I Saw Dinesh D’Souza’s Documentary, “2016”

I finally got around to seeing Dinesh D’Souza’s hatchet job documentary on Barack Obama, 2016 (it’s out on DVD). What I hoped for was a serious and thought-provoking conservative take on the nation’s first black president. D’Souza, after all, is an intellectual.

What I got for my $20 (I purchased the film at a Barnes & Noble) was a video demonstration of how to construct a conspiracy theory and not engage in critical thinking about it.

D’Souza’s theory concerning President Obama is straightforward: he’s not a Muslim and he was actually born in Hawaii, but intellectually and emotionally he’s not really an American. Instead, he was formed by the same post-colonial theory that animated his internationalist and leftist mother and absent African father.

Three things to concede upfront: Obama (obviously) has been influenced both intellectually and emotionally by post-colonial theory, his mother, and his quest to learn about his African father and family roots. These are part of the mix of Obama’s character. But by setting these up as The Code by which to understand everything about Obama hereafter turns these truths into ridiculous untruths.

D’Souza, having established this Code in the first half of the film, puts it to use in the second half to make the following Joe McCarthy-style claims about the President:

  • Obama’s intellectual founding fathers do not include the American founding fathers, but only such figures as his dad, his Chicago pastor, various communists, etc.
  • Obama wants the Muslim world fenced off, strengthened, and united against the West.
  • Obama sides with the Palestinians against Israel.
  • Obama wants Iran to have nuclear weapons.
  • Obama wants poor countries to develop their oil resources, but not the United States. Why? Because this will equalize oppressed nations with more developed nations.
  • Obama wants America’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons brought to zero even as other countries keep theirs.
  • Obama wants Obamacare because his vision for the world is, at bottom, an international socialist one.
  • Obama wants to bust America with debt so as to destroy it.

It’s that simple. That cartoonish. And this from a man who otherwise spends his time writing pretty interesting books (I liked his book rehearsing Christian apologetics, and I think his early book on race continues to be important). But this particular documentary effort really deflates my estimate of him as a fair-minded (and even decent) person.

And here’s something that especially annoys me about the film. Once D’Souza establishes his thesis or Code for interpreting Obama, he presents not a single alternative thesis for understanding Obama’s actions. D’Souza also fails to bring up anything that might go contrary to his thesis. For example, how could someone so cartoonishly animated by post-colonial theory authorize a mission to kill Osama bin Laden? D’Souza doesn’t say because he doesn’t mention it. Not once. And that tells you all you really need to know about the objectivity, fairness, and seriousness of this documentary.

My own thesis, by the way, is that President Obama is animated in a complex fashion by numerous contending forces. Included among them are Plato (the best and brightest should rule), postcolonial theory (attention must be paid to the oppressed), Adam Smith, Nietzsche, the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. The evidence converges on a large theatre of contending actors in Obama’s head, not a tiny choir OCD-ing on the “The Internationale” over and over.

Put another way, based on a fair evaluation of all the evidence, Obama is his own self-made man, a syncretism formed by his contingent reading, education, and diverse life experiences. Intellectually and emotionally, he is a mut. And that, of course, is a very, very American thing to be. A very human thing to be.

But it’s also not an easy story to tell to an ideologically driven movie-going audience that wants conspiracy, sinister atmospherics, and simplicity. D’Souza certainly delivered on these. But what a disappointing exercise in propaganda and irrationality this film is. And how very depressing that it comes from an intellectual who ought to care about the truth of matters more than this. Two thumbs way down for 2016 and Dinesh D’Souza.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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27 Responses to I Saw Dinesh D’Souza’s Documentary, “2016”

  1. I certainly think Obama is not above criticism, but his opponent almost always attack what seems like a silly strawman. That’s the rights problem.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Bruce,

      John Podhoretz at Commentary recently made your point (and seems to have seen “2016” as well):

      Barack Obama is a serious man. Yes, he likes to golf, and yes, he ran a campaign with cutesy Facebook pictures and seemingly inane Flash slideshows like “Life of Julia.” No, he does not seem interested in the mechanics of legislation, nor does he seem adept at negotiation. But the weird condescension his opponents display toward him is ludicrously wrongheaded. They seem eager to believe he is a lightweight, and he is not. Obama is very possibly a world-historical political figure, and until those who oppose him come to grips with this fact, they will get him wrong every time. […]

      It’s not just the comforting delusion that he’s a golf-mad dilettante, but also the reverse-negative image of that delusion—that Obama is a not-so-secret Marxist Kenyan with dictatorial ambitions and a nearly limitless appetite for power. That caricature makes it far too easy for Obama to laugh off the legitimate criticisms […]

      http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/time-to-get-serious/

      –Santi

  2. mhasegawa says:

    Thanks for watching this so that I don’t have to! Sounds excruciating to watch.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Actually, it’s not too painful to watch, and it makes a plausible connection here and there. To the extent that the film has value, it is in highlighting a couple of aspects in Obama’s character formation that are undeniably there. But like anything else, one must apportion emphasis and weight to the facts presented (and how they are contextualized).

      Also, the film is valuable for thinking about conspiracy theory formation (and its irrational moves). You could teach a great deal of critical thinking with this film (by pointing to its negative example). A better title for D’Souza’s film is, “What not to do once you’ve generated a thesis.” In other words, there is no hypothesis testing of any sort going on in the film, no comparing the hypothesis to alternative theories, no attempt at discovering contrary instances, etc.

      It’s all confirmation bias without reality testing. Every behavior of Obama’s is made to fit the theory. The narrative becomes a ouroboros (a snake biting its tail). Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out.

      It’s why the right is so goofed up in the United States right now. Its epistemic closure divorces it from reality (from dealing with the world as it is and as it is evolving).

      –Santi

  3. Luke says:

    In other words, a Michael Moore like hit job from the other side of the spectrum. Did you make similar comments about his abominations? Also, it is clear that the liberals are passionately wedded to reality, as in “we have no spending or debt problem.”

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Luke,

      Would that it was so simple. Actually, Moore’s film has held up extremely well over the course of the past ten years. The scene, for example, where he catches congressmen on a street corner and asks them whether their own children are in Iraq is still unsettling and should be watched before initiating any future wars.

      The reality is that Moore had Bush’s number on the Iraq War and was actually right about Bush quite early (voters in 2004 should have listened to him). And Moore is funny and gifted at film-making.

      By contrast, D’Souza is humorless and his thesis is already dated (and refuted) within just a year of his film’s release. D’Souza theory, as presented in the film, predicted that Obama would show his true (Marxist, pro-Muslim, pro-Third World) colors if he got reelected. Since then, Obama has visited Israel and did a BFF tour with Netanyahu; appointed a Republican to Secretary of Defense; put an establishment white dude (John Kerry) in as Secretary of State; and took two steps toward bringing down the deficit (a small tax on the rich and allowing the sequester to go into effect).

      Oh, and the stock market has never been higher than under this “commie” president.

  4. Staffan says:

    The problem with Obama has less with his own personal views to do than with the fact that he is soft, eager to please and not really in charge. This is especially true when it comes to the fiscal situation – stimulus rather than budget cuts and bailing out Wall Street who he can’t touch. If this term will be like the previous the public debt to gdp will be where Italy is now…

  5. Luke says:

    Michael Moore is neither funny nor gifted. He is a polemic extremist and cheap opportunist. I am shocked that anyone with a wit of intelligence, which I believe you have, could have anything positive to say about him. As for Obama, his true socialistic leanings are obvious. He actively promotes class warfare every chance he gets, believes that successful people (the top 1%, well maybe the top 20% since that is where the money is) should pay nearly all income taxes (pushed thru increase in marginal rates for earned income, dividends and capital gains, plus additional medicare taxes), refuses to seriously consider any entitlement reform, promotes a ponzi like scheme of ultra low interest rates that we will all suffer for in the future (which is why the stock market is going up for now), supports amnesty for illegal aliens in order to create 12 million Democratic voters, nominates Thomas Perez, a racist idealogue for Secretary of Labor, and greatly exaggerates the effects of the sequester while refusing to assume authority for exercising discretion over budget adjustments (no real cuts, just cuts in growth rate). I cannot believe you give him props for “allowing” the sequester to go into effect. He fought it tooth and nail. Chuck Hagel once was a Republican, now he is a dunce, as he so vividly demonstrated. Pretty shameful for the world’s biggest military to be run by such a moron. Not really an appointment to be proud of. Naming John Kerry, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, as SOS is hardly the act of a moderate, as you seem to suggest he is. So maybe D’Souza’s theory of what makes Obama tick is hard to substantiate. That does not make it wrong.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You’ve got a low threshold for “socialist.” By your definition, all liberals are ultimately socialists. That’s, of course, ridiculous. Mixed economy advocates support capitalism but look for some cushion for capitalism’s creative destruction. Obama didn’t nationalize the car industry, but he did try to give it a temporary hand when it was upended. And Obamacare was hatched in a conservative think-tank in the 1980s. It was once a market solution that Republicans supported (mandated exchanges for buying into private insurance, etc.). And Romney, a Republican, did the conservative experiment in Massachusetts. It’s the same model, now going national.

      A little nuance and distinction-making might make you more interesting.

      –Santi

      • Luke says:

        Thank you for the insult.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Well, Sean Hannity talking points aren’t a form of thinking, they’re reciting. Make me think so that it’s fun and challenging to reflect on things with you.

  6. Staffan says:

    The problem with those projections is that deficit spending is part of the growth. Obama has been pouring out money but there is still little or no growth – last figure is 0.4 percent. Like us, you also have a steady influx of people with around 85 in IQ. They won the election for Obama but they can only do manual labor and you already have illegals for that. So who is going to support them, where is the money coming from? I doubt there is an answer in those projections.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      The immigrants coming into the United States now will be supporting elderly Americans (not the other way around).

      You imagine that the country 20 years from now will be poorer somehow than it is today. It will be the exact opposite (barring a plague, etc.).

      • Staffan says:

        The immigrants have lowered the Californian IQ by some estimates to 95 already. They have little or no education or skills. How could they possibly help you? Look at the big picture – countries with low IQ have low GDP per capita. This relation holds even for states within your own country.

        You’re already highly poverty-stricken, and that’s not even counting the 7 percent of illegals, who somehow don’t exist,
        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/14/california-poverty_n_2132920.html

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        My actual experience of California is quite different from your characterization of the state. You seem to imagine California as Calcutta, but in point of fact if it were a nation it would be among the ten richest in the world. It’s very, very far from being in decline (or even in a holding pattern). And one reason for this is the very diversity you think is a harbinger of its decline.

        You would be far better to bet on California’s dynamism over the next several decades in terms of per capita income than, say, an all white “red state” like Idaho. Where you combine a lack of diversity with white conservative politics and culture you don’t tend to attract the strongest engines of economic growth.

  7. Anonymous says:

    You appear to have a very lax, unconventional definition of intellectual, if you believe D’Souza qualifies as one.

  8. Staffan says:

    Admittedly, my personal experience of California is limited. But I do know that low IQ countries don’t prosper and California is at the very bottom, 48th if I remember correctly, and you’re still sinking. All the other low IQ states are poor as is the pattern world wide. Why would you be the exception to the rule? The reason you’re rich now is because what you’ve amassed in the past and that lots of rich people still live in California. And also the fact that you pretend like 7 percent of the population doesn’t exist. But low and sinking IQ, bottom of the Job Creation Index and top at the poverty rate – no realist can project a rosy future of that.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      The reason California is rich is not from the inertia of past successes which we’re now living off of. It’s because the state’s “mind wells” are still richly active and alive. Saudi Arabia’s oil wells will dry up, but the human mind does not dry up. UCLA, Hollywood, UC Berkeley, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Silicon Valley etc. are mind wells. In a free, creative, and diverse liberal culture, such mind wells are able to go deeper and deeper in the production of wealth.

      California is a promising part of the world because it has in abundance the greatest resource of all: places for the creative and free human mind to flourish. All of the elements that attract mind wells (Mediterranean climate, solar energy projects, diversity, gay urban culture, beaches, mountains, diverse and free cities, creative university and technology hubs, etc.) are in California.

      California is the culmination of the Enlightenment. It’s the model the world is adopting by fits and starts everywhere (including conservative states like Texas where its urban hubs (Austin, etc.) are very much like California cities with bohemian and diverse urban culture.

      • Staffan says:

        If this was true, wouldn’t you be at the top of the Job Creation Index and at the bottom of the unemployment and poverty rates instead of the other way around? While I use empirical data to back up my claims, you just reply with general ideas and hopeful predictions.

        It’s true that you have some mind wells, but with the taxes they will relocate – in the case of the film industry this has already happened to a great extent. Fact.

        Another little fact. Countries like Finland, Estonia and Poland are not multicultural, they don’t have gay urban culture or even a pleasant climate. But their school children consistently beat American school children. And Californian school children are below the American average. Can you make a projection of that?

        We can at least agree that California is the culmination of Enlightenment, although I would add that it is also the end of Enlightenment.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        End of the Enlightenment? That’s just silly. And your examples of poor parts of the world now thriving have a huge “low-lying fruit” factor. At some point, should Poland (for example) reach a certain stage of maturity in its economy, to continue to grow it will need to take in immigrants and attract greater numbers of young people to its cities, etc.

        China too will need to liberalize over time after it has plucked its low-lying fruit. The freer and more open a state or country is, the better are its prospects as its economy matures.

        Taxes are an issue for any economy. You don’t want them too high. But diversity and openness and the attraction of the best and brightest to your mind wells is also important. Where states and countries get the balance right, they’ll win.

        Did you know that Long Beach is the largest port in the United States, for example? Free trade, free minds, diversity, liberal urban culture, and openness all make for prosperity. And California is a prosperous state. Here’s an example (since you rightly want numbers, not just talk):

        http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/2013/01/the-california-budget-surplus.html

  9. Staffan says:

    Low-lying fruit isn’t what makes their school children outperform American children. And Finland is a highly developed country already. But you see what you’re doing – again you counter facts with projections and general assumptions.

    The problem with taxes is that you have so many residents who are a dead weight. A little group of talents are then supposed to feed all of them. It’s easy to see how they will respond to that situation, especially since it’s already happening.

    Thanks for some real data. Thing is, there are ups and downs in different variables all the time. The big picture regarding the fiscal situation is that the state debt is estimated at several hundred billions. Saving one billion is good, but not much not much in proportion to that massive debt. And you still have the unemployment, poverty and lack of new jobs that I’ve mentioned before. Especially the poverty rate at 23.5 percent. I can’t find any measure of poverty for any European country that is worse than that. Frankly, I’d feel a bit awkward calling my country prosperous with a figure like that. With illegals it is 30 percent. As a comparison Poland has 15 percent with a negligible amount of illegals, so you have twice as much if everyone is counted.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I guess there are many ways to make an omelet. One size is not going to fit all when it comes to how to grow and organize an economy. Homogeneity may work in some places, but not in others.

      American conservatives fear that there are too many freeloaders weighing down the US economy. It may be true (90 million adults in the United States, at any given time, aren’t working), but it may also be a structural issue (technology and globalism are making for efficiencies and forms of wage competition that wash out a large number of people from the workforce).

      My sense is that so long as the economy is growing, we needn’t think of a country or state in decline, especially over long periods of time. On average, California grows a tad faster than the rest of the country, but it certainly doesn’t grow faster than, say, Poland or China. Relatively speaking, it’s in decline, but in terms of itself, it’s still growing.

      Why California and the United States are declining relative to, say, Brazil, may have less to do with people being lazy or stupid and more to do with the way economies are structured in the 21st century. Most human beings, as a matter of reality, cluster around 100 in IQ, and that means that most human beings are in one hell of a competitive struggle for jobs that are increasingly automated or done for less wages via internet workers. And even people with a large amount of training struggle to compete for jobs in ever more efficiently run companies. I have a cousin with a PhD in pharmaceuticals whose otherwise very good job is always in danger of being cut due to the company’s ever increasing efficiencies of scale.

      I went to a museum recently in California and talked to an employee in the box office. She told me she had a bachelor’s degree in art history and this was as close a job to her training as she could get right now.

      Here’s some reliable statistics on California’s economy over the past ten years:

      http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/13/report-california-slips-to-worlds-9th-largest-economy/

      I guess my question for you would be this: if you were king of California for a year, what economic and cultural policies do you think would unleash the state to greater levels of growth and make it more competitive? My view is that states are like ecologies. The ecosystem is probably pretty efficient if it’s growing even modestly, and if you try to make it do more, you’ll get unintended consequences that might send things into contraction.

      But what would you do?

      One thing I’d do is end the drug war. The state would save money on prisons and could tax marijuana sales. It would probably put various gangs out of business, taking pressure off of police budgets. And a state that is cool about marijuana is attractive to creative bohemian people (another plus for the state).

      –Santi

      • Staffan says:

        As king of California I would also end the drug war through legalization, it’s the only rational approach. It will reduce crime and a lot of unnecessary suffering too. Although I don’t think potheads are that creative. They seem very inactive.

        But I would also change to a very strict immigration policy and remove all illegal immigrants. A lot of companies can afford to employ legally and they would if they had to. That would fix a lot of the unemployment.

        As for the fiscal situation, I really don’t know. I discussed this with another blogger, who advocates stimulus whereas I prefer spending cuts. I guess it can be done in both ways, theoretically, but cuts are very impopular. I think your governor is trying to nudge things in the right direction and that may be the best possible solution given the circumstances.

        What else? I would make English the absolute priority in schools. There are lots of succesful people who know very little about science, art, history, etc. But there are hardly any succesful people with poor language skills. It would even compensate for the low intelligence of your immigrants if enough time and effort was put into it. English teachers in elementary school should be paid big salaries to attract the real elite. But now I’m dreaming…

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Staffan,

        Applying the politics of Arizona (English only; tough on illegal immigrants, etc.) would change the character of California in ways that would make it unattractive to the educated liberals, youth, and international immigrants you want to attract.

        Los Angeles’s crime rate, by the way, is at historic lows. It’s not a dystopia here.

        And English is not in any danger in California (or anywhere else in the United States). It’s delusional to worry that Spanish will overtake the state. The children of immigrants, if not their parents, invariably speak English. It’s the language of power in this country. Economics (if nothing else) dictates that your children (at least) speak it and write it well. The most successful do.

        The languages I would teach in school are computer programming languages (teaching students from a young age to write code), critical thinking, Chinese, and traditional rhetoric.

        In terms of critical thinking, neither the students nor their teachers (except perhaps some of their science teachers) have any formal training in critical thinking. It should be taught from a young age.

        And every high school and college should have a graduating class each year in which 5-10% of those walking across the stage can speak Chinese.

        I agree with you, of course, that students should also have a rich background in the humanities (history, literature, art, etc.). They should have intellectual and cultural literacy. Critical thinking combined with intellectual and cultural literacy are necessary for serious citizenship in a democracy.

        And becoming aware of how to deploy rhetoric (and how it is deployed) breaks the spell over propaganda.

        –Santi

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