Originally published at the National Review.
In the current issue of National Review, I have a piece called Take Two: D’Souza films again. As you can gather, it’s about Dinesh D’Souza’s second film, now playing in theaters. It’s called America: Imagine The World Without Her. There is a companion book to it: America: Imagine A World Without Her.
There is a slight difference in those two titles. Did you notice? The film says “the World” and the book says “a World.” Curious.
Dinesh’s first movie was 2016: Obama’s America, which appeared right in the middle of the 2012 presidential election campaign. Michael Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11 appeared right in the middle of the 2004 campaign.
Neither filmmaker could defeat the president he despised — in Moore’s case George W. Bush, in D’Souza’s case Obama.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is the highest-grossing documentary of all time. No. 2 is March of the Penguins. (Can’t go wrong with penguins, or Morgan Freeman.) No. 3 is a Justin Bieber flick. And then comes Dinesh’s 2016, at No. 4.
Dinesh is the anti-Moore: taking to the big screen to press conservative points.
Here in Impromptus, I’d like to expand on my piece in the current NR. Dinesh D’Souza is an interesting man — and a lavishly talented one — with interesting things to say.
• I began my piece by talking about Dinesh’s bus — I rode on it with him and his posse from New York to Philadelphia. He was touring the country, rolling out his movie.
It would be hard to imagine a nicer, swankier bus than Dinesh D’Souza’s. “It’s a lot better than Tom Cruise’s,” says Jerry Molen. He would know. Molen has been in Hollywood for many years, and knows everybody. He was the producer of several Spielberg movies, and he is D’Souza’s producer as well.
• Dinesh travels like a rock star — or did in this case — and is sometimes greeted like one. This is extraordinary, for an intellectual and book author. Of course, he is a filmmaker now — and the (onscreen) star of those films.
In the past, he says, he was recognized now and then, from scattered TV appearances. You don’t get recognized from articles and books — not on the street. You do get recognized from television.
But after his first movie, he found a whole new level of fame. He was recognized, not just by a few political nerds, but by the public at large: store clerks, TSA agents, and so on.
How does it feel? Darn good, of course.
• I must tell you, it was a blast being on that bus — my taste of stardom, or at least of groupiedom. Happy groupiedom.
• The night before, there was a screening of America in Union Square — New York’s Union Square. This is not a conservative stronghold, let me tell you: It is hard by Greenwich Village, and New York University.
Dinesh’s audience included many young people, and young people of various hues (for those keeping racial score — as many people do). Dinesh tells me, “It’s not that young people have rejected conservatism. It’s that they have not been exposed to it.”
• There is at least one distinguished conservative who lives in Union Square: Richard Brookhiser, the NR senior editor and historian. (I should probably have put those two in the opposite order — historian first — but I’m being partisan, in a magazine sense.)
• Dinesh’s movie begins arrestingly: with the words “September 11th.” That’ll certainly get your attention. The first words are “September 11th.”
An American soldier in the Revolution is writing home to his wife on September 11, 1777. He is telling her about the wonderful commander, George Washington.
And the movie proposes a what-if: What if Washington had been felled by a sniper’s bullet, before completing the Revolution? What if America had never gotten off the ground?
It is unnerving, watching the movie, seeing Washington fall from his horse. Dead.
• Also, what if the Nazis had gotten the Bomb before we did? Dinesh ponders that too, and, again, it is unnerving. History is not inevitable (unless you’re a super-deterministic type).
Early in the movie, Dinesh says, “I love America.” He sure does. He loves it as only an immigrant can. (Dinesh came from Bombay.) He loves America without embarrassment, without apology.
When I was growing up — and where I was growing up — you could not really talk this way. You had to remember America’s sins. Indeed, you had to stress them. You were loath to be a jingo, an Archie Bunker. We were raised on Norman Lear shows (I exaggerate, of course). There was hardly anyone dumber or less respectable than a flag-waver.
Dinesh knows all about America’s sins, I assure you. But he knows about the rest of the world’s, too. And he does not slight America’s virtues. (On the contrary.)
• In his movie, he quotes Lincoln — that is, he has an actor playing Lincoln, saying these words (or some version of):
Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer: If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.
Guy could talk, couldn’t he? And think.
Dinesh, narrating, says, “How do you convince a great nation to author its own destruction? You start by telling a new story.”
• He then explores what he calls the “shame narrative” of American history — that’s a wonderful coinage, by the way: “shame narrative.” I think I will remember it and use it for a long time.
The shame narrative goes something like this: We stole the land from the Indians, or the Native Americans, as we call them now. Then, to add insult to injury, we committed genocide against them. We proceeded to build our nation on the backs of African slaves. We stole the Southwest from Mexico. We unleashed imperialism on the world, including poor Vietnam. And we degraded our own people with capitalism — which benefits the privileged and rich at the expense of the unprivileged and poor.
And if our possessions are the result of plunder, what do we need to do, morally? Give them “back.” Make restitution (through socialism, for example).
• I used to joke, “My education in American history consisted of slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, and McCarthyism.” That was an exaggeration — and unfair — but it contained a point.
• I once heard Bernard Lewis (the great historian) say, “There is an old slogan: ‘My country, right or wrong.’ America’s current attitude is, ‘My country, wrong.'”
• You will find the “shame narrative” in Howard Zinn’s textbook, which has sold more than 2 million copies, and is a principal teacher of Americans. You will find it in many other places, too.
What Dinesh does is talk back to it. He restores the “hidden history,” as he says. The shame narrators (let’s call them) focus on maybe 20 percent of the American story. Dinesh simply puts the other 80 percent back in.
• David Horowitz once said to me, “No one knows how much influence Howard Zinn has had. That influence has been enormous. No one realizes how much damage he has done.”
• In his movie, Dinesh interviews some famous leftists, including Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill. (I would love to see Dinesh in debate with Michael Moore, by the way. Dinesh tells me that Moore will have nothing to do with him — which is no doubt smart, on Moore’s part.) Does Dinesh give Chomsky, Churchill, et al. a fair hearing? No. He treats them rather like 60 Minutes has long treated conservatives (!). They say a few words, unpersuasively.
But I should not weep for Chomsky & Co., because they have their outlets — in spades.
• Isn’t it interesting that Ward Churchill should share a name with the man who, in the 20th century, stood for the all-out defense of Western civilization?
• Listening to Dinesh defend and extol America, I think, “Even our ‘progressives’ must know this is true. Somewhere, deep within them, they must know it is true — that America is on balance a good and honorable and just place, which has blessed untold millions of people the world over.”
In 1964, there was a slogan: “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Of course, there was a retort to this: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”
Dinesh’s movie is two movies, I think — that is, it’s in two distinct parts. The first deals with the “shame narrative.” The second deals with today’s politics, and in particular presidential politics.
He portrays Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as Alinskyites, i.e., followers of Saul Alinsky, the author of Rules for Radicals, and the original community organizer. There is now a right-wing smell about linking Obama and Hillary to Alinsky. But it wasn’t always so.
Consider this article from the Washington Post. It was published in March 2007, when Obama and Hillary were squaring off for the Democratic nomination. It was headed “For Clinton and Obama, a Common Ideological Touchstone.” And that touchstone was Alinsky.
Nothing spooky or right-wing about it, you see. Just reality.
I myself depart a bit from D’Souza on Alinskyism: I regard Obama and Hillary as mainstream Democrats, no different from Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and the rest of the gang. And this gang commands the respect, or at least the votes, of approximately half the country.
But I will say this: Obama has been deceptive about his past. He swore up and down that he did not belong to a radical organization called the New Party. When Stanley Kurtz said he did, Obama’s people called it a “crackpot smear.” The truth is, he did belong to the New Party.
Now, people outgrow radicalism all the time. Half the founding editors and writers of National Review were ex-Communists, and they were the best anti-Communists around. But they were open, truthful. How about O?
And Hillary Clinton — Hillary Rodham — worked for a frankly Red law firm, Bob Truehaft’s in Oakland. They were Communists (and when I say “they,” I mean he and his wife, Jessica Mitford). Our David Pryce-Jones, who knew them well, can tell you all about it.
Anyway . . .
• Riding on the bus — that gleaming, luxury carriage — I ask Dinesh, “Do you think that Obama and Hillary are carrying out some Alinskyite plan, hatched long ago?” He says no, but they are pursuing a common goal. “Is that goal socialism?” I ask. No, says Dinesh. Classically, socialism means that the “people” own the “means of production,” and everyone gets the same.
“Their goal,” says Dinesh, “is to shift the fulcrum of power in our society away from the entrepreneur and toward a new group, which is an alliance of the political class, the intellectual class, and the media. Those are three camps that feel the same way, have the same skills, and so on. They also have equal resentment against entrepreneurs.”
I sometimes speak of the “media-academia-entertainment” complex. (I have variations of this, as regular readers may know.) Dinesh reminds me that Joe Sobran used to speak of “the Hive.” Same thing.
• In this movie, Senator Rand Paul gets a lot of airtime, warning of the National Security Agency. Dinesh is apparently of this view, and I am not. But, hell, it’s his film, and the rest of us can make our own films, if we have the chops.
And overweening government is something that every thinking, responsible person ought to be wary of.
Furthermore, Dinesh has special reason to be wary of governmental eyes and ears. More on that in due course.
• At that screening in Union Square, Dinesh did a Q&A. And there is no one better in Q&A. He is one of the best talkers there are.
He has great patience and finesse — with kooky questions, for example. Someone asks a kooky question about the U.N. Dinesh handles it with a smile, saying that the U.N. is too pathetic and ineffective to run the world.
Someone asks him about immigration, too. He says, “I’m an immigrant, and I have made a pro-immigration movie.” At the same time, he recognizes that we are a nation of laws, etc.
And he startles me by referring to himself as “a person of color.”
• On the bus, I ask him about this. I say it must be an advantage — a political and rhetorical advantage — to be an Indian (or Indian American). It must be an advantage in approaching the Left for interviews, in debating them, in all sorts of ways. Indianness is a card that can be played, when such a card is needed.
He says, “My ethnicity is a matter of complete indifference to me, an accident, of no intellectual or moral significance whatsoever. However, in the politicized context of American life, with all the racial and ethnic taboos that surround us, I realize that having brown skin is in fact a tactical asset. I have a certain amount of ethnic immunity in addressing otherwise forbidden subjects. I see it as almost my moral obligation to use that immunity to raise the curtain on these issues.”
I find that wonderful, sort of thrilling.
• In Union Square, Dinesh said something like this: “As a person of color, I know a shakedown when I see it, and I blow the whistle on it.” One of his most interesting contentions, I believe, is that “the shaming of America is related to the shakedown of America.”
If you can convince people that they are guilty, you can rob them of their stuff. If you can convince them that their gains are ill-gotten, you can get them to fork those gains over to you. That explains Jesse Jackson’s brilliant, disgusting, extortionist career.
Dinesh tells me something like this: When Luca Brasi (the brute and enforcer in The Godfather) shakes you down, he’s simply shaking you down. He doesn’t pretend he has the moral high ground. Jesse Jackson, by contrast, pretends he’s striking some blow for justice.
Which is really annoying.
• Dinesh says, “What I resent most of all about the Left is that they exploit American decency.” I think of that Borat movie, in which the comedian and prankster exploits this very decency. Americans are too polite to tell him to shove it.
If you tell Americans they’re wrong, says Dinesh, they’re apt to say, “I’m sorry about that. How can I do better, how can I make it up to you?” And that decency, as Dinesh sees it, makes Americans vulnerable.
• I have written about Dinesh before — in 2012, when he released his first movie. For that piece, go here. I’d like to excerpt a little:
D’Souza had come [to Dartmouth College] from Bombay, where he was born and raised. Ignorant, hippie-dippie students were fascinated by his name, his homeland, his otherness. “Oh, dude, I love India!” they would say. “Ever been there?” D’Souza would ask. “No,” they would say. “What do you think you love about it?” he would continue. “The dowry? Arranged marriage? The caste system? Poverty? Hopelessness?”
The second movie confirms for me that one of Dinesh’s great advantages is that he is absolutely clear-eyed about the Third World. While liberal Americans romanticize it, he has lived it.
In the new movie, he playfully asks a retired Border Patrol agent whether he ever saw anyone try to sneak into Mexico from the United States. (The answer is no, of course.) How many people would have asked the agent that question? Not many. But it is very D’Souza.
In our rolling conversation — rolling in more than one sense, because we’re aboard the rock-star bus — Dinesh makes a familiar point, but one that bears repeating: Capitalists are terrible at defending capitalism. They will defend it on grounds of efficiency, but not on grounds of morality or justice. We will lose capitalism, says Dinesh, unless we learn to defend it, rhetorically, against its enemies.
• You recall what the Marxists used to say, and probably still do (I haven’t listened to them in a while): “‘Freedom!’ say the capitalists. Yeah: the freedom to sleep under bridges.”
• For my money, Dinesh’s most compelling insight is that justice is a more powerful idea than freedom, in political debate. Justice will trump freedom every time. The Left eats our lunch, over and over.
“What do little kids say?” Dinesh points out. “‘That’s not fair! That’s not fair!'” It is elemental.
In the old days, people didn’t ask whether the king made the economy grow. They had one question: “Is he just or unjust?”
“The Left recognizes the power of justice,” says Dinesh, “and they recognize the vulnerability of America, because capitalism is a counterintuitive system that has never been in tune with our instincts about justice. Look at the teacher, the plumber, and the rock singer. If you were distributing their salaries, how would you do it? Your distribution would probably look different from the market’s.”
• I have a memory of speaking at a Renaissance Weekend, many years ago. (This is a recurrent Democratic jamboree, and I was a token, which was fine. My hosts were wonderful.) I said that Orwell spoke of the “law-and-liberty countries,” and that Robert Conquest had described himself to me as a “law-and-liberty man.”
In the Q&A, a man very angrily said to me, “You left out justice!” (Turned out, he was a judge.) I said that I thought the rule of law and liberty included justice.
• President Obama talks about fairness constantly — constantly. It is “the core theme of his presidency,” as Dinesh says. Couple of memories (further memories).
Obama was debating Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. A moderator, Charlie Gibson, brought up the capital-gains tax, pointing out its history: When the rate had gone down, revenue had gone up; and when the rate had gone up, revenue had gone down. “So why raise it at all, especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?”
Obama answered, “Well, Charlie, what I’ve said is that I would look at raising the capital-gains tax for purposes of fairness.” Yes. Economics is out the window. Cause and effect is out the window. Real, practical consequences are out the window. All that matters is something psychological: someone’s notion of “fairness.”
• At National Review, we were speaking with someone in the Republican House leadership. This was about four years ago, I would say. The leader said that, in budget negotiations with Obama, the Republicans would make economic arguments — and the president would ignore those arguments, coming back with the theme of social justice.
Rich Lowry, our editor, said, “Does he really say ‘social justice’?” The congressional leader said, “Well, he says ‘fairness.’ That’s his word: ‘fairness.'”
• I love the way Daniel Hannan, the British politician and writer, began a recent column: “Would you rather live in a 1000 square foot house where everyone else’s was 800, or a 1200 square foot house where everyone else’s was 1400? I sometimes think it’s the most elemental question in politics.”
• Dinesh D’Souza says, “The Founders’ idea of freedom is the solution to injustice.”
• One could write at length about his legal case, but let me put things briefly: In the 2012 election cycle, Dinesh made a financial contribution to his friend Wendy Long. She was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in New York. She was a severe underdog — indeed, she wound up losing by some 45 points — but Dinesh wanted to help her. They are old college classmates. They are comrades.
Dinesh wrote his own check, and then, asked to do more, and wanting to comply, asked others to write checks — for which he would reimburse them. That is illegal. And it was “cockamamie” and “dumb,” he said to me. “I was swamped, I was rushing, and my brain just shut down.” There were all sorts of legal ways he could have helped his friend: by setting up a PAC, for example.
The FBI found out about his reimbursements in a supposedly routine review. That is a head-scratcher. The matter went to the U.S. attorney’s office in New York (a Democratic stronghold, naturally). D’Souza was prosecuted and, in May, pleaded guilty. He will be sentenced in September. He faces up to two years in prison.
He and his defenders say that the prosecution was spectacularly selective and suspect, smelling of political retribution. It is smelly indeed. One day, Dinesh will write a compelling book, article, or pamphlet about it.
• Jail or no jail, his career will continue (perhaps with an aspect of martyrdom). His goal, he says, is to create a movie company that will offer maybe two products a year: a documentary and a feature film. “The Left knows the power of telling a story,” he says. “Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg are much bigger than Michael Moore. They don’t make liberal films — they just make films, and they have a point of view. I want to make films with a different point of view.”
• Dinesh inhabits two worlds: the book world and the film world. The best-selling book he ever had sold 150,000 copies — which is a whopping number, let me tell you. But his first movie was seen by 8 million people. That’s a bigger megaphone, as he says. And, as he also says, conservatives need more and bigger megaphones.
He makes a further point: The resources are there, i.e., the conservative money. But the know-how and initiative? Not so much.
• I tell him that I regard him as someone who came from a foreign land to teach or remind Americans what is good about their country. He likes to quote a remark from Jeane Kirkpatrick: “Americans need to face the truth about themselves, no matter how pleasant it is.”
Yes. America is sometimes like a pretty girl who, afraid to be stuck up, is a self-condemnatory, neurotic wreck.
• Dinesh gives me some autobiographical reflections. I will paraphrase: “I’ve had a great life in America, and I recognize that I wouldn’t have had this life in India or England. If I had gone to England — which was kind of my parents’ aspiration for me — I might have become a barrister or businessman. I might have been like Dodi Fayed or someone! Somewhat excluded from the corridors of power, so to speak.
“I married a girl from Louisiana. Her family and friends welcomed me with open arms. America in general welcomed me with open arms. I have faced no limits.”
Some years ago, Dinesh turned on the television and saw Christopher Hitchens debating a pastor. Hitchens was running rings around him, of course, using every trick in the book. He was sneering at the pastor, undermining him at every turn. Hitchens was Oxford Union; the pastor was . . . not.
And Dinesh, sitting in front of the TV, thought, Hey, no fair. Pick on someone your own size. You should be debating me, not him.
Someone like Dinesh gives voice to people who cannot speak for themselves, or who cannot do it adequately. “I see myself as standing up for an America that has been good to me.”
• I ask him, “Is America going down the tubes? Is it curtains?” No, he says. “I’m a congenital optimist, temperamentally happy. I wake up in the morning happy. I also have great faith in the inner American spirit. I think that, if you activate that spirit, it’s a formidable force.
“This is the spirit that resisted getting involved in World War II, that is prone to looking the other way, that doesn’t want to be bothered. But when that spirit is aroused” — whoa, baby, look out.
Thanks for joining me, ladies and gentlemen, on this D’Souzan journey, and I’ll talk to you soon.
Read more at the National Review.
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