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If only ‘America’ would stay on the subject

By Gary Clift

The full title of Dinesh D’Sousa’s new non-fiction film is “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” As political “documentaries” go, it is good-looking and brisk, and it will sometimes discuss ideas in a reasonable way—and this last is highly un-filmlike.

But the co-writer, co-director, and presenter of the film would have done even better if he had exerted the discipline necessary to limit himself to the subject described by his movie’s title. The most basic weakness of this generally diverting film is that it can’t stay on subject.

For example, one of the several dramatized historical scenes has Lincoln campaigning in Illinois and explaining what is meant by the phrase from the Declaration of Independence “all men are created equal.” The explanation is fine. Maybe not something most adult Americans need to hear, but clear and historically plausible.

And the dramatization is OK. The problem is that the film isn’t in the middle of a discussion of the equality of men or anything related to it. The scene is extraneous.

Here’s another example of ways the movie fails to be a unified statement. Early on it sets out four or five arguments made by America haters—that the land was stolen from natives, that slavery diverted wealth away from African-Americans, that ours is an imperialist nation, and that capitalism is inherently unfair. Then it discusses these arguments, usually suggesting ways the generalizations are over-simplifications at best.

What we have to that point would make a movie. But the film goes on. And what follows may not really be related to what has gone before. One could, if feeling charitable, say that the rest is about the origin of the hate America impulse.

Certainly there are interviews with Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill, references to Elizabeth Warren, shots at Saul Alinsky and Howard Zinn, and discussions of what President Obama, Mrs. Clinton, and other MSNBC Democrats learned from these last two writers. Apparently talking about being broke was a strategy that Rules for Radicals Alinsky could have suggested to Hillary.

But the relationships between the ideas presented in “America” are, by the end of the movie, not very clear. And this is partly a function of the writers’ enthusiasms for examples.

Now some of the examples are appealing, and winning. D’Sousa himself is an emigrant (thirty years ago) from India, which means that the film’s narrator and on-screen persona can use himself as an instance of the liveliness of the American Dream. His background is also an aid when he is talking about the idea that all territories have been conquered by some one at some time—maps of the sub-continent show the extent to which India has been possessed over and over again.

But D’Sousa must also refer to his own indictment for a campaign finance violation. So his background is a mixed blessing.

For my money, the best argument in the film is that from the days of de Tocqueville (author of Democracy in America, in 1835) Americans have become rich by producing wealth rather than by grabbing it. One hears little about it these days, but at one time Gulf War protesters insisted that America undertook the fight in order to secure cheap oil. Apple has done more to enrich Americans than have the deployments of the Big Red One.

Other arguments, appealing in themselves, are not always effective counters to the hate America positions listed. That there were Black slave owners (and American Indian ones) does not make slavery any less tragic. The experiences of successful female African-American entrepreneurs don’t explain why American Blacks lagged behind economically for such a long time.

The film’s most moving passage is a section of a speech by aging Rock star Bono. He emphasizes how the U.S. is different from other countries, and his observations make one proud.

Nevertheless, D’Sousa’s movie is appealing and positive, even if it isn’t always cogent and is rarely humorous. I can’t see it winning minds, though it may move some hearts over the short-haul. But, then, political documentaries are never more than controversial—which is to say, of short lived effect.

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