Not long ago, Dinesh D'Souza, who is an Indian immigrant from Bombay, one of America's prominent conservative authors, and, like William F. Buckley Jr., an enthusiastic and skilled debater, was discussing things political and personal with a group of Indian-American students. One young man tentatively asked, "How will I know when I've become an American?" A quipper in the tradition of his hero Ronald Reagan, the quintessential political quipster, D'Souza replied, "One way you'll know is by voting Republican." What he meant by that, he tells me at his home in Fairbanks Ranch, where he, his wife Dixie, and their ten-year-old daughter live in a very big house, "is that the Republican Party is the party of the insiders, the guys who feel at home. So when the immigrant feels he can vote Republican, he's saying, 'I'm on the inside of the system. I'm not throwing stones from the outside. It benefits me to be on the inside. I believe in the team.' " Given a question about self-discovery, D'Souza opts for a partisan answer. It's the kind of response he's good at -- glib, provocative, tendentious.
D'Souza came to America as a high school student in 1978, attended Dartmouth, worked in the Reagan White House, became a citizen in 1991, and has made millions writing and speaking about conservative causes: obviously, there's nothing mainstream about his story. Rarely does an immigrant make it as D'Souza has. Though many immigrants are socially conservative, few identify with the principles of the Republican Party. The Democrat's principle of inclusion for minority and immigrant groups offers a path for the unstable communities who are struggling to belong. In America, however, immigrants often have neither the time nor the self-assurance to align themselves with any political party. At 44, D'Souza is the exception: he has rolled several generations of the assimilating immigrant into one bona fide conservative, individuating at warp speed. In so doing, he may be entirely self-made, more authentically American than any of us, foreign-born or native.
D'Souza is unique because it is highly unusual for Indian or Asian immigrants to join any political movement, let alone the conservative rank and file. In a country with 13 million Asian-Americans (almost 5 percent of the population) -- nearly 2 million of them Indian-Americans -- are there any other Asian-American conservatives than D'Souza? A Google search of "Asian-American conservatives" brings up 15 webpage citations; one online club lists three members. From Hawaii, Japan, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, India, who has a speaking part in the Republican drama?
D'Souza is short, perpetually keyed-up; one eye is half shut, the other wide open. He's a brown-skinned man, who by his admission is "neither white nor black. Typical African-Americans are no different in skin color from me; light-skinned people who are called black, from Whitney Houston to Jesse Jackson, have white ancestry." And though a Hindi accent may trickle in when he's morally animated, he says, "No one can tell on the phone where I'm from," and "My wife tells me, 'I never think of you as an Indian.' " This is his enigma. While his assimilation into our society is almost complete, his immigrant perspective remains primary to how others see him. D'Souza is often praised, unknowingly, for embodying this enigma. Recently, a native-born American who married a Brazilian woman and hears regularly from her about the blessings of liberty wrote him to say, "It takes the eyes of someone from another country to make us see the truth about America."
In 20 years, D'Souza has written hundreds of polemical pieces as well as six books. (In 1984, fresh out of college, he wrote a "reporting book" about Jerry Falwell, published by "a very small press, like one out of your basement, only 3000 copies. Some of the book is about whether evangelicals should get involved in politics. It's frozen in time.") Not until after a stint (1987-1988) in the Reagan White House as a domestic policy analyst was D'Souza hired by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, to write books. His first was Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991), which made political correctness an everyday term and excoriated affirmative action at American universities. Throughout the 1990s, D'Souza debated Stanley Fish, Walter Mondale, Cornel West, and dozens of others, typically before raucous college crowds who seldom sided with D'Souza. (He's been "seasoned by rhetorical warfare.") Next came The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society (1995), a book reviled on the Left and sporadically lauded on the Right. In the introduction, D'Souza contends that the book "refutes the widely shared belief that racism is the primary explanation for black failure in the United States today." Low-income blacks suffer neither from racism nor from genetic inferiority (as the authors of The Bell Curve had argued) but from the "pathologies" of their own culture that purportedly places little value on intact families or academic success. Needless to say, a book criticizing "black culture," written by a nonwhite conservative immigrant, created a swarm of protest that has not entirely subsided.
In 1997, D'Souza about-faced his assault on left-wing positions and began celebrating men and ideas within the conservative cause. He wrote Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, in which he debunked the idea of Reagan as a confused patriarch, sapped of influence by Iran-Contra ne'er-do-wells. Oh, no, D'Souza argued, Reagan was one of our greatest presidents: his defense buildup bankrupted the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War. The book was criticized by Joan Didion, who said that D'Souza had "superimposed" "the 'leadership' narrative" onto Reagan ex post facto: since the Soviet Union had dissolved, Reagan had intended it all along. In contrast, the book persuaded Douglas Brinkley; it was a "major accomplishment," the author of John Kerry's biography, Tour of Duty, says by phone. Though Brinkley disagrees politically with D'Souza, he says that D'Souza proved "we are living in the shadow of Reagan's presidency in the same way that from 1932 to 1976 we lived in the shadow of FDR." Today, D'Souza is the Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution, another conservative think tank. With Hoover underwriting his work since 2000, D'Souza has turned out more morning-in-America testaments: The Virtue of Prosperity (2000), Letters to a Young Conservative (2002), and What's So Great About America (2002). While the latter book echoes the neoconservative response to Islamic fundamentalism and the war on terror, more intriguingly it muses on D'Souza's immigrant status and on becoming an American. Perhaps the Southern California sun has softened some of his political bluster.