Contextualizing Dinesh D’Souza’s “America”
When Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary 2016: Obama’s America came out the summer before the 2012 presidential election, my parents tried to convince me to go see it. My father actually mailed me a full-page ad for the film that he’d inscribed with the words “this movie will change your life.” I guess he was hoping that the political views I’d formed over my 50-odd years might somehow be drastically altered by a piece of right-wing agitprop.
I never made it to the theater to see the movie and the segments I happened to catch months later on cable TV were cringe-inducing. But D’Souza is back. His latest offering–America: Imagine the World Without Her–hit the theaters on July 2nd. So, last week I put on my dark glasses and slunk into a matinee, along with about a dozen senior citizens, to see it.
America starts with the fictional image of a young Revolutionary War soldier sitting down on–I kid you not–September 11, 1777 to write a letter to his family extolling the virtues of his unit’s commander, General George Washington, just before his unit heads off to face the British. Washington, he says, exemplifies the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence; he truly believes that all men are entitled to their natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Unfortunately, Washington does not survive the battle. A sniper guns him down and the British unceremoniously dump his body into a ditch. As a result of Washington’s death, the American rebels lose the War of Independence and are subjugated by the British. Cue D’Souza’s voice asking us to imagine what the world would be like today if the United States had died at its inception.
And then D’Souza promptly drops that thought to get to his main theme–that America is being destroyed from within. To author your country’s destruction, D’Souza intones “you start by telling a new story.” This story, a story of shame, has and is being told by all the usual suspects: left-wing academics and their allies in the media and politics, most notably Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren. D’Souza focuses on two villains in particular, the historian Howard Zinn and community organizer Saul Alinsky, both secular Jews and both conveniently deceased (Alinsky since 1972).
At this point, the film descends into a rehash of talking points known to anyone familiar with what I like to call the “re-righting” of American history, a conservative effort to reverse the study of history from the leftward turn it took in the 1960s, rescuing it from the liberal academy and its allegedly anti-American distortions of the nation’s past.
According to conservative historian Larry Schweikart, co-author of A Patriot’s History of the United States, an honest telling of American history inevitably leads to pride in country. Schweikart argues that “over the last 40 years, people have told the story of this country’s past dishonestly. They have over-exaggerated racism and sexism. They have lied.” An honest account of American history, Schweikart notes, “must begin and end with the recognition that, compared to any other nation, America’s past is a bright and shining light.”
D’Souza is but one of several conservative scholars, many of them evangelical Christians, now working to reclaim the writing of history from the left. While their focus may differ, all, D’Souza included, share a set of common assumptions:
- that the United States is exceptional, a shining city on a hill;
- that our government is based on Judeo-Christian ideals;
- that the Founders never intended to separate church and state; but
- that the Founders did intend to limit strictly the powers of government;
- that the Constitution must be interpreted as the Founders originally intended and not in light of changing times; and,
- that free enterprise, free trade, and unregulated markets are the secret to ever-increasing prosperity.
Fighting Back Against The “Zinning” of History
America is D’Souza’s paean to American exceptionalism, wherein he seeks to debunk a list of charges left-leaning academics have supposedly leveled at this country hoping to shame its citizens and undermine the nation from within. These charges include:
- that Americans stole land from Native-American tribes and committed genocide against them;
- that they stole the labor of African-American slaves;
- that they stole the Southwest from Mexico;
- and, that American corporations have stolen resources from the rest of the world.
Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States is D’Souza’s go-to villain for this section of the film. Zinn saw himself as a social activist, and his history of the nation was self-consciously written to tell the country’s story from the standpoint of the poor and dispossessed. It presents a synthesis of the work of 1960s New Left historians, who attempted to write history from the bottom up, bringing the voices of slaves, laborers, women, and other marginalized groups to the conversation.
D’Souza is right about one thing: Zinn’s work is unabashedly polemical. Its critics, even those on the left, chided it for reducing “historical analysis to political opinion.” Yet it struck a chord perhaps because, despite its weaknesses, it provided, as historian Thaddeus Russell notes, “a liberatory corrective to traditional American historiography” by inverting the traditional textbook focus on “great men.”
The old heroes were cast as oppressors while Indians, slaves, workers, radicals, and Third World peasants took center stage as noble protagonists. As one reviewer put it, “The book bears the same relation to traditional texts as a photographic negative does to print: the areas of darkness and light have been reversed.”
Since its initial publication in 1980, A People’s History has sold more than two million copies, and was championed by Matt Damon in the film Good Will Hunting*–two facts that make D’Souza absolutely apoplectic.
D’Souza draws most of his list of charges from Zinn’s work. He then manages to trot out a left-wing extremist to defend each of the points listed above, including discredited former professor Ward Churchill, who caused a ruckus when he published an essay alleging that the attacks on 9/11 were the inevitable consequences of America’s “unlawful” foreign policy. Yet D’Souza’s rebuttals oddly lack resonance.
For instance, to rebuke the claim that Americans stole the labor of African-American slaves, D’Souza points out that slavery and subjugation were not unique to this country. He further notes that the United States was the only country to fight a civil war to end it. I’m not sure how fighting a bloody and divisive war to end slavery is a good thing. Other Western nations simply legislated slavery out of existence.
D’Souza, through one of the numerous historical re-enactments peppered throughout the film, tells the story of William Ellison, a freed slave with a white father, who became one of the most feared slave owners in the South. According to D’Souza, some 3500 black families in the antebellum South owned slaves, as if the fact that they did so somehow makes the practice less morally repugnant, or makes white slave owners less culpable for their actions.
Finally, D’Souza informs us that white people where also enslaved in the colonies. Well, not exactly. Many white colonists initially came to America as indentured servants, who labored for their masters for a set period, usually four to seven years, gaining their freedom once their contract was up. D’Souza implies that the majority of these servants were sent to the colonies against their will, but this simply is not true. Most exchanged their labor to pay for passage to the colonies. While the system exploited the young and poor for the benefit of the wealthy, and while many servants died before the end of their contracts, the practice was, nonetheless, not slavery. Not even close. As one writer notes:
For those that survived the work and received their freedom package, many historians argue that they were better off than those new immigrants who came freely to the country. Their contract may have included at least 25 acres of land, a year’s worth of corn, arms, a cow and new clothes. Some servants did rise to become part of the colonial elite, but for the majority of indentured servants that survived the treacherous journey by sea and the harsh conditions of life in the New World, satisfaction was a modest life as a freeman in a burgeoning colonial economy.
D’Souza’s presentation of the events leading up to the Mexican-American War is equally specious. He starts by interviewing that well-known American historian, Senator Ted Cruz, about Texas’s fight for independence from Mexico. Cruz explains that the Texans fought a revolution, just like the American revolutionaries. Again, not exactly. The Mexican government did encourage Americans to immigrate to Texas in the early 1820s. Plenty of Americans accepted the offer bringing their slaves with them, so that by the 1830s Americans outnumbered Mexicans in the region by about 30,000 to 4,000.
The Mexican government feared that the size and strength of the American presence in Texas might revive slavery in Mexico. In 1830, it restricted further immigration and prohibited the importation of any more slaves. These actions, combined with the possible establishment in Texas of an abolitionist refuge for free blacks, led to violent protests, which culminated in an uprising in 1834. Once Texas won its independence, Texans immediately started lobbying for annexation to the United States, a process that took another nine years.
Amazingly, D’Souza manages to get through his entire presentation of the Mexican-American War without once mentioning the then popular concept of “Manifest Destiny,” a widely held belief that America had a G-d-given mission to expand its civilization from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. James K. Polk won the 1844 presidential election by playing to this concept, claiming a mandate to extend the American empire westward to Texas, Oregon, New Mexico, and upper California.
Did the United States steal land from Mexico? Maybe not, but Polk and his allies actively worked to provoke Mexico into war, knowing that American forces were vastly superior to Mexico’s. D’Souza chalks up the war to what he describes as the universal “conquest epic” by which stronger states subdued weaker ones. For D’Souza, any actions that might blemish the American character can be attributed to universal human frailties; whereas good actions are somehow uniquely American. Thus, conquest and slavery are bad but universal, while entrepreneurship is good and purely American.
D’Souza’s simplistic good-guys-versus-bad-guys approach to history provides a bang-head-against-wall experience to anyone, like me, who knows a thing or two about American history. However, his economic analyses are even worse. The biggest laugh line of the film comes when D’Souza declares that “historically, everyone has opposed entrepreneurship” (except, of course, Americans). Really? How do you even rebut a statement that’s so recklessly stupid on so many levels?
D’Souza goes on to demonstrate that capitalism is not the equivalent of robbery through what is basically a comedy sketch. Posing as the owner of a small restaurant called “Delish Dinesh,” he shows that his customers can buy a burger for less than the cost of making one at home. Therefore, capitalism is essentially good. Or something like that. It never seems to occur to D’Souza that one can believe that capitalism is the best economic system available, while still critiquing its excesses. D’Souza, like so many right-wing pundits, seemingly equates the “free” market with the essence of the American spirit, and bristles at criticism of any aspect of it as somehow denigrating the country.
Toward the end of the film, D’Souza even suggests that the banking executives who supported the 2008 bailout were naive about the bailout’s potential to expand government control of the industry. More likely, it’s the other way around. Government officials who naively thought they might be able to reinstate some kind of Glass-Steagall type regulation on the big banks came to realize that, post-2008, the too-big-to-fail banks had grown even bigger and that any potential failure on their part would have a more deleterious impact on the world’s economy than the 2008 debacle.
Saul Alinsky–Honorary Leader of the Modern Democratic Party
The last segment of the film is devoted to D’Souza’s other leftist devil, community organizer Saul Alinsky, alleged mentor to President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other liberal leaders. Most damning for Clinton is that she wrote her college senior thesis about Alinsky’s organizing methods and interviewed him twice in the course of her project. D’Souza introduces conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz to explain that Alinsky wanted to polarize the country by inducing the haves to feel guilty and inciting the have-nots to feel angry and resentful toward those better off than them. This notion translates neatly into the right’s portrayal of Obama as The Great Divider.
The demonization of Alinsky as an anti-American radical is nothing new for the right, which conveniently brought him back from obscurity just in time for Obama’s first presidential election campaign. Glenn Beck, when he was still on Fox News, drew one of his infamous flowcharts linking Alinsky to Obama and other leftists (D’Souza employs a similar flow chart). These charges were resurrected during the 2012 election when Newt Gingrich exclaimed that “Obama believes in Saul Alinsky and secular European socialist bureaucracy,” and that “Saul Alinsky radicalism is at the heart of Obama.”
Ironically enough, the right has happily made use of Alinsky’s organizing tactics. None other than former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey distributed copies of Alinsky’s last book, Rules for Radicals (1971), to participants in training sessions sponsored by his advocacy group Freedom Works, which helps Tea Party groups with grassroots organization. Alinsky may be the devil, but he apparently knew what he was doing when it came to organizing community groups.
As D’Souza breathlessly explains, Alinsky hung out with Al Capone’s right-hand man Frank Nitti and developed his theories of community organization from what he learned about Capone’s criminal organization. Yes and no. Alinsky did have a relationship with Capone’s organization, stemming from his aborted doctoral work in criminology. In an interview with Playboy conducted a couple of months before his death, Alinsky claimed that having discovered “criminology was just as removed from actual crime and criminals as sociology was from society,” he “decided to make [his] doctoral dissertation a study of the Al Capone mob — an inside study.”
The real Alinsky, as opposed the right’s evil cartoon cut-out, seemingly hewed to the Woody Allen quip about never joining any group that would have him as a member. As Thomas J. Sugrue notes, Alinsky despised dogmatic ideological organizations, both left and right, as much as he did ineffectual elected officials, repudiating Marxism in the 1930s and New Left radicalism in the 1960s. His closest alliance was with Catholic advocates of social justice; he counted Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain among his closest friends. Moreover, he was attracted to the Catholic doctrine of “subsidiarity,” which posits that governance is best left to small units, most notably the local community.
Of course D’Souza doesn’t bother to delve too deeply into Alinsky’s biography to provide a glimpse of the complicated man Alinsky was. For D’Souza and other conservative commentators, Alinsky is little more than a convenient straw man. Given how unlikely it is that too many members of D’Souza’s intended audience either know or want to know about Alinsky’s history, his Jewish name and association with radicalism are enough make him dangerous. D’Souza reinforces this idea by showing Alinsky, wearing a raincoat and sitting in his car in what looks to be a 1950s middle-class suburb, scoping out the kids like some kind of deranged child molester.
This scene leads logically into yet another of D’Souza’s historical re-enactments, where the young Hillary Clinton, an innocent high school student and Goldwater Republican, is seduced to the dark side by a charismatic young Methodist minister from her church and none other than Alinsky himself, to whom the minister introduced her. D’Souza tells us that Clinton, in her college thesis on Alinsky’s work, came to the realization that his organizing methods couldn’t work unless they were tied more closely to the political system. Clinton wanted radicals to become the government.
This is the film’s Eureka moment. Hillary, D’Souza proclaims, figured out how to use Alinsky’s strategy to take over government and Obama is now carrying out this mission. D’Souza thus connects the dots to a statement he made early in the film, asserting without evidence that Obama’s remaking of America involves an “economic redistribution never before imagined, aimed at returning centuries of stolen goods.” No doubt D’Souza’s likely follow-up to America, 2020: Hillary Destroys America Once and for All, will rehash the same themes, arguing that boosting her to the presidency will enable the left to complete its radical agenda of killing off the America conservatives cherish and replacing it with a European socialist republic.
D’Souza–The Right’s Michael Moore
Film critic Duane Dudek posits that D’Souza is Michael Moore’s mirror image, doing everything the leftwing filmmaker does but in reverse:
Each filmmaker speaks to audiences who share their core curriculum. But while Moore is a brawler, D’Souza’s strategy is rope-a-dope death by a thousand cuts. Moore, who appears in [D’Souza’s] film superimposed on the Times Square Jumbotron, sees America as half-full, but D’Souza sees it as without blame or blemish.
Dudek has a point. If far-left critics of this country present a picture of it that is overly negative and leaves out the best aspects of our history, then far-right scholars like D’Souza present a sanitized version designed to emphasize American greatness at the expense of ignoring our history’s darker side. Both versions of history are one-dimensional. Both versions also have a political agenda at their core.
For many of the leftist historians whose work D’Souza and his allies now wish to debunk, the goal was to make history relevant to present-day issues, to read the events of the past in light of current political concerns. At its best, the work of these radical historians brought a new focus to the study of history, leading it away from the examination of great men and their great deeds and toward uncovering the voices of more ordinary people–the men and women whose stories had remained largely untold. At its worst, it devolved into little more than political propaganda, turning some of its earliest proponents into its biggest critics.
As Professor David Greenberg has pointed out:
It was [the late] Christopher Lasch who decried [in his forward to a reissue of Richard Hofstader’s The American Political Tradition] “the worst features of progressive historiography reappear[ing] under the auspices of the new left: drastic simplification of issues; … reading present concerns back into the past; strident partisanship.” Quoting Zinn’s directive for historians to decide “from a particular ethical base what is the action-need of the moment and to concentrate on that aspect of the truth-complex which fulfills that need,” Lasch growled: “In the face of such critics, the consensus historians need no defense.”
D’Souza and other re-righters of American history should take a lesson from the radical historians’ failures and stop trying to yoke the writing of history to their own political agenda and from painting, as D’Souza does incessantly, those who don’t share their vision of American triumphalism as somehow anti-American.
D’Souza could have done a public service to his intended audience by creating a film that showed American history in all its nuance instead of putting out yet another piece of right-wing political propaganda intended to scare them about the allegedly bleak totalitarian future represented by banal corporate liberals like Obama and Hillary Clinton. Such a film would have been much more difficult to make than the cartoon that is America, much more complex and layered, but then it might have been a film that actually changed people’s lives rather than confirming their worst suspicions.
* Damon also produced a series on the History Channel based on the book.