Dinesh D’Souza’s new documentary, America: Imagine the World Without Her is, let’s admit it, a competently made piece of Tea Party propaganda. I saw it at a matinee at 10:30 in the morning, and the place was packed. I was also the youngest person in the audience by twenty years. Leaving the theater afterwards, I heard audible sobs, saw genuine tears shed, saw people who had clearly been moved by it. Part of me wanted to make a scene, but I didn’t. Internet trolls are bad enough; a movie troll is nothing to aspire to.
And I admit: it’s pretty well made. Lots of costumed reenactments–Washington leading troops to battle, Lincoln giving speeches, Frederick Douglass likewise. Lots and lots of sweeping helicopter shots of American landmarks–Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge. Lots of inspiring country rock patriotic music. It sets a brisk pace, makes its points with clarity. Even the ubiquity of D’Souza’s presence as interviewer is intentional and effective. He’s from India; he’s dark-skinned and he’s conservative, One of Us, so we’re absolved from the charge of racism.
And he has some interesting interviews; gets some pretty prominent lefties to say suitably inflammatory things: Ward Churchill, Alan Dershowitz, Bono. So it looks, you know, balanced and reasonable. Fair. It isn’t.
The stated premise of the film is intriguing; what would the world be like without America? Would it be a better or a worse place? Specifically; the movie starts off with a battle scene in which a British sniper kills George Washington. Well, what if that had happened, what if we Americans had lost the Revolutionary war? But D’Souza doesn’t pursue that question much, probably because the answer’s pretty mundane. We don’t know what would have happened, but probably we’d have just ended up more or less like Canada. Slavery would have ended sooner than it did, and our system of government would be parliamentary but still democratic. No 2nd Amendment. We’d be fine, in other words.
What really interests D’Souza, though, is Howard Zinn. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States tells our history from the perspective of marginalized people–Native Americans, slaves, poor immigrants, workers. D’Souza clearly loathes Zinn and everything he stands for, and offers an alternative American history; that of Alexis de Tocqueville. D’Souza thereby sets up a false dualism; the American narrative is either that of a 60s radical socialist historian, or that of an early 19th century French aristocrat who rode around Ohio and was impressed by this nation of farmer/inventor/entrepreneurs. And those are our choices. America is defined by one of those narratives; it’s either/or, Zinn or de Tocqueville. Ignoring, oh, the work of maybe 20, 000 historians also defining America narratively.
And that’s what we get, this insultingly simplistic rendering of the American story. Zinn says that we robbed Native Americans, practiced genocide. D’Souza says ‘no, we didn’t murder Native Americans! They died of disease. We made treaties! We were civilized!’ And thereby reduces a complicated history to one that’s more comfortable to us today. Or slavery; yeah, we practiced slavery. But so did lots of countries! Plus, we had white people slaves, people in indentured servitude! Plus we fought an idealistic war to get rid of it! So we’re not really to blame for anything. At all. America still gets to be good!
Of course, D’Souza has his villains. Obviously. Worst of all: Saul Alinsky. In D’Souza’s unsubtle rendering, Alinsky is essentially a mobster, a commie agitator, a secretive operative intent on destroying America. And he has two great allies today: Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. (Obama’s grandfather knew Alinsky slightly in Hawaii; Hillary wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky.) See, Alinsky was trying to destroy America! Because he was a communist! And now Obama is trying to destroy America! Because he’s a communist, fundamentally hostile to American entrepreneurial capitalism.
That was one of the times I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it; it’s just too funny. A pro-business moderate like Obama (or for heaven’s sake, Ms. Wall Street Hillary Clinton!) being portrayed as a communist! Corporate profits were around 10 trillion last year; if Obama’s trying to destroy capitalism, he’s really bad at it.
The historical ignorance of this movie, the straw man arguments, the foolish knee-jerk anti-Obama assertions, the astonishing lack of nuance, ultimately it makes for a dispiriting experience.
I wondered how D’Souza would deal with the fact that he’s in jail: that he was arrested for violating campaign finance law. It’s nicely done. First, we see him sitting in a jail cell, in handcuffs. He looks glum, and the voiceover says ‘I made a serious mistake.’ And then he goes on to talk about the IRS “scandal”, where the IRS supposedly targeted Tea Party groups seeking 501 (c) (4) status. See what he did there? Sleight of hand: he can say ‘hey, I admitted my errors,’ but in the context of Obama persecuting critics of his administration. Like Dinesh? You can read it that way if you like. . .
At one point, the film shows a clip of Michael Moore at an Occupy Wall Street rally. Earlier, D’Souza makes a big deal of the fact that his previous film, Obama’s America, was the second biggest money-making political documentary ever. Well, what’s first? Moore’s Farenheit 9/11. And Moore’s the one filmmaker more than any other who D’Souza resembles. They both make propaganda films, polemical films essentially defining the political divide. They both make films that play to the confirmation bias of hard-core partisans, left and right. They both make unsubtle, manipulative films.
And they both lost. Moore’s film tried to win the 2004 election for John Kerry; D’Souza’s first film tried to win 2012 for Mitt Romney. Both made tons of money-both failed to achieve their more important objective. This film is aimed at Obama again, to be sure–conservatives can’t clear their throats nowadays without expressing their contempt for this President. But it’s also aimed at Hillary. It’s making sure that We all understand what a Threat she is. That’s nonsense, of course, and I think it’s likely to fail again. A diet of pure bile is never all that nourishing. And this guy has nothing to offer but bile.