By Dan Falcone
In the mid-nineties I first saw the ultra-conservative propaganda artist Dinesh D’Souza debating the conformist and centrist democrat (small "d" as in philosophical proponent of indirect democracy) E.J. Dionne on C-SPAN. They discussed the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his presidency. D’Souza argued that Reagan created vast “prosperity” and with his “vision” and “leadership”, he “won” the Cold War – The End. Although Dionne used empirical evidence and basic economics to counter the right’s saintly regard of Reaganomics he never ventured too deep into the depths of Reagan’s disastrous domestic and foreign policy. To be fair, this was simply a small talk on politics and it essentially followed an easy to understand matrix of conservative vs. liberal or Republican vs. Democrat. As a result, the discourse was less than academic, very bland, and failed to resonate for people trying to understand the complexities of the events and the people discussed.
I am sorry to say that in my view the D’Souza worldview has continued on the same nonconstructive path. A short while back I saw his film about Obama entitled, Obama’s America: 2016. The additional sub-title reads: “Love him, hate him, you don’t know him.” I suppose the film was designed to reinforce to the existing 20% of the American electorate even further, the notion that Obama is attempting to institute sharia law and to create an old Soviet styled communist state. When viewing 2016 I found it extreme, convoluted and simple minded. America followed a similar trajectory.
Never mind that Ronald Reagan, D’Souza’s idol, was a Democrat and Hollywood actor brought before the Un-American Activities Committee. D’Souza’s recycled thesis in America is that Obama is an illegitimate President because he is somehow different from the other modern day neo-liberal security state presidents before him. Setting Obama apart are his origins, his ethnicity, and his generation. Obama is not only our first non-white President he is our first president to be educated directly by the New Left. How this fails to translate into his approach of American domestic and foreign policy is immaterial to D’Souza for he is not providing a fair analysis. He is providing an over-simplified portrait of demonization. The film uses the concept of the “big lie.” The “big lie” is a propaganda technique that unleashes such an arsenal of misinformation that it becomes too daunting to correct such a series of untruths.
As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig from Salon aptly put it, “It’s a movie designed to confirm the things a person already believes . . . as D’Souza’s weepy narration tracks over the computer-generated dissolution of a number of American monuments.”
D’Souza uses the term “shame narrative” to discredit leftist scholars. In a lumped together enterprise he claims that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton dared to benefit from any professor who challenged the status quo. Ultimately, our nation will be doomed by welfare and universal health coverage, both nefarious concepts commonly emphasized to those receiving college educations.
From what I could tell in America, D’Souza sets out on a task to instruct us of five things (“big lies”) that are exceptionally and uniquely American: 1) there wasn’t really a Native American genocide because bacterial warfare was merely accidental. 2) African slave labor wasn’t really that unique because of indentured servants and slave societies existing elsewhere in history. 3) The stealing of Mexico can be justified through hindsight since Mexico is now such a poor and economically strangulated nation. 4) American Foreign policy is challenging because we have an ethnocentric burden to fulfill. (It’s a tough job being liberators but someone must do it.) 5) Capitalism brings technological advancements and we should probably ignore the undemocratic detriments that come along with wealth usurpation or transnational secret entities removed from public input. In fact, D’Souza’s tendency to whitewash complicated historical phenomena is the precise reason that revisionist perspectives entered the canon.
The most bizarre quote by D’Souza in the film in my view is when he states that, “taboo is the enemy of history and truth.” I’m not sure how he meant it. My guess is that he means that anything problematic and controversial historically should be left out of the discourse. And if pushed too far in the end, the plight of the Natives and the Africans was not so bad, and in some respects, it was even their own fault. Since every society is imperfect anyway, detailed histories are irrelevant if the national purpose isn’t completely served. This concept would be admired by Stalin and the worst brutal thugs to be imagined. Here, D’Souza is arguing for history to return as a weapon for the ruling class.
When D’Souza interviews the renowned scholar – activist Noam Chomsky for less than a minute, D’Souza juxtaposes Chomsky’s voiceover (that comments on our exceptional-less foreign policy attitude), while he (D’Souza) silently reads about domestic matters from a book entitled, Occupy. The book is a transcribed lecture by Chomsky in memorial tribute to Howard Zinn. Furthermore, when the film was being advertised prior to release, it showed insightful Chomsky clips, but then failed to use them for the film.
In effect, D’Souza is trying to show the viewing audience that Chomsky’s diplomatic analysis can’t be trusted because he spoke to the Occupy Movement people. You know the un-showered, 99%, complainers, all simply hecklers, all refusing to work, people?
An interesting and ironic facet of America is that it promotes American exceptionalism and forgives America for it’s less than exceptional behavior around the globe at the same time. D’Souza casually asserts and believes that whenever American force violates its stated purpose it can be dismissed as part of the “universal conquest ethic;” which is precisely one of Chomsky’s points to demonstrate how we are NOT exceptional.
The treatment of Howard Zinn in the film was also uniquely awful. For starters, the film does not focus on Zinn’s work as an activist, an academic, or his historical theses. The film focuses on how Zinn’s work is mentioned in popular culture and makes references to various entertainment productions. This is intended make Zinn look like a flimsy caricature of the left and invites mistrust from the audience maybe not aware of Zinn’s real work. Howard Zinn’s message to students of history was that the story of America can be realized through a bottom-up perspective, not merely top-down.
Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was a breakthrough and seminal work in emphasizing this way of looking at social history after a legacy of political, economic, and military history had dominated the discipline for so long. But D’Souza wants to constantly insist on everything being top-down, no matter how intellectually lazy or dishonest. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film owed his “blueprint”, not his rhetoric, to Thomas Jefferson, thus implying that civil rights in America can be traced to of all places, America. (In a recent television interview, D'Souza used the word blueprint) Removed are the concepts of activism and popular struggle and this anticlimactic portrayal of classical civil rights as simply a speech is boring and predictable.
I can gather that the viewing audience, mostly graying, applauds the film (literally when I went) because they sense that since the 1960s, America and Americans are in the uncomfortable position of grappling with our past while apologizing for a catalog of crimes they did not commit. They feel morally bullied by a pendulum swing. D’Souza wants the audience to feel victimized. He himself is shown as a political prisoner in handcuffs. It is likely that the audience does not feel that the answer to positive history is to teach negative history. Even here, I think the audience is misguided. Partly because I suspect that D’Souza and his audience want to simply reinsert feel-good history at the expense of critical inquiry. But I don’t even have to suspect this because when D’Souza outlines his five big lies he finds America “not guilty” of all five “indictments.”
D’Souza and his film fans admire counter revisionism not because of its merits but simply to counter revisionism for the sake of it. They should know that Christopher Columbus is not being picked on necessarily. To be clear, the updated scholarship on Columbus was initiated as a compensatory measure, to fill in generations of factual gaps in using him as the start of basic American history courses. Slavery is not included in American history textbooks to shame the country and set political agendas either. Slavery is included in textbooks to compensate for years and years of omission, lies, or distortions that made slavery look like a little bit of work in between some play. Indigenous genocide is now included in the textbooks not to capitalize on a shame narrative but because it was glossed over for a long period of time in textbooks. For D’Souza and his fans to ignore the historiography and to exaggerate the current appeal for contemporary history education is irresponsible and frankly incorrect. America conflates a basic cultural literacy with threats to patriotism.
“Conservatives” who presume that “liberals” dominate mass communication and educational institutions presuppose many things about the youth culture without any awareness to the available educational resources or the secondary literature. D’Souza and “conservatives” automatically believe that “liberal” ideas are openly and freely expressed in schools (at times they are, but very often they are not) without having an understanding of what is taught. D’Souza was effective in proving this tendency to me in the film.
Keep in mind that orthodox history has pervaded for so long, that any attempt to deconstruct traditional narratives will appear as unfair and polemical. Any “shame” acquired from consistent intellectual exercises using the archival material (history) is a by-product of the inquiry. Dispassionate scholarship often brings a result that “conservatives” mistake as a “moral obligation” when it is merely the historical record brought to light.
Furthermore, the notion that “good examples” of history are deliberately omitted is basically false. For example, black people owning slaves is known by students (of color especially) and well researched (even D’Souza’s admits this in part). Of course, even here, the history is complicated as Henry Louis Gates pointed out. He explained that while blacks did own other blacks, at times it was for protection and humanitarian causes, (not mentioned in the film) and unfortunately, at other times it was not.
As for black success stories, they are very well understood by today’s students. Especially during Black History Month, a month so focused on the positives, that it has been thoroughly co-opted by the right-wing in an effort to present America as post-racial. Our educational system is too, very parochial and comfortable with presenting this notion, which is far from progressive.
In my view, D’Souza’s film America sets out to report that anyone who tries to make America more democratic or inclusive is motivated by disdain for the country. This is a rather strange conclusion. The film is so ahistorical, even apolitical, that it resides far outside of the mainstream. It doesn’t even meet the standards of a documentary. It is a more poorly done inverted example of a Michael Moore film – but even more heavily produced. At least the Moore films (I’m no fan) can argue that quotes and segments are purposefully arranged to alter context to frame a larger point, for even fiction can tell the truth. And let me defend D’Souza in saying that it does not serve any purpose to ridicule him or his adherents either.
Anyone with a basic understanding of American History, American Government, International Relations, Political Science or Economics will be able to see through D’Souza’s cut and paste falsities and optimism, but that does not remove some basic concerns of the Tea Party. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, it does not help to laugh at the “conservatives” or the Tea Party. It would help however to organize them or provide them with more coherent answers to essentially normal sentiments of government mistrust. That is for the organized left to grapple with and any effort to simply joke about the right-wing on late night television only emboldens and ensures a more fascist cause. This is all worth understanding and so is the film.
D’Souza says that “the conquest ethic would return if America never was.” The problem with this statement is that he already mentioned in the film previously that the conquest ethic for Americans was okay since all countries and cultures have this hard-wired ethic. I suppose he means that since the concepts of force, theft, and aggression are universal, it is better for America to utilize these while we still can. All the while, Obama, it must be noted and emphasized, is the first President to compromise our exceptional standing because of incremental health care/insurance reform and some modest entitlement packaging for the poor and working poor.
Additionally, Obama is to be called the first “panoptic” president – as if Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush I & II along with their agitprop, surveillance, spying, enemy lists, torture, cover-ups, bombings, invasions, drones, and dubious intelligence gathering formats - ever existed. This film is really a racialized punishment for Obama having a strategy to win two elections and for protecting American interests as he sees fit. It is Obama’s naked ambition to be an “effective” President in the tradition of Reagan that has D’Souza really upset. D’Souza claims that a centrist Democratic is jeopardizing our destined greatest and our securing of hegemony and wealth. Just ask Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Gaza, the West Bank, or Libya - to name a few, if Obama is actually poles apart from previous U.S. Presidents.