies pay the best rates in the Third World? Don’t they see that foreign companies bid up the wage scales so that even workers at other Indian, Thai and Indonesian companies benefit? I can understand it when Pat Buchanan calls for trade restrictions aimed at helping American workers at the expense of Third World workers. Buchanan doesn’t care about the Third World and is refreshingly honest in admitting it. But I am appalled when anti-globalists support the same kinds of policies, while pretending that they are fighting on behalf of Third World people. In fact, they are undermining the interests of the poor in the Third World. No wonder that ordinary people from India, Indonesia and Thailand are conspicuously absent from demonstrations against globalization.
Why do you admire Abraham Lincoln so much?
Although Lincoln was the first great leader of the Republican Party, the presence of a strong Southern wing in the conservative movement has made Lincoln controversial. Some conservatives accuse Lincoln of being the true founder of “big government” and of being an enemy of civil liberties. Of course Lincoln has long been controversial among liberals, because some liberal and African American activists accuse him of being a racist and not really caring that much about slavery. I defend Lincoln against criticism both from the left and from the right. In my view he was the ideal statesman, a man of true philosophical bent who had noble ideals but who also realized that politics is the art of the possible. In other words, statesmanship means finding the meeting point between what it is good to do, and what can be accomplished. I try to show that Lincoln was masterful in finding that meeting point.
Do you think conservatives will gain a majority in the November elections?
I suspect that the
Republicans will retain the House of Representatives. It’s going
to be very difficult for Republicans to win back the Senate, although
it’s possible. Right now Bush seems to have divided the Democrats
on Iraq, and this has upset the Democratic strategy of supporting Bush
on foreign policy while opposing him on domestic issues. If the war looms
large in the mid-term election, that bodes well for the Republicans. The
big question over the next several years is not simply whether Bush can
win re-election, but whether Republicans can establish themselves as the
majority party for the next generation, in much the same way that the
Democrats under Franklin Roosevelt consolidated their majority status
in the 1930s.