with Dinesh D’Souza, Robert Higgs, Gore Vidal
Thursday, April 18, 2002

In a 2002 Gallup poll conducted in ten Muslim nations, only 22 percent of the people questioned viewed the United States favorably. Why does the United States foster such hatred in the Islamic world in particular? Is it our foreign policy—our support of Israel and of repressive Arab regimes in the Middle East? Or is it our culture? Does globalization spread American values that are simply antithetical, thus disruptive, to the traditional Islamic view of society? Just what should we do to win this struggle for the hearts and minds of those who despise us around the world?

Streaming video

Recorded on Thursday, April 18, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, Gore Vidal on 'My Country... wrong.'

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: how we got to be so hated. Ever since the September 11th terrorist attacks, the question has been on everybody's mind, why does the United States engender such hatred, especially in the Islamic world? Is it something we've done or something we are? In other words, is it our foreign policies that people hate or is it our ideal of liberty itself that is difficult for some to accept? And how do we win over the hearts and minds of people who despise us?

Joining us today, three guests. Robert Higgs is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute. Gore Vidal has been an author, essayist, playwright, and commentator on the American political scene for more than five decades. His latest book: Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace, How We Got to be So Hated. Dinesh D'Souza is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, his latest book: What's So Great About America. Vitriol and apple pie...

Title: Enemies of the State

Peter Robinson: I begin with the words of Gore Vidal: "Although we regularly stigmatize other societies as rogue states, we ourselves have become the largest rogue state of all." If you want to know why the United States got to be hated, in other words, we got to be hated by behaving hatefully. Dinesh?

Dinesh D'Souza: Complete nonsense. The United States first of all is both hated and loved. You have to explain why it is a magnet for immigrants all over the world. Young people throughout the world are fascinated by the United States. So one has to account simultaneously for the appeal of America and for why some people, both abroad and in America, hate America.

Peter Robinson: Robert?

Robert Higgs: It's imperative to draw a distinction between hatred of America and hatred of government policy, particularly the U.S. government's policy abroad. Just because people take offense at the actions of the U.S. Government somewhere in the--the world abroad, does not mean those people hate Americans.

Peter Robinson: What about this, we are the largest rogue state of all, do you subscribe to that?

Robert Higgs: Well, I think there's certainly more than grains of truth in that statement.

Peter Robinson: I'll give you the opportunity to save us a whole show of time by saying you didn't really mean it.

Gore Vidal: I certainly meant it and I'd love to know about all these people who want to come--who immigrate here. It's been a long time since a Norwegian has asked for a green card. People don't leave Europe for the United States. We get a lot of people from south of the border, particularly countries that we have destroyed as a rogue state--Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, we've had our heavy hands in their affairs, so we get a lot of refugees from south of the border. Also from Southeast Asia where we ran amok for some thirteen or fourteen years. Yes they try to come here and that's perhaps their revenge in a way. And but the first world countries do not regard us with anything except some irritability and at times fear.

Dinesh D'Souza: Well the irritability is justified. The forceful countries, you know, used to run the world and don't anymore so there's a--more than a…

Peter Robinson: We're talking about Europe.

Dinesh D'Souza: We're talking about Europe. Europe used to run the world and used to run the world by force. I mean the British ruled India with a heavy hand; they had a hundred thousand troops there. The appeal of America that is astonishing is it is not primarily the appeal of force. You walk into a hotel in Barbados or Bombay and the bellhop is whistling the theme song from Titanic. That's a different kind of appeal. You know, and as an immigrant from India in my case, it seems to me that my reason for coming here has little to do with America destroying my country and everything to do with the fact that if I lived in India, my destiny, my life, would to a large degree have been given to me--shaped for me. Whom to marry, what to become, what to believe, all these decisions are in a sense enforced by the society--by parents, by culture, by norms, by rules. In America by contrast, I feel that to a large degree, I can shape--I can write the script of my own life.

Peter Robinson: Let's bring us up to the present conflict, September 11th. Quoting you yet again, Gore Vidal: "That our ruling junta might have seriously provoked Osama was never dealt with." Did we provoke Osama Bin Laden?

Robert Higgs: The presence of the United States troops in Saudi Arabia, Osama declares to be one of his chief grievances, along with the U.S. policy toward Palestine and the U.S. policy toward Iraq. So yes, those actions have provoked him.

Peter Robinson: Saudi Arabia has a population only slightly less than that of Iraq and a per-capita GDP four times as big as that of Iraq, shouldn't it be able to defend itself in the Mideast without our troops?

Dinesh D'Souza: Well, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait resulted in the Saudi government and other governments asking the United States to intervene. The United States had strategic interests there, I don't deny it but the United States also intervened to liberate the Kuwaiti people from tyranny. And, so that, look, I'm not--I wouldn't defend every American policy here, but the notion that three thousand Americans deserve to die because the U.S. has troops in Saudi Arabia is ludicrous.

Robert Higgs: That's changing the question to say those people deserve to die. That's a completely different issue from cause and effect issues of whether U.S. foreign policy actions provoked some reactions on the part of others.

Peter Robinson: All right, but what about the notion that we're hated not because of what we do but because of what we represent.

Title: Death to the West

Peter Robinson: On the one hand, you've got the notion that by various, specific, foreign policy initiatives we, perhaps unwittingly would be the charitable construction, provoked Osama Bin Laden and other Islamic radicals. All right. Then you have the other answer to that which is your answer--which I take to be your answer--which is it's not so much a question of specific policies as simply the American ideal is in itself a provocation to the Muslim world. Have I got that right? Explicate that a little bit.

Dinesh D'Souza: Islam used to be the greatest civilization in the world. And the Islamic view, stated in the Koran, is that the idea of Islam should rule the whole world. This is part of the doctrine of Islam. Now the Crusades were mounted to stop the forces of Islam, they were unsuccessful. Something has happened in the past couple of hundred years in which this one great civilization has now been reduced to insignificance. About all that it produces of any value is oil. When is the last time you heard about a great Islamic invention or discovery? So what you have is an envious, humiliated civilization lashing out against a more successful civilization that is making inroads into Islam because of the tremendous appeal of its ideas. In that sense, yes we did provoke Osama, but Osama is in a sense, lashing out at the superiority and justified superiority of American civilization.

Peter Robinson: Now let me quote Dinesh to you: "The Islamic fundamentalists don't object to the excesses of American liberty alone, they object to liberty itself." We are an affront to their way of life.

Gore Vidal: I find generalities of this nature totally irrelevant to any discourse. You cannot generalize about Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, very--this is not a monolithic culture, Islam.

Dinesh D'Souza: You generalized about America.

Gore Vidal: Yes, because I'm an American and my family has been here a long time and helped invent the country.

Peter Robinson: All right. But you do have a phenomenon...

Gore Vidal: We invented Oklahoma. You can't be more American than that. A great musical came out…

Dinesh D'Souza: You just said you can't generalize about Indonesia. Why can you generalize about America?

Gore Vidal: I'm not going to generalize; you are generalizing about this humiliated culture.

Peter Robinson: One poll after another shows that once you get to the borders of the Muslim world, attitudes toward the United States become hostile. So to that extent Indonesia, which is undoubtedly a quite different country from Egypt, which is different again from Iraq, to that much--to that extent they do have something in common. They share a religion and to some extent a culture, but they certainly share anti-Americanism. And my question is how come?

Dinesh D'Souza: Let's look at this, you've got--you have three ancient civilizations, you had the civilization of India, of China, and of the Islamic world. These were the three advanced civilizations in knowledge, and learning, and art. Now India and China have made powerful efforts, if you will, to embrace western modernity, to embrace technology. And if you look at the, for example, at the--the technological revolution, the Indians and the Chinese are a big part of it--Silicon Valley, lots of Indians, lots of Chinese. All I'm saying is that the huge events that have transformed the west, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, it's a historical fact that those events had very little impact in the western world and I would…

Peter Robinson: In the world of Islam you mean.

Dinesh D'Souza: I'm sorry, in the world of Islam and so you have a civilization that's been left behind by Western modernity. Now why is that not a fact?

Peter Robinson: You buy that reading?

Robert Higgs: I think these considerations have virtually nothing to do with the nineteen young men who chose to kill themselves and crash airplanes into buildings on September 11th. Those people were goaded by altogether different concerns than the historic humiliation of the world of Islam.

Peter Robinson: Let me quote someone who agrees with Dinesh and knows a thing or two about the world of Islam.

Title: Chapter and Verses

Peter Robinson: Salman Rushdie: "Even if a mideast peace agreement were arrived at tomorrow," that is to say Israel were taken off the table as an irritant or provocation as you might put it, "Anti-Americanism would probably not abate. It has become too useful a smokescreen for Muslim nations' many defects--their corruption, their incompetence, their oppression of their citizens, their economic, scientific, and cultural stagnation."

Gore Vidal: Well then the opposite view in the mirror is what we think about them. We need Islam at the moment because we have to have an enemy and since the Russians unsportingly gave up and Communism faded away, now we've got the Muslims to hate. And boy we do demonizing rather better than most people.

Dinesh D'Souza: It wasn't the United States that invited this. This was an unprovoked attack on the American mainland. So the demonization didn't begin until they killed a whole lot of our people.

Gore Vidal: Oh come on.

Dinesh D'Souza: Let me put it this way. The United States, if one looks historically, you talk about it as this rogue power, the United States destroyed Germany and Japan and rebuilt those two countries. The United States is the only country I know of that when it's in a war with another country, drops food to avert starvation on the part of civilians. I don't see the Mongols running across central Asia and distributing bowls of Mongolian beef. I don't see the Europeans, when they were decimating other countries, handing out food to people. America is an abstaining super power. Imagine what would have happened if the Soviet Union won the Cold War, how they would have used that power to level and destroy other countries. The United States shows no interest in taking over the rest of the world. I don't think the average American cares how someone lives in Iran or in Afghanistan, it's only when they come down and knock down our buildings that people get a little ticked off.

Robert Higgs: That's an excellent point. The average American does not care what's going on in Afghanistan, but the government of the United States does care.

Peter Robinson: Why? Why?

Gore Vidal: The oil in Central Asia, that's what it's about.

Robert Higgs: There are interests who have influence with the government who do care about what goes on in Afghanistan and they have been caring for a number of years before these maniacs ran these airplanes into the buildings.

Peter Robinson: Your view would be then, get the troops out of Saudi Arabia. Your view would be a kind of American version of a little Englander--that is this Pat Buchanan phrase, a republic not an empire, right? You'd like us to withdraw from foreign entanglements to use George Washington's phrase.

Robert Higgs: I believe such a withdrawal from global interventionism would serve the interests of the great mass of American people.

Peter Robinson: Now Dinesh we have troops in a hundred and fifty countries, is there not a point here?

Dinesh D'Souza: I do think that with the end of the Cold War, there can and should be a reassessment. For example, I think that the slack Europeans could pick up a lot more of their own defense and the United States doesn't need to have that many troops there. So I'm not defending the status quo, but I am saying that very often the United States' interventions abroad, although they are in our self-interest and should be, they also help promote humanitarian interests. The United States defended the rights of Muslims in Bosnia. The United States acts to--whenever there's a famine, whenever there's genocide, everyone comes running to the United States, please help. So the United States is de facto the world super power and the world does look to the United States.

Peter Robinson: And your view would be that from the second world on we've gotten it all wrong? We've done more harm than good?

Gore Vidal: Generally yeah. You have to make a division between the American people as you just did. The American people by and large are non-interventionists. We did not want to go into World War I--we did not--eighty percent were against going into World War II.

Peter Robinson: Until Pearl Harbor?

Gore Vidal: Until Pearl Harbor. So it's not the American temperament. It's our form of government and corporate America is the current cliché for those who govern us. Nobody will get into the subject of what we're doing in Afghanistan. Now I'd be very interested if the New York Times might write a story about what's going on, why we started bombing them.

Peter Robinson: What do you suspect us of? You are suspicious of us, what do you suspect us of doing in Afghanistan?

Gore Vidal: I don't suspect us. I know that there was a contingency plan at the Pentagon for an invasion of Afghanistan in October of '01. Now why would we bother with Afghanistan?

Peter Robinson: You anticipate my question.

Gore Vidal: Well, why would we bother? The greatest supply of oil and natural gas on earth is in the old Russian Republics of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and so on. There are about five republics. We have sixty thousand troops in these various republics living in tent cities. We have used the Afghanistan adventure to get in there. We're after that oil and after that natural gas. I know that you don't think that there's ever a real reason for things other than just the desire to put the flag somewhere or spread our religion or our way of life, this is a reality. Look everybody running in the government is in the oil and gas business--both Bushes and Cheney.

Dinesh D'Souza: Even if you're right, the question is, is it plausible? The Afghans and the Central Asians are often not able to tap these resources. If the United States wanted that oil, why not make a deal with the Afghans and the Central Asians. Look, we'll go get the oil for you; we'll give you twenty-five percent of the profits.

Gore Vidal: We have to create a government that will do it for us and the Taliban didn't work. They were our people.

Peter Robinson: To use a phrase used by one of your friends, when you hear something that sounds a little bit far fetched, Bill Buckley--that sounds a little 'grassy knolly' to me. But…

Gore Vidal: I've always found the people who most dislike conspiracy theories are conspirators.

Peter Robinson: From the question of why we're hated to the question of what to do about it.

Title: The Value of a Liberal Education

Peter Robinson: Dinesh D'Souza's new book, which is entitled, What's so Great About America--proposition one--Dinesh, I'm going to quote, you explain briefly what you mean, and then we'll ask for a comment. Proposition one of two: "America's goal is to turn Muslim fundamentalists into classical liberals." What do you mean by that?

Dinesh D'Souza: The idea of liberalism is the idea of consent. You can't force your religion on somebody else by beating it into them. Islam has ruled historically by the sword. That's how the Islamic empire was established. Osama Bin Laden has said confidently that that is a legitimate way of doing business in the Islamic world. I'm saying that our long-term goal is not just to root out the Al Qaeda terrorists; we have to somehow convert the Islamic fundamentalists. We don't want to stop them being Muslims of course, but we want them to be Muslims in the liberal way. And by that I mean look at the way Christianity has changed. In the time of the Crusades, Christians were very happy to shove their religion down somebody else's throat, to impose it by force. They thought they were doing the other people a favor. But Christianity has changed so that today both in the Catholic and the Protestant world there's a widespread understanding that you have to convince people, you have to appeal to freedom and to consent. That's the missing idea.

Peter Robinson: And we do this how? We do this how?

Dinesh D'Souza: Well we have to do it through education. We have to do it in part by destroying hostile regimes that have become Jihad factories, indoctrinating young people in these vicious ideas of totalitarianism. In part we have to work with friendly governments that are also doing the same thing.

Peter Robinson: So it's a great big difficult project but one that we have to address.

Dinesh D'Souza: That's right.

Peter Robinson: Sounds reasonable?

Robert Higgs: Absolutely unreasonable to me, I see nothing in the Constitution of the United States that authorizes the United States government to go out into the world and remake anybody's society, much less every one of them. This is a preposterous enterprise even if it were feasible and it's certainly not feasible.

Dinesh D'Souza: Well was it a mistake to remake Germany after World War II?

Gore Vidal: The way we did it was a mistake. Wherever we went…

Peter Robinson: After the Second World War, Japan, Germany…

Gore Vidal: They are the two most politically corrupt countries, aside from the United States, in the world. Japan and Germany. Helmut Kohl has been caught taking money for his party and God knows what else he was doing. The Japanese system is totally bogged down in corruption, all due to constitutions that we gave them and ourselves as model. Henry James made a very good remark when we overwhelmed the Philippines and replaced Spanish rule with our rule and not allowed them to have their own country because we decided we'd keep the Philippines. He said, "I cannot see them benefiting from government by Tammany Hall."

Peter Robinson: On to Dinesh's second proposition, not about the nature of Islam, but about the nature of America.

Title: Be All You Can Be

Peter Robinson: Dinesh: "America is a new kind of society that produces a new kind of human being. That human being, confident, self-reliant, tolerant, generous, is a vast improvement over the wretched servile and intolerant human being that traditional societies have always produced and that Islamic societies produce now." I'll give you a couple of sentences to explicate if you'd like.

Dinesh D'Souza: The idea of America is based upon the self-directed life. Most of these societies--Islamic society and Islamic theocracy being the radical contrast, it's based on the idea that somebody else, the Mullahs, the Sharia, is going to tell you how to live your life. And that's why young people are naturally attracted to America. Because America says to young people, whom to love, who to marry, what to become, what to believe, that's something you decide for yourself. That's the appeal of America. That's why the immigrants come. That's why young people love the idea of America. It is the idea if you will of being the architect of your own destiny.

Peter Robinson: And that appeal has universal attraction.

Dinesh D'Souza: That appeal has universal attraction and is universally hated by the people who want to tell other people how to live their life.

Peter Robinson: Robert?

Robert Higgs: In my mind what is genuinely unique about America is the ideal of creating liberty--a free society where people would be able to make their own way without interference whether cultural or especially interference from the powers of government. Unfortunately as a result of the way our history has unfolded, our government has grown big and intrusive and pervasively involved in directing every aspect of the lives of individuals in this country. So that the ideal has been throttled over time. We're still rich so we attract people from other parts of the world.

Peter Robinson: It's pure materialism now.

Robert Higgs: But our ideal, what sets us apart from other rich countries, has largely been lost.

Peter Robinson: All right. Now you are proudly an American and you, as your list of titles show, have carried on a love affair with this country writing one marvelous historical novel--I'm quite happy to disagree with you but call your prose marvelous--one marvelous historical novel after another.

Gore Vidal: I would say my underlying motif is: don't indulge in so much self-love. We are far from perfect society and the more we boast, the more odious we seem to others and more ridiculous in my eyes we seem to ourselves.

Peter Robinson: Do you find us odious or do you find us fundamentally good and you're trying to warn us against arrogance on the fringes so to speak?

Gore Vidal: It's the arrogance at the heart.

Peter Robinson: We've heard Dinesh D'Souza's proposals. What would Gore Vidal and Robert Higgs do to stop all this anti-Americanism?

Title: Try a Little Tenderness

Peter Robinson: The title of your book, Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace, the subtitle, How We Got to be So Hated. I now give you the opportunity to enact one reform that would make us less hated.

Gore Vidal: Cut the Pentagon budget by half.

Peter Robinson: Robert, you would start by cutting military expenditure? Give us your reform.

Robert Higgs: I would like to see a requirement, for example, that positioning United States military forces outside the United States require the approval of ninety-nine percent of the members of Congress.

Peter Robinson: Okay, Dinesh what we have here are two very bright, literate, important, well spoken people, who are profoundly alienated from the United States as it now exists. What do you make of them?

Dinesh D'Souza: One reason they're alienated is that they are Americans. By this I mean is the peculiarity of America to generate within the country a kind of anti-Americanism that I don't see other countries generating. And I've asked myself why that is. I think one reason is that I'm comparing America to other countries. I'm using an historical or comparative standard. Americans tend to use a utopian standard. They tend to judge America by a standard that no other country could survive and therefore they sneeringly say, well Americans are only pursuing their self-interest. They're only after oil. They're only after resources, but we expect everybody else to pursue their self-interest. So the very fact--I mean look if the Chinese or the Arabs kill ten thousand of their own people, what is the world reaction? Most people sigh and then they go back to eating their breakfast. And why, because people kind of expect the Chinese and the Arabs to do that. But if America, in the middle of a war, accidentally kills two hundred people, bombs a school or hospital, it's a worldwide outrage, there are protests, there's an investigation, people are hauled before the hill, what does this mean? This to me testifies to the moral superiority of America because it is judged by its own residents and by others by a standard that no other country could meet.

Peter Robinson: Last question, ten years from now will relations between the United States and Islamic countries be better or worse? Robert?

Robert Higgs: I see no reason to believe they'll be better. I believe that what's being done now by the United States military forces abroad will create a bottomless reservoir of future terrorists.

Peter Robinson: Gore Vidal?

Gore Vidal: I would agree with that. We are making every wrong move and we will continue to do so. The first law of physics, there's no action without reaction. Americans are born not believing that. So we do all sorts of terrible things to other people and then we're surprised that they don't like it and they strike back.

Peter Robinson: Dinesh D'Souza, ten years from now?

Dinesh D'Souza: I think that the goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to replace the totalitarian regimes in Iraq and in Iran and to work to introduce western ideas of capitalism, science and democracy to the Islamic world. If we do that, we will find a world that is much more friendly and also in which the people there have more freedom and more prosperity, which are the sources of their discontent.

Peter Robinson: Dinesh D'Souza, Robert Higgs, Gore Vidal, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.