A Wingnut in Sheeps Clothing

BY Phyllis Eckhaus

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It’s deluded to imagine that human beings are rational creatures. Fearmongering works, which is why every election season campaign strategists immerse us in negative ads. You can’t reason with people in a 30-second spot, but you can scare the hell out of a significant and susceptible segment of them, altering election outcomes.

The Enemy at Home, the newest tract from Hoover Fellow and bestselling right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza, is somewhat subtler than a nasty election ad, but it too targets the guts of the potentially persuadable. And how does one herd persuadables into the conservative corral, given the growing frustration with Bush and his war in Iraq? D’Souza seeks to revive folks’ fear of terror by revving up their fear of shifting sexual mores, then linking up the two. His core contention is a real attention-grabber, cunning and outrageous: he claims the left’s promotion of “global depravity” triggered 9/11 and continues to imperil America and the world.

You may laugh, but you’re not D’Souza’s intended audience. He’s aiming for the folks cognitive scientist George Lakoff describes as “biconceptuals,” who lean liberal in one regard and conservative in another–uncomfortable with the war, perhaps, but equally daunted by what they view as immorality at home.

D’Souza takes pains to soften them up with early chapters designed to disarm. In a bemused and reasonable tone, he offers commonsense contentions about American foreign policy that seem to transcend rhetoric and ideology. Describing the “illusions of the right,” he expresses frustration with the Bush administration’s war plan. He suggests that the way to win against Islamic radicals is to build alliances with moderate Muslims. He points out that “terrorism is not the enemy. … [T]errorism is a tactic.” And his account of the left’s sentiments and foreign policy positions is recognizably accurate: he says the left fears the Christian right more than the Taliban, hates Bush as much as the right despised Bill Clinton, and views the war as a pretext for profiteering and imperialism.

By the time D’Souza zeroes in on the supposed domestic agenda of the “cultural left” he has presumably won his readers’ trust. And he goes straight for middle America’s gag reflex, describing Democrats, liberals and leftists as perfervid perverts, hellbent on destroying the family, religion and morality itself. Yes, D’Souza says, radical Muslims hate America and they recruit with increasing ease among moderates. But not because we’re overrunning their countries, killing and torturing them. (D’Souza says they expect and respect that.) It’s because our scary cultural norms threaten their patriarchal way of life.

Atheism, fornication, divorce, feminism, abortion, pornography and homosexuality–these, we are told, are decadent American diseases spawned and spread by the “cultural left” since the ’60s. America can win the war on terror if and only if it publicly repudiates the left, joining forces with moderate Muslims to endorse traditional morality.

It’s a slick ploy that takes advantage of the universal free-floating fear of modern life. Everybody wants to stuff some genie back in the bottle–D’Souza would beat back women’s and gay rights, I’d turn the clock back to the days before global warming and nuclear weapons. For good and ill, globalization, industrialization and technology have wrought dramatic and escalating change–including loosening family ties and gender roles that were once sustained by economic necessity. This is a worldwide phenomenon arguably facilitated more by capital than by freedom movements and the somewhat less-than-all-powerful American left.

Skilled propagandist that he is, D’Souza pretends to support “tolerance”–but his tolerance for fornicators, feminists and gays turns out to mean barest forbearance: no rights, public shaming and the graciousness to refrain from running us out of town or stoning us to death. He cautions against stereotypes and ethnocentrism, but then describes the 9/11 hijackers as “right out of central casting,” fitting the part of the “fanatical Muslim terrorist–right down to their nose hairs.”

D’Souza’s tolerance for the left proves equally illusory; every time he says the left is not treasonous or anti-American, he’s actually conveying the opposite message through repetition and linking. By book’s end, D’Souza is damning the left as more “dangerous than bin Laden’s American sleeper cells” and calling for renewed McCarthyism.

In a world beyond our ken and control, it’s tempting to seek scapegoats. And, truth to tell, there’s no obvious answer to how we can manage to live together, in this divided country and on this small planet, given our great differences. But the inspired promise of America, reflected in a Bill of Rights authored by Enlightenment idealists, is a dynamic vision of ever-expanding freedoms protective and embracing of all. D’Souza’s cramped and vicious work betrays that promise.

Phyllis Eckhaus is an In These Times contributing editor who has written essays and book reviews for the magazine since 1993, covering everything from the history of Mad Magazine to the economics of terrorism. Her work has also appeared in Newsday, The Nation, the Guardian (U.S.) and the Women's Review of Books, among other publications. Trained as a lawyer and social scientist, with degrees from Yale, Harvard and New York University, she works in nonprofit management and lives in New York City.

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