First things first: D'Souza's film amounts to little more than an almost two-hour long and very well-produced negative campaign ad. D'Souza doesn't back any specific potential Presidential candidates in America (though Sen. Rand Paul gets a hefty amount of screen-time), but he does devote a significant part of the film to a fairly vicious and thoroughly-duplicitous preemptive strike against (likely Democratic Presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton. If D'Souza were a PAC, he'd almost certainly be guilty of running afoul (again) of the Federal Election Campaign Act with this film. As it is, he's mostly guilty of running a little too close to Sergei Eisenstein.
After sleeping on it for a night, I woke up today thinking that D'Souza's film, more so than being merely propagandist and revisionist (which it most certainly and deeply disturbingly is), was also vaguely reminiscent of the Roald Dahl children's story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The protagonist in Dahl's novel is the boy Charlie, of course, but the most interesting character is and has always been the mysterious and eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka. Now, to be fair, there is more than a little bit of Charlie in Dinesh D'Souza, and to the extent that is true, it is as difficult to object to D'Souza's fantastical indulgences and hyperbolic glorifications of America as it is to object to a child's belief in Santa Claus. Dahl's Charlie, impoverished and hungry but good-hearted, longed above all for a glimpse inside the Shangri-la that was Wonka's chocolate factory, and Charlie believed with equal parts idealism and desperation that (in Dahl's words) "there was one thing that the grown-ups also knew, and it was this: that however small the chance might be of striking lucky, the chance is there. The chance had to be there." D'Souza, an immigrant who against all odds got his Golden Ticket to America and who existentially confirmed that, yes, in fact, the chance IS there, is undoubtedly one of the very best people to tell the story of America's promise.
Alas, if only D'Souza had told the whole story, told the story right (and not Right), told the story of American exceptionalism qualified by the always and ever against-all-odds exception that he is, and not figured himself as the rule that he so desperately wants himself and his adopted country to be. If only he hadn't so obviously cherry-picked his interviewees (Chomsky, Zinn, Alinksky et al) as targets and then also cherry-picked their utterly non-representative detractors as anecdotal stories. If only he hadn't invested so much energy and passion in divesting the disenfranchised of their efforts at combating disenfranchisement. If only he hadn't used his 103 minutes of beautifully-produced film to effectively delegitimatize the entire history of progressive American race, gender and class initiatives, debunking them without either any demonstration of first understanding them or their historical/cultural context. If only D'Souza had just stuck to being Dahl's "Charlie," the down-and-out kid who got lucky. If only he wasn't, as I suspect he is, more Veruca Salt or Violet Beauregarde or Mike Teavee than he is Charlie.
In fact, I suspect, given his ideological and financial influence at this point, D'Souza is far more akin to Willy Wonka than any of the starry-eyed children longing for a Wonka's golden ticket in Dahl's story. Self-sequestered in his self-made, self-absolving, ridiculously profitable and quietly fantastical Chocolate Factory, Dahl's Willy Wonka existed in a manufactured world of sugar and sweetness that was maintained only by virtue of a healthy infusion of paranoia, neurosis and distorted reality. Dahl really was a genius at making our otherwise-unreflective allegiance to childhood fantasies questionable, if not also wholly objectionable, and that genius is no more evident than in his rendering of the character of Willy Wonka. One of my favorite lines from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has always been, purely for its cringe-inducing candor and probity, this one by Wonka:
Whipped cream isn't whipped cream at all if it hasn't been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn't poached eggs unless it's been stolen in the dead of the night.Read the above line as a child: it's funny. Read it as an adult: it's downright terrifying. The conflation of "whipped" and whipped, of "poached" and poached-- a difference so easy to elide, so subtle, so slight, so attenuated and yet so extraordinarily, profoundly and critically important-- constitutes the difference that makes a difference. (Not least of all to the Oompa-loompas, amirite?!) For what it's worth, that difference is the long and short of what America misses, if not also intentionally conceals. D'Souza is to "America" what Willy Wonka is to his Chocolate Factory: so thoroughly convinced of the sweetness of its productions that he's been blinded to the whipping and poaching that that production requires.
And that delusion of D'Souza/Wonka is what you get in America. Here's hoping you have the stomach to stand it, because it's really enough to give you a very-"American" version of diabetes.