By STANLEY FISH
I’ve never before had the experience of seeing a movie based on the ideas of a friend who is also the film’s producer, writer, co-director and on-camera star. The friend is Dinesh D’Souza and the movie is “2016: Obama’s America.” It’s a bit less than 90 minutes long and for the most part it follows the path of D’Souza’s 2010 book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage.”
That path is at once psychological and historical. D’Souza tells us that he wants to understand Obama’s actions, which do not, he contends, follow either from the American dream of the founding fathers or from the civil rights story of Selma, Birmingham, Brown v. Board of Education and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Instead, according to D’Souza, the dream Obama is intent on realizing is the dream of his anti-colonialist father, Barack Obama Sr., whose influence on his son’s life is, perhaps paradoxically, all the greater because he was absent; the two met only once, when the future president was 10 years old.
Anti-colonialism, as D’Souza defines it, is underwritten by a conviction that “colonialism is a system of piracy in which the wealth of the colonized countries is systematically stolen by the colonizers” and that at the present time the United States, originally a colony itself, is the chief neo-colonial power, continuing its flawed history of subjugating native Americans, Mexicans, Hawaii and the Philippines into the 21st century. “My argument,” says D’Souza in “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” “is that it is the anti-colonial ideology of his African father that Barack Obama took to heart.” Once we understand that ideology — once we really know Obama — we will understand a set of policies that, under any other explanatory model, seem contradictory and disunified.
D’Souza doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with this argument in the movie. Instead he eases into it by musing on the quite extraordinary parallels between his life and Obama’s — two men of mixed race and comparable skin color who were born in the same year, entered Ivy League colleges in the same year, graduated in the same year and went on to enjoy improbable successes (D’Souza is a college president as well as a best-selling author of multiple volumes, a notable culture warrior, and now an auteur), given their differently modest beginnings.
But then the two diverge. At Dartmouth, D’Souza becomes an enthusiastic proponent and admirer of American-style entrepreneurial capitalism and a believer in American exceptionalism. Unlike the once glorious but fallen empires he recalls reading about as a child in India, America, he declares, is an “empire of ideals” — individual rights, freedom of choice, upward mobility limited only by your willingness to work hard; and the fact that the nation has not always lived up to its ideals is a testament to the power they exert even as they are being breached.
In contrast, Obama, first at Columbia and later at Harvard, is influenced by leftist teachers like Edward Said and Roberto Unger, immerses himself in texts by Marxist, feminist and ant-colonialist authors, and thus fleshes out the lineaments of “his father’s third world collectivism.”
And so the immigrant and the native-born American, alike in so many ways, end up holding ideologically opposed positions that lead them to have different views on any number of issues — debt, oil drilling, health care, the Middle East, Egypt, Libya, nuclear disarmament, global warning, financial regulation, Supreme Court appointments, you name it. In each instance Obama’s view is explained by D’Souza as a logical extension of an anti-colonialist desire to take funds, goods and weapons away from the haves — the United States and its allies — and give them to the have-nots, to poor countries in general and Muslim countries in particular. Rather than laboring to maintain and increase American dominance, Obama, says D’Souza, is busy leveling the playing field so that no nation will have control of the world’s resources and be in a position to call the tune.
For example, Obama (D’Souza explains) attributes the energy crisis to America’s “addiction” to oil, and his response to that addiction — to our consuming a disproportionate share of the world’s energy reserves — is to propose “cap and trade policies … aimed at taxing America and using some of that money to subsidize the wretched of the earth.” It is an effort, D’Souza complains, to raise “the cost of doing business for the colonizers in order to give an economic advantage to the colonized” (“The Roots of Obama’s Rage”). (In short, a geopolitical form of affirmative action.)
But what’s wrong with that?, someone might ask, and D’Souza would have answers: you’re giving away the store rather than being a steward of it, and you’re giving it to people who are less able than we are to make good use of it. In the movie, Obama’s half brother George gratifies D’Souza by saying that he believes it would have been better if the British had stayed longer in Kenya, for then the nation would have been more developed and better equipped to go its own way than it now is. Being colonized, D’Souza is suggesting, is not all that bad a thing.
It’s easy to imagine strong objections to that argument, but it’s not the argument D’Souza puts front and center; it’s an aside. The argument he does put front and center will provoke even stronger objections and will be received by many as objectionable because it is not an argument at all, but an accusation: Obama’s policies are not simply counterproductive, they are un-American.
This accusation has been implicit in much that has been said along the way, but 25 minutes before the end of the movie, it takes over. The hinge assertion is D’Souza’s declaration that Obama’s ideology is “remote to America.” By that he could mean simply that he got some of his ideas from places outside this country, from Kenya (his father) or Palestine (Said) or Brazil (Unger).
But that observation, which is also true of the founding fathers, who got many of their ideas from Locke, Diderot, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Spinoza, Milton and Aristotle, is relatively anodyne. (The place or tradition from which you draw your ideas is independent of the uses to which they are put.) By “remote,” D’Souza means something more seriously damning: Obama’s ideas are remote in the sense that they are foreign; they grew in other soil and do not belong in America; they are antithetical to the American spirit. Indeed, they are anti-American, a judgment expressed in the movie by Daniel Pipes, who says flatly that Obama “doesn’t think well of America”; the president’s ideas, echoes D’Souza, are “separate from American thought.”
So we have a choice, D’Souza tells us in conclusion, between “America’s dream and Obama’s dream,” or, more precisely, between America’s dream and Obama’s anti-American dream. We made that choice in 2008 without knowing that it was anti-Americanism we were choosing. Now we know (because D’Souza has told us), and we had better act quickly in 2012 because if we don’t the world “could be a scary place in 2016.”
This is disappointing. While a viewer could certainly disagree with D’Souza’s analysis of the genesis and emergence of Obama’s views, it is nevertheless an analysis to which one could respond in the usual spirit of intellectual debate by saying things like “you’ve left something out” or “you draw your conclusion too quickly.” But as the movie picks up polemical speed, philosophy, political theory and psychology are left behind and replaced by name-calling, and by a name-calling that brings D’Souza close to positions he rejects. For instance, he rejects birtherism, the contention that Obama was born in Kenya and is hence not an American citizen; but he replaces it with a back-door, or metaphorical, birtherism when he characterizes Obama as an alien being, as a fifth-column party of one who has pretended to be an American, and technically is one, but really is something else.
The argument founders on the fallacy of assuming that the adjective “American” has a fixed meaning with which everyone, or everyone who is right-thinking and patriotic, agrees. But the meaning of America is continually contested in essays, books, backyard conversations, talk shows and, most of all, in elections. It is often said, and it is true, that the opposing parties in an election have “different visions for America.” There are many ways of describing the alternative visions offered to us in a year like this; but describing one of them as un-American and its proponent as a foreign intruder is not to further discussion but to foreclose it and to replace the contest of ideas with the rhetoric of demonization. (Democrats have been as guilty of this as anyone.) Obama may have a vision for America that you don’t like, but it is a vision for America put forward by an American. If you don’t like it, vote against him, not in the name of Americanism but in the name of the ideas and outcomes you, also an American, prefer.
D’Souza is going to vote against him, and that is what goes wrong with the final third of his movie. The partisan desire to score points and fashion slogans (“America’s dream or Obama’s dream”) overwhelms the effort to explain and elucidate. As the movie ends, the title flashes on the screen and underneath it we read “Love him/hate him. Now you know him.” The suggestion is that D’Souza has given us the information we may have lacked and now we can decide what we think. That was in fact the way my wife responded to the book. She told D’Souza — he was bemused — that reading it had allowed her to see more clearly what she liked about Obama; she was the person who said, in effect, what’s wrong with that?
That kind of response is not encouraged by what the movie turns into — a long and elaborately produced campaign ad. As an ad it is doing very well, outperforming some summer blockbusters. (Democrats take note!) All to the good from a partisan perspective, but still a disservice both to the questions D’Souza has legitimately raised and to the film itself, which deserved better at the hands of its one and only begetter.