In 2004, in the middle of a Presidential campaign, Michael Moore made the documentary film Farenheit 9/11. It was a powerful indictment of the Presidency of George W. Bush, focusing particularly on the war in Iraq. It was also a hyper-partisan, viciously one-sided polemic against a President Moore clearly despised. It was intended to win the election for John Kerry–obviously, it did not succeed.
I went to the theater to see 2016: Obama’s America, Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary film about Barack Obama. The tone of the film is very different. D’Souza’s on-screen voice is measured, calm, dispassionate. He comes across as a scholar, trying to investigate the phenomenon of Barack Obama–who he is, where he comes from, what he believes, and what it all means for America.
The best parts of the film are the early bits, as D’Souza tells his own life story. He grew up in Mumbai, in India. He got a chance to go to America, and study at Dartmouth, where he became a prominent member of a Dartmouth conservative student group. He got a job in the Reagan administration, and has become a well-known conservative writer and thinker. It’s an inspiring story, the American dream incarnate. And, he says, because he came from a similar background as Obama’s, he understands him in ways white Americans maybe can’t.
D’Souza then declares that Obama has pursued some very odd policies as President, beginning with his return, to the British, of a bust of Winston Churchill that was once in the Oval Office. And that Obama has favored the Palestinians over the Israelis, and favored radical Islam, and has done nothing to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. And so the rest of the film asks ‘what in Obama’s background would lead him to pursue such strange policies.
It’s all just nonsense. Obama did not remove Churchill’s bust. It’s still in the White House. As for his support for radical Islam, I suggest the ghost of Osama bin Laden might disagree. The Obama administration has actively pursued diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, and his support for Israel has been exceptionally strong. What Obama has actually done is support policies Dinesh D’Souza disagrees with. That’s it.
Next comes forty five minutes of armchair psychologizing. D’Souza quotes liberally from Obama’s auto-biography, Dreams From My Father (we actually hear an actor who does a really good Obama imitation), to show how a major conflict in young Barack’s life had to do with his absent father. Children who grew up with absent fathers tend to struggle with a variety of trust issues and identity issues; so did Barry Obama.
But Obama’s father was an outspoken anti-colonialist, which led him to embrace anti-American, anti-capitalist and anti-Western dogmas. These, says D’Souza, Obama came to embrace. His greatest mentors, says the film, were such anti-colonialist icons as Frank Marshall Davis (who D’Souza says breathlessly, was investigated by the FBI, yeah, like Arthur Miller and Orson Welles) and Edward Said (one of Obama’s Columbia professors). Well, Edward Said is one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. I’m envious of anyone who got to study under him. To reduce a complex and fascinating scholar into a two-bit ‘anti-colonialist Marxist’ is just irresponsible and foolish.
One of the most interesting interviews in the film is with George Obama, Barack’s much younger half-brother, who still lives in Kenya. George is author of a book arguing that, while colonialism was terrible, Kenya and other African nations made a huge mistake when they emerged from it by embracing Marxism, instead of market economics. George is clearly a very bright young guy, and D’Souza obviously agrees with him. But D’Souza then says, without providing any evidence whatever, that ‘Barack Obama went a different way, following his father’s beliefs, and not his brother’s.’ (I’m paraphrasing).
Nonsense. Isn’t it far more likely that Barack and George Obama are on the same page ideologically? Of course Dinesh D’Souza, as a conservative ideologue, sees evidence of Obama’s radical Marxism everywhere. But it’s all just nuts.
Obama’s mentors do include Said; they also include such well known commies as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Obamacare may be controversial, but it’s hardly socialist. He modeled it on a market-friendly program pioneered by a Republican governor–guy named Romney. When the auto industry was going bust, wouldn’t a socialist have nationalized the auto industry? Instead, he provided loans to keep GM and Chrysler solvent. And yes, he’s proposed raising the marginal tax rate from 33% to 39%. Nothing, next to the 91% tax rate in place in the administration of that wild-eyed Marxist radical, Dwight David Eisenhower.
D’Souza is particularly incensed that Obama has proposed reducing America’s nuclear arsenal. Fine, he thinks we should hang on to our nukes. I think that’s crazy. Since the START treaty’s reductions, the US still has enough warheads to kill every man, woman and child in the world several times over. How does it weaken America to get rid of weapons that deadly, weapons we can never use, weapons that have no strategic value anymore at all?
D’Souza argues that Obama’s success is because he’s black. White Americans have struck a kind of deal over Obama. Because he seems calm, measured, thoughtful, he seems to be the right President for a post-racial America. Previous black candidates for the Presidency–Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton–came from the civil rights movement, and although that’s a movement we hold in high esteem, its leaders seem angry, seem to accuse all Americans of being racist, even when they don’t quite put it that way. But Obama’s persona and rhetoric suggests something else, that white Americans have put racism behind them, that we’re no longer African-Americans and Hispanic Americans, but just Americans. We elected someone President who had very little experience in government because he made us feel better about ourselves, and moved us past the bitter fight over race that had, for so long, defined us.
But I’d like to suggest that D’Souza actually represents much the same dynamic for conservatives. D’Souza’s skin is about the same shade as Obama’s (he even makes a point of it in the film). Because D’Souza is dark-skinned, he has extra credibility with conservative voters. D’Souza’s on-screen presence reassures conservatives that they’re not racist for opposing Obama, that it really can just be about policy. So when D’Souza recycles old Fox News talking points, he does so with more credibility than if it were Sean Hannity or someone saying the same things.
Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11 was loud, angry and unsubtle. D’Souza’s film is quieter, subtler, and therefore more pernicious. It’s a film that insinuates more than it accuses; it’s a knife in the ribs, not a club to the face. It’s still a contemptible and vicious exercise, a pastiche of half-truths, cherry-picked evidence, deliberate omissions. It’ll play to the base (it got a round of applause from the packed theater in Provo where I saw it), but my fear is, it might be insidiously persuasive to ill-informed moderates.
At least, he admits Obama was born in Hawaii. I’ll give him that much.