Saturday, April 23, 2005

A Conservative Explains the Virtue of America

During the 20th century, as we faced the ravages of totalitarianism – wars, concentration camps, enslavement and death on a vast scale – we re-examined the principles and practices that kept our country from a similar fate. For many, this led to a reaffirmation of the tradition of individual rights. The concept of individual liberty, born in the soil of Hellenic rationalism and Roman law, reached its maturation in the rigorous and clear exposition of the Anglo-American Enlightenment – and climaxed with the founding of the United States of America. We, or at least many of our fellow citizens, came to appreciate these principles at work in stable civilized countries, primarily English speaking, where reason and rhetoric were the main tools of social discourse; and we saw the diametrically opposite principles leading vast parts of the world down “the road to serfdom” where coercion led to an impoverished existence on every level.

The confrontation with Islam should lead to similar soul-searching. What makes the West superior? What distinguishing principle underlies our successes – particularly in the Anglosphere where we find a long uninterrupted tradition of civility? What makes life flourish in abundance for ourselves and our families while Islamic societies wallow in poverty, irrational hatred, and cynicism? The old Cold War conservative paradigm – religion vs. secular materialist atheism – fails miserably in the current context. Indeed, the revival of Islam, like the revival of Christianity in America, is also a reaction to the failures of socialism. Conservatives, having adopted an easy but incorrect analysis of what they called Godless-communism, were caught unprepared as God-filled Islam reared its ugly head. How will traditionalist conservatives handle this challenge? Let’s consider one of the more reasonable conservative writers.

Dinesh D’Souza is a moderate sounding conservative who has written many respectable commentaries on politics and culture. They tend to be level-headed, calm, and comforting. Overall, he favors individualism and the liberal economy. His conservatism is selective but he generally favors the more libertarian parts of our country’s history. While he isn’t strict about the restoration of rights he can be friendly towards attempts to preserve and revive the core of our tradition. You can get a sense of his worldview from his book, “Letters to a Young Conservative.” Recently D’Souza has written a letter giving advice to young Muslims. Its importance lies in what it says about traditionalist conservatives and their view of America.

D’Souza begins by considering the complaints of devout Muslims starting with bin Laden’s spiritual father, Sayyid Qutb. Among the charges against America are “materialism,” “sexual promiscuity,” “rejection of divine authority,” man-made laws, a lack of prohibitions against vice, etc. Summing up Qutb’s critique, D’Souza says, “In his view, this is because Western society is based on freedom whereas Islamic society is based on virtue.” If all this sounds familiar, it is because these complaints are also standard on the religious right. Not too surprisingly, D’Souza addresses the Muslim critic as a kindred spirit. “Given the warped timber of humanity, freedom becomes the forum for the expression of human flaws and weaknesses. On this point Qutb and his fundamentalist followers are quite correct.”

What, then, does D’Souza have to offer the young devout Muslim? “Even amid the temptations that a rich and free society offers, they [most Americans] have remained on the straight path. Their virtue has special luster because it is freely chosen.” Of course, we all want our virtue to have that extra special shine. However, let’s pause for a moment and think how often conservatives talk about temptations in just this manner.

How often do conservatives respond to something of an objectionable sexual nature with “that’s great, resistance to temptation enhances my virtue?” It wasn’t conservatives who championed the repeal of laws against homosexuality, welcomed the legalization of abortion, or readily accepted the freedom to publish sexually explicit material. And when such changes did occur, I don’t remember their response being “great, now my choice is more meaningful because it isn’t the only allowed.” Look at the special luster heterosexual marriages will acquire when gay marriages are possible! That’s not exactly an argument we hear very often.

Fortunately, as D’Souza continues, he provides a more compelling argument well worth our attention. “Compulsion cannot produce virtue; it can only produce the outward semblance of virtue.” It’s unusual today to come across this Classical argument – that the cultivation of a virtuous disposition and a virtuous character requires freedom. He continues, “the theocratic and authoritarian society that Islamic fundamentalists advocate undermines the possibility of virtue. … [O]nce the reins of coercion are released … the worst impulses of human nature break loose.”

To appreciate D’Souza’s point consider the weaker argument, common among conservative commentators, that moral acts must be chosen for the individual to receive credit. While valid, this argument has never been a force for the advancement of liberty; avoiding immortal sin and eternal damnation were often seen as too important to allow failure. Thus, earthly freedom seemed so besides the point in the history of religion. George H. Nash summarizes the viewpoint of L. Brent Bozell, Jr., a prominent conservative writer for National Reivew, as follows: “What, after all, was virtue? If as Bozell argued, it meant conformity with human nature and the divine pattern of order, then Freedom was not necessary to virtue per se. An act could be virtuous even if it were instinctive or coerced. The quest was less important than the achievement.” Of course, the left feels that way about altruism.

Can D’Souza convince fundamentalist Muslims to seek their religious virtue in a free society? It’s doubtful that he can even convince his fellow conservatives. When he turns Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell into crusaders to abolish laws against victimless crimes, we might, at that point, consider sending D’Souza to Al Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest and most authoritative school in the Islamic world, and let his powerful critique reform Islam.

Not only is this absurd, but Mr. D’Souza is addressing the wrong Muslims. The promise for change in the Islamic world is not with the devout, but with the everyday Muslim who only pays lip-service to Islam; he looks to the West for the hope of living well and enjoying life. One does not win them over by holding out the prospect of a voluntary life of self-denial, suffering, and devout submission. Nor does one ask them to return to their religion – essentially an imperialist warrior religion that is collectivist in nature. One wished conservatives would actually read about this religion and not assume it is similar to Christianity.

Now for the main problem with the conservative approach! Virtue, for D’Souza, is not tied to a vital function of human life. One continuously gets the impression that virtue is an extracurricular activity of living – unrelated to the central focus of survival. Why does one cultivate virtue? What is virtue for? One wonders if these questions are even intelligible to D’Souza. His sympathy with the devout life-hating materialist-bashing paradise-seeking Muslims doesn’t give one hope that conservatives understand what is at stake.

What does D’Souza fail to understand about the virtuous life? The most important part: acquiring virtue is attaining the capacity and power to live, prosper, and be justifiably proud. It’s not about getting Brownie points or approaching the Pearly Gates with a high score card. It’s about living this life to the fullest. The central virtue, rationality, is man’s essential power to know and conquer nature. Cultivating virtue creates a character appropriate to the challenges of a flourishing life – to be lived among civilized people in a just and prosperous society. The moral is practical – it is powerful!

Muslims see the power of the freedom in the West. What they don’t hear is the moral case for our success. Conservatives give short shrift to the virtues of rationality, productiveness, sexual fulfillment, and the rest that attracts immigrants to our shores from around the world. You can avoid practicing vices of promiscuity, gluttonous indulgence, lying, and blasphemy in any hellhole on earth. What you can’t do is be free to actualize your potential and live well.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why conservatism is floundering today. They just don’t understand that America is a moral achievement – one that goes to the core of the needs and rights of a rational being – i.e. individual liberty. This is a prerequisite to the cultivation of the character and skills that enable one to tackle the challenges of life. And the result of a dedication to this ethos has been the development of industry, commerce, medicine, and knowledge on a vast scale unparalleled in history.

Our best conservative writers have so little to offer as an explanation of our greatness. Our achievement is trivialized as materialistic in the face of intellectual attacks from savage tribal mystics. They concede the moral aspirations of the most backwards, violent, and unreformed religion with superficial slogans that amount to “things go better with freedom.”

We need new intellectual leadership. We are treading water, neither going down that old road to serfdom nor reviving the culture of liberty our founders desired. It is often in times of war that one often takes stock of one’s assets. This can be an opportunity to address the important question: what makes us great?

Originally published here.