THE BLOG
03/02/2007 12:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

D'Souza and the Violent Right

In his newest book, The Enemy at Home, Republican ideologue Dinesh D'Souza calmly explains that liberals in America caused 9/11, whereupon he recommends that we do to liberals what we are doing to terrorists:  fight a war against them. 

While he never comes right out and says that Americans should kill liberals, D'Souza's book shuttles his reader swiftly to that conclusion.  By defining liberals as a "hidden" second front of
terrorism, D'Souza's
book invokes a very simple, widely held idea in America:  that "War on Terror" means first and foremost, "kill terrorists."  Thus, The Enemy at Home gives intellectual legitimacy to a widely accepted, rapidly growing Republican tendency to frame national security in terms of killing Democrats.

But the significance The Enemy at Home extends beyond military issues, touching on the key distinction that divides the public sphere in contemporary America:  violent right vs. progressive left.

Dinesh D'Souza is a paragon of the "violent right"--a new
breed of pundits who seek to control public debate by
framing all issues through an authoritarian logic of violence.

The counterpart to the "violent right" is not, as many erroneously
conclude, a "violent left," but a "progressive left"--a new wave of
thinkers with the shared goal of opening up political debate by framing
issues in terms of participation.

Of course, the mere suggestion that D'Souza's book paves the road for actual violence against liberals in America will, most likely, be met with cries of disbelief from the media luminaries who propel him to best-seller status.
"He does not say that we should kill liberals!" they will shout.  "It's
you liberals who are violent, not us!"  they will say.  And by reading
the critique or D'Souza as itself evidence of the "enemy at home," the
Malkins and O'Reillys of the airwaves are complicit.

At stake in these inevitable objections, however, is not so much the specifics of D'Souza's rhetoric than the power to define the core frame structuring political debate in this country.

In its most extreme form, the violent right sees all political problems as
violent assaults that can only be solved by violent response.  Consider this exchange between D'Souza and Bill O'Reilly:

D'SOUZA: Look at what's going on in Iraq. It's a bad situation over there. But it seems to me that would be what I call the enemy at home, which is the people fighting the war against the war.

This is the shocking thing. Even though the left doesn't like bin Laden, it hates Bush more.

O'REILLY: They deny it.

D'SOUZA: They'll deny it, but here's the point. Bin Laden is threatening to have Sharia in Baghdad. But as the left sees it, Bush wants to have Sharia in Boston.

So Bush is a greater threat to the leftwing agenda at home. Bush is the enemy at home.

O'REILLY: There's no question, you know. The New York Times, where that paper came down, NBC News, these kinds of things that have really made a living out of Bush bashing. Where do they come down in this?

D'SOUZA: Bill, if you think the culture left wants Bush to win the war on terror nothing that they say and do makes any sense.

O'REILLY: Is it just the war on terror, or is it just the Iraq war?

D'SOUZA: It's more than that. These are the guys -- these are the guys -- first of all, they want to shut down Guantanamo. They want to repudiate the Patriot Act. They want Bush to lose for a domestic political reason. And that is that foreign policy has been a winning issue for the Republicans for a generation.

If the left can turn that around, if they can, in a sense, saddle Bush with a humiliating defeat, this will pave the way for a return to the left wing dominance of American politics that we had for most of the 20th Century.

O'REILLY: Who does bin Laden hate more: the Bush people who want to kill him and wage an aggressive war to get him, or the radical left, which you know, obviously is permissive and does all kinds of things that bin Laden would cut your head off for?

D'SOUZA: Bin Laden used to attack America as the generic enemy. In the last few years he's been doing something very strange. He's praising specific leftists in America and offering them a kind of truce.

Basically, what he is saying is I will supply the terror, and you use the terror to demoralize the American people so that they will pull out of not only Iraq but the entire Middle East.

(The O'Reilly Factor, February 16, 2007 Friday)

D'Souza explains that the "cultural left" in America is fighting a "war against the war" with agenda of humiliating  Bush that supersedes any concern for protecting the country.  The key to this agenda, he explains, is an alliance between Osama bin Laden and the left--bin Laden supplying "the terror" that the liberals subsequently put to use at home.

Americans are familiar with the more bombastic voices of the violent right--Anne Coulter, for example.  During an interview on the The Big Idea a few months back, for example, it barely raised eyebrows when Coulter called for nuclear attacks as a solution to just every foreign policy challenge currently faced by the United States. Writers like Coulter make a good living performing a rhetorical burlesque that consists entirely of branding liberals as being worthy of state-sanctioned death--and never being challenged when they do.

But D'Souza is a different kind of voice to emerge in the violent right.  Neither angry nor animated, D'Souza cuts a media image similar to that of a boring, middle school substitute teacher.  He is a quiet, unassuming man using soft tones as he both writes and speaks about the need to battle and destroy liberals with the same ferocity as we kill terrorists:

For example, conservatives often allege that the left's desire to "understand" the roots of Islamic discontent dilutes American resolve in fighting the enemy.   If this is true, then fortifying the left's resolve becomes the obvious solution.   My argument is quite different.   It is that the left is the primary reason for Islamic anti-Americanism as well as the anti-Americanism of other traditional cultures around the world.   I intend to show that the left has actively fostered the intense hatred of America that has led to murderous attacks such as 9/11.   If I am right, then no war against terrorism can be effectively fought using the left-wing premises that are now accepted doctrine among mainstream liberals and Democrats.

(The Enemy at Home, Introduction)

The violence of this passage is less like an ax handle cracking a skull, more like a glacier slowly grinding away at the ground.  The already relentless accusations from the Republican right that liberals are "weak"--this critique is the political equivalent of an ignorant oversight, according to D'Souza's argument.  Liberals, he tells us, are not weak.  They are active accomplices to murder--or rather, they are actively engaged in seeing that others commit murder. 

But D'Souza does not stop at accusing liberals of murder qua individuals.  In his writing there is a far larger problem that requires a far more comprehensive application of violence.  It is the "actions" of liberal "culture" that lead to the murder of Americans:

The left is responsible for 9/11 in the following ways.   First, the cultural left has fostered a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies, especially those in the Islamic world, that are being overwhelmed with this culture.   In addition, the left is waging an aggressive global campaign to undermine the traditional patriarchal family and to promote secular values in non-Western cultures.   This campaign has provoked a violent reaction from Muslims who believe that their most cherished beliefs and institutions are under assault.  Further, the cultural left has routinely affirmed the most vicious prejudices about American foreign policy held by radical factions in the Muslim world, and then it has emboldened those factions to attack the United States with the firm conviction that "America deserves it" and that they can do so with relative impunity.   Absent these conditions, Osama Bin Laden would never have contemplated the 9/11 attacks, nor would the United States today be the target of Islamic radicals throughout the world.  Thus when leading figures on the left say, "We made them do this to us," in a sense they are correct.  They are not correct that "America" is to blame.  But their statement is true in that their actions and their America are responsible for fostering Islamic anti-Americanism in general and 9/11 in particular

(The Enemy at Home, Introduction)

Guilty of murder, penalty: death.  With the lightness of a feather, D'Souza's dismisses the radical authoritarianism of George W. Bush as too soft.  The six-year assault on liberalism propagated by Karl Rove to ensure 8 solid years of authoritarian rule in America--it has all been too soft, according to D'Souza.  Our real enemy, he argues, is still not understood.  Our real enemy is at home, and the real problem is the manner in which that enemy at home has steadfastly destroyed the "external moral order" that once governed the world:

From the American founding until World War II, there was a widespread belief in this country that there is a moral order in the universe that makes claims on us.  This belief was not unique to Americans.  It was shared by Europeans since the very beginning of Western civilization, and it is held even today by all the traditional cultures of the world.   The basic notion is that morality is external to us, and it is binding on us.  In the past, Americans and Europeans, being for the most part Christian, might disagree with Hindus and Muslims about the exact source of this moral order, its precise content, or how a society should convert its moral beliefs into legal and social practice.   But there was little doubt across the civilizations of the world about the existence of such an order.  Moreover laws and social norms typically reflected this moral consensus.  During the first half of the twentieth-century, the moral order generated some clear American social norms: Go to church.  Be faithful to your wife.  Support your children.  Go when your country calls.  And so on.  The point is not that everyone lived up to the dictates of the moral code, but that it supplied a standard, accepted virtually throughout society, for how one should act.

What has changed in America since the 1960s is the erosion of belief in an external moral order. This is the most important political fact of the past half-century.   I am not saying that most Americans today reject morality.   I am saying that there has been a great shift in the source of morality.    Today there is no longer a moral consensus in American society.  Today many Americans locate morality not in a set of external commands but in the imperatives of their own heart.   For them, morality is not "out there" but "in here."  While many Americans continue to believe in the old morality, there is now a new morality in America which may be called the morality of the inner self, the morality of self-fulfillment.

Here, at the deepest level, is the divide between conservatives and liberals, between Red America and Blue America.   Conservatives believe in traditional morality.  Liberals believe in personal autonomy and self-fulfillment.  And liberals have been winning the culture war in the sense that they have been able to produce a massive transformation of American society and culture along the lines of their new moral code.  My point is not that liberals would approve of all the grossness and sensuality of contemporary popular culture, but that the liberal promotion of autonomy, individuality and self-fulfillment as moral ideals make it impossible to question or criticize or place limits on these cultural trends.   In the moral code of self-fulfillment, "pushing the envelope" or testing the borders of sexual and moral tolerance becomes a virtue, and fighting for traditional morality becomes a form of repression or vice. 

(The Enemy at Home, Introduction)

If arguing that liberals are accomplices to the murder of Americans implicitly invokes a penalty of death,  arguing that liberals are responsible for the murder of God implicitly calls for violent revolution.  Thus, in his own quiet way, spectacles slipping gently down his nose, D'Souza incites his reader to see liberals as an immoral foot on the neck of the nation.  The only logical conclusion is to rise up against them.  Talk is how we ended up here in the first place.  D'Souza's argument coaxes his reader to reach for the knife.

Despite the disgusting, unspeakable horror committed in the name of right-wing ideology at Abu Ghraib, despite the unspeakable horror of an entire nation set ablaze by a policy that has no clear focus save for the megalomania of its proponents--D'Souza locates the source of all danger in the world with the moral agenda of the left:

Thus we have the first way in which the cultural left is responsible for 9/11.  The left has produced a moral shift in American society that has resulted in a deluge of gross depravity and immorality.

(The Enemy at Home, Introduction)

All roads lead to the declaration of war, to the redoubling of the violent, right-wing imagination so that it focuses not just on the fight "over there," but also on the second war "at home." The great clash of civilizations on which the survival of the human species depends is not a clash between Islam and Christendom unfolding on a far off curve of the globe, but a clash between liberals and conservatives right here in our midst:

There is no "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West.  But there are two clashes of civilizations that are shaping the world today.  The first is a clash between liberal and conservative values within America.  The second is a clash between traditional Islam and radical Islam, a clash within Islamic society.   So realize it or not, American conservatives are fighting a two-front war.  The first is a war against Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism.  The second is a political struggle against the left and its pernicious political and moral influence in America and around the globe.  My conclusion is that the two wars are intimately connected.  In fact, we cannot win the first war without also winning the second war.

(The Enemy at Home, Introduction)

Americans who dismiss the power and danger of D'Souza's argument do so at great risk to the public sphere of free debate in this country.  By the time the arena of public ideas is overtaken by D'Souza's toxic and contagious language of violence, it will be too late to turn it back.

Violence for D'Souza is not a turn of phrase, but a worldview. His goal is not expertise, but power.

It is tempting--seductive, even--to respond to D'Souza's call for violence against the left by framing arguments in terms of violent response to the right.  Americans do this whenever they talk or write about "fighting" a "war" against conservatism. 

Liberal action has a history of non-violence in America, although progressives in the past few years have mostly forgotten the crucial logic of non-violence that underlies the newly emergent ethos of a progressive politics based on participation.

"Organizing," "building," "standing together"--these are the words of the progressive left.  "Murdering," "killing," "battling," "attacking"--these are the words of the violent right. The hard work of the progressive left cannot be expressed through the words of the violent right.

The difficulty is that progressives may easily reject the rhetoric of the Coulters and D'Souzas on the right, while at the same time, inadvertently embracing the violence frame--the words of the violent right.

The growth of any progressive political movement inevitably confronts this particular choice.  Faced with a right-wing, violent response to its political gains,  progressives must decide to push on or to turn back and react.

A recent, fascinating documentary on HBO about the relationship between the civil rights movement and the political culture of black urban gangs (Bastards of the Party) showed the difficulty liberals and progressives face at holding off the violence frame pushed by the right.  Where the violent language of the right does not fully succeed at controlling the public sphere, the violent actions of the right step in to control the streets.

And what are progressives to do in this context?  Can a full fledged progressive left rooted in the moral logic of full political participation hold its own against a violent right?  Rhetorically and pragmatically?

According to Hannah Arendt, this is ultimately a question of power versus violence--of the ability to act in concert versus the ability to level natural strength against another.

In a head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt.  If Gandhi's enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance had met with a different enemy--Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England--the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.  However, England in India and France in Algeria had good reasons for their restraint.  Rule by sheer violence comes into play where power is being lost; it is precisely the shrinking power  of the Russian government, internally and externally, that became manifest in its "solution" of the Czechoslovak problem--just as it was the shrinking power of European imperialism that became manifest in the alternative between decolonization and massacre.  To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power. This is especially true when the victor happens to enjoy domestically the blessings of constitutional government.

(On Violence, 1969, p.53)

The problem progressives face, other words, is larger than just control of terrain, but the spread of a cultural and political worldview that would do away with any pretense of restraint vis-a-vis nonviolent political participation.  America witnessed precisely this kind of cultural shift in the 1960s, and the change ushered in an era of political assassinations, police brutality, and widespread  confusion on the political left.   

There should be no question that the goal of D'Souza's book is to hasten this kind of dissipation again--to make possible through rhetoric the elimination of any constraint on violence in the face of opposition non-violence.

But beyond that one warning, how valuable Arendt's warning should be to anyone who glances at D'Souza's writing in the broader context of a world laid waste by Republican violence in the last six years.

George W. Bush has indeed tried to substitute violence for power by means of bringing about victory in Iraq and in Afghanistan.    His failure to wield power to influence Iran has again raised the possibility of another, perhaps even more fateful, substitution--the application of violence in place of power in Iran.

And while many on the left cannot see it--are afraid or unwilling or unable to understand--the most visionary solutions of the left have taken form of policies that seek to reassert American power where Bush has misapplied American violence.

Russ Feingold's ideas, John Murtha's ideas--these are proposals that seek to reestablish America's historic and unprecedented ability to make others work in concert with us, and to restore the true value of state violence as a temporary measure to protect--not try to produce--American power in the world.

The unwillingness of Democrats to back these proposals is, unfortunately, an a likely indicator that there is no clear discussion unfolding in American government--either on the right or the left--about the relationship between power, violence and American policy.  Ours should be a policy based on power, not violence. 

The violent writing of Dinesh D'Souza should serve a warning of what America may soon face if Congressional leaders fail to reawaken a clear understanding between power and violence in all aspects  of American policy.  And Americans must all relearn these basic lessons before the violent right grasps the full extent of its political collapse--for in that moment, all restraints on right-wing responses to the progressive political participation will vanish.

(cross posted from Frameshop)