Opinion: Dinesh D’Souza event degrades quality of academic dialogue at AU
Academia relies on a process of promoting factual ideas and not introducing false ones
Recently, fake historian Dinesh D'Souza was invited to speak on campus. Although the event was pretty sparsely attended, protesters did show up to the event. Many critics decried the protesters as opposing free speech. They were not opposing free speech, because no one is obligated to a platform to spread your views. Further, they were acting academically responsible, opposing the introduction of views that are false into an academic setting.
For one, D’Souza is just a bad historian. To demonstrate, here are a few of his claims that are false. He said the three-fifths compromise wasn’t about slavery. It was. The southern states wanted slaves to count towards representation even though they couldn’t vote. The Northern states pretty reasonably objected to this because it would give the southern states a massive majority in the House of Representatives, which they could use to expand the institution of slavery.
He claimed that Lincoln was a conservative. Of course, it would make no sense to say a pro-immigrant, protectionist, pro-government redistribution, and pro-government investment in the economy president was a conservative, but he did have a quote he took out of context.
He said the Democrats are the real racists because they were behind Jim Crow and slavery. No matter what you think of the Democratic Party, that is just wrong. He even acknowledges most historians disagree with him while presenting no evidence to the contrary.
Finally, he claims fascism is left-wing. What is his evidence? The German form of fascism was called National Socialism. Germans and fascist governments intervened in the economy. The second point makes no sense because all governments intervene in the economy. Unless you believe in abolishing the government, this is unavoidable.
I will give it to him that he made an insightful point about how Northern liberals construct elitist, historical narratives about an enlightened North coming to save a backwards South that don’t hold up to scrutiny. However, even there, he is flawed because he won’t tell you those copperheads, as they were called, were the bankers and businessmen who wanted to keep a steady supply of cheap cotton flowing. “So what,” you may ask. He is so obviously wrong that everyone will know it and he will be discredited, right? The answer is no -- people like him are dangerous.
Academia relies on a process of promoting correct ideas while suppressing wrong ones. That's why you aren’t allowed to teach creationism in schools today. By allowing people like D’Souza to have a platform in universities, you are allowing the spread of ideas detached from facts. That brings us back to why anyone would believe his obvious lies; it is ironically the same as the way the Nazis came to power. If you repeat a lie over and over again, people are far more likely to believe it.
D’Souza does not care about academia. He is not a historian. He was an English major. D’Souza is using the excuse of academia to spread his ideas to college students. Although the room was pretty sparse, and the room was pretty split, there were still a good 50 people there supporting him. Fifty people doesn’t sound like a lot, but given recent events, we should know even one person can make a big difference.
Through rewriting history, D’Souza is creating a mob of devoted, wealthy, young activists. Conservatives have always had a hard time maintaining a large activist base. Defending the status quo and rich people has never been as attractive as fight for your own interests or fighting the man. So people like D’Souza are vital to the far right, which certainly explains why he has made a ton of money lying to people.
While D’Souza is sponsored by wealthy anonymous donors to influence voters, that is far from the most dangerous thing about him. It is highlighted by two incidents where D’Souza retweeted #BurnAllJews and #BringBackSlavery on tweets from fans of his promoting a movie of his.
While he claims it was an accident -- because who among us hasn’t accidentally tweeted hate speech multiple times -- it does highlight the biggest danger D’Souza poses: the “alt-lite” to alt-right pipeline. Influencers like Milo Yiannopoulos and D’Souza can introduce far right politics to people under a more innocuous guise before introducing them to outright white nationalism. I know firsthand because this nearly happened to me. For years I was part of the “New Atheist” online subculture, and this subculture used the guise of religion to spread right-wing ideas even as they often professed to be progressive. Thankfully I was able to realize this before I got in too deep, but there are many others who were not as lucky.
While I’m not going to claim D’Souza is racist and anti-Semitic, the fact that his fans are racist and anti-Semitic is no surprise. People like him are a gateway to Holocaust denial and white supremacy. People start out saying George Soros is manipulating world governments, the Nazis were left-wing and the Confederacy wasn’t that bad, to stating that Jewish bankers in general are manipulating world governments, the Holocaust never really happened and black people are inferior to white people.
By giving him a platform to speak at our university, not only is American University and Sylvia Burwell degrading the quality of academics and dialogue at this school, they are allowing hatred to spread on this campus. I do not want hate mongers and fraudsters at my university, and neither should they.
Jonathan Wolfson is a senior in the School of Public Affairs. They are an outside contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff.