2016: A Movie ReviewBy: FireTag
My wife seldom takes me to a movie, and never to a documentary. So I was truly amazed last Sunday when she impulsively bought tickets to the documentary 2016: Obama’s America for a showing less than three hours in the future. I was already familiar with the books on which the documentary was based, and hadn’t even planned to take in the movie, but I appreciated her wanting to see it, so off we went. Having always wanted to be a movie critic, and being at least as familiar with the source material as most of the paid press seems to be, I thought I’d pontificate on my impressions here.
2016‘s source material comes from two books by Dinesh D’Souza, an Ivy-League trained Indian evangelical Christian scholar. The first is The Roots of Obama’s Rage; the second is Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream. Critically, both to the film’s strength and its ultimate limitations, there is a third source; substantial portions of the movie script consist of Barack Obama himself reading out loud the audio version of his own autobiography Dreams From My Father. It is difficult to dispute many of D’Souza’s assertions about Obama when the one speaking the assertion is Barack Obama himself and the “best selling” autobiography exists to provide all of the contextual background to the assertions to claim that anything “out of context” is occurring.
D’Souza’s theses begin with the observation that Barack Obama’s world view is indelibly stamped by the unusual form of childhood trauma he experienced. He suffered from parental abandonment issues — as many children do, unfortunately — but in the unique setting for an American politician at the intersection of first world privilege and third world leftist anti-colonialism. As D’Souza himself identifies the significance of being abandoned by his father in an interview about The Roots of Obama’s Rage that appeared in Forbes Magazine:
“America today is governed by a ghost.”
Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, met Barack’s father, Barack, Sr. while attending a language class in basic Russian at the University of Hawaii in September, 1960. Ann had been born in Kansas, but had made a rapid physical and intellectual journey from the American heartland culture to the Pacific Coast. There progressive internationalism was already becoming established as a new idealism as the Western First World and Communist Second World struggled to gain a footing in Asia and Africa as the European Empires of Britain and France in particular could no longer maintain their illusions of economic viability on those continents. Ann was steeped in the views of the left even in high school. The school she attended in Washington was popularly known as the little “red schoolhouse”, and it wasn’t because of the color of the paint. Ann’s family successfully sought business opportunities in the Pacific, and so she found herself a freshman co-ed at the University of Hawaii, energized by the left-right intellectual issues of the day just as later freshmen would debate civil rights in the American south, feminism, nuclear disarmament, or gay rights issues. Colonialism was a litmus test of the day, and she could not have avoided wanting to take a political view on the issue.
Barack Senior quickly swept her off her feet. He arrived at the University as the physical embodiment of the anti-colonialism ideal through a grant scholarship program designed to bring promising scholars with the potential to be future leaders from Africa to the United States for study. He clearly had more worldly experience than Ann, and the man who would become President of the United States was born August 4, 1961. Ann was 18 years old.
Although the point was not made in the 2016 script, key dates are shown on the screen in a graphical timeline, and I’m compulsive about doing the math in any graphic. Barack Senior married Ann on February 2, 1961 after Ann became pregnant with Barack and had to drop out of school. Many a college freshman would buckle under the burden of motherhood and what was then referred to as a “shotgun wedding”, but Ann was laboring under a particularly hard, unknown burden. (It will remain forever unknown how the history of the United States would have changed if the contraception issue in the 1960′s had been the same as it is today.)
Barack Senior already had a wife and two children back in Africa, and he neglected to mention that to Ann until years later. Ann did not voluntarily choose to be a junior polygamous wife. She thought she had married a soul mate and was sacrificing to help make that marriage work. In fact, she was not Barack Senior’s first love, and she would not be his last Western mate during his educational career.
There is some disagreement as to how quickly the marriage stopped working, with some biographies suggesting Ann was physically abused and thereby motivated to change schools to Washington.
Uncontested divorce papers were filed by Ann in January 1964, with Ann completing her undergraduate education in Hawaii and Washington State in the interim, and Barack Senior attending graduate school at Harvard. Ann married an Indonesian, Lolo Soetoro, in 1965, and Ann moved to Indonesia to join her husband when Obama was 6. Ann and Lolo were divorced in 1980. Much of the intervening years were spent with Ann abroad in Indonesia, and Barack remaining in Hawaii with Ann’s mother, who had become reasonably wealthy.
Barack saw his biological father only for one month at the age of 10, yet credits his father as inspiring his love of basketball and jazz:
“I only remember my father for one month my whole life, when I was 10. And it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized, like, he gave me my first basketball and it was shortly thereafter that I became this basketball fanatic. And he took me to my first jazz concert and it was sort of shortly thereafter that I became really interested in jazz and music. So what it makes you realize how much of an impact [even if it's only a month] that they have on you. But I think probably the most important thing was his absence I think contributed to me really wanting to be a good dad, you know? Because I think not having him there made me say to myself “you know what I want to make sure my girls feel like they’ve got somebody they can rely on.” — Barack Obama 11/21/2011
Clearly, the impression Barack formed of his father was mediated almost exclusively by how Ann wanted him to view his father. She could hardly have portrayed his faults as personal — especially in the formative years for Barack when she herself did not know the truth — without invalidating her own life path, and it would have been cruel (if tempting) to allow Barack to grow up with bitterness toward the man who sired him. So anti-colonialism remained in the air that the future President breathed. On these points, D’Souza is on solid, if unremarkable ground.
But it is extraordinarily difficult to predict from the existence of a trauma of the soul how an individual will respond. Abandonment, abuse, or identity crises turn some people into martyrs and brothers or sisters into monsters. Some become lost, others driven to great deeds. Whatever happened to Obama, he worked out his response to it by seeking out mentors from the far left who were already well acquainted with his American parents and grandparents (remember the “red schoolhouse” days), and this factor is supported both by statements by Obama in Dreams From My Father and by research carried out by D’Souza and others.
Perhaps the single most important non-family mentor was Frank Marshall Davis, who was in Obama’s life for eight years and is referenced on a first name basis in Dreams From My Father 22 separate times. D’ Souza spends a good amount of screen time exploring what should have been widespread knowledge about Davis by 2008, but to get at D’Souza’s point it is useful to go directly to Paul Kengor’s recent biography of Davis, The Communist:
“Frank Marshall Davis was a pro-Soviet, pro-Red China, card-carrying member of Communist Party USA (CPUSA). His Communist Party card number was 47544. He did endless Soviet propaganda work in his newspaper columns, at every juncture agitating and opposing U.S. attempts to slow Stalin and Mao in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He favored Red Army takeovers of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Central and Eastern Europe as a whole. In China, he urged America to dump the “fascist” Chiang in support of Mao’s Red forces. He wanted communist takeovers in Korea and Vietnam. He was adamantly, angrily anti-NATO, anti-Marshall Plan, anto-Truman Doctrine. He argued that U.S. officials under President Harry Truman–whom he portrayed as a fascist, racist, and imperialist–and under secretaries of state George Marshall and Dean Acheson were handing West Germany back to the Nazis, while Stalin was pursuing “democracy” in East Germany and throughout the Communist Bloc. He portrayed America’s leaders as “aching for an excuse to launch a nuclear nightmare of mass murder and extermination” against the Chinese and the Soviets–and eager to end all civilization. His writings were breathtakingly irresponsible and shamelessly outrageous. A Reverend Jeremiah Wright sermon or Professor Bill Ayers lecture is tame by comparison.”
Let it be stipulated that Davis had his reasons for hatred of America because of the racial trauma he had himself experienced. But that trauma led him to idolize monsters who used him for their own purposes while they slaughtered nations who had committed no racial offense to him. And he was the substitute father to an American president-to-be.
D’Souza’s next thesis is that Obama — coming from such a non-mainstream American political background — was able to rise to power where previous African American candidates like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton had floundered only because he, unlike them, masked his challenge to the mainstream. More importantly, he depended on no one wanting to peek under any mask because he offered America a grand bargain. Elect me, he was saying, and you will finally receive absolution for the great American sin of racism. At a time when America felt lost and punished, the hope for absolution swept the American people off their feet as surely as Barack Senior had swept Ann Dunham off her course decades earlier. And secrets remained hidden or ignored until half of the American people began to ask what we had done.
D’Souza’s final thesis is that, freed from any constraints by re-election, Obama will dispense with the mask entirely and promote the anti-colonialist “dreams from his father” in every way he can. He would not be content with redistributing wealth within America but would seek to pull down the American middle class precisely because they are near the richest 1% when seen on a global scale. Whether the rest of the world would be better off or worse off with such wealth redistribution in an absolute sense — an issue which D’Souza has seen debated within the developing world for decades — would not matter to Obama, D’Sousa contends. It is relative outcomes only that are important. There can be no absolution for the sins of America without further, just punishment.
Does D’Souza make the case for his last thesis? In my opinion, no. Why? Because he relies too heavily on Barack Obama’s own autobiography in making it. Consider what we have learned this year from another Obama biography, Barack Obama: The Story by the Washington Post’s David Maraniss. As reported here:
Mr. Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, has given the president “nearly complete control of his own life narrative,” Dylan Byers and Glenn Thrush write. But Mr. Maraniss is the kind of writer who can challenge him — “find the strand that unravels the sweater,” as they put it….On Wednesday, Mr. Byers, working off an excerpt of the Maraniss biography in Vanity Fair, wrote of a “gotcha” moment – that Mr. Obama had created a composite of a girlfriend in New York that Maraniss interviewed for the book.
This was news, if only for a short time, because the press had read the memoir (if it had actually read the book at all) as a factual autobiographical account rather than as a literary work in which Obama took editorial liberties. Obama had stated, for example, that he used composite characters or other devices to serve narrative purposes, but it took more investigative reporting than most were willing to do prior to the 2008 campaign to sort out fact thought to serve the narrative, from omission or distortion by design, or from pure artistic license.
Again, in regard to D’Souza’s absolution of racial sin theory, would the electorate really have chosen any other president who named as his mentor Frank Marshall Davis? Would a press doing its job have let the impression of factual biography go unchallenged without following through on the implications of such facts?
Alternatively, are we to believe that Americans knowingly cast their lot with a President based solely on his literary accomplishments? We decided that the man we needed to lead us out of disaster was a professor whose demonstrated academic expertise – despite the departments from which his academic appointments came – was in writing about things rather than doing them? In editing articles about laws rather than publishing his own legal scholarship, let alone passing and implementing them at either state or national levels? In writing about economies and foreign policies instead of running them?
D’Souza believes that Obama has been able – with the aid of a less-than-workmanlike press, and the desire of the American people to receive forgiveness for the sins of racism – to hide his core from the American people.
But, if you do accept that premise, why would you also conclude that an autobiography written by Obama himself would be anything that would reveal Obama in a true light rather than a self-flattering light? Secretive people do lie to their diaries when they plan on publishing the diaries!
Maraniss’ book contains dozens of examples from Dreams of the races of characters changed, events told as facts which are, at best, family myths, and Obama’s own “whiteness” downplayed. Even the story of his abandonment by his father at the age of two is not exactly the truth. Maraniss is one of the biographers who notes that physical abuse of Ann by Barack Senior may have led her to flee to Washington a year earlier, before Obama would have any memory of losing his father.
As a book seller, Obama needed a narrative then of himself as an edgy, oppressed victim of the white colonialists, foreign to America. Later, as a national political candidate, he needed a different narrative, and he told that one. Both narratives should be taken with a spoonful of salt, and elements of either narrative only taken seriously when established from sources beyond the narrator’s control.
So 2016: Obama’s America goes, in my opinion, one step too far. We have a President stamped with childhood abandonment and identity traumas that undoubtedly drive him in complex ways. Those drives have taken him into a world far to the internationalist left in the economic and foreign policy areas compared to most Americans. They have led to political alliances with machines that most Americans knew were corrupt well before he joined them. He has emerged at the top of those machines, but apparently with any promise of racial sin absolution conditional not only on his election to President, but his re-election as well. There need be no master plan here, as D’Souza tries to argue there is. There may only be a scarred, abandoned child, trying to acquire and maintain as much success as possible for as long as possible, and making up how to do that as he goes along.
We should have compassion for that child, but we need not do that by giving him any further power over the world. That may be profoundly dangerous. We still do not know what is under the mask.