The wrong America

Dinesh D’Souza Antara Dev Sen
12 August 2004


Dear Dinesh D’Souza,

I write to you not just as an Indian to an American, but also as one who shares many of the memories that run in your veins, the colour of the skin over that, and the respect for a good life and democratic freedoms that nestle somewhere in between. I write to you specifically because everyday events frequently remind me of the enormous role the United States of America plays in the lives of distant mortals, and because of your unquestioning love for your chosen country that is reflected in the title of your book which has no question mark: What’s so great about America.

No, I don’t hate America. I can’t. Because I was nurtured by T.S. Eliot and Pete Seeger, by Ella Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath. Because I need Charlie Brown and Alfred E. Neuman in my life. And Audre Lorde, Miles Davis, Paul Simon… How can I shut out Broadway or Hollywood, or, I admit, turn off my television when Friends is on?

But Allen Ginsberg howls in my head: America why are your libraries full of tears? What I thought were ghosts no longer seem so moth-eaten. Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, Panama, Grenada, Yugoslavia: millions killed for flimsy reasons. Angry bombs lobbed at Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon and, for years, at Iraq’s “no-fly zones”: on suspicion, or even as mere distractions. Governments, many elected democratically, destabilised, attacked or compromised: Chile, Nicaragua, Guyana, El Salvador, Guatemala, Grenada, Greece, Indonesia, Brazil, Cambodia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, East Timor, Haiti.

The whole operation, newspapers say / supported by the CIA.

Why does a country perpetually proclaiming the primacy of democratic freedoms repeatedly violate precisely these? Could it, then, be the other way around: because it has such a history of undermining democracy, freedom and human rights in other lands, the United States needs to advertise its virtues so much? We know the supremacy of repeated auto-suggestion over lesser ways of manufacturing consent.

No, I don’t believe America is evil. Partly because every wrong in my McDonald-and-Coke-deprived Indian childhood was blamed on the CIA and its agents, till I almost blamed them for my homework. Partly because it is a nation founded on splendid principles. And partly because of my friend PD in New York. In 1991, he was in an advanced stage of Aids. We cried, we prayed, we cursed our fate and his sexuality, we braced ourselves. Thirteen years later, PD is still teaching students and passionately shooting off letters against “Israeli and American aggression”. He is alive and active only because of America’s excellent healthcare system and social security.

But my gurgling gratitude for America fades into other memories: of America pushing expensive America-made Aids drugs in impoverished African countries reeling from the pandemic, and trying to prevent them from buying cheaper generic options that would save thousands of lives.

And I remember Maria, of Angola. Beautiful Maria with her eyes brimming with dreams. She was born into the thirty-year civil war funded by the United States that destroyed her home, killed her father and crippled her country. But she dreamt on, with the unshakeable confidence of a 22-year-old single mother. Then her 4-year-old daughter died. In her bullet-riddled, caved-in family home I saw Maria’s eyes dry up, and the dreams shy away from the dark night of the soul.

But the horror of 11 September 2001 hushed even America’s harshest critics. Until the “preventive” war against Iraq, based on bogus propaganda about Saddam Hussein’s complicity in 9/11 and his indiscernible WMDs. Amazingly, Saddam is being tried for crimes spanning thirty years, mostly committed when America was his fast friend. America had even helped hush up the Halabja massacre during that period, blaming Iran instead. Reminds you of when America invaded Panama and nailed Noriega – and most of the crimes he was charged with dated back to when he was a close US ally.

I turn and burn./ Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Then suddenly, you have cases like “Rasul vs Bush” and “‘Hamdi vs Rumsfeld” in the Supreme Court. Man to man, about Guantanamo Bay. And magnificently, the court upholds civil liberties over executive arrogance. And we rejoice.

It’s this Janus-faced America that I write to you about. I would like you to recognise what it is like for us non-Americans to face the truth of the downside. America may be great, as your book so affectionately explains, but does it not also need to be good? Don’t you think that to talk about what is great about the US without talking about what is wrong will inflate the country’s most damaging qualities and ultimately hurt it also — though not as much as the rest of us?

Take Afghanistan. A country destroyed because America fought its cold war with the Soviet Union on its soil and in the process created people like Osama bin Laden as it funded, trained and nurtured the Mujahideen.

As you know, back here in your birth country India, these Mujahideen – backed by Pakistan and once glorified by America as “freedom fighters” – have killed about 40,000 people in Kashmir. Curiously, when such “freedom fighters” attacked America they swiftly morphed into “terrorists” who needed to be “smoked out of their caves”. My friend Pradeep Bhatia – talented photographer and proud father of a newborn – who was killed in Kashmir before 9/11, would be happy to know that he had not, after all, lost his life in the course of a freedom struggle but had really been murdered by terrorists.

For decades, America has waged wars, funded insurgencies and trained mercenaries, apparently to ward off the great communist conspiracy that threatened freedom and human rights around the world. Now, it is the conspiracy of Islamic militancy. How long do we lean together, headpiece filled with straw?

Fortunately, not everyone in America is leaning together. There is space for the severe dissent of Noam Chomsky, for the criticisms of Joseph Stiglitz. People like them and other honest professionals – and not the guns-blazing uncle in his top hat – make us admire America once more.

Forty years after the Civil Rights Act, this is the America I would rather see, America as a just nation that lives the democratic freedoms it preaches. Every day, around the world, millions like me pick out fragments of this America – a poem, a song, an argument – from the angry snarl of broken promises and shameless aggression, to embellish our personal worlds. And we remain indebted to an America that is fast becoming invisible.

If it disappears altogether, don’t you agree that the America it leaves behind will be just a shell, a hollow greatness emptied of the integrity and fairness that once recognised moral equality with other countries? Shouldn’t your next book be called What is fair about America – I won’t use a question mark either.



Dear Antara Dev Sen,

Reading your letter, I feel a bit like the mosquito at the nudist colony – I’m not sure where to begin!

Your main quarrel seems to be with American foreign policy. You are undoubtedly passionate and sincere, but your whole critique seems to me both unbalanced and misguided. It is unbalanced because it fails to take even perfunctory note of the great and relatively undisputed achievements of America. Twice in the past century, America’s actions played a crucial role in saving freedom – first, from the threat of Nazi tyranny, and then, from the threat of Soviet imperialism.

Apparently you don’t take the horrors of communism seriously, since you write with sarcasm about the “great communist conspiracy.” Could this be because none of your friends or acquaintances suffered under Soviet tyranny? I assume you don’t require personal experience to recognise that Soviet tyranny littered the world with as many, if not more, corpses than Hitler. The war against the “evil empire” was a just war, and America’s victory in that war has left the world better and freer.

Your reluctance to side with America in the fight against Soviet communism, like your reluctance to side with America in the fight against Islamic militancy, seems to spring from your firm belief that American foreign policy is two-faced and hypocritical. You note that America invokes the noble principles of democracy, peace and freedom, while in practice it “wages wars, funds insurgencies and trains mercenaries.”

But what if force is necessary to force a tyrant like Saddam Hussein to relinquish power? (Tyrants are not known to relinquish power voluntarily). What if funding an insurgency, like the one America supported in Nicaragua, is necessary to compel the Sandinistas to hold free elections – like the one in 1990 that expelled these petty tyrants from power! If the notion that force is frequently required to achieve freedom seems implausible or paradoxical to you, remember that freedom came to the United States as the result of a revolutionary war. American blacks, too, won their freedom through force – it took a civil war to free the slaves.

Your most serious misunderstanding, in my view, is that you neglect the fundamental principle of American foreign policy, which upon reflection is a deeply moral principle. It is the principle of the lesser evil. This principle holds that statesmanship is different from moral philosophy. In the real world, as opposed to the philosophy seminar, the choice is often not between the good guy and the bad guy. It’s between the bad guy and the really bad guy. In this situation, it is often justifiable to ally with the bad guy to get rid of the worse guy.

The classic case of this was in the second world war. America and Britain allied with Stalin (a bad guy!) because another bad guy, Hitler, posted a greater threat at the time. Was this justified? Of course it was. So, too, in the cold war, America supported certain tinpot dictators (Ferdinand Marcos, the Somoza dynasty, Augusto Pinochet) because they were allies in a larger battle against the greatest threat to freedom in the world, the Soviet Union.

As part of the same struggle, America was fully justified during the 1980s in supporting the Afghan freedom fighters who were fighting to free their country from Soviet occupation. Support for the Mujahideen was a just cause, even if the group included Osama bin Laden! Was Ronald Reagan in 1987 expected to know that bin Laden would conclude, once Soviet communism collapsed, that the Great Satan was now American capitalism? Can American leaders in the 1980s be faulted for failing to anticipate 9/11? This is absurd. Statesmen can only be evaluated for the decisions they make based on the information available to them at the time. This is a good principle to keep in mind the next time you hear someone attack George W Bush and Tony Blair for their failure to recognise before the war facts about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program that only emerged after the war.

The principle of the lesser evil also explains why America once supported Saddam Hussein – because during the Iraq-Iran war he was the only counterweight in the Muslim world to Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini was the first theocrat in modern times to seize control of a major Islamic state. He is the match that lit the conflagration that is now sweeping the Muslim world. Without Khomeini, it is hard to envision bin Laden. So the United States was right to recognise the danger posed by Khomeini, and to attempt to weaken him. Perhaps you disagree with this prudential judgment. If so, you and the critics of America should make your case for what America should have done. What amazes me is that you, like so many others, are content to bash America without any apparent appreciation of the hard decisions that leaders must make.

Sure, America has made its mistakes. But while judging America by the utopian standard to which it aspires, let us also remember that by comparison with other existing nations, America is without rival in recent history in its efforts to promote the ideals of freedom and democracy in the world. What would the past century have looked like if America did not exist? To answer this question is to recognise how small-minded and weak the anti-American case really is, and also how much the United States has been a force for good in the world.



Last week: Harun Hassan wrote to Michael Maren.

Next week: David Elstein writes to Irwin Stelzer.


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