The Conservative Imagination
Dinesh D'Souza became a right-wing campus radical at Dartmouth in the late Carter years. His motives should be recognizable to former campus radicals of the other variety. In 1980 a young conservative at an elite university had more fun. He mocked his humorless liberal professors, scandalized the tender sensibilities of his classmates, fought the administration's attempts to censor his outrageous publication and saw his antics make national news. He was the true anti-authoritarian, member of a countercultural vanguard that couldn't be bothered with decency because there were omelets to be made. "To confront liberalism fully we could not be content with rebutting liberal arguments," he writes in the enemy's tongue. "We also had to subvert liberal culture, and this meant disrupting the etiquette of liberalism. In other words, we had to become social guerrillas."
This is an insignificant little book--a make-book, like most of D'Souza's five others (that Letters to a Young Conservative and Whittaker Chambers's Witness can both be called books suggests that a more discriminating term needs to be invented). Part of its shallowness lies in the fact that stunts like trying to get university funding for a Dartmouth Bestiality Society always seem funnier at the time. These letters to a young correspondent named "Chris" recount the merry pranks of D'Souza's youth and then guide the protégé through correct thinking on the major issues. Unless you already believe that global warming means "Brazil's loss is Minnesota's gain," or that liberals go into sociology because their ideas crumble on contact with the hard sciences, Letters to a Young Conservative won't convince anyone of anything. Its tone is the smug self-congratulation ("I am delighted that you enjoyed my Reagan book so much"; "I see you found my letter on homosexuals quite amusing") of an undergraduate who's learned how to one-up and enrage inferior debate opponents. Rather like certain graybeards who never got over Berkeley or Columbia, D'Souza's mental world has been stunted by early glory at Dartmouth, and by having spent most of his subsequent career as a heavily subsidized, traveling provocateur who specializes in baiting college audiences and watching them react. When a student disrupts his lecture by walking out, D'Souza gets a laugh by announcing into the mike, "I realize that diarrhea can be a serious problem"--an anecdote related in a chapter titled "How to Harpoon a Liberal." In trying to be witty, D'Souza would have done better trying to be fair.
This book's value is entirely symptomatic. It suggests what's happened to conservatism in the two decades since D'Souza joined the Dartmouth Review, at a moment when liberals had grown fat in the waist and were prime for poking. Twenty years later, after soft landings in the second Reagan Administration, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, what's become of the not-so-young conservative and his worldview, now that liberals seem pretty thoroughly beaten?
To begin, he is absolutely certain of that view--not just of its moral and intellectual soundness but of its inevitable triumph. There are no difficult questions to decide, no philosophical tensions to resolve, no former positions to reconsider--none of the things that would excite the hypothetical author of Letters to a Young Liberal. On the roll call of issues--economics, affirmative action, feminism, guns, homosexuality, the environment, abortion, globalization--D'Souza has all the troops in order, spit-shined and at attention. And in the same way, the enemy is lined up to be shot through unblinking caricature: "Liberalism has become the party of anti-Americanism, economic plunder, and immorality." When the young correspondent "Chris" proclaims himself a "libertarian conservative," D'Souza congratulates him on neatly evading the fundamental contradiction between freedom and authority at the heart of American conservatism. Simple-mindedness goes under the heading of upbeatness, and "We are justified in being upbeat because we know that we are in the right, and that the right will eventually prevail." These intellectual shortcuts and complacencies would embarrass the writers invoked in the reading list that makes up D'Souza's last chapter.