Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Neither Content Nor Character

Winter 1995

Dinesh D'Souza
The Free Press, 1995, xi + 724 pp.

D'Souza's massive tome is structured by a simple message. Relations between whites and blacks in the contemporary United States are deep in crisis, but a way out exists. The crisis stems from the practices of large numbers of blacks, whose lives D'Souza describes in scathing terms that have already led to accusations of racism against him.

What prevents adequate measures to deal with such problems as crime, drug use, and illiteracy in the black community? D'Souza locates a surprising villain: cultural relativism. This doctrine, taught by the early twentieth- century anthropologist Franz Boas and his many disciples at Columbia University, holds that cultures cannot be ranked as superior or inferior. Values are relative to culture rather than universal, and all cultures are in essence equal.

The doctrine arose as a salutary reaction to racism, an ideology of racial superiority that D'Souza maintains began in Enlightened Europe. But continued adherence to it now has calamitous consequences. If all cultures are equal, blacks should do as well economically and socially as whites. Since they do not, discrimination must be at fault.

Hence, the merit principle, on which a free society rests, has been abandoned in favor of quotas. Further, measures cannot be taken to combat the deleterious practices of the black community. To do so would imply that these practices are bad, and this cultural relativism forbids. Owing to these practices, racism has in some circles made a comeback; but this view ought to be rejected. Thoroughly dispose of cultural relativism, and all will be well.

I have so far described D'Souza's thesis in (I hope) neutral terms. This I have done with great difficulty, and I now cast neutrality to the winds. The book is utterly bad, one of the worst I have read in many years. Its principal arguments fail, but that is the least of its problems. D'Souza's level of inaccuracy and the incompetence of his arguments are staggering.

Let us first have a look at D'Souza as historian. He devotes one section of the book to the controversy over whether all humans form part of the same species. He informs us that the "polygenist position [the view that humans consist of more than one species] gathered strength in the early nineteenth century. . . . Moreover, European freethinkers such as Voltaire, Saint-Simon, and Giordano Bruno seized on the idea of separate creation and intrinsic black inferiority as a polemical weapon against the Christian churches" (p. 125). It is a bit difficult to fathom why Bruno is listed as an early nineteenth century thinker: he was burned at the stake in 1600. At least with Voltaire, who died in 1778, D'Souza is not so far off. Henry Home, who adopted the judicial title Lord Kames, becomes "Henry Homer Kames" (p. 125).

A few pages later, D'Souza informs us: "The controversy between monogenists and polygenists was settled in favor of the former with the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man" (p. 128). Really? The Origin of Species does not discuss human evolution at all. It is quite true that Darwin wrote with favor of monogenesis in The Descent of Man; but why does D'Souza think that Darwin's discussion settled the issue? One of D'Souza's sources, George Stocking's Race, Culture, and Evolution, argues that it did not: has D'Souza read his own source? And if D'Souza thinks that the controversy was settled in the nineteenth century, why does he later remark: "it is no longer clear that all human beings have a recent shared origin. In a fascinating revival of polygenism, the Eve' hypothesis has been strongly contested by what scientists call the candelabra' hypothesis which holds that the races may have evolved separately" (p. 467)?

I fear that the history of biology is not D'Souza's strong suit. He states: "Darwin showed that evolution occurred not through the inheritance of acquired traits but through the elimination of the unfit" (p. 129). Not quite; Darwin thought natural selection the main mechanism of evolution, but inheritance of acquired characters is an explicit part of his account. D'Souza is even unable to state correctly the subtitle of the Origin of Species.

Haeckel's biogenetic law, a principle of embryology, is, incredibly, taken to hold "that the development of children from infancy through adolescence to maturity directly parallels the development of societies from primitivism through barbarism to civilization" (p. 133). On the same page, he includes Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an Englishman who became a naturalized German, in a list of fevered nativists concerned with restricting immigration to the United States.

Have I unfairly picked out for abuse a few atypical pages? Not at all; D'Souza's ineptitude is wide-ranging. He states: "Although Hobbes argued for absolute monarchy, his philosophy broke with the ancients in asserting that the wisdom of the king is only legitimate when it is ratified by the consent of the governed; all else is tyranny" (p. 104). Just the opposite; those who enter the social contract agree to obey the sovereign unconditionally.

Locke fares little better: "As Locke and Hobbes have it, man enters into a social contract in which he exchanges his natural rights for civil rights" (p. 535). No; in Locke, one gives up the right to enforce the law of nature, not one's natural rights.

According to our author, Herbert Spencer argued "that promises of human rights and equality were absurd attempts to regulate the laws of evolution that would end up restricting human progress" (p. 133). Has D'Souza even glanced at Social Statics or The Principles of Ethics? The basis of Spencer's ethics is his "law of equal freedom."

D'Souza has a remarkable penchant for getting things exactly backwards. Another instance he writes: "Justice Taney's argument in Dred Scott, that the American founders were hypocrites who produced a pro-slavery regime . . . rests on the apparent contradiction between stated ideals and actual practice [of slave holding] . . . This is the force behind Taney's insistence that these men could not have meant what they said" (p. 107). But Taney's argument is (in part) that since the founders were not hypocrites, the equality clause does not accord equal rights to slaves.

So much for D'Souza as historian. Let us watch him as he dons the mantle of philosophy. Cultural relativism, his main target, must be refuted. Contrary to the relativists, there may well be ethical truths "Western in origin but universal in their application" (p. 385). In reply, the relativist will probably invoke the fact-value distinction. "According to this view . . . we can through scientific techniques know facts, but we have no rational basis for preferring the values of one culture (or individual) to those of another. Yet the fact-value distinction also contains serious problems. Is the distinction itself a fact or a value? If it is a value, then we must conclude that it is arbitrary and there is no scientific basis for believing it" (p. 385). And what happens if the distinction is a fact? D'Souza's argument at once collapses.

D'Souza's own view of ethics is incoherent. He asks us not "to dismiss the possibility that political or moral propositions may be considered as permanent and universal (although not necessarily absolute) truths" (p. 386). How can a truth be permanent and universal without being absolute?

But what of D'Souza's central argument? No doubt the failings of Boas's cultural relativism are many, but I do not think that contemporary racial problems can be blamed on its adoption. The doctrine, first, has to do with comparisons among different societies: it rules out judging a society by the values of another. Yet nothing prevents a cultural relativist from saying that in our society, high crime rates and illegitimacy are bad.

Further, cultural relativism does not imply trait relativism the view that no trait of any culture may be judged by other than its own standards. A cultural relativist can consistently maintain, for example, that Aztec human sacrifice is objectively bad, so long as he thinks that Aztec culture as a whole cannot be rated better or worse than others.1 To get the consequences D'Souza wants, one would have to adopt trait relativism and then widen it so that it applies to groups within a society. Then, indeed, one would be blocked from saying that high rates of crime among blacks are bad. But who holds so implausible a view?

And even if someone did hold the extreme version of group-trait relativism just sketched, D'Souza's argument would still fail. Relativism is a position about ethics: it does not prevent anyone from holding that those who practice certain forms of behavior will be apt to have low incomes, or suffer other disabilities. How then does cultural relativism prevent anyone from seeking change in the black community?

In spite of his very negative characterization of many blacks, D'Souza insists that he is not a racist. What better way to show this than to find scholars of note that he can stigmatize as racists, and then condemn them? How then can critics possibly accuse D'Souza of racism? Does he not denounce racists?

The tactic is a clever one, but by this point in his analysis, there is nothing left of the author's credibility. The "racists" he elects to condemn Jared Taylor, Samuel Francis, and Michael Levin are, unlike D'Souza, meticulous journalists and serious scholars of remarkable intelligence. I have been told that D'Souza's account of them had to be amended at the last minute in order to avert legal action, and I regret that the many other thinkers he misrepresents do not have access to the courts. I hope that D'Souza's effort to extend the boundaries of human stupidity does no further damage.


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