My visit to the movie complex to see Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America began in bizarre fashion as I reached the front of the line at the same time as another man who told the cashier, “Let me have a ticket for that Obama movie. I wanna find out what those rednecks are saying about the president. Should be good for a laugh.” I wondered whether the man was trying to deflect judgment from the cashier for seeing the film because he actually looked and sounded like a redneck. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In any case, I bought my ticket and entered the theater. The room was well-populated. There was even some diversity to the group, which surprised me in Jackson, Tennessee. After I sat down, I briefly worried, as I have at every film I’ve seen recently, that some unbalanced person would begin shooting people. I even felt that way at Pixar’s Brave. Happily, this visit to the cineplex proved to be thought-provoking and bullet-free.
Speaking broadly, this film was not surprising to me in any way because what it had to say about Obama is basically what I have always believed him to be. To state it briefly, he is the type of person I have encountered with great regularity in my sojourns through American universities. There is a class of very smart people who fundamentally reject the idea that America is a good country that has been a net positive force in the world. Instead, they see it as the most recent car driven by the rapacious white man as he rolls over the hopes of brown men, women, and children, everywhere. Obama is one of the people who was raised to see the world this way.
And here’s the thing, it is not a completely bogus story. It is merely naive in certain respects. What is naive about it is to believe that things would have been any different if it had been the peoples of the global south who had been the first great explorers or developers of technology. The evil that occurred is not some uniquely white, male evil. It is an human evil. But along with the evil comes a blessing. These white fellows with such big ambitions also happen to have been the driving force behind the things we love like trains, planes, automobiles, factories, refrigeration, modern medicine, . . . you get the drift. Had things gone differently, it might have been white men getting diversity scholarships to prestigious schools where they would learn to castigate their brown, former colonial masters. But history is what it is. Of course, for many of us it seems somewhat irrelevant. We didn’t grow up with much privilege, never had a dad who could make a phone call and open any doors for us, and frankly, have maybe been off the farm for only two or three generations.
As the details of President Obama’s biography began to become clear, it was plain that he was one of these people who have a very negative view of America, capitalism, Israel, and probably anything like orthodox Christianity. My familiarity with the type made it quite obvious. Maybe that is why I kept thinking that Americans would reject him for the presidency, despite the fact that it was equally manifest to me that others weren’t seeing him the way I did. They saw a very intelligent (true), charismatic (also true), African-American man who was the first to really have the credentials to be elected. And they cast their hopes for a post-racial age upon him. There were also many who thought he had the potential to transcend all the old categories and to heal our body politic. William Stuntz (who has since died) wrote a much lauded column in which he specifically called out then-Senator Obama to be the one who would move beyond our old battles and obsessions. I nearly laughed when I read that column. Not because Stuntz was calling for something silly. No, he was asking for something great and needed. I nearly laughed because it was so blatantly obvious to me that Obama was not the person he should be asking to fill that role. Rather than transcending old battles, electing President Obama was like reviving old camps that had essentially died with the Soviet Union. He is the phoenix of a left that seemed to have passed from the scene with the rise of Bill Clinton and the New Democrats.
All of this is essentially what Dinesh D’Souza’s film makes clear. I have to say I experienced some sense of pride in watching how even-handedly D’Souza carries forward the narrative in the film. It is sympathetic to Obama and to the anti-colonial cause. It allows President Obama to speak for himself in his books and generally avoids the snarkiness and self-congratulation of the kind of films that Michael Moore has made for audiences on the left. I think anyone could watch the first hour or so and not really ever have the feeling that D’Souza is being biased.
If there is to be a controversy, it is in the last 20-30 minutes in which D’Souza essentially argues that the President is using his office to drive the United States into a ditch because he wants us to decrease so that others may increase. My view has been somewhat different. I suspect that President Obama probably came to feel more warmly about America after it elected him. I do not think he is attempting to bring about harm. Rather, he is following the path left of center politicians have followed for decades. It just happens that the path he is following has proven to be fabulously good at diminishing the prospects of nations that embrace it. Neither he nor anyone else in his camp believes that. They think they are busily bringing about the millenium. For the rest of us, it feels like another kind of eschatological event.