Dinesh D’Souza’s America: The Vainglorious Huckster Trembles Before Another Left-Wing Conspiracy

Here are some of the triumphant moments of recent history that make it into the climactic montage in America, the latest “America’s perfect!”/”America’s doomed!” pant load from felonious troll Dinesh D’Souza: Jackie Robinson rounding home. Elvis Presley swinging his hips. Ronald Reagan and the Berlin Wall. Boxed copies of Windows 95 bouncing down an assembly line. How did D’Souza resist including the first time Clippy the Office Assistant helped a patriot format a résumé?

It’s easy to pick on the ill-considered details of D’Souza’s latest, the follow-up to the quietly crazy docu-screed 2016: Obama’s America. The what-if cosplay that opens the film shows us General George Washington being gunned down by a cowardly Brit on — seriously — September 11, 1777. The uncertain way D’Souza’s shirt is tucked into his pants as he slumps thoughtfully in front of national monuments. The way D’Souza posits that it’s a left-wing conspiracy that has kept the story of hair-product entrepreneur Sarah Breedlove out of history books — as if it’s representation-minded liberals who have long fought the recognition of pioneering African-American women. The way D’Souza’s name appears six times in the opening credits, including “based on the book by” and “created and narrated by,” which I bet he was awarded only after arbitration with the Creator and Narrator Guild.

All that’s easy. The sad thing is that America‘s central thesis is risible, too. The argument is simple: Radical-minded professors like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky have, through the techniques Saul Alinsky learned from Al Capone, succeeded in making millions of black Americans, Native Americans, poor Americans, and liberal Americans ashamed of the darkest parts of American history. D’Souza marvels that Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is “required reading” in hundreds of colleges, and he tsks at a Good Will Hunting clip in which Matt Damon endorses the book. Zinn and company posit that slavery, the deaths of millions of Native Americans, income inequality, and the secret bombing of Cambodia are all bad things that should shade our understanding of American history. D’Souza, of course, considers that reactionary madness, and he gets ex-professor Ward Churchill to say on camera that, yeah, it might be morally justified to nuke this country today.

For D’Souza, Churchill stands in for all liberals the same way that one old dude with a racist sign stood in for all Sarah Palin fans to Keith Olbermann. The implication, of course, is that Churchill is saying what the president secretly believes, a point D’Souza makes by putting together one of those who’s-connected-to-whom photo collages that helps movie cops bust up crime rings. Trace it out, and Capone begets Obama — and Hillary, too.

D’Souza insists that anyone who still worries over these injustices fails to recognize that America is at heart a force of good in this world — that it’s impossible to believe that Andrew Jackson killed too many Indians and that the ideals set down in the Declaration of Independence are worth striving toward.

Being a dope, D’Souza even attempts to prove that those injustices — “the indictments of America,” in his words — really aren’t any big deal at all. Here’s the evidence he marshals in the film:

Slavery? D’Souza points out — in a vile filmed reenactment — that some black folks owned slaves, too, which means there’s no reason for anyone today to feel raw about it. Twice he argues that the United States is the only country that ever fought a war to abolish slavery, so if anything, we should be proud of that and our slave-free years afterwards. That’s kind of like arguing that nobody gives Jeffrey Dahmer credit for all the people he didn’t eat after he was arrested.

American imperialism abroad? Chomsky tells D’Souza that there are a million dead Vietnamese who don’t consider the United States a force for good. D’Souza counters with footage of American soldiers giving candy to Vietnamese kids. That’s followed by a reenactment of a fighter pilot’s torture in a Viet Cong prison camp.

Economic inequality? This one I didn’t quite follow. Rather than address any specific complaint of the Occupy movement or the Obama administration, D’Souza mounts a defense of entrepreneurial capitalism itself. He insists that the hot dog vendors in Times Square are under target from anti-capitalists every bit as much as are the CEOs of NASDAQ companies. Then, in a baffling skit, D’Souza plays the proprietor of fast food joint called Delish Dinesh, chirping “Can I help you?” at customers in an Indian accent and then explaining to us that to make a hamburger at home would cost a consumer more than it would to buy a hamburger in a restaurant. Q.E.D., mic drop, #neverforget, honk your horn and shout “U.S.A.!”

That nonsense takes up most of the film. But after demonstrating that war, racism, poverty, and the Trail of Tears have failed even to dim America’s greatness, D’Souza exposes the one historical crime this nation’s founders could never live down: radical, Alinsky-ite Barack Obama’s passing of the health care plan cooked up by Mitt Romney and the conservative Heritage Foundation. Hilariously, just minutes after reducing Occupy Wall Street to an assault on small hamburger shops, D’Souza attacks insurance companies and Wall Street executives as fellow travelers in Obamacare, this country’s one unpardonable sin.

There is other funny stuff in America, like D’Souza bragging in narration that his previous film is the second highest grossing documentary ever. Or the transition sentence “I asked Texas senator Ted Cruz what started the Mexican-American War.” Or how D’Souza admits to being guilty of campaign-finance fraud — “I made a mistake. No man is above the law” — and then immediately argues that the real crime is that the government paid attention to and prosecuted his lawbreaking.

But nothing beats the out-of-nowhere assault against Matt Damon. D’Souza aspires to be the intellectual conservative water-chummer, the contextualizing smarty-pants who arrives at Limbaugh and Hannity’s conclusions only through learned reasoning. (If you sit through this, you’ll hear lots about de Tocqueville.) But Matt Damon pisses him off. D’Souza gets huffy talking about the actor’s praise of Zinn and comments about income inequality. D’Souza attempts to prove the actor’s hypocrisy. He asks why Damon makes so much more money than the rest of us. What skill does he have?

D’Souza wonders this over clips of Damon, that magnificently physical performer, running and fighting in the Bourne movies. The questions are pretty rich, coming from a vainglorious huckster we’ve just watched waddle about D.C. like a shell-less turtle.


Chickening Out

Noisy and ugly though it has been, even fascistic at its extremes, the current flare-up over Ward Churchill’s essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” is not going to endure. It began, as these things do, when a professor at Hamilton College discovered Churchill’s essay in connection with an upcoming campus lecture. The news was sent out to the right-wing media a few days later. Bill O’Reilly attacked Churchill on Fox. For O’Reilly, Churchill, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, had gone beyond the bounds of academic freedom when he wrote that some of the people who died on 9-11 were “little Eichmanns.” Hamilton College came under pressure, and the event was canceled, but not before the governor of Colorado, the university’s chancellor, and the board of regents became loudly involved. Next month the chancellor will lead a full investigation of Churchill’s scholarship. This investigation won’t be limited to the essay in question, but to everything the man has produced in “writings, speeches, tape recordings, and other works.” Anyone with a shred of anxiety about people in brownshirts, McCarthyism, and the health of the First Amendment should note well how this bit of academic justice plays out.

But my assumption is that the University of Colorado and American universities in general have too much to lose to allow anything draconian to happen to Churchill. After all, Churchill has not argued anything that Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Chalmers Johnson haven’t argued before him, although they were perhaps more tactful about it. Which leaves us with a more fundamental understanding of this curious affair: It is merely today’s scandal commodity. (The book version of Churchill’s essay spiked to number 129 on Amazon as of February 11. The man is moving some product!) It’s another shot across the bow of leftist academia from the ideological right. It’s the culture wars, folks, about as good as public theater gets, and it’s so profitable that it should have its own place on the Nasdaq. But this battle will pass and soon Churchill will return to his normal routine of assigning grades and saying tactless things, and O’Reilly, the one-man goon squad, will have moved on to his next defenseless chump.

What is of some interest for me is the Churchill scenario as another instance of what Rainer Werner Fassbinder called the dilemma of the Holy Whore. In his 1971 film Beware of a Holy Whore, a group of young and very radical actors has gathered in a Spanish villa, the gorgeous repose of the Mediterranean in the background, for the purpose of making a film that will reveal (and smash!) the violence of the State. The problem is that they can’t begin their work until funding for the film arrives from the German state art council. So while they’re waiting for a handout from the very entity they’re supposed to be smashing, they sadistically abuse each other—and the hotel staff if they happen to get in the way.

Academic leftists, Ward Churchill included, are caught in the dilemma of the Holy Whore: I am dependent on that which I would destroy. In fact, I cannot act at all without its help. The dependence of leftists on institutions either supportive of or directly a part of the State is obvious and requires no comment (although that will not stop O’Reilly and his ilk from asking, in that insouciant way of theirs, why taxpayers should pay for treason). What’s less obvious is the fact that academic leftists in general understand quite well that they shouldn’t embarrass their institutional sponsors and so make considerable effort to keep their radical ideas to themselves. They write in coded languages, in a hierophantic jargon, and mostly they only speak to each other. Their journals and conferences are “disciplinary” and “specialist.” They work in “fields,” which is a way of saying that they are self-conscious about not working in public. They’re in the south forty, exchanging secret hand signs behind a haystack. The legitimate complaint about radical academics is not that the knowledge they produce is radical but that it is private. It ought to be shared broadly with the public because in a sense the public owns this knowledge, if knowledge it is.

The truth is that academic radicalism is mostly about polite professional markers. If you want a marketable Ph.D. in the humanities these days, you’d better be willing to talk about race, class, and gender. But, I emphasize, this is a decision based on disciplinary expectations and marketing strategies before it is a commitment to a political passion. That the political conclusions of their work are hostile to the institutions, legislators, and voters of their states is a fact about which they are in general most discreet. Legislators and boards of trustees have a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement with their tenured radicals.

What, after all, was Ward Churchill planning to do at Hamilton College? I’ll tell you because I know—because I’ve done things much like it myself. He wasn’t there to start a revolution or embarrass his employer. No. He was going to lecture to students and faculty. He was going to create great ripples of self-satisfied virtue that would never under ordinary circumstances leave the room. And he was going to make a nice chunk of change. In short, he was going to indulge in the academic celebrity circuit.

This is not something Americans should fault him for. In all of these ways he is quite typically American. He’s movin’ on up, for God’s sake. He is in the most unexceptional way a whore to the system he claims to hate. He, too, is a Good German. We all are. In the end, we go to work, do what’s expected of us (even if that means just assigning grades), and accept our paycheck (and a nice six-figure thing that can be for a full professor at a flagship institution like Colorado, and you get to live in Boulder!). Worst of all, at the end of the year we pay our taxes, which we know are going toward things that would break our hearts to witness. And we have little choice but to continue to do these things.

So, what’s most annoying about Churchill’s essay and the putative radicalism of academics in general is that it is mostly blind to its own contradictions. It is self-satisfied, even self-righteous about its own feel-good political virtues. Little Eichmanns died in the World Trade Center? Are we to suppose that there are no little Eichmanns in the university? Are not the biggest little Eichmanns those who ought to be most aware of their complicity—that is, the intellectuals?

It’s also revealing that when incidents like the Churchill affair hit the media, academics appear naked and defenseless. They stand pale in the media glare. All over the country untenured assistant professors are saying, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and hunkering down till it all blows over. They have no friends outside of their so-called “fields,” and even those are just “colleagues” (one of the most treacherous categories of human beings on this or any other planet, in my experience). They have no solidarity, not even with the races, classes, and genders they purport to study. (What is a middle-class white American intellectual teaching postcolonialism to middle-class white students in the middle of Nebraska really doing except kidding himself?) It is not even clear that Ward Churchill has solidarity with Native Americans, since the Grand Governing Council of the American Indian Movement (AIM) has publicly called him a fraud and a sort of mail-order Indian. So, Ward Churchill will be excoriated by everybody, Native Americans and his anxious colleagues at the University of Colorado first. (“He’s gone too far this time!” Then sotto voce, “Hey, man, you’re fuckin’ up our good thing!”)

The academic left lives in bad faith with its political pretensions, its inscrutable texts, and its grade books.

We’re big little Eichmanns.

I offer these comments on the Holy Whore as self-criticism, just as Fassbinder did in his film. In the absence of any sort of viable left in this country, it will not do to blame bond traders (especially after they’ve been murdered) or, as Ward Churchill does most ungently elsewhere in his now notorious essay, “Tiffany” and “Ashley” who need “just the right roll-neck sweaters to go with their new cords.” I find this assumption of difference and righteousness offensive and dangerous. Let the distinguished professors of ethnic studies look to their own complicity first.

Curtis White is the author, most recently, of the novel America’s Magic Mountain (Dalkey Archive) and the nonfiction work The Middle Mind. He teaches at Illinois State University, where the board of trustees has better things to worry about than what he writes. Thank goodness.