Let me begin by saying some good things about America, the new “documentary” by conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza.
The follow-up to D’Souza's surprise box-office hit 2016: Obama's America—an anti-Obama polemic that earned over $33 million in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election—looks pretty handsome. It’s well-lit, well-filmed, and well-edited. Even the recurring shots of D’Souza doing things that are deeply boring to watch—reading a book, staring at a computer, purchasing a hot dog—have a professional sheen that makes them seem dramatic somehow.
The opening credits are nice as well. I like the way the macho, clanging music pairs with the slow-motion footage of a burly blacksmith forging the letters A-M-E-R-I-C-A in his ember-filled 19th-century shop. I thought for a minute that I had put on my Deadwood DVD by mistake.
The acting isn’t so bad, either, such as it is. D’Souza has a fondness for dramatic reenactments of Important Moments in Our History: George Washington charging into battle, Abraham Lincoln debating Stephen Douglas, liberal community organizer Saul Alinsky creepily watching children play from his parked car. The actors, especially the rangy, reedy-voiced gentleman who portrays Lincoln, all seem like they know what they’re doing.
The problem is that the rest of America is a total piece of junk.
I put the word “documentary” in quotation marks when describing D’Souza's film because it isn’t really a documentary at all. Documentaries document things. D’Souza makes things up—mostly arguments that don’t make any sense.
In 2016: Obama’s America, D’Souza argued that the president is implementing anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist ideas inherited from his Kenyan father in order to destroy America, which he views as a “rogue nation.” This argument is not only false—it’s unconvincing. The film urged viewers to vote the president out of office in 2012. “The future is in your hands,” D’Souza intoned. Last time I checked, Obama beat Mitt Romney by 126 electoral votes.
In America, D’Souza takes aim at a somewhat smaller target: the late left-wing historian Howard Zinn, whose A People’s History of the United States sought to provide an alternative view of America’s past by focusing on common people rather than political and economic elites.
After a misleading, melodramatic prologue in which General Washington gets killed in battle—“What would the world look like if America didn’t exist?” D'Souza inquires as the camera soars majestically o’er a herd of wild steeds galloping across a golden field—the filmmaker gets down to his actual business, which isn’t about exploring that counterfactual at all but is rather about rebutting what he describes as the four “indictments” Zinn and his followers have made against America: “that we stole the country from the Native Americans; that we took half of Mexico in the Mexican War; that we stole the labor of African Americans; and that today our foreign policy and our free market system are forms of theft.”
“So is America guilty as charged?” D’Souza asks. “That depends on whether the story of American shame is true or not.”
At this point, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, and Mount Rushmore crumble into sand—D’Souza’s overwrought visual metaphor for what would happen if Zinn & Co. were right about America.
About an hour later, these monuments magically reconstitute themselves—D’Souza’s equally overwrought way of saying that he has proven Zinn & Co. wrong.
Too bad he hasn’t proven anything except for his own disingenuousness.
I don’t have the space here to dispute every specious point that D’Souza makes in America or highlight every bit of nonsensical sophistry he employs in order to mask the emptiness of his so-called reasoning. But his acrobatically evasive—and borderline idiotic—treatment of slavery should be enough to convince all but the most closed-minded D’Souzaites that the guy is little more than a slick, self-promotional propagandist.
First of all, shortly after setting out to disprove the notion that America “stole the labor of African Americans”—his words, not mine—D’Souza admits that the “enslavement of African Americans was theft—theft of life and labor.” I’m no logician, but I’m pretty sure that calling something true is an ineffective way of proving that it’s false.
No matter, though. D’Souza just barrels ahead. He’s no longer trying to say that slavery wasn’t theft. Now he’s just saying that it wasn’t as bad as liberals seem to think.
He notes, for example, that even though Frederick Douglass was opposed to slavery, he “didn’t want to leave America"—as if working to right a wrong from within the system is somehow tantamount to admitting that the wrong isn’t so grievous after all.
He explains that “white indentured servants were brought to this country by force,” too—as if the difference between temporary servitude and lifelong slavery based on skin color was merely a difference of degree.
He tells the story of black slave owner William Ellison, “one of the most feared plantation owners in the South”—as if the existence of black slave owners is somehow evidence that the antebellum South wasn’t seriously messed up instead of evidence of, you know, the exact opposite.
He recounts the tale of Madame C.J. Walker, a freed slave who “started selling her own hair-care products door to door” and became “the first self-made female millionaire in America”—as if all ex-slaves would have succeeded like Walker with enough “hard work.”
He even reminds us that “the Egyptians had slaves, the Chinese had slaves, the Africans had slaves, and the American Indians had slaves long before Columbus”—as if the Everybody-Else-Was-Doing-It defense makes American slavery OK.
D’Souza’s point here, I suppose, is that America wasn’t unusual in having slaves (even though the “peculiar institution” lasted longer in the U.S. than in any other First World country, in direct opposition to the ideals enshrined in our Constitution). What’s unusual about America, D’Souza is saying, is that we “fought a great war to end it.”
Setting aside the fact that the Civil War wasn’t fought solely to end slavery, how is this exculpatory? Isn’t it worse, not better, that it took a war to get America to kick its appalling habit? In other words, who’s more deserving of praise: a country that eradicated slavery peacefully, in the legislature, or a country that only abandoned the practice after 750,000 of its soldiers had been slaughtered?
The fact that D’Souza is saying the opposite of what he thinks he’s saying here is representative of his overall reasoning skills. He’s not really trying to prove anything in America. He’s just throwing factoids against the wall. I’m not sure if he wants to give the impression that he’s attempting to minimize the awfulness of slavery—but that’s certainly the impression he gives.
Same goes for D’Souza’s take on Mexico and Native Americans. How can we have wronged Mexico, he asks, if “many people in Mexico today wish the United States had kept all of Mexico?” And how can we have wronged the Native Americans if “many have chosen to build resorts, casinos, and other entrepreneurial businesses?” In D’Souzaland, every day is opposite day.
D’Souza’s treatment of American foreign policy and rising economic inequality is similarly slipshod. Actually, a more accurate word may be “deceptive.” In both cases he sets up an obvious straw man—that the primary criticism of the Vietnam War was that the U.S. was “stealing” from Vietnam; that worrying about rising economic inequality is the same as opposing capitalism itself—and then has a grand old time pretending to knock it down.
The results are ridiculous. Instead of explaining why slightly higher marginal income tax rates on the richest Americans would be apocalyptic or laying out why Wall Street reregulation would hurt the average American instead of helping him, D’Souza decides to “argue” against inequality critics by pointing out that buying a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant can be cheaper than making one at home. This is why capitalism, he concludes triumphantly, is “no rip-off.” What the?
I could go on, but I’m afraid I’ve already given D’ Souza’s “arguments” more attention than they deserve. What I won’t do is spend any time on the paranoid third act of America, which insinuates (absurdly) that both Obama and Hillary Clinton are agents of Saul Alinsky’s far-reaching scheme to transform America into a socialist paradise, then explains away D’Souza’s recent decision to plead guilty to charges that he made illegal campaign contributions by framing his plea as the inevitable byproduct of Obama’s evil plot to destroy his enemies. “Do we want to live in a society where Lady Justice has one eye open and winks at her friends and casts an evil eye at her adversaries?” is D’Souza’s anatomically perplexing description of our current state of affairs. “Where will they stop?” That said, I encourage you to fast-forward to the part where D’Souza—that poor, victimized patriot—is handcuffed and led to his jail cell, and then just sits there looking sad. It’s comedy gold.