America: Imagine the World Without Her
Special to The History Place
Since my high school days, which coincided with the centennial of the American Civil War, I have loved counter-factual histories. If the South Had Won the Civil War was popular during the early 1960s and I gobbled it up. Much more recently, I reviewed in this space Inglorious Basterds, Quinton Tarantino’s 2009 version of winning World War II in Europe. In that remarkable counter-factual cinematic yarn, a covert contingent of Jewish-American GIs manages to blow up a Paris movie theater with Hitler in the audience.
I loved both these counter-factual speculations, as well as others I’ve collected down the decades in between the two. Consequently, I came to America: Imagine the World Without Her filled with anticipation. The film’s first ten minutes delivered. We see General George Washington shot dead by a British sniper, resulting in a route of the American army. But, after wetting my appetite with this tantalizing opening, Director Dinesh D’Souza betrayed me.
Okay, call me naïve. Since seeing America, I’ve learned that D’Souza is a political polemicist who, on one hand has been a college president and best-selling author, and on the other is a convicted felon who in May of this year pleaded guilty in federal court to making illegal campaign contributions. His previous documentary is 2016: Obama’s America, in which he apparently made dire predictions of how the President, if reelected, would lead the nation to socialist ruin.
Having gotten my pique over this act of rank deception off my chest, let me say that D’Souza scored some points with me. His history of America is not so much counter-factual as counter-liberal. Singling out Howard Zinn’s enormously popular A People’s History of the United States for particular censure, D’Souza makes several arguments which I found compelling.
First, he denies the currently popular thesis that Americans committed genocide on the Indians. He contends – probably correctly – that pandemic diseases wiped out most of the continent’s Native Americans. He adds that conquest has been the hallmark of history – from the Persians, Romans and other ancients, through the Mongolian hordes to the Spanish Conquistadors, right down to the Japanese Empire and the Third Reich. What distinguishes America, he contends, is the restitution Uncle Sam has made to many of the tribes, enabling them (among other things) to build casinos and thus become capitalists.
Next, he revisits the Mexican War. Did America steal California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico from its Southern neighbor? No, retorts D’Souza. Mexico picked the fight with the “Texians” in the first instance. Then the U.S. won the war fair and square. The film got its biggest rumble of approval from the (apparently more conservative and sympathetic than I) audience when he pointed out that the American Army made it all the way to Mexico City, but voluntarily withdrew. Many Mexicans today probably wish America had kept all of Mexico, he wryly observed to audible approbation.
Third, he tackles slavery. How could the Founding Fathers promulgate the Declaration of Independence, while apparently condoning slavery? D’Souza’s answer is that the Founders were idealistically expressing universal truths, while pragmatically accepting that no United States of America was possible without allowing slavery to (temporarily) survive. Furthermore, the North fought a bloody Civil War, sacrificing 300,000 Union lives to end the abomination. A century later came the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And a half century after that, Barack Obama occupies the White House.
Last, but not least, he tackles the depredations of capitalism. He argues that, while conquest was the main wealth-creating mechanism throughout most of history, American capitalism creates wealth through invention, entrepreneurship and enterprise. And, while merchants were second or even third-class citizens in European and Asian societies of the ancient and middle ages, they are the heroes of modern America. De Tocqueville, notes D’Souza, recognized and applauded this distinctly American phenomenon early on, and it remains the nation’s most important characteristic today.
While not the counter-factual history I was expecting, America, to this point in its presentation, offered a compelling, stimulating thesis. I found it refreshing to see someone make a reasonably coherent case for American Exceptionalism, a concept I embraced as a doctoral student in Case Western Reserve University’s American Studies program 40 years ago. In addition to Zinn’s widely known history (D’Souza notes that it’s mentioned in both Goodwill Hunting and The Sopranos), Noam Chomsky’s Latin America: From Colonization to Globalization (published in 1989 and reissued in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first landfall) and other, lesser tomes have shunted American Exceptionalism aside in favor of what D’Souza terms “American Shame.” In its unapologetic pushback, America is refreshing.
If D’Souza had stopped there, this might be a fairly favorable review – one of the few he’s going to get from anyone not politically on the extreme right. But D’Souza isn’t just out to counter the current academic custom of bad-mouthing America. No, he apparently felt compelled to revisit the themes of 2016: Obama’s America. We learn that community organizer Sol Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals, allegedly honed his trade at the feet of none other than Mafia boss Frank Nitti. Alinsky then went on to infect Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton with his poisonous ideas and goals. Obamacare is worse than the pandemics that decimated the native American population. And beware of Hilary Clinton’s possible succession to the Obama throne in ’16.
To make his case, D’Souza has to grapple with some ironies and contradictions that are far more challenging than the anomaly of slavery in the world’s greatest democracy. How to explain the bailout of Wall Street? Well, Obama’s insidious plan was to get control of capitalism so as to destroy it from within. Seriously? It’s funny that nobody in the “Occupy” movement ever caught onto the scheme.
If you agree with D’Souza – as many in the small audience surrounding me did – this diatribe was the highlight of the film. “It won’t get an Oscar but it was terrific,” one old cob remarked to another in the men’s room after the movie had ended. But for me this was the second and more serious of D’Souza’s betrayals. All right – it wasn’t the counter-factual history that lured me into the theater. I could accept that in light of his conservative counterpoints to the breast-beating mea culpa culture that pervades our campuses today.
But I really can’t forgive his use of this thesis as a platform from which to launch his political pitch against Hilary Clinton in 2016. This was sneaky, self-serving, and (worst of all for a wanna-be film maker) badly brought off.
Rated PG-13 for some violent images.
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Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is http://jamescastagnera.wordpress.com/. His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).