When I was in Portland on Monday, I was approached by a freshly-scrubbed and overly-eager young man wearing one of those I-work-for-an-oranization-bigger-than-me t-shirt. Garishly purple, in his case. The shirt.
I knew he was either a Scientologist or a political petition signature-gatherer. And because his first words were not "Do you want to be happy?," I eliminated the former.
Instead, he caught me off guard with: "Do you support women's rights?"
I had recently been considering how the word "rights" has morphed from being a term used to describe protection against government intrusion into a new definition of entitlement for what Kurt Vonnegut called a granfalloon -- a group of people who pretend to share an identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless.
I was not going to take the young man's bait. I responded: "Doesn't your question contain a philosophical fallacy? If rights inure only to individuals, how can there be any such thing as a right for a group?"
He simply stared at me, and, deciding that I was not an easy target for whatever petition he held in his hand, turned to chirpily ask one of Portland's many street folk: "Do you support women's rights?," only to be greeted with a suggestion to do something I suspect is anatomically impossible.
I thought of both of them yesterday while watching Dinesh D'Souza's new movie -- America: Imagine the World Without Her.
The movie falls into the documentary genre. Like most art, it has a philosophical point of view. And the movie wears it not only on its sleeve, but on placards.
I almost referred to Dinesh D'Souza as a conservative Michael Moore. But that would be unfair -- to D'Souza. Both of them make political propaganda films. The difference is that D'Souza is disarmingly nice.
The movie is based on the conceit that America divided itself into two partisan camps in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Part of the country identified with the revolutionary counter-culture. Others did not buy its underlying premises. That split in the Baby Boom generation is one of the reasons for the harsh partisan division that exists in America.
D'Souza stands on the traditionalist side of that divide. As an immigrant, he truly loves his adopted country. He is offended that some Americans feel they must shame America by re-writing its history with the intended goal to politically shake-down the country.
The movie fairly sets out a list of indictments that the left often levies against America. He interviews leading political lights on the left to determine what they dislike about America. In their own words.
The list is familiar: its treatment of Native Americans, slavery, the transfer of half of Mexico to The States after the Mexican War of 1848, and its imperialist-colonialist behavior. In each instance, America is described as a thief.
He then carefully walks through each of the indictments, admitting that America has not always lived up to its ideals. But, he points out, America is one of the few countries in the world that has ideals -- and continues to attempt living up to them. His most compelling witness, is Bono, who describes the idea of America in such glowing terms that I actually welled-up.
There are plenty of people who fear that America has taken the wrong fork in the 1960s divide. I tend to agree with them. Where I disagree with them is that it is too late to stop that decline. I am with D'Souza, there is hope.
When the credits started rolling, the audience did something I have not heard for some time in a movie theater. They applauded.
We left the theater buoyed up by optimism. The left's indictment of America can easily be refuted with facts. And it should be because America is worth saving. It truly is the world's last best hope against the enslavement of humanity. And, best of all, there is something in the American spirit (buried in its DNA) that is just waiting to be harnessed.
D'Souza's genius in this film was in avoiding the reduction of individuals into meaningless groups. He offers up example after example of people who do not show up in America's history books, but who were dynamic in changing the world around them.
My favorite was an African-American woman named Madam C. J. Walker. Born of freed slaves, she created a successful business in beauty and hair products for black women. In the process, she became the first self-made female millionaire in the United States.
And that sums up one of the many differences between the spins Moore and D'Souza put on their respective Americas. D'Souza sees an America of hope and opportunity. Because that is the America he experienced as an Indian immigrant.
It is also the reason why the debate about economic inequality in America disguises the true issue. The true question is not the outcome, but the ability to participate in the American Dream. To make something better, not only of yourself, but of those around you. And to know that the system is not fixed. That everyone can fail or succeed, based on their own abilities.
In other words, an America that is free and fair. My money is on that spirit. If it does not prevail, the pessimists may be the better prophets.