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Which Way W.? | The Nation

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Which Way W.?

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As the proverbial curtain rises on the Bush era in national politics, it's hard to know just how pessimistic progressives should be about the new President's aims and intentions. On a rhetorical level, we were greeted with an inaugural address that with a few minor adjustments could have been given by an incoming president of the NAACP. Look at the substance, however, and we find nominees at the Justice and Interior departments who could have been vetted by the John Birch Society, if not the Army of the Confederacy. The two warring sides of the Republican psyche were neatly illustrated recently at a dinner sponsored by the Philanthropy Roundtable at the Regency Hotel in New York, where two current stars of the Republican rubber-chicken circuit, Weekly Standard editor David Brooks and American Enterprise Institute "research scholar" and Olin fellow Dinesh D'Souza, held forth after a nicely Republican red-meat repast.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Brooks is still riding the wave of his bestselling work of "comic sociology" about America's new elite, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. His talk, like the book, is mostly affectionate ribbing of this class for its bourgeois consumption habits and bohemian self-image. Though he'd be loath to admit it, Brooks is an old-fashioned liberal Republican, not unlike Poppy Bush before he got the bit of presidential ambition in his teeth and found his principles run over by a Reagan landslide. (Just what Brooks is doing in a party dominated not by Prescott Bush and Elliot Richardson but Dick Armey and Tom DeLay is a question for another day.) A self-confessed Bobo, Brooks has only one problem with this tolerant, secular-minded and self-satisfied elite--its lack of civic consciousness.

There are no poor people in the Bobo world--even illegal Guatemalan nannies are treated as if they are taking care of your children and cleaning your bathroom as a lifestyle choice rather than out of economic necessity. "The new elite," as Brooks explained to the assembled philanthropists, "has no ethic of chivalry." Charitable giving as a percentage of assets has not remotely kept up with the unprecedented explosion of wealth in the United States during the past decade.

The virtues of such selfishness, on the other hand, have never escaped Dinesh D'Souza. The young Indian immigrant made his name in this country giving eloquent voice to the most morally repugnant aspects of Reagan-era Republicanism. He began his career as an obnoxious Dartmouth undergrad, publishing crude racist attacks in the off-campus conservative newspaper, followed by a stint at a Princeton magazine where he delighted in exposing details of female undergrads' sex lives. His first book was a loving appreciation of aspiring ayatollah Jerry Falwell.

D'Souza became a national phenomenon with a book attacking PC culture at universities, which was defensible, if overstated, and an apologia for American racism, which he termed "rational discrimination." With its pseudointellectual patina, D'Souza's work, even more than Charles Murray's, seems designed to offer solace to those who miss the good old days of Jim Crow laws and late-night cross burnings. Segregation, he argued, was designed to protect African-Americans and "to assure that [they], like the handicapped, would be...permitted to perform to the capacity of their arrested development." It would end when "blacks as a group can show that they are capable of performing competitively in schools and the work force."

D'Souza is touring for a new work, The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence. (It is a measure of how well-funded are right-wing arguments that I have so far received four unrequested copies.) The thrust of his argument is the opposite of that of Brooks. Simply put, wealth has no obligations to poverty except to avoid it. As he once argued for the logic of racism, he now speaks for the morality of parsimony. The United States, he asserts, is "probably the best society that now exists or has ever existed."

D'Souza is the kind of moral philosopher who pays more attention to the musings of the Ayn Rand-spouting entrepreneur T.J. Rodgers, who races his BMW over speed bumps while attacking the moral probings of the clergy, than he does to the combined works of John Rawls and Richard Rorty. (Terming the latter "Rip Van Rorty" is what passes for wit in these pages.) Reinhold Niebuhr receives no mention at all.

Of course, it's not exactly hard to find billionaires who think of themselves as altruists regardless of the obscene amounts of wealth they accumulate. But it is much more cost-effective to induce "intellectuals" to say it for them. D'Souza fills this purpose not only by celebrating mass wealth but by abolishing poverty. "Poverty," he argues, "understood as the absence of food, clothing, and shelter, is no longer a significant problem in America." His evidence for this breathtaking claim is that even poor people have refrigerators these days, and many of them are fat. That 30 million Americans still struggle beneath the poverty line and 42 million lack the benefit of health insurance represent, to D'Souza, mere speed bumps on our highway to capitalist utopia.

When Bush père was inaugurated, he too made a great show of what was not yet called "compassionate conservatism." He acknowledged that poor people exist and that somebody should do something about it, but as a society, he warned, we had "more will than wallet." (And anyway, his contributors were demanding a cut in the tax on capital gains.) Dubya closed his inaugural with a similar flourish, in which he promised to work "to make our country more just and generous."

To show that Dubya is even remotely serious about his agenda for the poor, he and his Administration will have to ponder the kinds of questions raised by Brooks about the moral obligations of wealth. That is, after all, about the best one can expect from Republicans. But to the degree that he wishes to prove what his enemies insist to be true--that all this compassionate conservatism is simply a frilly frock in which to clothe the Reaganite Republican values of top-down class war--expect to hear plenty more from Dinesh D'Souza.

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