Dinesh D’Souza and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 25 2014 10:57 AM

Dinesh D’Souza and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

This blog has mostly covered Dinesh D'Souza's Obama-era adventures in punditry as an exercise in how to outrage the right and collect the profits. After some slow initial sales, D'Souza's America (the book, not the country) is at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. Is it a sleeper hit? Is it getting a bounce from D'Souza's media campaign, in which he claims booksellers and search engines are trying to censor him? All we know is that the sales jumped after D'Souza turned buying America into a political cause, and that I really hope I can pull that off next year when my progressive rock book arrives. (If you hate King Crimson, you hate freedom.) 

My point is that D'Souza's sales and looming trial have proved newsy enough for the front page of the New York Times. The paper's straightforward profile explains that conservatives listen to D'Souza because, in a world of shouters and pundits, he comes off as an intellectual.

Born and raised in India, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth and has been affiliated with some of the country’s most respected conservative think tanks. ... Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire,” says Mr. D’Souza’s roots and scholarly bona fides give him “credibility” in right-wing circles. ... Some accuse him of cynically using his academic credentials to advance false, reductive ideas.
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Let's establish that D'Souza is very smart and a world-class debater. Still: "scholarly bona fides"? "Scholar" is a pretty malleable word, often used ironically, but in the news context it's typically used to describe someone who devotes his time to scholarly research. Julian Zelizer, for example, often cited as a congressional politics scholar, holds a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in history. Norm Ornstein, a "resident scholar" at AEI and favorite quote for liberals looking for a critic of the right, holds a Ph.D. in political science. Arthur Brooks, the president of AEI, holds an M.A. in economics and Ph.D. in policy analysis. Jonathan Turley, often cited as a "constitutional scholar" (especially when he's criticizing Obama administration overreach), has a J.D. in law and teaches at GW's law school. Stanley Kurtz, who is often called a "scholar" by conservatives, has a Ph.D. in social anthropology. Newt Gingrich himself has a Ph.D. in European history. Generally, people get called "scholars" in the press if they're publishing/have published academic work relevant to what they're opining about. 

D'Souza has a B.A. in English from Dartmouth, and ... no, that's it. He got fantastic grades at an Ivy, then worked for D.C. think tanks, then started writing ambitious books. But he came at them with as much of a scholarly background as the average political pundit, which he basically was. His first books, especially The End of Racism, were ambitious and looked authoritative, but they were basically works of pop sociology. Again, there's a market for that, but actual scholars have found the books lacking, and D'Souza's later books (like America) have more closely resembled the average conservative bestsellers. Ronald Reagan was a great man, heaven is for real, etc. (Read paleolibertarian David Gordon, who has a Ph.D. in intellectual history, and who points out that D'Souza totally misread Darwin in order to cite him in the racism book.)

What's wrong with being a smart generalist pundit? Nothing. It's just unusual for such a pundit to be seen as a scholar on whatever topic he's writing about at that moment. (Also it's a little unfair to someone like the aforementioned Stanley Kurtz, who applies real rigor in his research into Barack Obama's past and his current economic plans.) The D'Souza story is being portrayed as a thoughtful scholar descending into mere politics. Isn't he just a right-wing pundit, regressing to the mean?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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