A decade after 9/11, American politics continues to be polarised by some rather unexpected figures. The latest Republican fire-thrower is a Christian conservative from Bandra, finds Shougat Dasgupta
IT IS easy to make a convincing case that Dinesh D’Souza, the prominent conservative commentator and Christian apologist, is a loon. Many already have. His recent book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, is brandished by the prosecution as more, perhaps even clinching, evidence. The book’s case was made in miniature in an article in Forbes, remarkable for its half-baked thesis that Obama is a ’50s-60s style anti-imperialist. Like any student clutching his dog-eared Fanon or Said reader, Obama, D’Souza contends, believes his country to be the oppressor and is acting to subvert its power.
Except, and this is the nub, Obama is not motivated simply by ideology but by the spirit of his Kenyan father who, in absentia, infected his son with a Third World Weltanschauung unbalanced by hatred and rage for the white and wealthy. D’Souza’s evidence? The fact that Obama’s autobiography is called Dreams From My Father rather than Dreams of My Father. And a scene from the book in which Obama writes of weeping at the grave of the father he’d never properly known: “I saw that my life in America — the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago — all of it was connected with this small piece of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the colour of my skin. The pain that I felt was my father’s pain.” D’Souza reads it as “a kind of sacramental rite at the family tomb,” through which “the father’s struggle becomes the son’s birthright”. It’s the Republican riposte to those amateur psychoanalysts who said Bush junior’s zeal to invade Iraq was founded in his desire to finish the job his daddy began.
D’Souza’s argument is, frankly, silly and looked sillier when months after the book was published Osama bin Laden was assassinated. Obama’s disregard for Pakistani sovereignty and the continued nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not the actions of a committed anti-colonial. Only in the present-day US, a country that has moved so decisively to the right that the staid, cautious, self-consciously establishment New York Times (NYT) is described on Fox News as the “radical left”, could D’Souza’s analysis be greeted by as senior a politician as Newt Gingrich as “brilliant… the most interesting insight”.
When D’Souza, in a long telephone conversation I had with him recently, said he and Obama had “taken opposite paths”, that while D’Souza had been largely raised in “the Third World but had embraced American ideals”, Obama was born in the US but had embraced a Third World ideology “not far from Nehruvian socialism”, I needed no further persuasion that he was indeed a loon. But as he told me more about himself, about the busy, engaged life he was so pleased to have created for himself, I felt my assessment of this genial, nerdy, enthusiastic man to have been churlish.
“I grew up in Bandra,” D’Souza, born in 1961, told me, “when Bandra was quite distinct from the city. It was an idyllic childhood. It was like a town of cottages. We, me, my brother and sister, grew up in a house my grandfather built in the 1940s… grew up with three dozen cousins playing endless games of cricket and hockey.” D’Souza went to St Stanislaus, a Catholic school founded in the late 19th century, and was encouraged to apply to a Bombay Rotary Club programme that offered bright pupils an opportunity to spend their last year of school in Europe, Australia or America. D’Souza picked the States. “America,” he says, “exercised a certain kind of glamour in the imagination… I watched all the Westerns and war movies.” He said his imagined America, from the vantage of ’70s Bombay, was the America of the ’50s — free, prosperous and orderly.” “It’s at the core of our culture wars in America today,” he adds, “people who cling to the America of the 1950s versus those who prefer the America of the ’60s.” The America he loved was a placidly domestic country where people lived in immaculate houses, in gleaming suburbs, a country so democratic that “even plumbers took their families on vacation in Europe”. “To a child from India,” he says, “it was remarkable that everything worked: you turn on a tap and get water, you switch a light on and there’s electricity.”
D’Souza’s relish for the debates is plain. He sees himself as a Christian public intellectual, with the emphasis on public
BUT D’SOUZA remembers too the difficulties of his first months in the US. He was placed in a rundown school in rural Arizona. The school, he says was “decrepit, the academics were deplorable and there were tensions between poor whites and Mexicans”. None of it tempered D’Souza’s ardour. If, in Arizona, D’Souza had felt not only “like a foreigner but a man from Mars,” the following year, his freshman year at Dartmouth College, was a homecoming of sorts. “At Dartmouth,” D’Souza says, “I had access to the America I admired, where ideas matter; a country in which you were the architect of your own life.” America, D’Souza says, offers a “real alternative to the awful choice of either hanging on to your own past in an uncritical way or relinquishing it.” In India, D’Souza suggests, he’d have been a creature entirely of his parents’ and society’s making; he’d have taken the job he was expected to in a profession expected of him and taken the first steps of his adult life on a path laid out for him. He is indebted to America’s openness, its “commitment to excellence in a wide variety of fields” for sparing him a pre-ordained life of quiet middle-class desperation.
Soon after he graduated from Dartmouth, D’Souza began working for Ronald Reagan. He thinks of himself as a “Reagan conservative”, describing the former president as “genuinely interested in ideas, a cosmopolitan, worldly figure”. He confesses he’s “little nervous about the provincialism and anti-intellectualism” rife among the current Republican presidential aspirants. He talks of the period between 1966 and 1980 that Reagan spent in the “political wilderness, during which he matured, travelled, learned”. Michele Bachmann, D’Souza says, “lacks that kind of gravitas and political maturity”, while Mitt Romney’s Mormonism “doesn’t connect with the Republican base”.
D’Souza talks so enthusiastically of his love for ideas, of America’s role in fostering that love by providing him an opportunity for a life amongst ideas, that I find it astonishing that he’d rather see Bachmann, a ludicrous figure, in the White House instead of Obama. “I’d rather see someone stupid in White House than Obama intelligently pursuing policies that are harmful. Politics is also a matter of picking sides,” he says. If the current raft of Republican candidates is uninspiring, D’Souza sees potential in the likes of Bobby Jindal, the most prominent of a growing group of Indian- American politicians.
I wonder if Jindal, who is a convert to Catholicism, and Nikki Haley, the other politician of Indian (in her case, Sikh) orig ins, who self-identifies as a Met h odist, felt pressured to profess Christianity to realise their political ambitions. D’Souza, who last year was appointed president of King’s College, a small evangelical college in the Empire State Building, admits the necessity of being “familiar with a kind of mainstream Christianity if you’re on the Repu blican side of the aisle”. In Jindal’s case, he feels the conversion is a product of Jindal’s reading of GK Chesterton and CS Lewis. Indian-Americans, he says, Hindu or not, have a great future in the Republican Party “because of their commitment to markets, their commitment to merit and their conservative social values”. “White Americans,” he adds, “are eager to elect people who look different but express their values.”
D’Souza sees his role at King’s as helping to prepare future generations guided by their religious faith to become powerbrokers in a secular world. He is a prominent figure on college campuses and on TV, presenting the case for God in debates with atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His relish for these debates is plain. He sees himself as a Christian public intellectual, with the emphasis on public. He feels at home behind the podium, in the adversarial but collegial nature of debate with the erudite, eloquent likes of Hitchens. Unfortunately, political debate in the US is too polarised, too viciously divided.
In my conversation with D’Souza, I sensed in him a yearning for an elevated political discourse. He admits he’d like nothing better than to present his points of view in a mainstream venue like Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show. He rails against the NYT, I believe, because he sees the newspaper as a natural venue for a public intellectual of his ambition. He speaks wistfully of the raucous but substantive debate in the British parliament as the kind of political debate he’d like to see in the US. Instead, D’Souza is left to seek support from people like Glenn Beck, a blustering demagogue of the worst kind. Eager to remain relevant in the American discourse, D’Souza is fluent in the rancorous language of American politics. His Obama book, a follow-up to which is in the works, is the product of that fluency. For all his talk of ideas, for all his love of conversation, for the life of the mind, D’Souza has allowed the low-grade theatre of American politics to turn him not into a public intelle ct ual but a much more rec og nisable figure from the Westerns he so loved as a boy — the snake oil salesman.