Review: 6 tricks Dinesh D'Souza uses to obscure his bad arguments in 'America'
Dinesh D'Souza's latest documentary "America" isn't as risible as "2016: Obama's America," but it continues his tradition of making weak arguments.
'America: Imagine a World Without It'
Directors: Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan
Genre: Political documentary
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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