Of course the new documentary movie 2016: Obama's Americawas timed by conservative intellectual and bestselling author Dinesh D’Souza to discredit President Barack Obama. Nonetheless, there can’t be much doubt that the President’s vision of America is driven by his attitude toward the perceived sins of European colonialism and his fear that America has now assumed that mantle. The film offers evidence that this is Obama’s vision while suggesting what America would look like by the year 2016 should he be re-elected.
To support this portrayal of Obama, the film begins by showing that he returned a bust of Winston Churchill that was given to President George W. Bush by the British after 9/11. According to President Obama, his Kenyan grandfather was tortured and imprisoned by the British, though David Maraniss, a sympathetic Obama biographer, discounts that story. Nonetheless, Churchill was Britain’s prime minister during a later uprising that led to Kenyan independence. D’Souza argues that this bad blood has caused Obama to hate colonialism, especially the British version. This hatred was passed on to the President by his father, Barack Obama Sr.
But Obama’s father deserted him and later only saw him once more during a month-long visit when the future President was ten years old. Besides that, psychological explanations based on long-ago events are always tricky, permitting observers to come to opposite conclusions based upon exactly the same evidence.
A simpler and more direct explanation is that Obama’s attitude toward colonialism was influenced by his professors and the intelligentsia, that herd of independent thinkers who passionately share the same view and around whom Obama has spent his adult life.
The film, for its part, does name the individuals who helped shape the geopolitical outlook of the young Barack Obama, the most important of whom is Edward W. Said, whose 1978 book Orientalismcontinues to be an enduring influence in the academy. Though the book begs to be taken seriously as a complex explanation of what divides East from West, Said’s thesis is that the West has created a mythology about the peoples of Asia and Africa that portrays them, in the final analysis, as inferiors; consequently, Asians and Africans have an inferiority complex.
2016 arguably spends too much time making the case for the influence of Obama’s father, but the film does open to a wider audience the reasons why Western civilization and America are reviled by the intelligentsia. As the argument goes, Third World poverty is the direct result of exploitation by richer countries with histories of colonialism. “Inequality” within America, a comparison the film tidily bundles together with global inequality, is also explained by such poor logic.
Yet this argument ignores the fact that the impoverished conditions in the Third World existed prior to the colonialists’ arrival. That is, if the colonialists encountered an underdeveloped world, some entity or events besides colonialism must have underdeveloped it.
So too did slavery exist in Asia and Africa hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived, and slavery continued in those regions long after it had been abolished in the West. One fact stands out: Most societies had slaves, but only the English, at great personal and financial risk, outlawed slavery in their territories, which eventually led to its worldwide abolition.
So heavy is the guilt that has been laid on England that this prodigious fact was not even alluded to in its Olympic opening celebration in London this past July.
Yes, colonialists did exploit and brutalize native peoples, such as the Belgians did in Central Africa and the Portuguese in Angola. But, as in many comparable situations, if European colonizers are to be blamed for anything, it should be for failing to live up to their own Judeo-Christian standards. Certainly by the standards operating among the subject peoples the West did nothing wrong because the various tribal societies saw slavery, as well as the exploitation of others and the environment, as normal.
If the critics of colonialism were sincere, they would also be critical of, say, the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which lasted over six hundred years and engaged in incessant wars of aggression and genocide. Nor does the Soviet empire ever seem to be included in this criticism, what with its policies of starvation, torture, enslavement, and mass murder of millions of its subject people.
Ignoring the savagery of others while demeaning the West is but another example of the way in which “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” That is, hypocrites acknowledge virtue each time they rely on it as a standard against which to measure vice.
For neither the Ottomans, the Soviets, nor assorted others contributed a religious ethic, a democratic system, or technology that improved the lot of their subject people. In fact, nobody would even expect these evil empires to be measured by such a standard! By contrast, Western colonialism was like the bee that takes nectar from a flowering plant, but in doing so it also deposits pollen that insures the fecundity and productivity of the plant.
In the most intriguing scene in the film, this point is made when D’Souza interviews the President’s half-brother, George Obama, who lives on a few dollars a month in a hut in Nairobi. George Obama, himself an author with a mellow sense of irony, argues in his book Homelandthat Kenya would have been better off if it had stayed longer under British rule. He concludes that Malaysia and Singapore are more advanced economically than Kenya precisely because they remained colonies for longer periods of time.
Another memorable moment in the film is the dramatized re-enactment of a young D’Souza departing his native India to come to the U.S. We see him hugging his parents and others, then getting into a taxi and, as the taxi pulls away, waving soberly back at his family and friends, closing that chapter of his life forever.
Though the scene is a bit chalky, it stirs memories of the emotions with which our ancestors must have struggled when they left their families to come to America. And just as D’Souza’s attitude toward America conflicts with Obama’s, this scene intensifies the main conflict in the film, a conflict between the hope and expectation in this farewell scene and those individuals in the rest of the film who have a grudge against the West and particularly America.
As 2016 shows, America itself has a strand of anti-colonialism dating back to the Revolutionary War. But the “anti-colonialism” explored in 2016 is an alien concoction composed mostly of neo-Marxism mixed with a smidgen of post-Victorian disillusionment, a leftover from British elites who self-righteously presided over the decline of their own colonial empire.
As for Karl Marx, he had no animus against colonialism, seeing it as merely another stage in society’s evolution, preparing the way for the “inevitable” international socialist revolution that would overthrow the capitalist system. But by the end of the nineteenth century, contrary to Marx’s predictions, conditions in capitalist nations were improving, especially in the U.S., where our immigrant ancestors were arriving by the millions.
By the 1920s, Lenin, ensconced in the Kremlin, realized that his “worker’s paradise” was being upstaged by America’s “melting pot.” By then he had read John A. Hobson, one of those British intellectuals disillusioned with colonialism. Despite capitalism’s apparent success, Hobson offered the thesis that capitalism was actually riding on the backs of colonized peoples. Needing some oxygen to revive his theories of oppression, Lenin seized upon the concept of colonized peoples as “victims” of capitalism’s global reach. Others then parroted the same line.
Too bad Barack Obama is among them.
Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, California. The foregoing article, "The Orientalism of Barack Obama," was originally published in the New Oxford Review (November, 2012), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.
Related: Dinesh D'Souza, Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream.
From inside the flap: "To Obama, the hated 'one percent' isn't just wealthy Americans; it is America itself.
"Building on his previous bestseller on Barack Obama, The Roots of Obama's Rage, . . .D'Souza shows how Obama's goal to downsize America is in plain sight but ignored by everyone.
"D'Souza lays out what Obama plans to do in a second administration -- a makeover of America so drastic that the "shining city on a hill" will become a shantytown in a rather dangerous global village."