Friday, September 7, 2012

2016: Obama's America - A Review

The odd thing that strikes the viewer in the opening minutes of Dinesh D'Souza's 2016 - Obama's America, is a rather lengthy biographical sketch of none other than Dinesh D'Souza himself. If this seems a strange way to begin to tell the story of the formative influences on President Barack Obama, it proves to be a telling detail that explains more about the film's creator than about his chosen subject.

At the outset is a montage (complete with sad, wistful music) of D'Souza's humble beginnings in India. Actors stand in for his family as he describes their fateful decision to send him to America to find a better life. A better life, for D'Souza included attending Dartmouth College on his way to becoming a Reaganite and later, an ultra-conservative author. He has been a fellow with both AEI, and the Hoover Institute. We also receive a hasty, thumbnail history of India itself, a land that has known its share of cultural strife, political corruption, and most importantly for D'Souza's purposes, the scourge of colonialism.

Why colonialism? Because that is the unexpected and frankly, novel line of attack on President Obama that D'Souza is now bringing to the table. Indeed, so obsessed is he with driving home the image of the President as a deeply enraged anti-colonial crusader, that he blithely does away with old attacks. In the theater on the night I saw the movie, I heard a distinct, murmur of disapproval move through the conservative crowd when the narrator (D'Souza) dismisses out of hand a matter of received sacrosanct dogma among many to this day: Barack Obama, he asserts in confident off-handedness, was born in the State of Hawaii. That's right, the one in the U.S.A. The birther notion in "2016" has been jettisoned for something more subtle. The concern here is not so much in where the president was born as in what D'souza believes was born in the president.

The colonialism angle becomes clearer when D'Souza telegraphs his intent, at the expense of everything (including the truth), to project onto the President his own lingering doubts, bitterness, and dare we say, self hatred as a citizen of a once colonized country. Yet whereas he came by such feelings naturally as a result of living through the aftermath of Indian history, he intends to make the case that Obama's rage came through a kind of patriarchal "osmosis" from his avowed socialist father, Barack Obama Sr. Never mind that the older Obama was only present in his son's life for a total of thirty days. Cleverly using over dubbed readings by the President himself from the audio version of his memoir, Dreams From my Father, D'Souza spins the gossamer threads that comprise his case that Obama is a sinister Marxist who is the last person we should send to the White House.

If the senior Obama gets the leading role in the drama of transmitting the President's so called rage, D'Souza provides us with a supporting cast of characters such as his mother Ann Dunham who met the intelligent, charismatic Obama Sr. at the University of Hawaii in 1960. D'Souza strains mightily to build a disparate, loosely joined collection of relatives and family friends that he dubs the president's "Founding Fathers," into Obama's anti-colonial brain trust. It bears saying that though Obama writes openly of these acquaintances, he never used D'Souza's phrase. Rounding out the cast are the President's grandparents, described by Barack Obama himself as "vaguely liberal," Columbia University Professor, Edward Said, with whom the President took a class, and most sinisterly, Frank Marshall Davis, journalist, avowed communist, and an acquaintance of the President's grandfather.

Though it bills itself as a documentary, 2016 really is nothing of the kind. The documentary form is one of discovery. At their best, these films evoke a sense of  of imminent, unexpected surprise. This movie has no such feeling because it's conclusions are in place from the beginning. It takes most of what it has to say from two books by D'Souza: The Roots of Obama's Rage, and Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream. If Obama's alleged dark rage is a foregone conclusion from the beginning, then the movie cannot lay claim to the mantle of an objective piece of journalism in search of truth. Rather, it comprises a lengthy infomercial at best, and at worst, a two hour long attack ad.

As to the "proofs" of the president's driving desire to re-distribute geopolitical power to third world and former colonial interests, political reporter, David Weigel puts all to rest in a review that appears on SLATE'S website under the title, "Only In His Dreams," referring to D'Souza, whose theories Weigel describes as "Swiss-cheesed with logic holes." Yet, though the film does show some facility with the well known movie devices of slick, shadowy graphics, discordant music in all the right places (to paint as dark, and sinister a picture as possible), and the rhetorical tricks of half-truths and innuendos, at its close we only find what we already knew. That President Barack Obama, born in America, was raised partly in Hawaii and Indonesia. He was reared by a single mother and her parents whose politics though admittedly liberal, were not especially radical. His grandparents were conventional Americans who had friendships with a few liberal and left leaning individuals, yet pursued the American Dream in the typical way.

Dinesh D'Souza's movie thus, is a political thriller in search of its Manchurian Candidate. One suspects that the only one he found was the one he brought to the project himself. Conjured from his own mind.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Early this spring, in a story certainly long forgotten by now, an interesting issue was highlighted by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. It seems that U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R) Wisconsin, who heretofore was unshakeable in the theory of economics on which his draconian budget plan presumably rested, suddenly was shaking. As long as lily-livered liberal politicians and economists were his detractors, Ryan remained supremely aloof and self-assured. But when Catholic priests hammered him on moral grounds about his budget and its seeming connection with novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, all bets were off.

Ryan, House Chairman of the Budget Committee found himself in a sticky wicket after attempting to run from his adoration of Rand when questioned about it in the National Review. He dismissed the story as an “urban legend.” He went on to say: "I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview”. Ryan’s problem is that he is on record as recently as 2005, warbling effusively about Rand’s influence on him, going so far as to say: “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand” and “Ayn Rand, more than anybody else, did a fantastic job explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and that, to me, is what matters most.”

Perhaps Ryan, a Roman Catholic, wouldn’t be in a fix had he not engaged in some ham-fisted pandering by linking his brutal budget to his faith. In doing so he raised the eyebrows and ire of ninety faculty members and priests at Georgetown University last March, who were compelled to differ with him in a written statement which said in part: "Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. We would be remiss in our duties to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few."

The dustup has special relevance to the ongoing discussion surrounding politics and religion, some of which we were treated to in these pages on Saturday, June 23. In my view, the conversation is far from over. It was the exposure of the Ryan/Rand axis that inspired me to do something I have long wanted (and dreaded) to do, which was to read Rand’s magnum opus, ATLAS SHRUGGED. I was motivated in part by a longstanding reluctance to criticize works that I had not read, seen or heard for myself. But a more sinister factor may have been the greater catalyst, namely that Rep. Ryan is on record as boasting that he “requires” all interns and staffers in his office on Capitol Hill to read ATLAS SHRUGGED.  Such an admission, in my view, should be cause for everyone to read and seriously consider the implications of this novel. All 1168 pages.

Now that I've done so, I believe I am on firm ground in agreeing with the aforementioned priests and faculty who sharply criticized Ryan. It attests to the importance of perceptions regarding politics and religion that Ryan is suddenly desperate to create daylight between himself and the virulently atheist Rand. It attests to his dim-wittedness that he forgot that we live in an age of ubiquitous audio and video recorders.

Rand’s writings present a serious problem for religious Americans who want to champion her ideas as well as a belief in Jesus as motivators of their political behavior. In her novels and non-fiction prose she sought, in striking forthrightness, to overthrow millenia-long religious definitions of altruism and compassion. One can’t have it both ways. It is quite a stretch on one hand to promote the governmental indifference to the poor preached by Rand and her devotees, while professing the compassion and unconditional generosity of Jesus. If, as a Christian, one finds oneself largely in agreement with Rand, one should, as the eponymous hero of ATLAS SHRUGGED, John Galt, might suggest, “check one’s premises.”

It seems to me that if the whole idea of Christian participation in politics is to reflect the teachings and actions of Jesus through the political system, then adherence to the stinginess and misanthropy of Ayn Rand would be out of the question. Jesus gave freely to the poor without ever seeming overly concerned about abstract notions of "fostering a good work ethic" or "preventing a sense of dependency" among those in need. Conversely much of what conservatives obsess about around these issues seem to arise from a pervasively nasty opinion of their fellows. That their fellows are inherently lazy. That they are perpetually on the take. That they’d rather take handouts than work for a living.

I’m a liberal who has worked hard ever since I joined the labor force at seventeen as a bag boy at Safeway. Furthermore, most if not all of the adults that I’ve known have been hard workers, presuming there was work to be found. Rand's great flaw as a writer, and as a human being, was a fanatical unwillingness to admit that good, hardworking people sometimes fall victim to the vagaries of existence. Notions of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, and of being steadfastly independent, are valid up to a point. Jesus understood that the limit to such abstractions was the fact of actual hunger and poverty suffered by real people who were decidedly not abstract. If Rand ever knew it, she expunged it from her philosophy. If we assume that Rep. Ryan, as a follower of Christ, also knows it, how did he ever fall under the sway of Ayn Rand?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Not a Christian Nation

On the December 31 Longview News Journal's Forum page an editorial appeared under the rather portentous heading: "Is America a Christian Nation?" Such a question in my view displays either a fundamental failure to comprehend basic American civic law, or a fundamental rejection of it. In any case, each can be seen as another unfortunate failure in the education of a people on the core question of who we are.

At the outset, let me state that no American who is informed can deny the historical importance of religion to our society. Religion has always been, and doubtless will remain a vital and public resource for ethical conduct and spiritual sustenance for our people. Indeed, that seems to have been at least a part of the intent of the framers of the constitution and the Bill of Rights. But these men, who most, if not all were products of a culture pervaded by Christian ideas and religious practices, did not intend to build a theocracy in the New World. Thus, we can proudly say that there is no "Church Of America" to hold in comparison to Britain's publicly established and supported "Church of England."

Had they so intended, why did they not simply enshrine the intent in law? Instead, they wrote a constitution and Bill of Rights from which the word "God" is glaringly, conspicuously omitted. To those who believe that this was somehow just another stupendous oversight of history, I say on the contrary, the matter was roundly if not furiously debated by the Continental Congress prior to the ratification of our Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. Those proposing what Kramnick and Moore in their book, "The Godless Constitution," have dubbed "Religious Correctness," lost the day.

As to the victors in that debate, the authors cited above write, "Yet, so successful were the drafters of the Constitution in defining government in secular terms that one of the most powerful criticisms of the Constitution when ratified and for succeeding decades was that it was indifferent to Christianity and God. It was denounced by many as a godless document, which is precisely what it is."

But, contrary to what detractors of our founding system of law characterized as being hostile to religion, I contend that the opposite is the case. In their wisdom, I believe the founders demonstrated supreme faith in their religion not only to survive, but to flourish on its own with no need of a "leg-up" from the government. In this way, the two institutions could be free to attend to their own affairs relying appropriately on their respective and unique doctrines and modes of operation. History would seem to have confirmed the wisdom of the insight.

What makes this country great is that no Christian can be compelled to pray to Brahma. But the obverse also makes us great. No Hindu can lawfully be compelled to pray to Jehovah. The writer was correct in his assertion that much of our law has been shaped indirectly by the Holy Bible. But it is also true that our system of Democracy at least in part was influenced by ancient Greek culture, hardly a hotbed of Christian theology.

And since our constitution can be seen a living document open to the indirect influence of all the spiritual traditions adhered to by our legislators, other "influences" also can have a place in shaping our polity. All to the good. Members of congress today are Jewish, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and indeed, I suspect, some who profess no religious tradition at all.

A better question to have begun that editorial might have been, "Is America a Nation in which everyone could (potentially) be Christian?" the answer of course is, yes. But given the nature of human beings to follow their own lights on matters of the soul, it should come as no surprise that we are not all Christians. I'm certain that our founders would not be surprised in the least, because they formed a government large enough in spirit to accommodate us all.

In short, American must of necessity be a nation of all religions, and of none.