Dinesh D'Souza, noted conservative pundit and author, has risen to mainstream attention thanks to his documentary 2016: Obama's America, a little movie making some big noise at the box-office. Co-written and directed by John Sullivan (Ben Stein's Expelled), the film rationalizes that the American people don't really know the true Barack Obama. D'Souza uses Obama's own words from his best-selling memoir Dreams From My Father to try and decipher who the president is deep down, and D'Souza theorizes that the most powerful man in the world is really just trying to appeal to an absentee father. D'Souza visits the globe and promises to shed light on the "real" Obama, or, at least, the "real" Obama that fits into the narrative of a political polemic.
After viewing 2016: Obama's America, I am at a loss for words. This won't last long, trust me.
This pseudo-documentary is such an intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, feeble-minded character attack, relying on heavy amounts of guilt-by-association, armchair psychology, factual whitewashing, leaps in logic, and ugly race-baited visual associations to remind its public that Obama is an "other." I tried to be as objective as possible assessing D'Souza's takedown on America's first black president. I tried to analyze his rhetoric, his process of laying the case for his outlandish, paranoid claims. I tried to remove all personal politics from my assessment, and I still will attempt to keep them at bay, to simply review this as a "film." What Obama's America truly aspires to be is the evidence that your crackpot uncle cites as proof that his dismissive opinion of the president, that he's not to be trusted, that he's trying to destroy the country from the inside out, is correct. In this fashion, D'Souza is trying to give cover for the crackpots.
Let's start with D'Souza's fundamental thesis that supposes that Obama's entire motivation is to live out the ideals of his father. He's trying to impress his absent father. I cannot buy this broad generalization, and D'Souza keeps returning to it like he's the only one who can see this obvious conclusion. I find it hard to believe that the father Obama saw once in his life is really the guiding force of his worldviews. Therefore, the more information D'Souza spills about Obama's father the more he's repeating the same conjecture without making any concrete connection. He interviews friends of Obama Sr. in Kenya and asks for their views of President Obama, a man they've never known. There is a litany of interview subjects with tenuous connection to Obama, most are always a step or two or more removed from the man himself. We get his mother's college professor and Obama's half-brother living in Kenya. That's about as close as the movie gets. Often the interview subjects will disintegrate into weak hearsay ("I interviewed a guy who knew his father, so I guess I have some credibility."). I also found it odd how when his interview subjects refer to his radical father, they keep repeating the name "Barack," and not specifying senior or father. It happens so often that the intended association is quite transparent. Here's a clue you're dealing with a crank: D'Souza tries to make hay out of the fact that Obama's book is titled "Dreams FROM My Father" and not "Dreams OF My Father." Rarely has one preposition been given such (half-assed) psychological insight. The fact that the movie purports to get at the "real Obama," and this is the scraps it offers, robs the movie of any desperately desired insight or credibility.
The movie, especially the first 20 minutes, is also the story of D'Souza and his personal journey of why he feels America is the greatest land of them all. Just because the man was born the same year as Obama, got married the same year, and comes from a foreign country (though Obama is an American citizen who only spent four years abroad, but I digress), doesn't mean somehow D'Souza has been given such psychic insight into the mind of Obama. Like Michael Moore, D'Souza inserts himself and his life story into his narrative when it's not essential.
This would also work as an excellent case study in psychological projection. Since we don't get people close to Obama, we get lots and lots of conjecture and people offering their "esteemed" analysis of the man. These so-called experts do what the man's worst critics do, which is ignore the reality of Obama and project their radical interpretation of the man. An even-keeled centrist is a boring narrative, so now he becomes a Marxist, a socialist, a leftist radical, an enemy of the American way of life. This just doesn't jibe with a pesky thing known as the facts. If Obama is really the socialist he's labeled, then he's a horrible socialist. No public option? Recycling the Republican health care plan from the 1990s, including the mandate? Relaxing more gun control laws than Bush did in his entire presidency? Stepping up record numbers of drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Does that sound like a guy who's "weirdly sympathetic to jihadists"?
D'Souza and his interview subjects even take the step of saying that Obama's even-keeled style is really just a front, that deep down he's a raging black man just like failed presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The reason we don't see this font of anger is because, and here's the ingenious part, Obama knows how to manipulate us all! He's secretly hiding his surplus of radical anger through emotional pragmatism. Not only that, Obama is manipulating race relations to lull us into complacency, because he knows white America wants to be assuaged of feeling racist, so we'll appreciate and advance an African-American man of merit. Excuse me? Does that make sense to anyone, that instead of just being, you know, a pragmatist, Obama is secretly exploiting white guilt to advance, because otherwise how would this man become president unless we were all duped? None of that holds together. D'Souza's 2010 book was called The Roots of Obama's Rage (he also penned the 1995 book The End of Racism, so I guess he was just a little early on that one). The fact that two years, or less, into his presidency, D'Souza is ready to lambaste the man as "rageful" makes me think that D'Souza just cannot perceive objectionable reality like the rest of us.
D'Souza also company also take any opportunity to de-legitimize the man's accomplishments. Obama didn't win the presidency because he was an eloquent, charismatic, intelligent, and compelling political figure, not to mention that he got ten million more votes than John McCain. Could Obama have achieved the historic because of his accomplishments? According to this movie, Obama won the 2008 presidential election because of one thing: he was black. You see foolish reader, America as a nation wanted to assuage any collective white guilt over the transgressions of our ancestors, so we all (myself included) voted for the man as a declarative statement once and for all that we are not racist. Maybe a handful of people were motivated by such a ludicrous notion, but all 69.5 million Obama voters? This is not the film's only simplistic generalization. We also have a psychological expert on what an absentee father does to a child. This is not a unique situation in our culture, nor is it one that prescribes a catchall response. Just because one person grows up without a father does not mean they will rigidly follow the same path in life; there are too many variables to prescribe one fate.
The most telling moment occurs when D'Souza visits Kenya to trace Obama's father's life. He interviews the president's half-brother and tries to needle him that his distant, famous relative is callous. "Why hasn't he helped you out here?" D'Souza presses. "He has a family of his own. I can take care of myself," the half-brother reasons, adding, "He's got other issues to take care of." This is the only member of Obama's actual extended family that D'Souza manages to snag an interview with, and he shuts down his line of inquiry pretty succinctly. Later, the man gives some rather hostile views of Israel, which is meant to signal that any possible points he made should be invalidated.
Then there's just the disingenuous and petty digs that omit key clarifying facts. D'Souza keeps railing against Obama as an anti-colonialist. First off, who in this day and age is going to champion colonialism, a system where the strong take from the weak? And why is colonialism even a relevant prism for the twenty-first century? Again, D'Souza offers little evidence to tie his theories to the man he's critiquing. One of his key pieces of evidence is that Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill back to England. For D'Souza, this is a sign of his distaste for Churchill as a colonialist. However, the facts are that the bust was on loan and scheduled to return to England anyway, before Obama took office, and there's another bust of Churchill that remains in the president's private offices. What an inconvenience the actual facts make. I'd like to share my friend and PSP colleague Ben Bailey's thought's on this specific matter:
"Little known fact I just learn from the Obama 2016 documentary: The bust of Winston Churchill that used to be kept in the White House was actually a magical artifact that protected this country from socialism as long as it was in America. Naturally, the Anti-Colonialist Obama's first action upon taking office was to send that back. The other bust of Churchill that still resides in the White House does not have any magical powers, so it was kept."
D'Souza also hammers home the notion that Obama opposes the British rule of the Falkland Islands, a tiny group of islands off Argentina's coast. Another casual fact-checking venture proves this is false. The U.S. refused to endorse a declaration of Argentina's claim of ownership. And these are just the petty examples of D'Souza's argument approaching snide, dickish territory.
There are also the demonstrably false assertions, like Obama's desire to destroy America's superpower standing. D'Souza likes to obfuscate the eight years of Bush, speeding over him quickly in a timeline, lumping the national debt explosion under "Bush and Obama." Conservative pundits like to lambaste the president for the dour economy, which has improved over the past four years, but they also conveniently forget the mess the man inherited. To ignore eight years of policies that helped lead to near financial ruin, two wars that Bush also left off budgets and Obama did not, among other things, is to remove all context. It's like setting your house on fire and then blaming the next guy for trying to put it out: "Why haven't you fixed everything yet, pal?" Record debt and financial ruination did not suddenly appear one day in January 2009 when a Democrat took office, despite what some choose to believe. Forgetting the eight tumultuous years of Bush, and their far-reaching complications, is a disservice to history and an ignorant understanding of how we got where we are now.
Then there's D'Souza's dangerous assertion that Obama wants to weaken this country by cutting defense spending and our number of nuclear warheads. Anyone that talks about seriously reducing debt and the deficit and doesn't offer slashing defense spending, a huge part of the pie, is simply not committed to their goal. Like not one dollar of defense spending is wasteful, and any cuts would endanger the security of American life? We're drawing down two wars; do we need to keep spending like they're still active? Also, Obama wants to reduce the world's nuclear arms, and what's so wrong with that? How many warheads do you need? Are 1,500 warheads not enough to blow up the world ten times over? The notion that any reduction in arms or spending accompanies "weakness" is fanciful. Obama doesn't want to weaken this country by reducing America's nuclear stockpile while the world continues to wield these weapons. He wants to reduce all the world's nuclear arms to zero, an ambition D'Souza callously dismisses as fantasy. You know who also wanted to reduce nuclear weapons to zero? Ronald Reagan, D'Souza's hero. As per his 1984 speech: "My dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth." Even Superman was for limiting nuclear arms!
Now, as a piece of pure agitprop, Obama's America suffers as well. D'Souza is no conservative alternative to Michael Moore, an expert at crafting a cohesive message with needlessly duplicitous measures. There is no subtext here; it's all text. There are literally slasher movie violin shrieks on the soundtrack when D'Souza and an interview subject discuss the debt under Obama. There's the image of thorn-covered vines covering the Middle East, threatening Israel to become the "United States of Islam." There is no connecting of the dots, there's only wide conjecture and baseless fear mongering. What this movie becomes is one long string of codes and buzzwords and dog whistles, meant to elicit a certain response from its likely audience. How many times does the phrase "Third World" need to be repeated? D'Souza even tries to turn Hawaii as a stalwart of radicalism with ONE interview from a guy who makes unsubstantiated claims. D'Souza also reminds the audience, as a wink to the birthers out there, that Obama's birth was reported in two Hawaiian newspapers. What other purpose is there to mention this ordinary fact other than to appeal to the birthers in a coded manner? There's a lot of juxtaposition between foreign cultures, Kenya, Indonesia, but what about the fact that Obama spent a far majority of his life in the United States? The man spent four years in Indonesia, and D'Souza makes it sound like this was the central formation of the man's worldviews, not as he grew into maturity, went to college, and practiced law. Surely Obama became the man he was when he was seven years old, just like the rest of us.
D'Souza collects a conservative rogue's gallery of people who must have had tantamount influence on Obama, including old targets like Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright. This is a continuation of guilt by association, a common tactic in 2008. Obama's half-brother in Kenya talks about the West's need to "tame Israel," so D'Souza relies on us to make the connection just like with his father. If Obama's family thinks this way, surely the son they have seen so rarely must be in lockstep? Because nobody ever differed in political views from his or her family.
2016: Obama's America, which hilarious predicts the end of the American empire circa 2016 (I guess a Republican president won't be able to fix things), is a documentary that will convert no one. It's constructed entirely to reinforce the alarmist notions of the president's most fringe detractors. D'Souza doesn't deal with facts because they get in the way of his exaggerated narrative of a fictional Obama, a man who is destroying our country in a quest to prove himself to his absentee ghost of a father. There's plenty of logical inconsistencies, conjecture, and psychological projection and little evidence besides the expert opinions of people who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew Obama Sr. There's plenty of unintentional comedy to be had, however, like a ludicrous racism-is-dead visual reenactment where a black man is upset because people at a bar are purposely giving him the cold shoulder (racists!). A minute later, they come out with a birthday cake and everyone in the bar, including the tattooed biker dude, erupts in applause for the heralded black man (see how wrong you were, world?). The basic assertion that Obama's presidency is his attempt to live out his father's ideals doesn't stand up to scrutiny. It marginalizes a complex, educated man, saying he's just a daddy's boy, just like the film marginalizes the president's historic election by saying it was simply an outpouring of white guilt (what about non-white people?).
I repeat: this pseudo-documentary is such an intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, feeble-minded character attack. It's slimy, snide, petty, and wallows in conjecture and fear mongering. When the denizens in my theater applauded by film's end, I felt a great sadness wash over me. If these people thought this appalling film was effective, was compelling, was informative, and was accurate, then I fear what prism these people choose to view the world through. Because 2016: Obama's America isn't just a horrid example of propaganda, it's also the worst movie of the year, bar none.
Nate's Grade: F