Wednesday, July 9, 2014
The Cinema File #367: "America: Imagine A World Without Her." Review
Even though I actually took the time to see it, in theaters no less, I didn’t bother to review Dinesh D’Souza’s last feature, 2016: Obama’s America. It wasn’t that I didn’t have more than enough material to sift through, but rather, I didn’t write it for the same reason I was hesitant to write about his latest effort, America: Imagine A World Without Her. It’s the same reason I didn’t even include 2016 in by top and bottom films of that year, even though it would have certainly been at the bottom of the list had I done so. In short, I didn’t even want to dignify that garbage with the bare minimum qualification of considering it a film, and the same goes for its newly released spiritual successor.
America: Imagine A World Without Her, is disingenuous even before you find out that it doesn’t actually try to imagine a world where America doesn’t exist. More crucial even than that is that it dares to call itself a documentary. A documentary can have a point of view and even a bias, it can even be mostly polemic, but at its core, there has to be something more to it than that. The films of Michael Moore that D’Souza pathetically tries to counterbalance certainly present themselves with a liberal perspective, but they also present information as well as argument that would be of interest to the laymen walking in on the street. A documentary can’t just be preaching to a choir. That’s called propaganda. America is as much a documentary as Triumph of the Will, and not nearly as well made.
I will not waste time attempting to delve into the alternate reality of Conservative America the right wing has had to create in the post Bush II era to justify being so proudly wrong about everything, as that would require a level of intellectual engagement that even this “movie” is too lazy to summon up. I don’t just mean that it is intellectually bankrupt, which goes without saying. I mean that it doesn’t even establish the pretense of pseudo-intellectual debate that the previous “film” did. 2016: Obama’s America was all about providing really terrible but barely plausible sounding arguments to back up the craziest of crackpot right wing causes, but this new one doesn’t seem to have the energy even for that, and instead settles for an emotional ploy.
No, this movie isn’t about making you think (incorrectly), it’s about making you feel (stupidly). Specifically, its about making you feel proud to be an American in a very particular, immature way, and by American, I of course use the official conservative definition of that term, signifying white male Republicans at or above a certain comfortable level of wealth. You know, “Real Americans.” The first half is completely devoted to refuting the idea that America has ever done anything wrong ever, providing a comfy rationalized context for the slaughter of the Native Americans, the annexation of Mexican territory, and the institution of Slavery, not to mention American Imperialism and Laissez Faire Capitalism. Oh, and once he’s convinced you that all that stuff was okay, he throws in a reminder that Hillary Clinton partied with Saul Alinsky, so you better not think about doing anything crazy like electing her president should the opportunity happen to come up at some point.
That’s not to say he’s that convincing. Naturally, trying to justify slavery and genocide to make white people feel better would be a pretty steep task for anyone, but the most offensive thing about this attempt is that he has the balls to set out to make this sort of counter claim, and then almost stubbornly fails to argue his case. I don’t just mean that he makes bad arguments, though in many cases he does, but on the essential questions he poses to himself to answer, he literally doesn’t even try to make any arguments. He asks if Slavery represented a theft of labor from African Americans, then talks about a black guy who owned slaves, and mentions how before and during slavery, white indentured servants were used too. And then he moves on. He doesn’t even make the bullshit non-connection you would expect him to make, no doubt because he assumes like all dog whistling propagandists that his slack jawed audience has already made it for him in their heads. The closest he comes to an argument is his proposition that because Spaniards and disease killed a lot of Indians before we started, and other countries had slaves before we did, that somehow our part in those injustices weren’t so bad. Really?
The way he presents the indictments against American history, or rather the simple historical facts that complicate his suggested child-like view of it, you would be hard pressed to come away thinking he made his case unless you already agreed with him. I know, that sounds obvious, as all conservative media is just more howling in the echo chamber, but the whole point of creating straw men is so you can easily beat them, and here, he builds them, can’t find the strength to shoot them down, and then skips on to the next thing, pretending he won. Often he will present a point of view the film obviously disagrees with, and then just lets it go as if we’re meant to actually take stock in it, like Noam Chomsky’s unchallenged assertion of America’s coups against other countries or Elizabeth Warren’s famous speech on the common good aiding entrepreneurship, and you almost want to think this might be some sort of balance, until you realize that he doesn’t need to argue anymore, because the people he’s playing to have already heard the bullshit a million times and accept it without question.
D’Souza’s greatest skill and his greatest asset as a charlatan is his ability to feign a sort of “awe shucks” naïve optimism even while catering to some of the worst, most paranoid, bigoted, and jingoistic impulses of the modern American right. He uses his own history as an immigrant to talk about how wonderful it is that we are a nation of immigrants in the same week that members of his target audience shouted at a busload of impoverished Mexican children to go back to where they came from. He argues that the abolition of slavery rather than its ahistorical expansion is what we should focus on, that the Civil War to end the practice is a hallmark of our moral character, conveniently forgetting that most of his fans believe that war ended with the wrong side winning, or is just in intermission as they say in the South. By attempting to absolve America of its past sins, D’Souza is not simply combating shame as his screed asserts, but instead seeking to justify further sins, validating a worldview that we’d all be better off back in some imaginary version of the Leave It To Beaver 1950’s where everything was great as long as women stayed in the kitchen, gays stayed in the closet, Mexicans stayed in Mexico, and blacks stayed at the back of the bus.
And do I even have to say that on top of everything else, it’s extremely bad on a technical production level? Every scene that isn’t D’Souza looking ponderously at something patriotic or ominously unpatriotic is an incredibly silly re-enactment of history performed by some of the worst actors I’ve ever seen. He can’t even settle down long enough to create a narrative that connects anything he’s talking about. As craven and deceitful as 2016 was, at least it told a story, a lie supported by many other lies, sure, but a cohesive series of them nonetheless. America begins by asking an interesting question – what would the world be like without America, and then completely forgets about it. It then bounces around the historical revisionism for a while, only to lead into an unrelated diatribe against right wing boogey man Saul Alinsky. By the end, we finally get to what I highly suspect is D’Souza’s main point, where he has the gall to bring in his own recent legal troubles, placing them in the context of the now thoroughly debunked IRS scandal as if to imply that his looming prison sentence for campaign finance fraud is the result of a tyrannical administration punishing dissent, and not the fact that he, you know, fucking knowingly broke the law!
Al Franken once observed that, while liberals and conservatives both love America, they love it in different ways. Liberals love America like an adult loves their parents, seeing them not just as mom and dad, but as complex individuals with strengths and flaws. Conservatives love America like a baby loves his mommy, who in the child’s eyes can do no wrong, and anyone who says so is a lying bastard. Of course, he made this observation long before Obama took office, after which the American right dropped the entire pretense that their love of our country wasn’t conditioned on their running it. Still, when did Patriotism become synonymous with pretending America is perfect? The right always talks about personal responsibility, but what about national responsibility, or historical responsibility? The only reason one would have to mitigate the evils of the past is that these people don’t actually think genocide, slavery, and conquest are in fact evil, and if that’s the case, just say that. Please, say it over and over again, right up until Election Day. And don’t forget to tell us all what you really think about contraception and the legitimacy of rape as well. Cause that always works out.
If there’s any saving grace in all this, it’s that if the average age of my audience is any indication, what we used to call the Culture War, now escalated into a conflict over the terms of rationality itself, has officially become a war of attrition. Eventually, enough of these morons will die off, with smarter, more tolerant young people rising up to take their place in greater number than the next generation of dullards. This demographic edge that will one day decapitate the beast of modern American conservatism will not sharpen overnight, so we probably have at least one more D’Souza joint in our future. I look forward to his first post jail time movie, all about what it’s like for an ex con living in a world created by Hillary Clinton after she resoundly trounces whichever drooling troglodyte and/or Randian sociopath they manage to put up against her in 2016. No doubt by then, the right wing will have degenerated even further, perhaps far enough that he will be making the case for why we shouldn’t be too hard on that delightful German fellow with the little mustache. Now that’s a re-enactment I want to see.