Letters to a Young Conservative Dinesh D'Souza

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While I found this book for the most part to be an innocuous and interesting exposition of current Conservative thought, there are some deeply disturbing elements about it that make me question the entire notion of "conservative" as defined here.

For example, early in the book comes this passage:

from Letters to a Young Conservative
Dinesh D'Souza

Let's make a list of the liberal virtues: equality, compassion, pluralism, diversity, social justice, peace, autonomy, tolerance. . . . By contrast, conservatives emphasize other virtues: merit, patriotism, prosperity, national unity, social order, morality, responsibility. (p. 7-8)

Leaving aside the question as to whether or not "merit" is a virtue, looking at the two lists, I am disturbed by the conservative’s lack of compassion and social justice and the emphasis on patriotism, prosperity, and national unity. I don't recall a whole lot of Jesus’ teaching centered around becoming prosperous. (Unlike some, I would deny that Jesus saw any intrinsic evil in prosperity per se but rather with its accouterments that seem to affect some more that others.) Where did Jesus promote national unity as a virtue? Patriotism? I would say from this narrow perspective a truly conservative focus on values approaches anti-Christian. And while the liberal values of pluralism, diversity, autonomy, and tolerance are nowhere to be found in Jesus' teachings, I think we can say that compassion and social justice do make up a good deal of what He has to say to us. True, the conservatives seem to have in their corner morality, another keystone (perhaps the chief keystone) of our Savior's teaching. Nevertheless. looking at the two lists side by side I have to say that my preference is the list of "liberal" virtues (many of which I would label "humane").

In a later chapter, which gives a very interesting perspective on anti-globalism (the perspective of one who has lived in and experienced the effect of big companies offering jobs in third world countries) there is this sinister elision:

[source as above]

Thus countries that have embraced globalization, such as China and India, have seen growth rates of 5 percent or more per year, compared with 2 percent in Western countries, and 1 percent or less in countries outside the free-trade loop.

Another reference is made to the wonders of the Thai market, among others. Now, perhaps it is this very perspective (third-world country) that colors the perceptions--however, to exalt the Chinese lao-gai system in the same breath as successes in India makes one question the successes of India. To exalt a market (Thai) that exploits child labor makes one wonder. I suppose in the brevity of the book one cannot discuss everything, but this treatment seems somewhat short of candor or deliberately disingenuous.

And this is the problem I often encounter with self-styled conservatives. Many of the ideas are very good in theory, it is in the implementation that the occasionally fall short, and yet there is not acknowledgment of this failure. Globalization is just fine, everyone benefits, the world is a better place. The facts of the matter belie parts of this conclusion and we would all do better to recognize this and seek to "fix" globalism and really bring the benefits we would like to claim for it to the entire world.

The difficulty I have with this book stems from small bits and pieces like this--cracks in the facade that give me a glimpse of something vaguely unpleasant teeming below the surface.

Once again the book is largely a superficial explanation of the depths of modern conservative thought. However, the final disturbing point is the suggestion of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand as a "must" on the conservative read list. This is described as " a fast-paced novel that is also a capitalist manifesto; it celebrates the entrepreneurs who build and make new things." So Rand's philosophy is embraced in a single sentence without any indication that the deeper currents of objectivism hide many extremely ugly, extremely brutal things. Rand's "capitalism" is of the objectivist school--some people matter, most do not. Those that are important make something of themselves while the rest are to be used on the way up. Largely, the corporate ethos of today as many of us experience it in the workplace.

I've picked little holes in the fabric of what really is a very nice exposition of Conservative thought. In the course of reading it one brushes up against some of the real virtues of conservatism. One can see the virtues of conservative thought even if there is some demurral. But the most alarming thing, I suppose, is this deliberate blindness to the weaknesses of the system.

That said, the same is true IN SPADES of liberal thought. The exaltation of tolerance and autonomy as the greatest of the virtues blows holes a yard wide in the whole structure. In liberalism the equality strived for is not equality of means, but equality of ends--another depredation and incidental demeaning of the intrinsic worth of a person.

By all means, please read Letters to a Young Conservative, but do keep in mind that if this were all there were to the Conservative venture, we would be living in a very, very ugly society and world. The greatness of God is that He gives us the constant harping of the liberal voices to correct the excesses and potential harm of the straight conservative view. The truth, as usual, lies in a blending of the two sets of virtues, and in the recognition of the limits of any ideology. A true conservative does seek to conserve the very best of what is present in society now, and I also believe that he or she works very hard to correct the excesses and the burdens imposed by this system of thought and governance

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Well I won't recommend/read D'Souza. But one thing I'm honestly curious about: are there any nations that have made the transition from agricultural society to an industrial one compassionately? If so, I wonder how they did it since generally the only way of getting your foot in door of the world market is via lower labor costs.

Dear TSO,

You won't recommend or read D'Souza based on this review or on previous encounters. If the latter, would you mind telling me more. If the former, I think that might be a mistake. I take exception to some things that D'Souza says, but I am not the intended audience, nor, I am certain, does this book do justice to the entirety of his thought. Nevertheless, the book does reveal a troubling undercurrent--one that runs through every ideology, which is why I find it exceedingly difficult to embrace any one position. So far as I have been able to determine, outside of the Christian position of total abandonment to God, there is no ideology or idea that comes close to encompassing the fullness and the messiness of reality.

For example, the question you ask raises many other questions--If there has not been a compassionate transition is that because there can not be or is that because we have chosen to make it so? If the former, does that in some way call into question the entire system--is it moral if it crushes others?

Thanks for the note, it got me thinking this morning.



If I understood what it means to say that prosperity is a virtue, I might understand the D'Souzan-conservative mindset.

As I write this, though, I wonder whether "virtue" means what he thinks it means.


That is an excellent point that did not occur to me. I guess I was thinking in terms of "societal" virtues when I read that. And the notion of corporate virtues does tend to etiolate the meaning, doesn't it?



Neither do I care for the problems you point out in D'Souza. In fairness to conservatives, though, I'd like to point out that liberals are just as bad: the theory sounds good, but the implementation is atrocious, and all attempts to reform the implementation are instances of heartless compassion. The American welfare state, originally meant to help people, has created a permanent underclass of dependency in some areas. When some conservatives came along who wanted to reform what was an obviously-broken system to help the poor, for example Jack Kemp as HUD secretary, every proposed reform was labeled as a heartless attack on the poor. I'm willing to bet that this is one reason liberals lost control of Congress in 1994, and haven't yet recovered it.

History shows us that the permanent underclass supposedly created by the welfare state was already an underclass prior to the creation of the welfare state, and continues as an underclass in this post-welfare state era. And I'm not talking about the inner city. Come down here to Appalachia and have a look around. And when you come, bring some charitable conservatives with you, who have money to spend on the property tax-financed school system, won't you? Because taxing what us'uns own isn't making it--level playing field-wise, that is.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 7, 2004 8:10 AM.

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