***What's So Great About America
by Dinesh D'Souza
Reviewed January 20, 2004.
Penguin Books, New York, 2002. 218 pages.
Available on Amazon.com 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
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
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
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
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.