US News & World Report
By Nicole Hemmer
Fifty years ago, the best-selling book in America was a self-published paperback called None Dare Call It Treason. The author, John Stormer, told a tale of internal subversion that marked “America’s retreat from victory” in the Cold War. “The communists have sworn to bury us,” Stormer wrote. “We are digging our own graves.” By Election Day 1964, some seven million copies were in circulation.
I thought of Stormer’s book while sitting in a crowded Miami theater, listening to Dinesh D’Souza ask, “How do you get a great nation to author its own suicide?” The question is at the heart of D’Souza’s new documentary America: Imagine the World Without Her. Like D’Souza’s earlier film, 2016: Obama’s America, this movie fits neatly into the conservative conspiracy-entertainment complex that Stormer helped develop.
The premise of the film is straightforward. Leftists, conspiring to overtake the political machinery of America, convinced Americans that their country was a force of evil in the world. Advancing a “shame narrative” of American history, these radicals carried out a “political shakedown” in which they secured power by exploiting the guilt of the good-hearted American people.
If that sounds like warmed-up culture-war leftovers, that’s because it is. The villain in the first half of the film is Howard Zinn, author of the 1980 book A People’s History of the United States. D’Souza would have his audience believe Zinn’s book was the seminal history text of the last 30 years, establishing the dominant narrative taught in classrooms across the country. Nonsense. Though influential, the book was hardly hegemonic. It was even sharply criticized by prominent historians. Eric Foner, whose textbook Give Me Liberty! is far more widely assigned these days than A People’s History, called Zinn’s book “a deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience.”
But no matter. Using Zinn as his foil, D’Souza pushes back against America’s historical sins. He argues, for instance, that annexing northern Mexico in 1848 wasn’t theft. After all, the U.S. technically took all of Mexico in the war (American troops occupied Mexico City for the better part of a year), then generously gave half of it back. He adds that since America today offers more opportunities than Mexico, Mexicans should be grateful that the U.S. expanded its borders so dramatically.
On slavery, D’Souza’s reasoning is no less fatuous. Yes, slavery was bad, he concedes. But the U.S. fought a war to end it! Besides, white people were shackled as indentured servants and some black people owned slaves and Frederick Douglass didn’t support the Back to Africa movement and if a person non-sequiters long enough maybe you won’t notice that none of that lessens the legacy of slavery and segregation. D’Souza hopes you won’t.
There’s plenty more where that came from — if straw men worked for scale, D’Souza would have gone way over budget on this film – but that should suffice. For D’Souza, the historical corrective is only a launching pad to talk about the conspiracy at the heart of it all. “If America is a force for good,” he asks, “why are they trying to make us feel bad?” The answer: because “they” – a shadowy, left-wing political elite – want power. They got it with the election of Barack Obama.
In his first film, D’Souza blamed Obama’s desire to fundamentally transform America on his anti-colonialist rage, inherited from his father. Here he traces a different lineage, one that starts with Saul Alinsky, a 1960s activist whose confrontational style and incendiary rhetoric make him easy pickings for critics of the American left.
Why Alinsky? Because Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2016. The arguments about Obama’s heritage that the right leveraged in 2008 and 2012 won’t work against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Obama and Clinton shared an interest in Alinsky during their college days, so he has become the natural conduit to transfer criticisms of Obama to Clinton. Glenn Beck has been on this beat for a while, but D’Souza’s film will popularize it among the base.
And the base is who this film is for. Catering to this niche is smart: The right has a seemingly endless appetite for the products of conservative media. Books by right-wing authors consistently appear on the best-seller list. D’Souza’s first film was the second highest-grossing political documentary in American history. While his newest movie may not rake in as much cash, it is on track to become the third highest-grossing. At this Sunday’s showing of the movie in Miami, four weeks after the film’s release, more than a hundred people packed into the theater. As the credits rolled, they broke out in boisterous applause.
These titles can make money. But can they win elections? It doesn’t seem likely. Despite huge sales of None Dare Call It Treason, Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 election in a landslide. "2016: Obama’s America" didn’t move the needle in 2012, any more than Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (the highest-grossing political documentary) helped elect John Kerry in 2004. The people who see these movies are engaged voters, already primed to turn out for elections.
A film like D’Souza’s America won’t change elections, but it will shape politics. It will make debate coarser and less informed. It will foster conspiratorial thinking and political polarization. And it will encourage its fans to see hating their government as a corollary to loving their country. That, it seems, is the real shame.
This article was originally published in the US News & World Report