There’s a telling moment early in 2016: Obama’s America in which filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza recounts his experiences as an outspoken conservative at Dartmouth. A young editor for the on-campus publication The Prospect, the upstart politico, along with his fellows, was accused of being sophomoric, to which he fondly recalls their snide response: “Well, but we are sophomores!” It’s appropriate that he embraces such facile rejoinders, as D’Souza’s latest journalism-masquerading propaganda piece, America (subtitled Imagine a World Without Her), is tantamount to a feature-length schoolyard taunt, ignorantly and naïvely purporting that the United States is a meritocracy lacking even the slightest of impediments to personal freedom. Any opportunity for serious discussion is lost to one man’s deluded self-righteousness—or is it merely his attempt to tell his target audience what they want to hear?
Despite its stated purpose to consider what the world might look like without America (alternate-history junkies will leave these proceedings high and dry; the concept is limited to the pixelated disintegration of national landmarks that looks like it was rendered on Microsoft Paint circa 1995), it isn’t long before the cynically opportunistic America descends into another one-note attack on the sitting president, beholden to the same plethora of taboos, half-truths, and outright lies traded en masse by mainstream conservatism for the last seven years. There are innumerable valid reasons to criticize Barack Obama, yet D’Souza rarely, if ever, addresses them, instead opting for a carefully cultivated collection of false equivalencies, hyperbolic pronouncements, blatant recontextualizations of others’ arguments, and shameless appeals to patriotism, all within a vaguely fear-mongering framework of demonizing the other.
On the rare occasion that a legitimate idea or criticism is stumbled upon (such as Obama’s complicity in the Wall Street bailouts, or an invocation of Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon), it’s largely incidental, and undercut by a limited, disingenuous understanding of history. For instance, why consider the countless millions of African-Americans subjugated by post-abolition injustices when Madam C.J. Walker proved the exception? Such exceptions have been used to placate the masses throughout history, so as to insist that the poor and the oppressed have the same chances as everyone else, and as an Ivy League graduate, D’Souza’s straight-faced employment of such tactics can only be considered willfully ignorant or downright extortionist. To truly take Obama to task would require asking greater fundamental questions about the United States and its history—far beyond simply pointing out that a number of the sins of the current administration were initiated during the Bush-Cheney years. These are questions D’Souza either refuses or is unable to ask, and any concession to criticism (such as a sheepish acknowledgment that slavery is a bad thing, or his admission to campaign finance fraud) quickly reveals itself as yet another carefully placed stepping stone in his bald-faced arguments for unchecked American exceptionalism.
D’Souza deigns to take a hard look at the complexities of America’s tumultuous history so that he might refute our culture of shame (resultant from the lingering effects of slavery, genocide, etc.), yet his argument tactics—shamelessly punctuated by shots of himself gazing meaningfully at a national monument—consistently skirt the realm of satire with their absurdly selective pretenses and dangerous use of assumptions and misinformation: the near-extinction of Native Americans wasn’t genocide because the spread of diseases wasn’t deliberate; capitalism doesn’t allow for unfair business practices because everyone pays a proportionate tax; and slavery was bad, but there were black slave owners as well, and because they were also freed, we should get over it. Anyone who’s ever actually studied history outside of public education, or read the texts alluded to throughout America (such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States), will understand the degree to which history has been flattened and narratives simplified for the sake of lending greater legitimacy to these binary-reliant “lessons.” This isn’t a documentary so much as a horror film that blurs the line between conviction and demagoguery to paralyzing effect.