Dinesh D’Souza, the influential conservative political commentator, respected Christian apologist, and director of the documentary film 2016: Obama’s America was in Houston on Saturday, June 28 for the premier of his new film America: Imagine the World Without Her, and he appeared for a Q&A session with the audience. I was able to attend both the screening and the Q&A, and had the opportunity to ask Mr. D’Souza a question myself. The film is an adaptation of his latest book by the same title, and the main argument advanced by both is that liberals and progressives are deliberately undermining American greatness by promoting an anti-American interpretation of American history and using the U.S. government to weaken America’s economic prosperity at home and diplomatic influence abroad. D’Souza is quite explicit in making this claim, and he writes in the book that “decline…has become a policy objective” and that “progressivism is the ideology of American suicide.” Quite the accusation.

While it is certainly true that many Americans feel anxious about the future of the U.S. given continued economic stagnation, seemingly inescapable military entanglements, and the ongoing inability of Congress to work together to address long-term entitlement and environmental issues, the argument that one of our nation’s major political parties is consciously harming the country is unlikely to foster the type of reconciliation that our divided union so desperately needs to achieve. D’Souza’s characterization of liberals and progressives in the film as determined to cause America’s decline will only reinforce the most conspiratorial, hyperbolic, and confrontational rhetoric and tactics that far too many conservative commentators and politicians have embraced since the rise of the Tea Party and its visceral mistrust of President Obama.

America is not unique in identifying the anxiety that many Americans feel about the possibility of national decline, but the film’s proposed remedy is nothing short of the complete eradication from America’s political institutions of liberals and progressives. Rather than highlight the fact that political divisions have been a continuity throughout American history and promote the art of compromise, and the necessity of pragmatism over ideology, the film only gives further expression to and confirmation of the worst tendencies on the far-Right to view our current political problems in apocalyptic terms. Expect the casual musings about impeachment to become an explicit and urgent necessity by those who accept D’Souza’s argument.

 The film focuses explicitly on education and how liberals and progressives teach their students to criticize or even hate America rather than celebrate it. D’Souza argues that today’s teachers and professors promote shame and guilt about America’s past and that this is part of a larger liberal/progressive scheme to convince the citizenry that the United States should be weakened on the world stage. He credits the formulation of a “single narrative of American shame” to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and spends considerable time attacking Zinn’s interpretation of American history. The film argues that today’s students are not hearing the whole story, and that their teachers are actively hiding the positive contributions made by America in favor of a biased, one-sided account that only highlights America’s flaws.

The assumption of the film is that such a one-sided interpretation of American history is, in fact, being taught in our high schools and universities. As someone who earned a B.A. in history and now teaches high school history I can say such an assumption is unfounded. Zinn’s text is not used as a comprehensive history, but rather as a supplemental text that provides perspectives and incidents that a typical textbook may leave out. In other words, Zinn’s text does exactly what D’Souza claims his film is doing. It was unclear whether the film promoted a more balanced presentation of history, or if the liberal/progressive version should be completely jettisoned for the “correct” celebratory version. I asked Mr. D’Souza during the Q&A how he thought American history should be taught and whether or not Howard Zinn’s now classic text should still be read. He responded that he had read A People’s History of the United States multiple times and that reading Zinn was only a problem if the text was presented as the complete story. My response, as a teacher, is that Mr. D’Souza would feel much better about America’s youth if he actually spoke to a teacher about how they use Zinn’s text in the classroom.

A useful counter-argument to D’Souza’s America, in which he writes, “the American era is ending in part because a powerful group of Americans wants it to end,” is the timely Our Divided Political Heart by E.J. Dionne Jr. Both books attempt to diagnose the current discontent and anxiety within America about the future, but they offer starkly different solutions to our problems. Whereas D’Souza’s website promoting the film encourages the viewer to “decide which America you believe in,” Dionne argues that “false choices are the enemy of balance” and insists that regaining a healthy balance between our competing political philosophies is the key to forging a new long-term consensus like the one that existed after World War II wherein general agreement existed about the benefits of investment in infrastructure, education, and scientific research, and the amount of taxes that were necessary to fund the welfare state and the military.

The current divide in Congress, as many political scientists have observed, is the result of asymmetric polarization, meaning that only one side of the political spectrum has become extreme and/or unwilling to compromise with the other. It goes without saying that the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives is responsible for the intense polarization; after all, there is no Occupy Wall Street caucus and conservative claims that the Democratic Party or President Obama reflect the real concerns of OWS are simply false. In his book, Dionne pleads with Republicans and the Tea Party to recognize that “in the absence of a new consensus, we will continue to fight,” and D’Souza’s response to such a reality seems to be: prepare for battle. One audience member clearly got the message; he opened the Q&A session by asking what people could do besides engage in armed rebellion.

Dionne, like D’Souza, perceives the centrality of history to our current political impasse. He writes that, “Americans disagree about who we are because we can’t agree about who we’ve been” and it is this disagreement about how to understand ourselves and our past that D’Souza attempts to resolve in the film. He fashions himself as a debater going head-to-head with an established liberal/progressive understanding of American history, one that denigrates rather than celebrates our past, and he seeks to refute the argument once-and-for-all. Again, the tactic is not compromise, common ground, or reconciliation; it is to defeat the enemy. Dionne, unlike D’Souza, would arguably not perceive such a tactic as constructive or feasible because, as he writes, “American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community.” As Dionne points out, both liberals and conservatives care deeply about and promote individual rights and the well-being of the community, but D’Souza attempts to fashion progressivism’s contribution as illegitimate or sinister.

The history of progressivism, which includes Republicans such as Teddy Roosevelt, is entirely misrepresented by conflating it with the views of scholars and activists such as Noam Chomsky, who is a self-described anarchist. The film leaves the audience with the impression that in too many classrooms American history is taught with the aim of inciting anti-Americanism and that the response should not be to regain balance between competing perspectives, but that the “truth” about America’s greatness must be proclaimed loud and proud. One audience member asked Mr. D’Souza to contact the Koch brothers in order to fund the film’s promotion in public schools, seeing no problem with screening a highly partisan film such as America in classrooms across the country. Mr. D’Souza reinforced the audience’s concerns by stating that there is nothing wrong with today’s young people, that it is their teachers that are leading them astray. Concerned parents may soon be calling for teachers they perceive to be pushing progressive Kool-aid to instead drink the hemlock.

The argument put forward by America, which is released nationwide on Wednesday, July 2, goes beyond the demonization of a specific politician, piece of legislation, or political party; it attempts to demonize an entire political philosophy and repudiate part of our political history. The hyperbole of the attacks against liberalism and progressivism are reminiscent of the vitriolic rhetoric that Glenn Beck used to espouse but has since apologized for. In terms of our attempt to move beyond divisiveness and mistrust, Beck’s apology was one step forward, but D’Souza’s film is two steps backward. America offers a calmer, more measured, quasi-academic tone but the degree of disgust implicitly endorsed towards liberals and progressives is the same. As much as the film is about our past, it is really about our future, and D’Souza takes aim at both Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton as leaders of the liberal/progressive movement to “undo” American greatness. Yet, as Dionne points out, “If everything that matters is at stake, then taking enormous risks with the country’s well-being…is no longer out of bounds. Rather, pushing the system to its limits – and beyond – becomes a form of patriotism.” D’Souza unwisely fuels the existing sense on the far-Right that they are a besieged minority in possession of the truth, but that the schools, the government, and the media are increasingly against them. If we are to take D’Souza’s argument about the liberal/progressive undermining of America as sincere, one can only fear how D’Souza’s audience would react to a democratically elected Hillary Clinton in 2016.

 


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