Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Reason and Error

[Note: Last week, Dan Caldwell and I wrote the essay below for publication in Pepperdine's campus newspaper, the Graphic, as a response to two presentations (with essentially the same content) on campus by Dinesh D'Souza. The editor of the Graphic chose not to publish the essay in the paper, so we offer it here instead. As needed, the essay has been updated to reflected the passage of a week since its intended publication.]

Two weeks ago, a court in Germany sentenced Ernst Zundel to five years in prison for his contributions to a web site that denies the Holocaust ever occurred. Here in the United States, the First Amendment would have protected the ignorant and offensive things Zundel has written. In fact, it did protect them for the two years that Zundel lived in Tennessee.

Although it was not always the case, the United States today places a higher value on freedom of speech than any other country in the world according to comparative law scholars. Because Americans recognize the importance of the free exchange of ideas in a democracy, our courts commonly give wide latitude to political speech. And we support that as a fundamental right guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Some of our national confidence in the value of free speech comes directly from Thomas Jefferson. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson said, "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

We raise this point because Dinesh D'Souza, author of a recently published book with an ignorant and offensive premise, spoke on campus last week. In fact, his appearances at the School of Law and Seaver College one week ago were specifically designed to promote his book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.

D'Souza argues, in his own words, that "the cultural left in the country is responsible for causing 9/11." The "cultural left" is not everybody in the Democratic Party, but it includes an awful lot of people (almost all of them Democrats) who have a commonality that only D'Souza seems capable of intuiting. He specifically attacks, among others, President Jimmy Carter, Senator Robert Byrd, Senator Hillary Clinton, philanthropist George Soros, and journalist Bill Moyers.

D'Souza's false thesis, which is elaborated throughout the book, is ignorant and offensive enough, but there are others that are equally ludicrous. For example, we learn in chapter six that the cultural left was also responsible for the Abu Ghraib scandal. D'Souza writes, after pretending that Charles Graner and Lynndie England were the only soldiers involved in the torture and degradation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, "For many Muslims, Abu Ghraib demonstrated the casualness with which married Americans have affairs, walk out on their spouses, and produce children without bothering to take responsibility for the care of their offspring." Really?

Sadly, there's much more like this. Really.

The Jeffersonian--and, in fact, the quintessentially American--response to obnoxious views like the ones D'Souza is currently peddling is not censorship but reason. This, it seems to us, is where scholars have not only the right but the obligation to speak.

So, let us be among those to confront falsehoods with truth and reason. D'Souza's opinions about liberals, as with most prejudices, bear little relationship to reality.

He attributes motives and desires to liberals for which there is no evidence, thereby defaming many good people. He treats political differences, including those born of opposition to preventive war or to torture, as evidence of moral depravity. He engages, very freely, in ad hominem attacks.

He purports to know the mind of Osama bin Laden, but his conclusions are at odds with both expert analyses and many of bin Laden's own statements.

D'Souza's views about his fellow Americans are deeply offensive--and even libelous, according to a recent op-ed by his fellow neoconservative and Hoover Institution colleague Victor Davis Hanson. He has, sadly, abandoned even the pretense of civility. We say "sadly" because it is civility that allows those who disagree nevertheless to engage in conversation, as often occurs, thankfully, on this campus.

While we're willing to be among the first to challenge D'Souza's false and malicious ideas, we certainly hope we're not the last. On the contrary, we would like to know exactly what those who brought D'Souza to Pepperdine and gave him a platform to present his offensive beliefs think of his view that liberals--people like us--are responsible for 9/11 and for the Abu Ghraib scandal.

One of the most important philosophers of political conservatism, Edmund Burke, wrote, "It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph." Offended by D'Souza's false and malicious claims, we choose to speak out. What about others?

[Update (3/1/07): The Graphic has now posted this piece online here.]