Not every member of my family supports the President. Some are aghast at the idea of ever watching MSNBC. My mother believes that previous attempts I’ve made to obtain employment in the United States were de-railed by the economic policies of the man she calls “The Bamster”. My father opposes what he refers to as the President’s “European Social Democratic” ideas. However, his denunciations are relatively mild, and sometimes his criticisms are valid: for example, he doesn’t understand why the President set aside the recommendations of the Simpson Bowles Commission to reduce the deficit. In contrast, most of the invective I’ve heard is generally much more extreme and nonsensical. Mother Jones recently published a chart detailing all the prevailing conspiracy theories surrounding President Obama: the accusations range from him being Muslim, to secretly homosexual, to openly Communist. Never mind that many of these allegations are contradictory, the theories solely exist to prove the President’s unrelenting malevolence.
While the aspersions cast on the President are often irrational, there is a rationale behind them: the concept of a “paradigm shift” has been worn out by political science scholars, but it is fair to say that President Obama represents a rupture. The certainties of an older America, more reflective of Norman Rockwell prints than the nation’s actual state of mind in ages past, are disappearing: America is becoming more ethnically diverse, its position as a world leader has become increasingly challenged, and it is becoming obvious that supposedly “socialist” Europeans or Canadians don’t necessarily live more poorly than Americans do. Certainly, if you’ve made it in America, then you get more jouissance out of that achievement than you might elsewhere. But is the average American that far ahead of the average Australian, Canadian or German? Or do the latter have advantages that would be welcomed by most Americans? President Obama apparently thinks so. But this isn’t the American way, or at least, what has hitherto been perceived to be the American way. Some ask: who is this liberal elitist who casts his eyes across the ocean and wants to incorporate the ideas arising from other lands; in the process of assimilating the experiences of elsewhere, will he undo that which makes America unique? What they don’t ask is if some of what makes America exceptional, such as its lack of gun control laws or a comprehensive health system, are not things of which one should be proud.
My other half has American relatives. Her uncle suggested we watch a documentary about President Obama which had been put together by Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative writer. We saw, or rather, endured it. Its primary thesis is as follows: the consistent thread in Obama’s thinking is “anti-colonialism”. After all, Obama’s father, a Kenyan whose life chances were constrained by the confines of British rule, held strong anti-colonial views; according to D’Souza, Obama had apparently set himself the task of fulfilling his father’s vision. What Obama inherited from his dad was supposedly re-enforced by an education that included mentoring by the late Frank Marshall Davis, a poet and journalist. It’s alleged that Davis was a member of the Communist Party at one point in his life: he certainly was a man of the left. He worked with trade unions and thought “race”, per se, was more a social than a biological construct and thus racism was an immoral fiction which should be eliminated. Davis apparently once said of his activism between 1935 and 1948: “I worked with all kinds of groups. I made no distinction between those labeled Communist, Socialist or merely liberal. My sole criterion was this: Are you with me in my determination to wipe out white supremacy?”
The Thirties and early Forties were also a period in which many people thought that the Soviet Union had somehow avoided the ravages of the Great Depression without resorting to Fascism and its brutal necessities of militarism and racism. The Soviets’ reputation was further enhanced by the bravery and sacrifices made by the Russian people during World War II; Churchill once noted in a meeting with Stalin that the British public had become “pinker”. Stalin replied that this was a “sign of good health”. The United States was not immune: Stalin was made Time Magazine’s man of the year for 1942, despite the fact that he was a brutal tyrant who terrorised and murdered his people in numbers that far exceeded those which resulted from Hitler’s atrocities. The point is, Marshall Davis was swimming along in a broader current. By being on the conspicuous Left in the Thirties and Forties, in particular by working with trade unions, he opened himself up to the allegation of being a “Communist” henceforth and forevermore. Never mind that a change of heart seems to be a feature of many figures on the right, such as Ronald Reagan, who was once a New Deal Democrat, and David Horowitz, who described himself as a “Red Diaper Baby”: if you once associated with Communists and you didn’t fully exit the Left, in the D’Souzan world view, you’re still a Communist regardless of any sign that you have mellowed. And furthermore, your Communism also touches the lives of everyone around you, and influences young people to become Marxists as well.
Of course, most reasonable people would concede the process of mentoring and maturing is not like a viral transmission, but we are not contending with rational perspectives. D’Souza also embroidered his “anti-colonial” thesis by referring to Obama’s supposed decision to send a bust of Winston Churchill back to Britain; it had hitherto sat in the Oval Office. As it turns out, there were two busts of Winston Churchill in the White House, one of which was returned to the British Embassy in Washington as a matter of course after President Bush’s term expired. But even if it had been a deliberate choice on Obama’s part not to keep both, it’s too glib to suggest that this move was merely due to “anti-colonialism”; it’s just as plausible to say that a key part of Obama’s appeal in 2008 was his desire to break with the President Bush’s warlike policies. While Winston Churchill represented the bulldog spirit of Britain during World War II, he was less talented as a peacetime leader; furthermore, Churchill’s visage could suggest the psychology of a nation under siege. Did Obama want to send messages to leaders meeting him at the White House that he still saw America as being combative? Or rather, did he want to ensure that conciliation was his theme? It is reasonable to say that this was an unfortunate oversight and a public relations mistake: it would have been much more adroit if the President had asked for a bust of William Wilberforce, the man who fought against the slave trade, in Churchill’s place. Nevertheless, the motivations behind this incident may have had nothing to do with feelings about colonialism: we just don’t know. It’s arrogant to presume that we do, and turning it into an accusation smacks of paranoia.
D’Souza’s final innuendo is that Obama is deliberately bankrupting the United States. Beggaring America will bring it to the level of Third World countries; this, D’Souza states, is necessary in order to achieve equality and smash colonialism. There is indeed a debt problem, and the deficits have been mounting. However, to suggest that President Obama has a deliberate plan to crash America into the buffers ignores the separation of powers and checks and balances: he could not do it unless Congress went along with him. This idea also suggests that there aren’t enough patriotic Americans within the Democratic Party to prevent such a figure leading them, nor are there sufficient numbers to constrain him. In other words, this is a patently absurd suggestion; it also ignores the fact that the last time the budget was in surplus was under Bill Clinton, a Democratic president. This thesis also conveniently forgets that the Republican House of Representatives simply will not allow taxes to rise to match outgoings. Furthermore, when the Republicans last controlled Congress and the White House, deficits were not brought under control, they exploded. After the financial crisis hit, President Obama was obliged (in some cases by his predecessor) to support banks and major companies: fortunately, the government is now in a position to divest itself of General Motors shares and AIG recently repaid their loan. Obama also had to grapple with another problem: in order for the economy to grow, demand had to come from somewhere. This led to messy, often unfocused spending on programmes of limited utility, rather than emulation of purposeful schemes like the Tennessee Valley Authority as under the New Deal or National Broadband in modern Australia. The same churning, sludgy machinery which hampers American government also produced health care legislation which does more good than harm, but nevertheless, contains kickbacks and other elements that a body truly focused on the common good would not approve. Never mind, D’Souza says, what seems to be gross dysfunction and beyond the ability of one man to fully manipulate or manage, is actually the brilliant execution of a deliberate plan.
The film is somewhat out of date: D’Souza concluded by stating that should Obama be re-elected America in 2016 would be very different from the one we know today. Certainly: but one of America’s strengths is that it is based on a dynamic rather than fixed idea. As the President has reminded us, the Constitution opens by stating, “We the People of the United States, in order to create a more perfect Union”. The key words are “more perfect”: pristine government wasn’t achieved when the document was enacted, rather the Constitution spliced into the nation’s DNA a desire and a process to reach towards ever better. Paralysis for such a society represents its death: as it lives, naturally, it will evolve.
All in all, D’Souza presented a mixture of fantasies and falsehoods which deserves little but derision. But the problem is that D’Souza’s ideas represent a credo for many of President Obama’s antagonists: rather like teenage romantic love, this is a perspective which withstands the assault of reason. When President Obama took two Bibles (one belonging to Lincoln, the other to Martin Luther King) in his hand, swore the oath, spoke the words of his stirring Inaugural Address and then stepped off the podium, he must have had a thought stirring in the recesses of his mind that would have to wrestle with this for four more years. I don’t envy him: whatever he achieves will be done against fierce, visceral opposition. If he triumphs to the good of America and world, he will have earned his place in the pantheon of great Presidents.