Friday, January 21, 2011

Ramblings Of A Reasonably Articulate (If Unconvincing) Conservative: Letters To A Young Conservative.

The Good: Good diction, Short
The Bad: Poorly developed arguments backed by no citations, Vast generalities, Far too much first-person, Unconvincing
The Basics: Despite one or two well-written lines that illustrate genuine intellectual discourse, the high level of vocabulary and diction cannot disguise the unconvincing ramblings of the author.

It would surprise very few of my readers to know that I generally associate myself with liberalism and the fight for freedom over the forces bent on exerting power and control. I am proud of fighting the good fight, exposing hypocrisy and relishing in satire where appropriate. But as part of being a liberal, it is my responsibility to expose myself to the views of the other side and try to understand where they are coming from and what their grievances with my lifestyle and viewpoints truly is. To that end, I try to find the leading conservative voices of our age and read their works to find out what's going on on their side of the political divide. I've read some of the works of Ralph Reed and Ann Coulter and largely been unimpressed with their grasp of logic, reason and basic diction, as well as their ability to write - especially without resorting to logical fallacies.

So, when I heard about the book Letters To A Young Conservative by Dinesh D'Souza - a conservative I had never heard of nor read anything by - I was only too happy to pick up a copy and see what I was missing out on. What I discovered was a simple, 229 page collection of thirty-one letters from D'Souza to an aspiring libertarian conservative named Chris. This is an easy-to-read collection that seeks to inform Chris on the ways to become a D'Souza style neoconservative and needle liberals in the intellectual sphere. The book unabashedly presents D'Souza's viewpoints in stylistically matter-of-fact proclamations that read like a Gospel and establish a clear set of mandates and intellectual frameworks for those aspiring to be Dinesh D'Souza.

First, what works. Letters To A Young Conservative is a quick read with short chapters and a narrative style that is as disarming as it is undeveloped. D'Souza writes in a conversational style that presents his points as a series of seemingly self-evident "facts" that need no hard evidence to back up. Indeed, while D'Souza happily accepts (on page 38) that those in the liberal community have accused him of intellectual fraud, I believe such a charge (and therefore his acceptance of it) is bogus. Why? D'Souza's book is largely a simple collection of opinions. A person cannot be convicted of intellectual fraud if they are not making an intellectual or pseudo-intellectual argument. If someone is simply spouting off opinions, it does not make them an authority on any of the subjects that they opining on, it simply makes them opinionated. Letters To A Young Conservative is, at best, a collection of almost random thoughts that express largely unsubstantiated viewpoints as nothing more than one man's opinion. For sure, there are moments where D'Souza claims the voice of conservatism, but he has no authority to do that other than his own words.

The only other redeeming aspect of this book is that D'Souza lives up to a proud tradition of writers who actually know words. D'Souza has a decent vocabulary and a reasonably good sense of diction that comes across in an easy-to-read conversational style that is stylistically inoffensive. D'Souza manages to use the highest level of diction I've read in a conservative writer outside George Will.

What D'Souza lacks is Will's ability to present an argument and make a fair fight of the liberal and conservative divide by presenting facts and well-cited statistics. Instead, Letters To A Young Conservative is filled with logical flaws, opinions, undeveloped arguments and an intellectually lazy sense that pervades the entire work. It is more self-referential than anything, devoting a ridiculous amount of time and space to the prior works and accomplishments of Dinesh D'Souza. Indeed, D'Souza references his prior book, Ronald Reagan: How An Ordinary Man Became An Extraordinary Leader, in a few places and essentially states that the letter that comprises Chapter 8 is a a long summary of the thesis of that book.

Letters To A Young Conservative is an intellectually dishonest work that presents conservatives as a bastion of moral and constitutional correctness, without putting up the pretense of any sense of balance or self-examination that is not simply D'Souza's unsubstantiated claims of what - and who - conservatives are. For example, Chapter 16 focuses on the role of the Supreme Court and on pages 124 and 125, D'Souza derides liberal Justices Earl Warren, William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer and David Souder for their judicial activism, complaining ". . . these people are policymakers masquerading as judges" (124). The argument he makes fails to take into account two essential things: first, as members of the Supreme Court Justices have a responsibility to strike down laws they deem unconstitutional and send such laws back to the legislative branch to revise (and until Congress creates a new law Courts tend to simply uphold the rulings of prior Courts) and second, conservative Supreme Court justices engage in judicial activism just as much as liberal ones. So, while D'Souza toes the familiar conservative line of berating the current liberal justices for supporting the Row vs. Wade ruling (a ruling that the legislature has never been bold enough to follow up with explicit laws or Constitutional Amendments), he fails to acknowledge the grossest act of judicial activism in the history of the United States; the intervention of the Supreme Court into the presidential election of 2000. The irony here is that in neglecting this important act, D'Souza makes himself look somewhat ridiculous when he claims that conservatives do not want a Supreme Court that contravenes the Constitution and the desires of the American people (127) and cites George W. Bush as saying that we need justices that act within the parameters of the Constitution! Failing to address the most grievous leap outside the letter of the Constitution while making the broad generalizations that liberals are the ones who want activist judges clearly illustrates that D'Souza is not making much in the way of a balanced argument.

Truth be told, he's not making much of an argument at all. Letters To A Young Conservative reads as a mismatch of opinions that never fly near logic, even with a cursory reading. Indeed, one might suspect that conservatives reading the book will cringe when D'Souza begins writing about gender discrimination in the workplace. He concedes very early on that there is an earning discrepancy, when he writes, "The seventy cents figure that feminists have publicized is accurate enough . . ." (102). But his logical drop-off comes in the end of that sentence and a nearby sentence as he writes ". . . but it carries the presumption that women are earning 70 percent of what men earn for doing the same job" (102) and ". . . should we be surprised that female executive assistants make less money than male executives" (103)? Well, yes, Dinesh. You've offered us nothing more than the broad idea that somehow there are different expectations for male executive assistants versus female executive assistants. And where anyone with any training in debate would expect the next line to follow up and prove that somehow men are more valuable in this position than women with some proof, D'Souza jumps the argument by returning to the idea that sometimes women take different jobs than men and they some have babies. Given the opportunity to serious compare apples and apples - men and women doing the exact same job and being paid differently, D'Souza flees the argument and leaps back to generalities that remain unsubstantiated.

There are no citations, no footnotes in Letters To A Young Conservative. Instead, D'Souza makes broad generalizations and assumes his readers will take it on the faith of his word, like when he states, ". . . we recognize that whatever the government does, it usually does it badly" (79). I've never been an apologist for our government, but the idea that the majority of things the United States government does, it does poorly (an idea utterly confounded by the efficiency of dollars to services of the Medicaid program vs. the health care/insurance industry) makes anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of logic sit up and wonder how D'Souza can write that liberals hate America. After all, either D'Souza and his conservative allies are misanthropes and masochists - loving a government that does what it does badly - or the liberals hate America in a way is somehow more offensive than the way the conservatives hate it. D'Souza's entire text opens itself up to this sort of convoluted questioning because he does not truly ever stick the intellectual landing.

From the outset, D'Souza writes with an "us vs. them" subtext that pits liberals versus conservatives in a way that is remarkably uncompromising. So, when on pages seven and eight he lists the traits of liberals and conservatives, he notes that both sides share "equality" as a value, but he wastes no time in trying to differentiate between the notions of equality. In other words, in the D'Souza conservative, there are no shared values, there is little that binds us and virtually everything that divides us. This becomes especially disingenuous when he frames what makes liberals so dangerous in his viewpoint. He sees two movements in the twentieth century as moments when liberals co-opted the national agenda and hijacked the principles of the nation. Citing the actions of FDR, he states, ". . . people who lack life's necessities are not free [italicized in text]. Roosevelt believed that to give citizens true liberty, the government should insure them against deprivation, against the loss of a job, against calamitous illness, and against an impoverished old age" (3). As a conservative, D'Souza objects to this because it makes government bigger than the Founders intended. But in order to accept this idea and that it truly is a divisive issue between liberals and conservatives, D'Souza would need to illustrate that the majority of American conservatives reject the notion of beneficial government on principle alone. Despite the rhetoric, many of the poorest rural communities choose to exercise the benefits of a benevolent government rather than starve. So, for example, in Upstate New York, which is generally socially conservative as evidenced by the overwhelming majority of registered Republicans who consistently vote for conservative candidates, there is great poverty from the collapse of family farms (usually dairy farms) and many families rely on food stamps, WIC assistance and/or HEAP (an energy bill supplement from the state government) to eat and/or heat their homes during the brutal winters. Regardless of how they might respond when asked in a survey these people who are generally conservative rely on that benevolent government and the principle they exercise is evident by the check they cash.

But many books like this leave me with a favorite section and Letters To A Young Conservative is no exception. In the chapter "Why Government Is The Problem," D'Souza creates a rather ridiculous argument premised on the idea that "It is one thing for the government to provide the basic necessities of life to the 'truly needy' . . . It is another thing for the government to take resources from one middle-class family and give them to another middle-class family" (77). This rather silly premise - which I phrase that way because virtually every liberal from the moderates to the Marxists does not want to redistribute wealth among the middle-class, we want to take it from the rich and distribute it to the poor and lower middle class! - cites the use of mass transit systems and the art grants of the NEA as examples of how middle-class wealth is redistributed among the families. Most of the expense of mass transit systems in the United States is paid for by the users of the system (hence fees to ride the subway AND tolls on thruways), but the complaint about National Endowment For The Arts grants does not logically follow. This absence of concrete examples of how liberals want to rob one middle-class family to aid other middle-class families - as opposed to our unabashed oft-stated desire to take from the top and insure the bottom gets better - is completely contradicted in the rest of the chapter and in the subsequent chapter were the examples illustrate the divide between the rich and the middle-class, with D'Souza complaining that the rich pay more money in taxes. What he never acknowledges is that while the rich he is busy protecting pay more money in taxes (well, duh, they have more money!) they almost always pay a lesser PERCENTAGE of their income in taxes, as billionaire Warren Buffet beautifully illustrated in 2007 with an article he published surveying the difference between his own tax rate and the rates of his employees!

The only thing more convoluted than his lame attempts to actually argue a point is when he surrenders logic entirely and makes broad statements that he expects will be taken as truth. While D'Souza no doubt believes the tenacity of his claims, it is hard not to laugh out loud (I failed in my attempt to contain myself) when - in railing against gay marriage, D'Souza writes "Marriage doesn't civilize men, women do" (173). Not only is this a pretty grave understanding on what the function of women and/or marriage is, it becomes a trite argument for why men cheat; their women didn't civilize them right! After degenerating into the usual conservative comparisons likening homosexuality to incest and bestiality (174), D'Souza blithely states that gays ought to quit complaining because they do have the right to marry, which as he observes, "They have the right to marry adult members of the opposite sex" (177). I wish to point out that it would make a homosexual pretty lousy at what they do if they, you know, got into a faithful heterosexual relationship.

My point with all this is not to actually debunk D'Souza's arguments but rather to illustrate that D'Souza is not so much making arguments as passing on stories and loosely collected ideas (in one place, page 45 - 46, he - seriously - cites an exchange with a college student who was drinking!) with little sense of standards or intellectual discrimination between them. This book, then, becomes more of a memoir and collection of opinions rather than any sort of intellectual discourse, which is what it is masquerading as. The result is a body of letters as likely to make conservatives cringe for their lack of coherency as liberals cringe for the blind conviction they portray.

For other books filled with political ideas and observations, please check out:
Treason By Ann Coulter
Keeping Faith By Jimmy Carter
Stupid White Men By Michael Moore


For other book reviews, please visit my index page for an organized list of them! That is available by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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