Alan Wolfe is a distinguished public intellectual. He is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. He is a longtime contributing editor to the New Republic. He is a frequent contributor to the Sunday New York Times Book Review. And over the course of many years, he has earned a reputation for overcoming political cant and scholarly rigidities to write penetratingly for the public about American political ideas and institutions.
So when Wolfe, from the platform provided by the aforementioned Times Book Review, calls for the excommunication of a conservative public intellectual, as he did on January 21 in a scathing critique of Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home, the judgment resounds. The force of that judgment, however, would have been greatly diminished had Times readers been aware that, like D'Souza, Wolfe has engaged in an immoderate post-9/11 attempt to expose the real enemy at home. Wolfe, it would seem, believes that one set of standards applies to conservative intellectuals, and another to intellectuals, like himself, who are on the left.
D'Souza has written a book that slides all too easily from the provocative to the polemical to the incendiary. Wolfe finds nothing right with the book and everything wrong with it. D'Souza's attempt to explain how Osama bin Laden is understood from the inside, by believing Muslims, is akin to "the Stalinist apologetics of the popular front period," and exhibits "a soft spot for radical evil." D'Souza's claim that conservative religious believers in America can find common ground with peaceful Muslim traditionalists, based on shared dismay over the decline of the family and the degradation of popular culture, warrants a scornful mention from Wolfe but not a refutation. Deriding D'Souza for the creation of a McCarthyite enemies list of leading leftists, Wolfe concludes by laying down criteria for the formation of a list of his own: "I look forward to the reaction from decent conservatives and Republicans who will, if they have any sense of honor, distance themselves, quickly and cleanly, from the Rishwain research scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University."
There is ample reason to reject D'Souza's central theses. He contends that the "cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11," but he provides no systematic inquiry and little evidence in support of so extreme an accusation. Moreover, his contention is undermined by his own discussion of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian-born intellectual father of radical Islam. For Qutb famously was scandalized by the popular culture he encountered at a church social in America in the late 1940s, two decades, on D'Souza's own account, before the emergence in the 1960s of the contemporary cultural left. Contrary to D'Souza, the jihadists hate America not in the first place because of feminism and egalitarianism, but because of our classical liberal beliefs in individual freedom and equality under the law, and their reverberations throughout all aspects of American society and culture.
Furthermore, D'Souza's assertion that left and right in America inhabit different moral universes distorts the situation. There is no doubt that tempers today are short and some policy differences do run deep. But generally, the disputes between right and left in America are not over rival conceptions of the political good but rather over competing ideas of what policies best serve individual freedom and equality under law.
As for D'Souza's charge that the cultural left represents a "domestic insurgency," it recklessly conflates disagreement, even vehement disagreement, which citizens are nonetheless inclined to settle through debate and elections, with war, which adversaries are disposed to resolve through death and destruction. Perhaps, as D'Souza asserts, some on the left, including some perched in and pontificating from high places, remain so convulsed with Bush hatred that in their hearts they would rather see America defeated in Iraq than the Bush administration vindicated. Yet it would still be wrong to confuse a fellow citizen's twisted passions with the murderous hatred of al Qaeda jihadists and Baathist insurgents.
To claim that by promoting, among other things, abortion, gay marriage, pornography, and atheism, the cultural left presents a threat to America as grave as that posed by radical Islam is seriously wrong and foolishly divisive. To make such an argument while America is at war with a fanatical adversary who regards all Americans as combatants and who seeks not concessions or reforms but America's annihilation is to blur critical issues when the rediscovery of our common ground is what is urgently called for.