Schooled by Jesuits in India and at Dartmouth, a veteran of the Reagan White House and now president of The Kings College in New York City, one might expect Dinesh D’Souza to stand for nuanced, scholarly and thoughtful insights drawn from many cultures and traditions. One might expect him to channel cross-cultural wisdom to find connections between philosophies that seem obvious in hindsight.
One would, of course, be wrong. D’Souza is a conservative ideologue first and foremost, and the main target of his ire over the past few years has been the presidency of Barack Obama. Launched just in time for the Republican National Convention, D’Souza’s new political documentary, 2016: Obama’s America, is a polemic based on his 2010 book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage. It’s been a surprise hit, bringing in more than $9 million since its release at the box office — not much when compared to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, which grossed $119 million, but it’s already enough to put in the top 10 grossing political documentaries of all time. And its chief attraction seems to be an apocalyptic vision of the future should Obama be reelected — that the president is at heart an “anti-colonialist” hell-bent on downsizing America while encouraging a United States of Islam to rise in the Middle East.
Of the same age, of similarly mixed heritage and skin color, and educated at Ivy League schools at the same time, Obama and D’Souza couldn’t be more different. Obama’s narrative is one of inclusion: “Only in this country is my story possible,” he said of his background during a starmaking speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile D’Souza’s theme, even when he is trying to inspire, is very much tribal: us versus them. Speaking to immigrant Indians about when they would know that they are truly American, D’Souza said the litmus test should be that they would vote Republican, because it is the party of insiders.
But to me the most interesting thing about D’Souza’s political argument is this “anti-colonialism” that he suggests motivates Obama. It’s an odd expression in the U.S., so long gone from the lexicon that most Americans would today wonder if it refers to a style of architecture. “Anti-colonialism” — a resentment of wealthy Western powers on the part of the people they’ve historically subjugated — is a word that evokes the angst of generations that grew up in the waning days of the British Empire.
In fact, I may share as much in common with D’Souza as he does with Obama. We’re both Indians born in the decades following independence from the British. We grew up a few miles away from each other in Bombay (now called Mumbai). I, too, was schooled at a storied Indian academy that was a vestige of the British empire. And by coincidence I was an exchange student in the same program that brought D’Souza to the U.S. for the first time in September 1978. We arrived on the very the same flight.
Our generation struggled with ambivalence towards the legacy of British occupation, one that left us simultaneously indebted and disgusted. India’s legal, rail and parliamentary systems came directly from the British. At the same time, it was hard to forget that the gates of the private sports clubs had once borne the signs “Indians and Dogs Not Allowed”. Since then Indians have either co-opted their colonial heritage (to wit, India is nuts about cricket) or have systematically replaced all things British with American trappings: the Beatles with the Doors, Oxford and Cambridge with Harvard and Stanford (and in D’Souza’s case, Dartmouth).
So: is the American president “anti-colonialist”? If it’s hard to square these motifs of resentment, humiliation and ambivalence with the popular impression of “No Drama Obama”, it is likely because 2016: Obama’s America is less about Obama than it is about D’Souza coming to terms with his own origins. What better way to leapfrog into the party of insiders than to take up the mantle of an iconoclast? What better way for a brown immigrant to fit in than to point out the foreignness of another dark-skinned American? D’Souza argues that he is simply adding a dimension of understanding to an inscrutable president. But his conceit is that “anti-colonial” is meant to extend past the ordinary insult that the term “socialist” connotes. And while he takes pains to dismiss claims by the birther fringe that Obama wasn’t born in America, he also runs with the ball that the birthers dropped — to make the case that Obama is effectively, if not factually, un-American. It is a curious line of reasoning, but in the hands of his cinematographers 2016: Obama’s America quickens the pulse as the images, music and D’Souza’s monotone conspire to convey his belief that “something is not quite right here”.
In the final analysis “anti-colonial” is too far-fetched a metaphor to understand Obama, who if he rages, must do it very privately. D’Souza’s arguments are so over the top and so obviously personal that they even fail to provoke ire. They are simply like sand between the fingers — fleeting and gone without a trace.