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I’ll always remember what one of my more conservative-inclined college professors said about the centrality of freedom to the American story over the past century.
The Wright brothers didn’t have to go to a king to get permission to build an airplane, he said, they just built it – people innovated and explored and experimented and tried and failed because they were free to do so!
That same argument is at the core of Dinesh D’Souza’s latest political documentary film, America: Imagine The World Without Her. It starts with a Revolutionary War soldier penning a letter to his family about the virtues of “liberty and justice for all” and ends with a speech from Bono extolling the idea of America, which has captured the world.
The film’s core is comprised of the presentation and response to five liberal criticisms of America:
- It was founded through conquest and genocide that destroyed and displaced Indians
- It condoned and built its wealth off of slavery
- It expanded by unjustly stealing land from Mexico.
- Its imperialist tendencies lead it to intervene and steal resources from other countries
- It is dominated by an unjust and exploitative capitalist system that harms the poor
D’Souza is careful not to dismiss these indictments against America outright. Our dehumanization of African slaves or forced exile of many Native Americans tribes from their land is not something we can brush away.
But even though the sins of the previous generation cannot be perfectly rectified, the government has attempted measures of justice like compensating Native Americans for their land.
So yes, of course America has a checkered past, D’Souza says, but so does every nation. All human history is predicated on a philosophy of conquest.
Until the modern era no nation has ever come into existence any other way. So if you intend to indict America on such crimes, you indict essentially every other civilization. What we should instead focus on, he says, are the virtues that make America unique – the notion that people ought to reap what they sow and that all are endowed with certain unalienable rights.
The film traces those five liberal critiques to a socialist agenda pioneered by Saul Alinsky in his staple work of community organizing: Rules for Radicals. It then quickly maps out Alinsky’s influence across the political and cultural spectrum, all the way to some of today’s most prominent politicians: Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.
At this point, some of the film’s weaknesses start to show because it starts to paint an ideological picture of today’s controversies. Regardless of its truthfulness and accuracy, it starts to feel just a little conspiracy-theory-ish, which may not help convince anyone who isn’t already grounded in conservative principles.
After the methodical presentation and response to the five major indictments against America, the movie is generally unfocused.
Near the beginning it asks the (presumably rhetorical) question: What would the world be like if America never was? But it never overtly speculates on all of the good the world would have missed out on over the past 238 years. When addressing our present challenges, it takes a swift, broad brush to today’s hot-button controversies like the national debt, the NSA spying, and the IRS scandal.
In terms of production quality, America’s potential to have a more widespread appeal takes another hit. With its somewhat campy costumed reenactments of history – sufficient to make the point but not nearly as inspiring as Mel Gibson or Daniel Day Lewis – it will likely have trouble inspiring anyone who isn’t already on board with its pro-American sentiment.
The film also mentions D’Souza’s own campaign finance scandal, and he concedes that he “made a mistake.”
Given that blot on his reputation, he finds himself in something of a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t position. It was probably better for him to take the high road and admit to it up front in the film rather than let the inevitable critics play it as a trump card.
But it doesn’t do any favors to the film’s overall credibility or the creeping suspicion that it cherry picked its quotes and sources.
In any case, America would have been better off sticking to its core historical argument, where decades of perspective allows us to make much more reliable judgments about the state of America.
As D’Souza aptly points out, we have quite the legacy affirming Tocqueville’s classic, Democracy in America. When you consider how far America has come since then by anyone’s standards – in wealth, innovation, opportunity, and justice for all – we have much to be proud of indeed.
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