"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
For almost 20 years, Dinesh D’Souza has been a prominent force in the conservative intelligentsia, writing such provocative books as “Illiberal Education,” an attack on multiculturalism, and “The End of Racism,” which blasts affirmative action. Today, the former senior policy analyst for the Reagan administration is the Robert and Karen Rishwain Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank.
In his new book, “The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11,” D’Souza argues that “The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11 … the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the non-profit sector and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world.” On Tuesday, during an appearance on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” D’Souza was prodded by host Stephen Colbert into admitting that he agrees “with some of the things that these radical extremists [who attacked the United States on 9/11] are against in America.”
D’Souza’s theory has caused, as might be expected, a little consternation. Reviewing the book for the New York Times, political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote that “decent conservatives and Republicans … will, if they have any sense of honor, distance themselves, quickly and cleanly, from [D'Souza.]” Slate’s Timothy Noah accused D’Souza of “libeling” both the American left and the American right.
Salon spoke with D’Souza on Thursday.
What’s the book about?
Well, the book began as a sort of postmortem on 9/11 and an effort to trace the causes of 9/11. My thinking was that five years after 9/11, it’s not unreasonable to look back at that pivotal event and say, ‘How did that come about?’ Right after 9/11 there was, as you know, a moment of national unity in which the whole American tribe came together, and the basic idea was, we don’t care who did this, or why: We basically want to pulverize the people who did this. And that was a very understandable response, but I think with a little distance, I wanted to look back at 9/11, also partly because I felt that … the debate over the war on terror had sort of reached a standstill; the debate had become almost sterile. So I wanted to, from a conservative but independent view, turn all the assumptions into questions and go back to the drawing board so that I could understand not just 9/11 but also our current political debate.
And what was the answer you came up with?
Well, that 9/11 has both a foreign-policy dimension and a cultural dimension that have not been recognized. For example, on the foreign-policy side for a moment, a crucial event leading up to 9/11 was the Islamic radicals gaining control of the state of Iran. So then the question, of course, is how did they get that state?
Well, I think part of it is a horrendous blunder of American foreign policy, perhaps the most serious since World War II, which is that Jimmy Carter came to power, [and] he said, ‘I believe in human rights,’ and the left basically got around Carter and said, if you believe in human rights, then you can’t support the shah, the shah of Iran is a dictator, he has a secret police, and so Jimmy Carter was encouraged and pressured to withdraw American support for the shah, which he did … In trying to get rid of the lesser evil, we got the greater evil. That’s one small way in which the left sowed the seeds of 9/11.
The cultural seeds are somewhat different, and that is that the radical Muslims have been able to stir up a lot of hatred against America by saying, in effect, Islam is under attack. If you think about it, that’s really the rallying cry of Islamic radicalism, and that’s the only believable motive for why large numbers of people from a wide range of countries would be willing to risk their lives to strike out against America. I simply refuse to believe that people in Pakistan and Somalia would go to their deaths because the Palestinians don’t have a state. So this idea that America is against your religion and is out to destroy your religion and your values, and undermine the Muslim family, and corrupt the innocence of young people and Muslim girls — this is a very powerful attack, because it’s not in the abstract realm of politics — it affects the ordinary Muslim in his everyday life.
You told Stephen Colbert that you “agree with some of the things that these radical extremists are against in America.” What are those things?
Well, put it this way — if what the radical Muslims said was totally wrong, it would not convince anybody. An argument only works if it contains some element of truth. I mean, when the Soviet Union, and here you have an extreme form of propaganda, basically said, “Capitalism generates shameless inequality, and we will liberate the proletariat,” there was a lot of distortion in there. But there was also a grain of truth. That’s why so many people, not just in the Soviet Union, but many people in the West, were attracted to the socialist idea, because even if it was a wrong solution, its critique did contain a grain of truth.
OK, but what do you agree with?
I’m telling you. When the radical Muslims say that “if we were to import, if we were to embrace this American culture” — which, by the way, I want to emphasize is not the way Americans live, but our popular culture as it is projected abroad — “if we were to embrace the values of this culture, it would, (a) undermine belief in Allah, (b) destroy the Muslim family, and (c) corrupt the innocence of Muslim girls and Muslim children,” I think that they’re right about that. It would.
So in that sense, when they say that Islam is under attack and that, not American values, but these American values that are being globally pushed by the left, the values of, I mean, you have left-wing organizations filing lawsuits all over South America to liberalize abortion laws. These are democratically passed laws in Catholic countries, but under the bogus rubric of international law, there’s an effort here to overturn these democratically passed laws in the name of some notion of abortion as an international right. Again, you have Planned Parenthood distributing contraceptives to Muslim girls.
My point is how can you justify this sort of thing? Isn’t it true that when the radical Muslims say, “This is an effort to corrupt our morality,” they have a point? That’s why radical Islam has been able to recruit so successfully from traditional Islam. So it’s simply blind of us not to see that as a serious problem.
Have you ever read bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa calling for jihad against Americans, the one in which he lays out his case against America?
I think I’ve read every public statement by bin Laden, and studied it carefully.
How does that one, the 1998 fatwa, fit in with your thesis about the left and pop culture causing 9/11?
Well, [laughs] the reviews mention this, and it’s sheer foolishness. Bin Laden declared war on America in 1996. His 1998 fatwa was issued at a time when the radical Muslims were launching foreign attacks against American targets abroad, and here I’m thinking of things like the bombing of the embassies and the bombing of the Cole. So bin Laden’s critique at that point was focused on foreign-policy issues, I agree, but the important point is not that.
The important point is when bin Laden struck on 9/11, then he issued, almost immediately after that, his Letter to America, in 2002, in which he very clearly, and in a detailed way, spelled out his indictment against America. And I agree there’s some part of that indictment that includes foreign policy, but if you read it, you’ll see that probably about half of it, if not more, is about, he mentions gambling, adultery, fornication, prostitution, undermining the family. America is the font of atheism in the world, the head of the snake, the head of the unbelievers and so on. So it’s impossible to deny that this idea that America is an atheist and a pagan society that is inflicting its values on the world is an important element of their critique. And so anyone who says, “Oh, no, this is just about the troops in Mecca,” or “just about the Palestinians,” I think is taking a very limited and shortsighted view and cherry-picking a particular bin Laden letter that gives a distorted picture of his overall motives.
I’m looking at the Letter to America, right now, actually. It’s about 4,000 words long.
OK, I’m just going to look at the quotes in it that I quote in my chapter, because I don’t have the letter in front of me. Go ahead.
Well, the reason that I mention that it’s 4,000 words long is that the stuff you’re talking about, and I don’t deny that it’s in there, is about 300 words out of 4,000, and the rest is foreign policy, which is what the letter begins with as well.
It’s 300 words out of 4,000? OK, let me call the letter up and take a look. Let me see, I have to go online to do that. It’ll take me a little bit to do that.
Let me back up here and make a general point, because, see, the way I got in to this subject was to say look, in order to understand what’s going on here, this is bin Laden, yes, but we’re looking at radical Islam here. And to understand radical Islam, let me look at the half-dozen leaders who have had the most influence in shaping the minds of radical Islam. I mean, no one would deny that people like [Sayyid] Mawdudi [a Pakistani proponent of jihad], [Sayyid] Qutb [the most influential thinker of modern jihad], [Ayatollah] Khomeini, these are the people who have shaped the mind of radical Islam in the Muslim world.
Now we can debate the proportion of sentences in a bin Laden letter, but again, if you read Qutb, if you read Khomeini, if you read Mawdudi and so on, you can see very clearly that these moral and cultural themes are at least as important to them as foreign policy — in fact, put it somewhat this way, the reason that they object to foreign policy is that their real goal is to establish a state under Muslim control and under holy law. I mean, that’s the ultimate objective. So the ultimate objective is cultural: It is to have, if you will, an Islamic society under holy law. Now the reason that they object to America is because they see American troops bringing with them American values, and so in a way, bin Laden’s point was, “I don’t like Saddam Hussein, but if you let America into the region, then American troops will come here, and America will come here, and that will have a corrupting effect.”
So I don’t see these two [foreign policy and cultural issues] as one against the other, or one in proportion to the other. It’s completely connected … What portrait of bin Laden or Zawahiri is complete that sees them as foreign-policy warriors who don’t have a cultural, moral and religious agenda? It makes no sense. You cannot understand their motives divorced from those things. That is their ultimate objective.
You say in your book that “the left has helped to produce the conditions that led to the destruction of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.” And the things you cite are Carter withdrawing support from the shah and Clinton not doing enough to respond to al-Qaida attacks in the ’90s. What role did the intervening decade play in producing the attacks?
What’s the intervening decade? The ’80s?
Yeah, Reagan and Bush.
Oh, well, let’s look at it. I think that Reagan made a serious blunder in withdrawing the troops from Lebanon, and I think that, you know, it is a general axiom of politics that an American display of weakness emboldens enemies. So I think that it’s fair to say that the Muslim enemies of America were emboldened by America’s tail-between-our-legs retreat from Lebanon in 1982, I believe. And Reagan paid a price for that, because he saw a resurgence of Islamic attacks … But then later in Reagan’s term, Reagan sent a flurry of missiles aimed at [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi that did some serious damage and seems to have at least persuaded Gadhafi to lie low, if not retire, from the sort of terrorism trade. [Ed. note: As Warren Bass pointed out in his Washington Post review of D'Souza's book, this is inaccurate; the bombing of Pan Am 103 by Libyan agents occurred in 1988, two years after Reagan's strikes on Libya.]
What about the first President Bush?
Well, the first President Bush did nothing to stimulate radical Islam. On the contrary, I mean, essentially what the first President Bush did was, he was able to assemble a pretty broad coalition of countries to pistol-whip Saddam Hussein and push him out of Kuwait. Saddam was a secular dictator. He had invaded a small Muslim country. When Bush moved on that, people said, “Oh, he’s just an imperialistic adventurer,” and so on, but you know, the United States could have basically ruled Kuwait.
By pulling out, giving Kuwait back its autonomy, not stealing its oil, allowing it to sell it on the open market to whomever it wants and so on … I mean, it’s hard to argue that anyone could look at the first Gulf War and say that America’s action in that war — even if it was motivated by America’s long-term desire to have stability, or the ability to purchase oil from the Middle East — the truth of it is that it can hardly be seen as an anti-Muslim action. So that’s why I don’t think it was a major factor.
But that’s exactly what bin Laden says.
He says what?
In the 1998 fatwa, his first grievance is, “For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula.” That’s a direct result of the invasion of Iraq. Then he says, “The best proof of this is the Americans’ continuing aggression against the Iraqi people.” I mean, those are the first two things he says in his fatwa.
Right, but by “continuing aggression,” I don’t think he’s referring to the expulsion of Saddam from Kuwait, which, actually, bin Laden supported. He’s referring to the fact that after that happened, throughout the 1990s, the United States was sending bombing missions against Iraq, sending planes and so on. This was not widely reported in America, but, as you know, it was going on. So “continuing aggression,” refers, most likely, depending on [when] the fatwa was written, to what Clinton was doing.
At one point in the book, you’re talking about an indignation gap in the speeches of people on the left, a gap between the indignation that they feel for Bush and for al-Qaida, and you say that before they harshly condemn Bush and Republicans, they will engage in “ritual condemnation” of terrorists, like, “I am no fan of Osama bin Laden” or, “We can agree that bin Laden is not a very nice guy.” Who delivered those lines?
OK, now those — I mean, I was giving those lines, I mean those lines I cite, I was using as my own paraphrase, but what I was trying to get at was simply this: If you take words like “evil,” “a threat to America,” “undermining our Constitution,” and you simply go through those speeches — take somebody like Ted Kennedy. Go through his speeches over the last three years. Find every speech in which he refers to Saddam Hussein and bin Laden and take all the worst things that he says about them and line them all up, and then take all the things he says about Bush and the right wing, and you line them all up, and you compare them, you’d make an amazing observation, and that is that the condemnations of Saddam Hussein and bin Laden are quite sparse. They do exist, but they are not profuse. In fact, horrible things occur that go unnoticed, uncommented on.
On the other hand, there is almost an extravagance in the condemnation of Bush as being a danger to the way of life of Americans, threatening the constitutional system and so on. So that to an outside reader coming and looking at these two ledgers, if you will, it clearly seems that the speaker is much more worried or considers Bush to be a much more clear and pressing danger to the values that they hold dear than, say, a Saddam or a bin Laden. And that’s my point about the indignation gap. There is genuine indignation that’s directed toward, you could say, the enemy at home — which is Bush on the right — and there’s almost perfunctory condemnation of the enemy abroad, usually as a way as making a concession and then turning around and attacking the enemy at home.
But in your book, you give real examples of what people have said about the president, and they are clearly harsh condemnations, but the “ritual condemnation” you give, the “I am no fan of Osama bin Laden” or, “We can agree that bin Laden is not a very nice guy,” I did Google searches on those. You are the only one who’s used those words.
Right, and I concede that those words are my words, my paraphrase. I didn’t claim to be quoting anybody.
They’re in quotes.
Right, but they’re in my quotes. In other words, I didn’t say that Ted Kennedy said them. They’re in my quotes. In other words, you’ll see that in the book from time to time, in the penultimate — not the penultimate, but in the chapter that’s called “The War Against the War,” at the end of it I say, bin Laden seems to be signaling to the American left, and what he seems to be saying is the following: quotes, and then I have two paragraphs. Now, it’s very obvious from the context that those are my words, bin Laden didn’t say them, but I’m conveying, in paraphrase, the so-called content of the truth that I see bin Laden offering.
But if this indignation gap is so real, how come you couldn’t find a single example?
Well, because the indignation gap exists. The indignation gap is essentially a gap of shrill denunciation at Bush and no shrill denunciations of bin Laden and Saddam that are comparable in volume and temperature. So on the one hand you have a presence, and on the other you have an absence.
Now, I don’t deny that there are the condemnations, and that’s why I’m making a point that can only be seen in context. Obviously, you can find a line where someone goes, “Saddam was evil.” I’m not denying that. I’m simply saying that you won’t find anything approaching the number of lines saying that Bush is evil.
How should conservatives fight “The Enemy at Home”?
Well, part of it, I think, is conservatives currently are in two camps. One camp is the camp that says that the liberal is simply deluded, doesn’t realize that the radical Muslims are very illiberal, doesn’t realize that bin Laden doesn’t really like Hillary Clinton or Barney Frank or Nancy Pelosi, so if only we give these liberals a wake-up call and show them how illiberal these Muslims are, the liberal will jump out of his seat, jump on the bandwagon, jump on the war on terror. Now, this approach has produced, as far as I can tell, not a single convert, even though it’s relentlessly pounded in the conservative literature.
The other approach, which is sort of the David Horowitz approach, is, “Liberals hate America! Liberals are basically aligned with the totalitarian movements of the past, like socialism, communism. This is the same old blame America, hate America crowd!” And what I’m saying is that both these lines of analysis are mistaken.
Unlike some conservatives, I don’t accuse liberals of hating America or treason or wanting to destroy America or being totalitarians. No, I say that liberals are loyal to liberal values, and liberals like liberal America. Liberals are often accused of being anti-America when what they are against is traditional values. They’re not against America; they’re just against Bush’s America.
So in a sense what I’m trying to do is say that conservatives should hold the left accountable and should point out that the left, in order to pursue its own political objectives, is endangering American security and stability in the Middle East, because I think that there are a lot of people on the left who are essentially acting in reckless disregard of what would happen in Iraq if America pulled out. They don’t care! They basically want to see Bush humiliated. They basically want to take national security, which has been a winning issue for the Republicans, and put it as a millstone around Bush’s neck, and it’s quite clear they could care less what happens in Iraq afterward.
In fact, they even say it. There’s a sort of blithe indifference: It’s bad now, who cares what happens afterward, how much worse could it get? Well, it could get an awfully lot worse, because the radical Muslims make it pretty clear that if they can get Iraq on top of Iran, they’re next going to target Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.More Alex Koppelman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)