by Niles Schwartz
Because I’ve always hated it when people have badmouthed movies while making no effort to understand them, much less see them, I was one of the many people who forked over some money last week to see the surprise documentary hit of August, Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America, an adaptation of D’Souza’s book The Roots of Obama’s Rage, where we learn how Barack Obama is a third-world anti-colonialist who wants to strip America of its exceptionalism. I do have my politics and prejudices, but hell, as someone who still sees Mel Gibson movies (and even found much to like in The Passion of the Christ), I was determined to be, what’s the phrase? “Fair and balanced.”
Without surprise, I can only atone for my ticket purchase by donating $7.50 to the Obama campaign. But D’Souza’s documentary still got my mind racing. Coupled with Clint Eastwood’s instantly classic Empty Chair performance at the Republican National Convention, the Right Wing (“Silent Majority”) embrace of 2016 points to the unsavory racial subtext permeating American culture. Ralph Ellison’s titular “Invisible Man” has become the Invisible President, and though the Indian immigrant D’Souza seeks to have us believe that race is no longer an issue in the U.S.A., his picture loudly perspires racial anxieties existing within a global empire, and damn it if I can’t conclude that some of those anxieties are deeply embedded within D’Souza himself, the Dartmouth conservative renegade whose skin color was probably very instrumental in how the Republican establishment embraced him in the 1980s.
There is an audience hungry for D’Souza’s message. Their views will not be corrected by the never-ending cycle of fact-checking the fact-checkers’ facts, a process leading to a post-modern blank-slate where history no longer exists outside of the web. Knowledge tumbles down paths designed by whatever truth-maker with a blog (myself included, I suppose). Paul Ryan’s RNC speech, littered with lies and widely-reported inaccuracies, would have sunk any antagonist in a fictional movie. In “real life,” however, the flux of information has become like a professional wrestling ring of ideas, where rule-breakers flaunt their tactics and evade disqualification. The loudest allegation wins, and 2016 is a fascinating document of how one calls a sitting president a Muslim and a socialist without directly calling him such. Viewing the film, especially with an audience eager to applaud it at the conclusion, is a remedy for any faith in progress.
The apocalyptic character assassination stringing the film together makes logical leaps that, if applied to every person alive, would reveal every one of us as latent Manchurian Candidates (particularly in Minneapolis, considering that we were considered the most anti-Semitic city in the nation until reforms pushed by Humphrey; how many of our relatives from previous generations thought Hitler might have had some points? Yes, 2016 is in such a Protocols of the Elders of Zion-vein). The scenario is as follows:
Because of the beliefs held by his estranged father, Kenyan-born Barack Obama, Sr., our president is essentially Talia al Ghul from The Dark Knight Rises: a duplicitous Trojan horse of radical ideas who’s infiltrated the government to fulfill a dead father’s master plan from the inside out. And we were duped into electing him because our vote for this friendly, secretly vengeful and angry black man makes us, according to D’Souza’s film, feel less racist. We vote for Barack Obama (Jr.) in the same spirit we watch The Cosby Show or see a Will Smith or Denzel Washington movie (unless that movie’s Michael Mann’s Ali or a Spike Lee Joint). He’s playing the “friendly” black man, and we’ve fallen for it.
D’Souza’s on to this rogue. I mean, he has that name, a flagrantly African (and with “Hussein,” Muslim and antagonistic) name. D’Souza inspects Obama’s autobiography to examine lurid ties to political radicalism and New Left thinkers, and how they relate to Africa. So what if Obama was born in Hawaii and not Kenya? Obama’s Hawaii of the 1970s was bubbling over with what D’Souza calls “Anti-Colonial Oppression Studies” developed by Leftists and with a message of Anti-Americanism, stressing identity politics before any melting pot. It’s not Obama’s blackness that frightens people, I thought after seeing this film. 2016 reminded me of the scene between Nick Nolte’s U.N. officer and Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, where the despondent Nolte, unable to secure Western help for besieged Rwandans, says to Cheadle, “You’re not even a nigger. You’re an African.”
D’Souza lists the signs. One of Obama’s first gestures as president was returning the White House’s Winston Churchill bust to England. Obviously, this represents Obama’s denunciation of Western Imperialism, of which Churchill is a symbol. (It has nothing to do with how the bust was on loan to us for the duration of George W. Bush’s presidency, as a sign of solidarity following 9/11, while another bust remains in the White House). Then there are messages that Obama wants to return England’s Falkland Islands to Argentina (the official White House position is one of neutrality, but whatever; he’s a lousy ally); his friendship with the famed scholar Edward Said, responsible for so much Post-Colonial thought and long-known as a supporter of the Palestinians against Israel (even though Said supports a two-state solution); Obama’s “sympathy” for fundamentalist terrorists, who for him are no different than anti-imperialist freedom fighters (hence why he wants to close Guantanamo, even though he hasn’t); blocking drilling in America, while supporting it in neighboring countries (not taking environmental concerns into consideration, or the fact that we’re drilling more than ever); his softness with Iran and lack of cooperation with Israel (his rhetoric has been very strong and direct along with sanctions, but aside from preemptively bombing Iran, what the hell else can he do?); and racking up a great debt for the nation, while he “strips wealth from the rich” (meanwhile, the film makes scant mention of the 2008 economic crisis, and though D’Souza claims his picture mentions Bush II, the scrolling graphics he displays more than once give statistics from Reagan, Bush, and Clinton while quickly moving over W. without mention and then giving Obama’s numbers; D’Souza’s Bush deficit number also conveniently neglects the price of the Iraq War and those tax cuts).
This all relates to the allegation that Obama does not believe America is an exceptional nation. For Obama, the Occupy conflict isn’t between an American 1% and 99%, but a global 99%: and by third-world standards, all Americans are the 1% that must be stripped. A re-election results in the American Dream’s death by 2016, as the United States of Islam rises in the Middle East, surrounding a tiny and abandoned Israel. 2016 joins the growing canon of movies channeling apocalyptic anxieties.
Some of these speculations are pretty dated (Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, I think you’d agree, are sooo 2008). But the main problem might be that D’Souza can’t define “The American Dream” for me any more than most conservatives can define “Freedom.” He gives the old Horatio Alger cliche: in D’Souza’s native India, your future is laid out for you, but “in America, my destiny is constructed by me.” Meanwhile, the white progressives who are so fascinated by the East and want to travel there have no idea of the poverty and caste systems. These people, who fell under Obama’s spell, are what our local talk-radio star Joe Soucheray calls “Euphorians,” collectivists and relativists who want to castrate America’s proverbial big dick while painting rainbows.
Collectivism signals softness, and always has for conservatives. But this philosophy, identified by D’Souza as the biggest idea of the 20th century, has a storied legacy with some of our beloved icons and martyrs. Oliver Stone deliberately begins his famous propaganda masterpiece JFK with Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, warning the nation about the “military industrial complex.” This is followed by John F. Kennedy’s call for a global consciousness where the world is not held together by a “Pax Americana,” but mutual understanding. This is anathema to Stone’s heels, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Helms, and Richard Nixon. America must never apologize for its slights, as Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs – but like Nixon, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney, offer “no apologies” or regret. In Reagan, who so excited the young D’Souza (and in Stone’s universe per Salvador, began a period of cultural amnesia for a nation eager to forget its unjust wars and conspiracies), past losses were remedied with Rambo going back to Vietnam and finally winning the war. American Life and American Fantasy were not independent of each other. The Era of Reagan was also the Era of Hulk Hogan.
D’Souza wants to know what Obama’s dreams are. The president’s book was not titled Dreams OF My Father, but Dreams FROM My Father, indicating how the younger Obama has inherited his ideals not from James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, or from Martin Luther King, Jr. (who’s been sanitized for us), but from his politically radical father. The elder Obama becomes 2016’s central character, a worldly man haunting the present like the deceased Vito Corleone hovers above Michael in Godfather II, or Anakin Skywalker to Luke in the first Star Wars. Struggling to understand this specter, Obama, Jr. is unable to reconcile his Africanism and Americanism, with grudges fermenting against the colonial Dutch and British. D’Souza corroborates his theory with the (goaded) testimony of people who are either very old or whose second language is English. D’Souza asks the elderly teacher of Ann Dunham (Obama’s white mother), Alice Dewey, if the younger Obama perhaps got some ideas from his father. “I’d never thought of that. Yeah, yeah. I think that’s possible.” Such a passive answer would have been axed from any respectable political documentary, including those of Michael Moore. A Kenyan activist who worked alongside Obama, Sr. says of the son (whom he knows presumably from only television), “The father and son were the same.” Again, this “observation” is given (in broken English) only after persistent nudging by D’Souza.
The most flagrant – almost Stephen Colbert-caliber – goading comes when D’Souza talks to Barack’s estranged brother George, and wants the younger sibling, living in poverty, to voice resentment against his affluent American brother. (What he does get out of George is how maybe some white colonialism isn’t all that bad.) Conservative friends of mine who’ve seen the picture aren’t disturbed by this conversation; rather, they’ve read about how “Dinesh gave George $1,000,” while Barack has all but abandoned him. I really don’t know what that has to do with anything. The donation is not revealed in the picture, but it reminds me of the bit of annoying moral masturbating from Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, where the camera lingers on the director/star holding a grieving teacher. It would be interesting if D’Souza really delved into these questions of colonialism on a deeper level, with Chinua Achebe contra Joseph Conrad insights. But his method of operation is to get cheap shots feeding into the perceived villainy of his subject.
D’Souza recovers an article written by Obama the father, suggesting that government must regulate all industry, and theoretically there is nothing that can stop the government from taxing up to 100% of peoples’ income. “Is this what President Obama means by paying our fair share?” D’Souza asks. “This is not the anti-colonialism of Washington and Jefferson,” but that evil socialist recipe that we all know doesn’t work. That Barack Obama, Jr. would then want to raise taxes for the wealthy up to around 39%, less than they were in the Reagan years, indicates how the bastard is an unstoppable third-world protester against the American prescription of global capitalism. Meanwhile, he’s extended the Bush tax cuts in his struggles to negotiate with a Republican congress. But this is part of his plan. His political capital is limited, reveals a hidden microphone, until he wins reelection. Then his despotism can take over, Cobra Commander style.
Fine. I can say how nonsensical all of these allegations are, point out the numbers, and accept that the source of this reaction is my own left-wing fanaticism which would be oh so eager to condemn George W. Bush so easily. But even Oliver Stone’s Bush from W., a film that went out of its way to show how Bush was a man seemingly devoid of malice, didn’t come off as such a psychologically fragile and insecure figure as D’Souza’s infantile Obama.
This is what I found so disquieting about 2016, and which I believe relates to attitudes about Obama through the last four years: Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!” during Obama’s first State of the Union address; Jan Brewer pointing a condescending finger in his face; Rush Limbaugh, acclaimed author of The Way Things Ought to Be and its follow-up See, I Told You So, declaring that he’s certain Barack Obama couldn’t have written his two books; the damned Birther crap, regurgitated on a huge platform by the highly esteemed reality TV star Donald Trump, who also wants to see the president’s college transcripts (because he’s surely at least an idiot). The fanatical Muslim socialist/fascist Obama is a construct of Red State imagination, a figure that only they can see. The leitmotif was beautifully embodied at the RNC’s piece of performance art last week, where the Invisible President is set down on a chair and talked down to on a stage by one of the most significant icons of white machismo in our culture.
Like this whole Right culture, D’Souza’s film doesn’t only make Obama a villain, but wants to psychoanalyize him, making him weak, unsure, fragile, and directionless. Instead of Luke Skywalker, looking for his father, confronting him, and finally rejecting the Dark Side while affirming his father’s strengths (“I am a Jedi like my father before me” – and Obama’s documented disillusion with discovering his father’s debits is very compelling stuff), he’s James Franco’s Green Goblin, weeping at the elder’s grave and vowing revenge. It’s significant that we see him digging his hands into the African soil at his father’s grave. Born in the well-it’s-basically-not-a-state Hawaii, raised in Indonesia, with roots in Africa, and guided by teachers who have allegiances to the Soviet Union, Obama is not American. His resolve is one against empire. 2016 makes the audience believe that its president is the Other.
D’Souza rhetorically asks, “Is America the most evil nation in the world?” This is what he believes – and millions of Americans believe – Obama feels. What’s ironic about his picture is that with so much dirt-digging, leaps of faith, and bizarre conjectures of subtextual messages within the Obama presidency, 2016 begins with D’Souza rejecting Jesse Jackson’s position that racism remains in America as a covert, silent cancer. This is ridiculed by D’Souza, but it’s hard to see how it’s not a hell of lot more likely than the scenario of a closeted post-colonial socialist president. Edward Said and Frank Marshall Davis, two of those “surrogate fathers” for young Obama, had some positions that many Americans have trouble identifying with, be it post-colonial, racial, or politically radical. Both men made it on the FBI’s shit list and were under surveillance (technically, they were public enemies).
This is D’Souza’s America? The America of J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy? The concession on the Right is that McCarthy was bad, but the Communist threat was worse, and the disillusion of the 1960s eradicated a necessary prejudice against alien (collectivist) ideologies. And beyond the stifling Red Scare conformity of the 1950s, D’Souza’s America even exists before FDR, before the New Deal, in a time when individuals were “free” to be prosperous without the odious looming shadow of big government peering down, or with raging identity-politics boiling below.
It’s also the America of dueling ideologies that Ralph Ellison captured in Invisible Man, where the nameless African American narrator moves through different permutations of racial experience in the mid-20th century, with identities projected onto him by forces that are antagonistic and others that purport to stand behind him. Ellison has several references to blood (characters named Trueblood and Bledsoe, for example), but the Invisible Man, beaten and living in the hidden lower depths like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, has absorbed history and prepares to emerge again. No matter what others project onto him, this character’s Self is preserved. Barack Obama is a figure whose character has been projected onto him by Dinesh D’Souza and fanatics on the Right, by disappointed liberals (who wanted him to be a genuine socialist and have been let down by the moderate negotiator) on the Left, by liberation theology preachers, by his own loyalists who won’t tolerate any criticism of the man, however warranted, and by damned Clint Eastwood, who seems to have confused Barack Obama with George W. Bush in some ways (who went to Afghanistan again?)
It’s particularly shocking to hear the arguments of Eastwood, an insightful director whose films resist absolute truths in a world as we wish it was (Unforgiven, A Perfect World, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, and most tellingly, J. Edgar). The legendary star criticizes Obama’s “lawyering,” or the nuanced consideration of an issue’s multiple sides. But this kind of nuanced perspective is strangely what I take as the central theme of Eastwood’s films: there’s more humanism is his body of work than in any conservative – and most liberal – politicians of whom I can think. J. Edgar is about the architect of American fascism whose fanaticism led him to project his own repressed feelings onto the victims of his surveillance, sculpting history with white horses that weren’t there: Clint Eastwood represents the idea of a man being himself, while Hoover’s ideal was the machine-man without a Self. Ironically, the Eastwood from last Thursday was not this perceptive humanist and chronicler of perplexing tragedies, but the “Icon” Eastwood, the Man With No Name, the fantasy Eastwood being projected onto a figure on the stage, who in turn became the “Railing Old Man” talking angrily to a chair. And what can Obama say but quote the Invisible Man: “I yam what I yam.”
There’s a brilliant resonance in that performance from last Thursday, which makes it seem like my humanist hero Eastwood was taking the fall to embarrass the Republicans and expose them for what they are, saving his country by only pretending to draw his gun like his character in Gran Torino. Of course, this wasn’t the case. But think about it. You had the Invisible Entertainer playing into his popular “make my day” image talking to the Invisible President, followed by the definitive face of the Citizens United era, the shape-shifting, corporation-constructed Invisible Candidate, Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, as D’Souza’s fears of an Obama reelection portend the end times, we hear similar views from entertainers Chuck Norris, Ted Nugent, and Hank Williams, Jr. The malleability of truth has been so perverted, 2016: Obama’s America reveals, that even if things are hunky dory in four years, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if 30 percent of the United States was convinced that we were living in an M. Night Shyamalan movie, the twist being that the only reason the world didn’t end was because we’re all already dead and Obama’s America is Hell.