“Western civilization is so great, you can’t compare it to other civilizations. You can only compare it to its own standards,” Dinesh D’Souza noted in a debate with Ward Churchill over whether Western civilization was liberating or oppressive.
The debate, sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, featured two highly provocative speakers—one liberal and one conservative. Churchill, a former professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, is best known for his essay On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, which claims that 9/11 victims provoked the terrorist attacks and compares the “ongoing genocidal American imperialism” to the Holocaust. Churchill has also written several books on America’s historical mistreatment and genocide of indigenous people. He was, however, fired last year on charges of research misconduct.
An Indian-American immigrant, D’Souza moved to the U.S. during high school and later attended Dartmouth College where he wrote for the noted conservative collegiate newspaper The Dartmouth Review. He later served as a policy expert for Ronald Reagan and as a Hoover fellow. He has written several books including Letters to a Young Conservative, Illiberal Education and What’s So Great America, which have received both praise and criticism for his condemnation of multiculturalism.
Churchill began the debate by calling Western civilization a “synthesis of lies” and a “fraud” because it plagiarized and assimilated ideas from other cultures without giving due credit. He said that he “didn’t quite know what Western civilization is,” but that it was triumphalist and supremacist.
“There is no argument against Western civilization at all from Ward Churchill,” D’Souza responded. “His argument is against the narrative of Western civilization.”
D’Souza discussed how the world has progressed and benefited from the influences of Western civilization. According to D’Souza, Western civilization has humanized the world. He noted that while Western civilization participated in slavery, abolitionism is a uniquely Western concept.
“The Chinese had slaves, the Indians had slaves, even the American Indians had slaves before Columbus ever step foot on this continent. It is not slavery that is Western, it is abolition.”
D’Souza also noted that the idea of human rights and democracy are rooted in the Christian idea that everyone is created equal in God’s eyes and that the West became superior because it advanced science, democracy and capitalism. Buttressing his claim of Western superiority, D’Souza observed that it was the Europeans who sailed to America and not the American Indians who sailed to Europe.
“Not all cultures are equal,” D’Souza said.
D’Souza claimed that most descendants of slaves and those who have been colonized are better off in America than their ancestors had been before being enslaved or colonized. D’Souza recalled what Mohammad Ali had said after returning from a trip to Africa,“‘Thank God my grand-daddy got on that boat.’”
Churchill responded by attacking D’Souza as arrogant and saying that D’Souza’s mind needed to be decolonized. He condemned the West for popularizing the slave trade and the US for breaching its treaties with indigenous nations. He claimed that the West waged a genocidal war against American Indians with weapons and small pox.
D’Souza admitted that the story of slaves and Indians was tragic, but that power can be corrupting. He noted several examples of other cultures that have abused their power including the Arabs that stormed into Europe during the crusades.
According to D’Souza, immigrants have proven the superiority of Western civilization by “voting with their feet.” As an ethnic immigrant, D’Souza said he had more opportunities than he would have had in India.
“For me Western civilization isn’t just about a theory, it’s about a life lived in America. We’re debating whether the West has made life better, and it certainly has for me,” said D’Souza. “Ward Churchill is taking the tragic facts of history and ideologizing them into white oppression.”
While D’Souza had the support of Stanford’s conservative groups, Churchill was cheered on by Stanford’s Native American community. Although most seemed to agree that D’Souza was a more dynamic, articulate speaker—even Churchill made an aside that D’Souza should run as vice-president—Churchill received more vigorous applause from the crowd. The tension between the two sides was palpable as audience members muttered and cursed under their breaths. After the debate Native Americans fluttered toward Churchill and conservatives rushed D’Souza. Both speakers were iconoclasts in their own right.