In the aftermath of last September's terrorist attack, we've heard
great deal about "why they hate us" and about why America is so bad.
We’ve endured lengthy lectures about America’s history of slavery, about
the defects of American foreign policy, about the materialism of American
life, and about the excesses of American culture. In the view of many
critics at home and abroad, America can do no right.
This indictment, which undermines the patriotism of Americans, is based
on a narrow and distorted understanding of America. It exaggerates
America’s faults and ignores what is good and even great about America.
As an immigrant who has chosen to become a U.S. citizen, I feel
especially qualified to say what is special about this country. Having
grown up in a different society in my case, Mumbai, India I am not
only able to identify aspects of America that are invisible to people who
have always lived here, but also acutely conscious of the daily blessings
that I enjoy in America.
Here, then, is my list of the 10 great things about America. -- Dinesh
1. America provides an amazingly good life for the ordinary guy.
Rich people live well everywhere. But what distinguishes America is that
it provides an incomparably high standard of living for the "common man.”
We now live in a country where construction workers regularly pay $4 for
a nonfat latte, where maids drive nice cars, and where plumbers take
their families on vacation to Europe.
Indeed, newcomers to the United States are struck by the amenities
enjoyed by "poor" people in the United States. This fact was dramatized
in the 1980s when CBS television broadcast the documentary "People Like
Us," which was intended to show the miseries of the poor during an
ongoing recession. The Soviet Union also broadcast the documentary, with
a view to embarrassing the Reagan administration.
But by the testimony of former Soviet leaders, it had the opposite
effect. Ordinary people across the Soviet Union saw that the poorest
Americans have TV sets, microwave ovens and cars. They arrived at the
same perception that I witnessed in an acquaintance of mine from Bombay
who has been unsuccessfully trying to move to the United States.
I asked him, "Why are you so eager to come to America?" He replied, "I
really want to live in a country where the poor people are fat."
2. America offers more opportunity and social mobility than any other
country, including the countries of Europe.
America is the only country that has created a population of "self-made
tycoons." Only in America could Pierre Omidyar, whose parents are Iranian
and who grew up in Paris, have started a company like eBay. Only in
America could Vinod Khosla, the son of an Indian army officer, become a
leading venture capitalist, the shaper of the technology industry, and a
billionaire to boot.
Admittedly, tycoons are not typical, but no country has created a better
ladder than America for people to ascend from modest circumstances to
3. Work and trade are respectable in America, which is not true
Historically, most cultures have despised the merchant and the laborer,
regarding the former as vile and corrupt and the latter as degraded and
vulgar. Some cultures, such as that of ancient Greece and medieval Islam,
even held that it is better to acquire things through plunder than
through trade or contract labor.
But the American founders altered this moral hierarchy. They established
a society in which the life of the businessman, and of the people who
work for him, would be a noble calling. In the American view, there is
nothing vile or degraded about serving your customers either as a CEO or
as a waiter.
The ordinary life of production and supporting a family is more highly
valued in the United States than in any other country. Indeed, America is
the only country in the world where we call the waiter "sir," as if he
were a knight.
4. America has achieved greater social equality than any other society.
True, there are large inequalities of income and wealth in America. In
purely economic terms, Europe is more egalitarian. But Americans are
socially more equal than any other people, and this is unaffected by
economic disparities. Alexis De Tocqueville noticed this egalitarianism a
century and a half ago, but it is if anything more prevalent today.
For all his riches, Bill Gates could not approach the typical American
and say, "Here’s a $100 bill. I'll give it to you if you kiss my feet."
Most likely the person 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 anyone else.
5. People live longer, fuller lives in America.
Although protesters rail against the American version of technological
capitalism at trade meetings around the world, in reality the American
system has given citizens many more years of life, and the means to live
more intensely and actively.
In 1900, the life expectancy in America was around 50 years; today, it is
more than 75 years. Advances in medicine and agriculture are mainly
responsible for the change. This extension of the lifespan means more
years to enjoy life, more free time to devote to a good cause, and more
occasions to do things with the grandchildren.
In many countries, people who are old seem to have nothing to do; they
just wait to die. In America, the old are incredibly vigorous, and people
in their 70s pursue the pleasures of life, including remarriage and
sexual gratification, with a zeal that I find unnerving.
6. In America, the destiny of the young is not given to them but is
created by them.
Not long ago, I asked myself, "What would my life have been like if I had
never come to the United States?"
If I had remained in India, I would probably have lived my whole life
within a five-mile radius of where I was born. I would undoubtedly have
married a woman of my identical religious and socioeconomic background. I
would almost certainly have become a medical doctor, or an engineer, or a
computer programmer. I would have socialized entirely within my ethnic
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.
In America, I have seen my life take a radically different course. In
college I became interested in literature and politics, and I resolved to
make a career as a writer. I married a woman whose ancestry is English,
French, Scotch-Irish, German and American Indian.
In my 20s I found myself working as a policy analyst in the White House,
even though I was not an American citizen. No other country, I am sure,
would have permitted a foreigner to work in its inner citadel of
In most countries in the world, your fate and your identity are handed to
you; in America, you determine them for yourself. America is a country
where you get to write the script of your own life. 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 irresistible the prospect of authoring the
narrative of their own lives.
7. America has gone further than any other society in establishing
equality of rights.
There is nothing distinctively American about slavery or bigotry. Slavery
has existed in virtually every culture, and xenophobia, prejudice and
discrimination are worldwide phenomena. Western civilization is the only
civilization to mount a principled campaign against slavery; no country
expended more treasure and blood to get rid of slavery than the United
While racism remains a problem in America, this country has made
strenuous efforts to eradicate discrimination, even to the extent of
enacting policies that give legal preference in university admissions,
jobs and government contracts to members of minority groups. Such
policies remain controversial, but the point is that it is extremely
unlikely that a racist society would have permitted such policies in the
And surely African Americans like Jesse Jackson are vastly better off
living in America than they would be if they were to live in, say,
Ethiopia or Somalia.
8. America has found a solution to the problem of religious and ethnic
conflict that continues to divide and terrorize much of the world.
Visitors to places like New York are amazed to see the way in which Serbs
and Croatians, Sikhs and Hindus, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants,
Jews and Palestinians all seem to work and live together in harmony. How
is this possible when these same groups are spearing each other and
burning each other’s homes in so many places in the world?
The American answer is twofold. First, separate the spheres of religion
and government so that no religion is given official preference but all
are free to practice their faith as they wish. Second, do not extend
rights to racial or ethnic groups but only to individuals; in this way,
all are equal in the eyes of the law, opportunity is open to anyone who
can take advantage of it, and everybody who embraces the American way of
life can "become American."
Of course there are exceptions to these core principles, even in America.
Racial preferences are one such exception, which explains why they are
controversial. But in general, America is the only country in the world
that extends full membership to outsiders.
The typical American could come to India, live for 40 years and take
Indian citizenship. But he could not "become Indian." He wouldn’t see
himself that way, nor would most Indians see him that way. In America, by
contrast, hundreds of millions have come from far-flung shores and over
time they, or at least their children, have in a profound and full sense
9. America has the kindest, gentlest foreign policy of any great power in
Critics of the U.S. are likely to react to this truth with sputtering
outrage. They will point to longstanding American support for a Latin or
Middle Eastern despot, or the unjust internment of the Japanese during
World War II, or America's reluctance to impose sanctions on South
Africa’s apartheid regime. However one feels about these particular
cases, let us concede to the critics the point that America is not always
in the right.
What the critics leave out is the other side of the ledger. Twice in the
20th century, the United States saved the world: first from the Nazi
threat, then from Soviet totalitarianism. What would have been the
world's fate if America had not existed? After destroying Germany and
Japan in World War II, the U.S. proceeded to rebuild both countries, and
today they are American allies. Now we are doing the same thing with
Consider, too, how magnanimous the U.S. has been to the former Soviet
Union after the U.S. victory in the Cold War. For the most part, America
is an abstaining superpower: It shows no real interest in conquering and
subjugating the rest of the world. (Imagine how the Soviets would have
acted if they had won the Cold War.)
On occasion, America intervenes to overthrow a tyrannical regime or to
halt massive human rights abuses in another country, but it never stays
to rule that country. In Grenada, Haiti and Bosnia, the U.S. got in and
then got out.
Moreover, when America does get into a war, it is supremely careful to
avoid targeting civilians and to minimize collateral damage. Even as
America bombed the Taliban infrastructure and hideouts, its planes
dropped rations of food to avert hardship and starvation of Afghan
civilians. What other country does these things?
10. America, the freest nation on earth, is also the most virtuous nation
This point seems counterintuitive, given the amount of conspicuous
vulgarity, vice and immorality in America. Indeed, some Islamic
fundamentalists argue that their regimes are morally superior to the
United States because they seek to foster virtue among the citizens.
Virtue, these fundamentalists argue, is a higher principle than liberty.
Indeed it is. And let us admit that in a free society, freedom will
frequently be used badly. Freedom, by definition, includes the freedom to
do good or evil, to act nobly or basely.
But if freedom brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the
best. The millions of Americans who live decent, praiseworthy lives
desire our highest admiration because they have opted for the good when
the good is not the only available option. Even amidst the temptations of
a rich and free society, they have remained on the straight path. Their
virtue has special luster because it is freely chosen.
By contrast, the societies that many Islamic fundamentalists seek would
eliminate the possibility of virtue. If the supply of virtue is
insufficient in a free society like America, it is almost non-existent in
an unfree society like Iran.
The reason is that coerced virtues are not virtues at all. Consider the
woman who is required to wear a veil. There is no modesty in this,
because she is being compelled Compulsion cannot produce virtue, it can
only produce the outward semblance of virtue.
Thus, a free society like America is not merely more prosperous, more
varied, more peaceful and more tolerant it is also morally superior to
the theocratic and authoritarian regimes that America’s enemies advocate.
"To make us love our country," Edmund Burke once said, "our country ought
to be lovely." Burke’s point is that we should love our country not just
because it is ours, but also because it is good.
America is far from perfect, and there is lots of room for improvement.
In spite of its flaws, however, the American life as it is lived today is
the best life that our world has to offer. Ultimately, America is worthy
of our love and sacrifice because, more than any other society, it makes
possible the good life, and the life that is good.
Dinesh D'Souza's latest book, "What's So Great About America," just hit
the New York Times best seller list. He is the Rishwain Fellow at the
Hoover Institution at Stanford University.