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I don't review books I don't like!

*****= An all-time favorite
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***What's So Great About America

by Dinesh D'Souza

Reviewed January 20, 2004.
Penguin Books, New York, 2002.  218 pages.
Available on for $10.50 in paperback.

We had this book at the library for a year.  I’m afraid that Elfriede, a German who already believes America is great, was the only one who read it.  I meant to, but never got around to it until my sister gave it to me for my birthday.

Did my sister think my political reading needed balancing out, after my comments about how in certain cases Germany compares favorably with America?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  I wasn’t crazy about the title.  I didn’t really think that Americans need to be told what’s great about America.  Americans are taught all our lives that America is the greatest country on earth.  We tend toward arrogance.  If there is something that another country does better, we tend to be blind to it, since America is, of course, the greatest country on earth.

Living in Europe, I’ve been surprised to see what a nice place it is to live.  Is it possible?  There are some aspects of living in Europe that are much nicer than living in America.  I stand by that after our recent trip.  For one very minor example, there’s far less cement covering the ground where we live in Germany, and that’s wonderfully refreshing.  (Perhaps that’s not a fair comparison, since we live in a much less populated area than the ones we visited in America.  Still, I think that roads are much wider and parking lots far more frequent in America.)

This prejudice of mine came out when I read the following sentence and completely disagreed with it:  “Even the most jaded Americans who spend time in other countries typically return home with an intense feeling of relief and a newfound appreciation for the routine satisfactions of American life.”  Okay, maybe that’s true of the “typical” American, but the sentence bothered me when I was so relieved to get home to Germany after my trip to America!  After all, isn’t it nice to get home after any trip? 

Sometimes, Americans are uncomfortable overseas simply because they never bothered to learn any other languages than their own or simply because they aren’t willing to adjust to equally good, but different, ways of doing things.  Again, I feel that Americans are so convinced their ways are better, they’re often not willing to see the good in other ways of living.  Another small example is that German stores are all closed on Sundays.  So many Americans living here complain and complain about that.  Now, I’ve done my share of shopping at the American Base Exchange on Sundays, but there’s still something to be said for taking a nice restful Sunday afternoon and joining the Germans on a lovely family hike through the forest on one of the ubiquitous hiking trails.  This pastime is quite different from the American habit of shopping on Sundays, but I contend that it is just as good, if not better.

However, despite a prejudice against the book, in the end I decided I think it is excellent.  It was nice to be reminded that there are still some concrete reasons why America is indeed great.

What’s So Great About America is written by an immigrant to America from India.  He doesn’t think America is great simply because that’s what he was taught.  He presents a reasonable discussion as to why we can be proud to be Americans and why the American idea is worth fighting for.

I especially recommend this book to anyone associated with the military.  D’Souza points out that “Americans cannot effectively fight a war without believing that it is a just war.”  This book helps the reader see that striving for the moral high ground helps America to reach it.

Overall, D’Souza made a very convincing case.  One striking area in which America is greater than other countries is its amazing ethnic diversity and its acceptance of people who are different.  I have to admit that Germany doesn’t come close.  (I’m glad that I’m here with the American military, so my kids still have classmates and teachers from many different ethnic backgrounds.)  As D’Souza points out:  “Being Indian, like being German or Swedish or Iranian, is entirely a matter of birth and blood.  You become Indian by having Indian parents.  In America, by contrast, millions of people come from all over the world, and over time most of them come to think of themselves as Americans. . . . Their experience suggests that becoming American is less a function of birth or blood and more a function of embracing a set of ideas.  It is only for this reason that terms like ‘un-American’ and ‘anti-American’ make sense.  You could not accuse someone of being ‘un-German’ or ‘un-Pakistani.’  They would not know what you were talking about.”

Another strength he points out is that the underlying premise of America is that “all men are created equal.”  He says that “the American view is that the rich guy may have more money, but he isn’t in any fundamental sense better than you are.”  I appreciated this when we visited Great Britain, where they still have lords and ladies.  Even in the areas where we haven’t historically lived by this principle, we’re striving to change that, and I am as respected for the work I do as any man would be in the same position.

The very fact that Americans criticize themselves is another aspect of America’s greatness.  In so many countries, criticism of the government isn’t allowed.

But our freedom is more than just freedom of speech.  D’Souza talks about how different his life would have been if he had stayed in India.  In so many other countries, people don’t have the freedom to decide what they will do with their own lives.  “In America, by contrast, you get to write the script of your own life.”  That’s an aspect of our freedom that I’ve always taken for granted.  “This notion of you being the architect of your own destiny is the incredibly powerful idea that is behind the worldwide appeal of America.”

D’Souza points out that for most countries, it’s perfectly fine to conduct a war to pursue the national interest.  America is held to a higher standard, and has to feel that the war is for a just cause.  He feels that this is part of America’s greatness.

This is definitely a thought-provoking book.  By the end, D’Souza had me convinced.  Lately there have been times when I haven’t been tremendously happy with the actions of America’s leadership.  However, he reminded that there are in fact reasons why America is truly great and rests on a great foundation.  After reading this book, I am once again convinced that I can be justifiably proud to be an American.

Copyright © 2004 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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