Americans have been trying to figure out who Barack Hussein Obama really is ever since he stepped into the spotlight at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In 2008 he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation of young Americans who had never cared about politics, and for them be became the ultimate symbol of hope, change, and unity. Since his inauguration in 2009, his political opponents have come to see in him their worst fears realized. Supporters have lavished every praise on him imaginable, right up to saying “he’s sort of god”. Detractors, on the other hand, claim he has lied about everything from his religion to his patriotism.
Dinesh D’Souza’s Forbes column–based on his book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage”– burst into this debate like a chain of firecrackers in a crowded room. It wasn’t so much what he said–D’Souza’s thesis is actually not that original–it was much more the fact that such a respected publication as Forbes chose to give airtime to sentiments like these:
Barack Obama is the most antibusiness president in a generation, perhaps in American history… The Weekly Standard summarizes Obama’s approach as omnipotence at home, impotence abroad.
The best you could say about the reaction of most conservative writers to D’Souza’s book is dismissive. Writing on the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin called D’Souza’s argument “poorly reasoned and unsupported by evidence.” Andrew Ferguson’s book review for The Weekly Standard went quite a bit farther than that, starting with the title: “The Roots of Lunacy.” Ferguson can’t decide if D’Souza is “a hysteric or a cynic” and lambastes him for “misstatements of fact, leaps in logic, and pointlessly elaborate argumentation.”
John Guardiano, writing for the Daily Caller, sums up other conservative critics:
David Frum, for instance, rails against what he calls D’Souza’s “brazen outburst of race-baiting.” The American Spectator’s Joseph Lawler criticizes D’Souza’s “apocalyptic reading of inconsequential and half-true stories from [Obama's] presidency” and youth. And the Secular Right’s Heather MacDonald denounces the book’s “fever dream of paranoia and irrationality.”
And yet D’Souza isn’t without his defenders. Newt Gingrich has praised the book highly, and Glenn Beck has had D’Souza on the show and personally vouched for his argument. Unfortunately the supporters seem to have something in common: they haven’t actually read the book. I don’t know about Gingrich, but Beck was praising D’Souza in an interview three weeks before the book had even come out. (Beck did not have an advance copy.) Guardiano, like Beck, leaped to D’Souza’s defense before actually reading the book. That should be your first clue that something is amiss, but it certainly won’t be your last. (Just to be absolutely clear: I do own a copy of the book and I have read it from cover to cover.)
D’Souza’s main argument goes something like this: Barack Obama is clearly left-of-center, but he does things that can’t be explained in the context of ordinary American political ideology. He’s not a traditional progressive, but something different. It turns out that what he is, is an anti-colonialist. More specifically: Barack Obama, Jr. is the ideological conduit for his father, Barack Obama, Sr.
If you think “ideological conduit” is a strange turn of phrase, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Here is D’Souza’s own description of the situation:
We are today living out the script for America and the world that twas dreamt up not by Obama, but by Obama’ father. How do I know this? Because Obama says so himself. Reflect for a moment on the titles of his book: it’s not Dreams of My Father, but rather Dreams from My Father. In other words, Obama is not writing a book about his father’s dreams; he is writing a book about the dreams that he got from his father.
Think about what this means. The most powerful country in the world is being governed according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s–a polygamist who abandoned his wives, drank himself into stupors, and bounced around on two iron legs (after his real legs had to be amputated because of a car crash), raging against the world for denying him the realization of his anti-colonial ambitions. This philandering, inebriated African socialist is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son is the one who is making it happen, but the son is, as he candidly admits, only living out his father’s dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is being governed by a ghost. (page 198)
There are three main criticisms of D’Souza’s argument. The first is that it is factually incorrect, and that’s the case that Ferguson made at the Weekly Standard. The second is that Barack Obama simply isn’t distinguishable in any meaningful way from a standard American progressive, and that was Ilya Somin’s main point at the Volokh Conspiracy. Both Ferguson and Somin make good points, but there’s an even more fundamental problem: D’Souza’s argument relies on an impossibility.
The impossibility is this: how is Barack Obama supposed to be following his father’s script so closely that we may as well have Barack Obama, Sr. in the White House if the whole reason for Obama Jr’s devotion is a reaction to the fact that his father was totally absent from his life? In order for Obama, Jr. to be the mirror image of his father’s beliefs, there has to be some conduit through which those beliefs would have traveled, and yet the two never spoke about anything remotely political, and the only surviving relic of Obama Sr’s ideology is a single publication that anyone could have read and that is far too generic to support D’Souza’s ghost in the White House claims.
D’Souza is basically saying that the butler did it with a handgun because he was so angry about not having a handgun; his whole argument is self-defeating. He could have made a more subtle, nuanced argument, but this is not a subtle or nuanced book. Whenever he has half an opportunity to ridicule Obama’s deceased father or demean our current President, he takes it. And he does so with such a complete lack of class that it makes the book very hard to read.
Not only does he accuse Barack Obama of being the mortal vessel for his dead father’s anti-colonialist machinations, but he throws out several additional rhetorical hand-grenades which he not only fails to back up, but actually attempts to disavow immediately after having made them. Here is a small sampling:
Now why would a president who has a big political stake in Afghanistan not care about proposed strategies to successfully prosecute the offensive and maybe even win the war? Short answer: Because he doesn’t want to win. (page 51)
Obama’s goal is not to discourage Iran or North Korea but rather to limit the nuclear capability of the United States and its allies. (page 55)
While most Americans are likely to view this change [towards a post-American world] with foreboding, I see a lone man in the Oval Office watching these trends that he has helped to exacerbate, cheering them on and grinning in triumph. (page 173)
The point is to allow the Iranians to get nuclear weapons while the Obama administration pretends to try to stop them. (page 185)
Remarkably, America now has a president who seems to want his country to go the way of Britain, one collapsed empire following another. (page 196)
According to D’Souza, Obama wants the US to lose in Afghanistan, wants to allow the Iranians and North Koreans to get nukes, and is intentionally attempting to collapse the United States of America from within. Even D’Souza knows that these charges are a load of crap, and he engages in a pathetic and cowardly process of throwing one verbal hand grenade after another and immediately following them with jewels like “I’m not suggesting that Obama actually favors placing nukes in the hands of mullahs.” Yes, Mr. D’Souza, that is exactly what you are suggesting. It’s the old “I’m not sayin’… I’m just sayin’” routine.
His outrageous charges against Obama are matched with a disturbing level of immature taunting. The following is a list of terms (not complete) D’Souza uses to refer to Obama:
- lactification man (page 143)
- our Artful Dodger (page 147)
- Big Daddy Obama (page 172)
- the Great One (page 192)
If “lactification man” stands out in that list, it should. The word literally means “to make white”, and is a blatant example of race-baiting. Once again, D’Souza provides just enough of a pretext of serious discussion to provide plausible deniability. His modus operandi throughout the entire book is to make outlandish claims and derogatory statements, and then pretend that he hasn’t actually said what he just said.
As I stated previously, the most disappointing thing about the book is that there are some truly valuable insights scattered amidst the dross. The fundamental question of anti-colonialism vs. progressivism offers a valuable paradigm for how we view Obama. D’Souza also makes some astute observations about Obama’s personal character and race relations in the United States. I believe that I do understand Barack Obama better having read this book, but it’s very hard to give D’Souza a pass for the sloppy arguments, poor reasoning, factual errors, and egregiously inflammatory tone of the book.
D’Souza could have written a thoughtful, serious, respectful book. It would have been better received by conservatives, and harder to dismiss by Obama’s defenders. Instead, he chose to sprinkle the book with trash talk, racially hostile nicknames, and a lot of sophomoric innuendo. I’m just not sure if D’Souza thought that would goose his sales figures, or if he is so blinded by arrogance that really can’t tell how much he has sabotaged his own writing.