The family and I went out and saw America, the latest film of Dinesh D’Souza. I enjoyed the film and found it an intriguing step in the development of a new form of conveying conservative messages. My review is below and the usual caveat as to spoilers is in effect.
The film opens with George Washington leading Continental soldiers in battle. This was not uncommon during the Revolutionary War, Washington often leading from the front and being regularly exposed to enemy fire. From all outward appearances Washington throughout his life was utterly fearless, and his aides often wrote that it was miraculous that he was not shot down as men were constantly being wounded or killed all around him. In D’Souza’s film the miracle ends abruptly, Washington is shot off his horse and killed and the Revolution goes down in defeat. We are left to ponder a world without an America. That premise for a movie is intriguing and I wouldn’t have minded seeing a George Bailey type of look at a nightmarish world where America had been still born as a nation. However, that was not what D’Souza had in mind.
Instead, he takes a look at some of the popular critiques from the Left of America: from people who view America as largely evil.
He zeroes in on the late Howard Zinn as popularizing these ideas in his A People’s History of the United States which has sold over two million copies and is regularly used in college courses.
These critiques of America in D’Souza’s view come down to charges of theft:
1. America was stolen from the Indians.
2. American wealth was built on labor stolen from slaves.
3. The southwest of America was stolen from Mexico.
4. American imperialism has plundered the wealth of foreign lands.
5. American capitalism rips off the wealth of 99% of the American people.
To his credit D’Souza does not make strawmen of the charges. He has some well known leftists, including Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill, appearing in the film to make their charges against the country, and he admits that some of the charges have some merit. Then he responds to the charges.
In regard to the charge that America was stolen from the Indians he points out that the Indians were constantly at war long before the white man came. He has a Sioux activist make the initial charge about how her land was stolen by the white man, and D’Souza mentions that the Sioux have refused a billion dollar settlement from the Federal government for violated treaties, demanding instead the return of land to them that would encompass a huge portion of several states. In his response D’Souza notes that the Sioux were relative new comers to the lands they claimed and that their title to the land rested on the right they had obtained to the land from conquest of the land from other tribes. He then points out the often ignored fact in the contemporary world that almost all peoples have acquired title to their lands from the conquest of prior occupants. The treaties that were frequently violated with defeated Indian tribes were a distinctly Western notion. In the wars between Indian tribes the losers were simply pushed out with no compensation, where they were not exterminated. While admitting that much evil was done to the Indians, D’Souza concludes that conquering land is the normal procedure in this world and that where America differed from the usual practice in this Vale of Tears has been in its attempts to redress the injustices done to the Indians.
As to slavery, D’Souza admits readily the immense injustice of it. What he notes again, as in the case of conquest, is that slavery has been a universal institution throughout almost all of human history. What sets America and the West apart is the steps taken to end slavery. Here in the film we have an actor portraying Lincoln noting that the Declaration of Independence established the principle of all men being created equal with certain unalienable rights. Lincoln goes on to state that the Founding Fathers lacked the power at the time to end slavery, but they established the equality of all Americans in theory with the reality to be established as quickly as events would allow. In Civil War scenes sure to enrage neo-Confederates, D’Souza praises the country for waging a terrible war that ended slavery.
Turning to the Mexican War, D’Souza mentions that it started as a continuation of the border dispute between the Texas Republic and Mexico and that the Texans had initially risen in revolt against the dictator Santa Anna who trampled both Mexican and Texan liberties. D’Souza does not mention how thinly populated the Mexican territories taken by the United States were with Mexicans, New Mexico being the exception with 40,000 Mexicans. California had 6,000 Mexicans by contrast, with 12,000 non-Mexicans, mostly Americans, living there, not including Indians. In regard to Texas, the Comanches had a bigger beef than the Mexicans, all 2500 Mexicans who lived there, for the US taking it over, since most of Texas was controlled by them and the Americans were originally allowed to settle in Mexico since the Mexican government assumed that the American settlers would eventually defeat the Comanches, which they did. By the time of the Mexican War Texas had about 135,000 Texans who had come from America. D’Souza notes that at the conclusion of the Mexican War the US controlled most of Mexico and wonders, considering the number of Mexicans who illegally immigrate to the US, how many Mexicans secretly wish the US had retained control of all of Mexico.
In regard to the charge that the US has been involved militarily overseas to rip foreign nations off, D’Souza notes that if this is the case we have done a poor job of it since in Iraq, for example, we spent hundreds of billions reconstructing the nation, and that rather than take their oil we restored it to the control of the Iraqis. He also has a moving interview with a Vietnam veteran, tortured in the Hanoi Hilton, who states that he went to Vietnam to give the South Vietnamese a chance to not be subjugated to Communist tyranny.
As for capitalism, in a hilarious sequence he runs a burger joint called “Delicious Dinesh” and shows how any business to be profitable needs to convince people to voluntarily purchase their product. He also has a moving sequence on Sarah Breedlove, a daughter of slaves, who arose from abysmal poverty by marketing hair care products and cosmetics, becoming the first self made female black millionaire, all the while engaging in extensive charitable giving and serving as an example to all people who wish to succeed in a free market system.
At this point the film shifts gears and focuses on how Obama’s administration has sought to change the country. In a section dealing with attacks on conservatives by the IRS and other agencies, D’Souza mentions his own felony conviction for a campaign contribution violation and shows himself in handcuffs. He says that he made a mistake and he is going to pay for it, but he accurately notes that friends of the administration have committed far worse crimes and have not been prosecuted. The weakest section of the film is the portion focusing on Saul Alinsky as an influence on both Obama and Clinton. Both of them would have had precisely the same views if Alinsky had never been born, and his image on the right of being some sort of a Machiavellian devil figure is vastly overblown.
The film was slickly produced and I enjoyed it. It is number 4 this weekend which is astonishing for a documentary over the Fourth of July weekend, one of the biggest movie weekends in the calendar. D’Souza has a talent for producing entertaining political propaganda that makes a profit. He may eventually have as much impact among conservatives as Rush Limbaugh in packaging conservative political arguments in an entertaining wrapper and regularly reaching a mass audience as a result.
D’Souza, a fallen away Catholic, is definitely a flawed messenger. In addition to his felony campaign financing conviction, he also has had a well documented bout of adultery. Go here for all the grotesque details. I wish that artistic talent were reserved for the virtuous but such is not the case. D’Souza has talent as a filmmaker and I expect we will be seeing more films from him, at least after he completes his ten to sixteen month sentence at a Club Fed. Sentencing is set for September 23. I hope that he will use his time in the slammer for prayer and reflection. God has given him many gifts, but his self destructive behavior, if it continues, will in time eclipse them all.