Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't have to worry about guy who plays Lincoln in "America" stealing his thunder. Credit: Lionsgate
'America: Imagine a World Without It' Directors: Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan Genre: Political documentary Rating: PG-13 0 Globes (out of 5)
Is Dinesh D’Souza stupid? This seems like kind of faux-innocent question the far-right columnist and polemicist poses all the time. But the answer honestly isn’t clear. D’Souza seems to be smart: He’s an academic, the former president of a university, and his argumentative chops are admired by the likes of professional skeptic Michael Shermer, who knows bull when he sees it.
And yet D’Souza’s essays, books and documentaries — like the new film “America: Imagine a World Without Her,” shipped into over 1,000 theaters for the July 4 holiday — trade in lowest common denominator discourse. They offer weak arguments meant only to kowtow to the less intelligent parts of his socio-political sector.
His latest documentary isn’t as risible as “2016: Obama’s America,” wherein he used the fact that he and the 44th president have similar skin color as license to engage in racial fearmongering. This one is mere boilerplate anti-leftism: He takes on Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn; he shows clips of Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. But what distinguishes it is the nuttiness of some of his arguments and argumentative tactics — some of them old-hat, others of his own making. Here are six of the ways he tries to distract viewers from the vapidity of his points:
Dinesh D'Souza cites C.J. Walker, the first African American entrepreneur, as proof of...something or other. Credit: Lionsgate
The “It could be worse” argument
“America” is engaging in a classic conservative practice: the American apologia, which seeks to explain away such historical embarrassments as slavery, land theft from the Native Americans and imperialism. He even engages in a specific classic argument: the idea that whatever happened in America, it was always worse elsewhere. Our Founding Fathers owned people as property? So did a lot of countries! Some still do!
But this is pure bait-and-switch, meant to distract viewers from the indefensible. D’Souza even goes farther than most, pointing out that some freed black people became entrepreneurs who owned slaves too. What does this have to do with slavery being bad? And isn’t that a weird point to be making when you’re supposed to be not quite apologizing for slavery? D’Souza doesn’t say. In fact, there’s a whiff of respect he has for these men, who pulled themselves up from the bootstraps, making something out of nothing. Time and again these super-capitalists are the people D’Souza sees as the real heroes of America. A less sloppy thinker would have nixed this point entirely.
Columnist, polemicist and filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza attends the premiere of his new film, "America." Credit: Getty Images
Bad history porn
“America” doesn’t just begin in the past. It begins on September 11, 1777. It imagines George Washington killed in battle, then later plays through some of Lincoln’s greatest hits. These sequences are sub-History Channel in performance and production value, but they also have little specifically to do with D’Souza’s arguments. They’re there as manipulative flavor, to appeal to the hearts of the three-cornered-hat crowd — and make sure his film is more than shots of a not very intrigued D’Souza and painfully low-res archival clips.
And why does D’Souza imagine Washington killed, or Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty disintegrating (with cut-rate effects a notch above “Birdemic”)? Because some liberals are critical of America. This may be the fantasy of a small minority on the left, but it’s really D’Souza’s fantasy — a paranoid fever dream that imagines things few but D’Souza would imagine.
Appealing to the worst instincts in his party
D’Souza, as he constantly reminds you, is an immigrant, who “chose” America over his native India. Because of this background, he feels he’s allowed to trade in the kind of xenophobia and race-baiting that would appear bigoted if made by anybody else. He cheerfully reports when a border guard points out that no Mexican who crossed over into American wants to go back. You can imagine him beaming when a Texan subject says he’s “an American of Mexican descent,” not a “Mexican-American.” He talks to a Native American who laments the stealing of America, which he counters with saying various tribes were always stealing eachother’s land, so presumably it’s all fine. He’s really against the back-to-Africa movement, pointing out that Frederick Douglas didn’t want to leave America. Underlying all of this is not just the old, beloved “American exceptionalism” but America being better than all countries and races, who deserve to be defeated, one way or another.
Frederick Douglas gets repeatedly cited in Dinesh D'Souza's "America." Credit: Lionsgate
Weak arguments made with great speed
It seemed ballsy when D’Souza wrote a book (“The Enemy at Home”) claiming the left were responsible for 9/11 — as though no one would point out that his takedown of loose liberal mores made him sound like he was siding with Al Qaeda. In the book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage” and the film adaptation “2016: Obama’s America,” he lodged the kind of arguments that made him sound like a white supremacist, preying on fears that the president would take revenge on white people.
The claims in “America” are another story. They aren’t even arguments. He defends capitalism by pointing out that it’s more expensive to make a burger at home than to buy it from a fast food joint. (Well, not if you’re feeding multiple people, it isn’t.) When he takes on Matt Damon, he appears to be going for the usual hypocritical-celebrity angle. But all he does is point out that he wouldn’t be a star if people didn’t see his movies. What this has to do with anything is never made clear.
But at least these are better than his convoluted argument that capitalism ended slavery, because for some reason Americans decided they wanted to dominate people with money, not with weapons. Or something. Though “America” takes the form of an apologia, it doesn’t build arguments. D’Souza makes bold claims then scampers away before he’s either had time to develop them or the viewer has had time to recognize they make no sense.
The victim card
It’s a staple of far right rhetoric to make one’s self look oppressed, however true this may be. To his credit D’Souza only does this a little. But the biggest victim is Dinesh D’Souza. In the final minutes he addresses the towering elephant in the room: that he’s been convicted of campaign finance fraud. (He’ll be sentenced in September.) “I made a mistake,” he says, in a staged shot of him in handcuffs. But he spins his attempting to buy an election as proof that Obama is jailing his critics, comparing himself to Aaron Swartz, the Reddit co-founder driven to suicide. Granted, he doesn’t actually say Obama is jailing his critics; he just strongly implies it.
An actor tries to be George Washington in "America." Credit: Lionsgate
Say what you will about Dinesh D’Souza, but he’s the best director of Dinesh D’Souza walking around looking at things. Roughly an eighth of what’s on screen in “America” are shots of him making “interested” faces as he listens to people or strolls around Times Square and D.C. or searches Wikipeda (the most cinematically thrilling parts of the film). He asks “innocent” questions like “What comes to mind when you hear ‘America?’” or, when talking to Michael Eric Dyson about Obama’s two election wins, “Doesn’t that speak to the end of racism?”
He knows the answers to these questions, and in some cases just wants to get his interview subjects to allegedly hang themselves with leftist speak that will horrify “America”’s target base. Michael Moore does this too, and it’s aggravating. But Moore is at least better at playing earnest than D’Souza. In fact, D’Souza may be the worst actor alive, and not only because of a lone sketch comedy scene featuring multiple D’Souzas. When he looks interested he looks like he’s acting. He doesn’t come off as an everyman. He comes off like a smart guy — he’s almost certainly smarter than Michael Moore — who’s manipulating his subjects and his viewers to get what he wants.
But if he’s faking it, what is he after? D’Souza likes to engage in conspiracy theorizing. So here’s one: D’Souza doesn’t believe any of this (or he does, some of it, to a point). He’s cynically trying to appeal to the least intelligent/most gullible parts of his persuasion so as to mobilize them to take down his political enemies.
We don’t sincerely believe this; we don’t know all the facts, and claiming this is honestly a big leap — exactly the kind D’Souza has made a living making. But it’s difficult, probably impossible to rectify the rank dumbness of “America” and anything else D’Souza has written or made with a man so bad at playing stupid. “America” has little to say about America. Its most fascinating part is D’Souza himself.