Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Monday, July 03, 2006

I want to live in a country where the poor people are fat.

From: The American Enterprise

What's So Great About America?
By Dinesh D'Souza

During the week of the Fourth of July, TAE looks back to its April/May 2002 issue when Indian-born scholar Dinesh D'Souza shared his thoughts on his adopted country of America.

The newcomer who sees America for the first time typically experiences emotions that alternate between wonder and delight. Here is a country where everything works: The roads are paper-smooth, the highway signs are clear and accurate, the public toilets function properly, when you pick up the telephone you get a dial tone. You can even buy things from the store and then take them back if you change your mind. For the Third World visitor, the American supermarket is a marvel to behold: endless aisles of every imaginable product, 50 different types of cereal, multiple flavors of ice cream, countless unappreciated inventions like quilted toilet paper, fabric softener, roll-on deodorant, disposable diapers.

The immigrant cannot help noticing that America is a country where the poor live comparatively well. This fact was dramatized in the 1980s, when CBS television broadcast an anti-Reagan documentary, "People Like Us," which was intended to show the miseries of the poor during an American recession. The Soviet Union also broadcast the documentary, with the intention of embarrassing the Reagan administration. But it had the opposite effect. Ordinary people across the Soviet Union saw that the poorest Americans had television sets and cars. They arrived at the same conclusion that I witnessed in a friend of mine from Bombay who has been trying unsuccessfully to move to the United States for nearly a decade. I asked him, "Why are you so eager to come to America?" He replied, "Because I really want to live in a country where the poor people are fat."

The point is that the United States is a country where the ordinary guy has a good life. This is what distinguishes America from so many other countries. Everywhere in the world, the rich person lives well. Indeed, a good case can be made that if you are rich, you live better in countries other than America, because you enjoy the pleasures of aristocracy. In India, where I grew up, the wealthy have innumerable servants and toadies groveling before them and attending to their every need.

In the United States, on the other hand, the social ethic is egalitarian, regardless of wealth. For all his riches, Bill Gates could not approach a homeless person and say, "Here's a $100 bill. I'll give it to you if you kiss my feet." Most likely the homeless guy would tell Gates to go to hell.
The American view is that the rich guy may have more money, but he isn't in any fundamental sense better than you are. The American janitor or waiter sees himself as performing a service, but he doesn't see himself as inferior to those he serves. And neither do the customers see him that way: They are generally happy to show him respect and appreciation on a plane of equality. America is the only country in the world where we call the waiter "Sir," as if he were a knight.

The moral triumph of America is that it has extended the benefits of comfort and affluence, traditionally enjoyed by very few, to a large segment of society. Very few people in America have to wonder where their next meal is coming from. Even sick people who don't have money or insurance will receive medical care at hospital emergency rooms. The poorest American girls are not humiliated by having to wear torn clothes. Every child is given an education, and most have the chance to go on to college. The common man can expect to live long enough and have enough free time to play with his grandchildren.

Ordinary Americans not only enjoy security and dignity, but also comforts that other societies reserve for the elite. We now live in a country where construction workers regularly pay $4 for a cappuccino, where maids drive nice cars, where plumbers take their families on vacation to Europe. As Irving Kristol once observed, there is virtually no restaurant in America to which a CEO can go to lunch with the absolute assurance that he will not find his secretary also dining there. Given the standard of living of the ordinary American, it is no wonder that socialist or revolutionary schemes have never found a wide constituency in the United States. As Werner Sombart observed, all socialist utopias in America have come to grief on roast beef and apple pie.

Thus it is entirely understandable that people would associate the idea of America with a better life. For them, money is not an end in itself; money is the means to a longer, healthier, and fuller life. Money allows them to purchase a level of security, dignity, and comfort not available in other countries. Money also frees up time for family life, community involvement, and spiritual pursuits, and so provides moral as well as material gains.

Yet even this offers an incomplete picture of why America is so appealing to so many outsiders. Let me illustrate with the example of my own life. Not long ago, I asked myself: What would my existence have been like had I never come to the United States, if I had stayed in India? Materially, my life has improved, but not in a fundamental sense. I grew up in a middle-class family in Bombay. My father was a chemical engineer; my mother, an office secretary. I was raised without great luxury, but neither did I lack for anything. My standard of living in America is higher, but it is not a radical difference. My life has changed far more dramatically in other ways.

Had I remained in India, I would probably have lived my entire existence within a one-mile radius of where I was born. I would undoubtedly have married a woman of my identical religious, socioeconomic, and cultural background. I would almost certainly have become a medical doctor, an engineer, or a software programmer.
I would have socialized within my ethnic community and had few real friends outside that group. I would have a whole set of opinions that could be predicted in advance; indeed, they would not be very different from what my father believed, or his father before him. In sum, my destiny would to a large degree have been given to me.

Instead, I came to Arizona in 1978 as a high-school exchange student, then a year later enrolled at Dartmouth College. There I fell in with a group of students who were actively involved in politics; soon I had switched my major from economics to English literature. My reading included books like Plutarch's Moralia; Hamilton, Madison, and Jay's Federalist Papers; and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. They transported me to places a long way from home and implanted in my mind ideas that I had never previously considered. By the time I graduated, I decided that I should become a writer. America permits many strange careers: This is a place where you can become, say, a comedian. That is very different from most places.

If there is a single phrase that encapsulates life in the Third World, it is that "birth is destiny." A great deal of importance is attached to what tribe you come from, whether you are male or female, and whether you are the eldest son or not. Once your tribe, caste, sex and family position have been established at birth, your life takes a course that is largely determined for you.

In America, by contrast, you get to write the script of your own life. When your parents say to you, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" the question is open ended, it is you who supply the answer. Your parents can advise you: "Have you considered law school?" "Why not become the first doctor in the family?" It is considered very improper, however, for them to try to force your decision. Indeed,
American parents typically send their teenage children away to college where they live on their own and learn independence. This is part of the process of forming your mind, choosing a field of interest for yourself, and developing your identity.

It is not uncommon in the United States for two brothers who come from the same gene pool and were raised in similar circumstances to do quite different things: The eldest becomes a gas station attendant, the younger moves up to be vice president at Oracle; the eldest marries his high-school sweetheart and raises four kids; the youngest refuses to settle down; one is the Methodist that he was raised to be, the other becomes a Christian Scientist.
What to be, where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, what religion to practice -- these are all decisions that Americans make for themselves.

In America your destiny is not prescribed; it is constructed. Your life is like a blank sheet of paper and you are the artist. This notion of being the architect of your own destiny is the incredibly powerful idea that is behind the worldwide appeal of America. Young people especially find the prospect of authoring their own lives irresistible. The immigrant discovers that America permits him to break free of the constraints that have held him captive, so that the future becomes a landscape of his own choosing.

If there is a single phrase that captures this, it is "the pursuit of happiness." ...

You can read the rest of this article at the link supplied at the top of this post.


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