For the last several years, I’ve tried to resist the narrative that the conservative/Tea Party animus against the president is purely motivated by racism. For the most part, I don’t think there’s overwhelming evidence for that narrative, though I know must still be a segment of the population that forms judgments based on racial bigotry. By and large, I think the charge of racism is used as a catchall ad hominem by those who want to reframe the debate away from the actual political issues involved. And then. Then I see something like this trailer for the upcoming documentary, 2016. Lest I fall into the pit that I just described, I’ll officially and explicitly state that I don’t categorically believe that these filmmakers are dirty, rotten racists. With that out of the way, let me now question how anybody could see this trailer as anything but ignorant at best, or bigoted at worst.
I have not read Dreams from My Father, or The Roots of Obama’s Rage. My impressions are formed entirely from what I see in this trailer.* The narrative the trailer constructs is this: our president is actively seeking to destroy America because of his cultural roots in Kenyan revolutionary ideology. The trailer literally traces (with lines and everything!) a direct lineage of reasons that President Obama would have to punish America for its past, colonial sins. On the face of it, this cannot be supported with concrete evidence. Nothing he’s said or done in his tenure as a senator or in the Oval Office has been out of step with the direction that liberalism has taken in the last two decades, and anyone who pays any attention to the news at all would be quick to point out that his liberalism is of a decidedly moderate bent — or, more accurately, right-wing bent — when it comes to foreign policy. His diplomatic playbook is a hand-me-down from President G. W. Bush. While a lot of conservatives hate his domestic spending initiatives and his globalist attitude (which includes apologizing for things that, frankly, the U.S. might have good cause to be embarrassed about), Obama is not nearly so radical as his conservative detractors would have you believe — unless, of course, they are willing to acknowledge that all those policies he co-opted from Republicans are evidence of the right wing’s radical liberalism. In other words, there’s nothing in his official behavior to suggest that there’s a hidden, sinister (read: anti-American) agenda at work. Ascribing psychological motives to him that aren’t borne by verifiable facts is specious crap, though if Dinesh D’Souza has telepathic abilities he hasn’t told anyone about, I’d certainly go all in for a Kickstarter project to study them.
That’s my problem with the broad narrative the trailer sketches. And I’m willing to admit that my understanding of politics, policy, and history is highly debatable or open to alternative interpretation. Beyond that, there’s also the fact that D’Souza himself was born outside of America (in India, specifically); no sensible case could be made that 2016 is bigoted because its authors are native-born white Americans, when that’s clearly not true. So let’s take a closer look at the construction of the trailer itself. The opening shots layer Obama’s voice over scenes of what I take to be a Kenyan burial ceremony. Positioning an African burial at the beginning with Obama’s reflections on his father implies a clear connection between Kenya, Obama Sr., and the idea that everything about our president is rooted directly in another (foreign; black; alien) place and time. I don’t doubt that the president considers these to be important to his identity. In his own words, they are bequeathed as his “birthright.” But rather than trace this thread into his upbringing in the U.S. and how his “birthright” figures into his conception of his identity as an American citizen, the trailer goes in an entirely different direction.
These words and images are then juxtaposed with images of violence, protest, and revolution. Ironically, they seem to be taken from South America (if the Spanish-language placards in the shots are any indication; I may be mistaken), rather than Africa. I’m not sure what S. American revolutionary/protest activities have to do with Obama’s Kenyan ancestry, but I don’t think that was the point. I think the point was to associate Obama’s voice and heritage with images of unrest and violence, even if those images are not lifted from his actual heritage. This sleight-of-hand signals a keen disinterest in finding homologous images to the president’s actual life story, and a passion, instead, for creating links between Obama and an audiovisual poetics of fear. It’s interesting to note that the images are, once again, of foreign, darker-skinned people.
Then comes this voice-over and montage:
Obama has a dream. A dream from his father [over images of street protests] that the sins of colonialism be set right and America downsized [images of Wall Street, CNBC, corporate culture].
We’re told that this is based on D’Souza’s book, told who’s producing the film, and then shown a picture of a generic big city street with the sound of sirens rising on the soundtrack. Again, the poetics of fear and alarm, as if there’s something dreadfully, criminally wrong, and the filmmakers and author are the emergency responders.
Obama’s voice is once again heard in excerpts from his “Change has come to America” speech. We see images of institutional buildings and a monopoly board while a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor emerges on the soundtrack. As soon as Obama actually says, “Change has come to America,” we then see an African-American family fighting over the board game. Now we’ve been led to associate Obama with game-playing, the Middle East, and the destabilization of the African-American family.
Next, more shots of institutional buildings. The voice over and montage:
America has a dream from our founding fathers [statue of George Washington] that together we [candlelight vigil] must perfect liberty, and America must grow so liberty grows. Which dream will we carry into 2016?
Under the final, rhetorical question appears an American flag with a variety of corporate brands, government entity acronyms, and party symbols in place of the stars resolving themselves into a question mark. The flag that dissolves into a final shot of a bridge. Interspersed with the other images in that sequence are shots of other bridges, skyscrapers in the setting sun, etc. As it fades to black, the title card tells us to expect the film in theaters this summer and gives the Web site address. There’s a lot to unpack in that final montage. Let’s start with the most disturbing part.
When the narrator says that “we must perfect liberty,” we are shown the first white people in the trailer. Following the emphasized “our founding fathers,” how else can this be read, other than a coded link between “genuine American-ness” and white cultural dominance? And what does it mean to say “our founding fathers,” as if there is a clear and established contrast between the president’s literal father and the figurative fathers of American culture? Here’s my response to that question. Having portrayed Barack Obama as hailing from a distinctly foreign, Kenyan, violently revolutionary heritage, conflating ethnicity with Otherness and non-peaceful means of protest, the trailer portrays “real” Americans as white, peaceful protesters. In other words, Obama is not “one of us.” Essentially, he must be anti-American because he’s literally un-American. The way this is connected to (black) cultural heritage and (black) physical appearance is appalling.
Slightly less disturbing, but still problematic, is how the shining, urban metropolis is used as a visual metaphor for growing liberty. Corporate capitalism, big cities, and the benefits of modern civilization are often synchronized with the images of gleaming skyscrapers, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is how these images are mean to be portrayed. Being an American, someone committed to the cause of liberty, is therefore connected to being someone who hails these images as emblems (and their semiotic associations) of that liberty. Which is, as with most of this trailer, specious crap. But it dovetails neatly with the image of the stars of the Stars and Stripes being replaced by corporations, governmental entities, and political parties.
When the trailer asks, “Which dream will we carry into 2016?” it’s not asking whether Americans still believe in the union as defined by 50 states living under a constitutional republic with a federal government at its center. Instead of the most basic building blocks of the United States of America — the states and their citizens — being represented on the flag, the trailer represents America as a variety of brand affiliations. As if we must declare loyalty to one or more of these things, rather than the idea of America as a democratic republic. How would the founding fathers feel about having the GOP elephant, the Democrat ass, and the Merrill-Lynch bull being stand-ins for the titular united states? Are we nothing more than a nation of corporate shills and bureaucratic drones; is that really the message the film intends to send?
Finally, I’d like to call attention to the pronoun “our.” Over the course of the last year, I have heard this word used ubiquitously by pundits and candidates from both sides of the political spectrum. It’s always, “This is the year we take our country back!” or “This is the year we take our state back!” From whom? Our fellow countrymen? Our fellow state citizens? Has the country/state literally been taken away from one group of Americans, given to another, with the result being that the disenfranchised have been booted from their homes and stripped of all the rights and privileges of being citizens?
Based on the rhetoric practiced by the campaigns, super PACs, and pundits, you’d think that there is no longer a single American citizenry, but two separate and distinct groups, one of which must be genuinely “American,” and another that must not. Maybe it has always been like this; maybe I’ve only become sensitized to it recently. That doesn’t really change anything, though. Using words like “our” and “we” in a way that includes some and excludes others rhetorically redefines the opposition in a way that makes them culturally, historically, and politically alien. In a way that implicitly defines them as being less deserving of the rights and privileges of being a fellow citizen. In this kind of rhetoric, there is no such thing as addressing all citizens as “my fellow Americans.” There is now a question of authenticity whose definition depends entirely on what platform is currently being advocated by one group.
I find this to be absolutely sickening. If Americans can’t even agree that we’re all Americans, what kind of progress can we expect to make? Both the Right and the Left practice this kind of rhetoric. Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me that, since the rhetoric of the day is predicated on Us v. Them divisiveness, polemicists would fall back on the age-old boundaries of skin color. When George W. Bush was president, it was an axiom of the Left that he hated black people. Now that a black man is president, it is an axiom of the Right that he hates white people. Except few conservatives are willing to say as much in so many words. Instead, they code this conviction in terms of nationality, culture, or political strategy. They don’t distrust Obama because he’s black; they distrust him because his dad’s from an African country (not American), his intellectual associates are sympathetic to foreign revolutionary ideals (as opposed to American revolutionary ideals), and because he’s not sympathetic to the way American ideals are currently framed by the traditionalists (which must mean he has an anti-American animus, even though the traditionalists’ vision of American isn’t necessarily consonant with actual American history).
My deconstruction of the trailer for 2016 leads me to understand it as undeniably bigoted. At this point, I guess it’s still possible to say that while the trailer has racist overtones, the filmmakers themselves might not be racist. At what point, then, do we stop drawing a line between racist discourse and racist beliefs? Obviously, nonwhite, non-native Americans can practice bigoted discourse. So this can’t be a simple issue of white supremacy. But bigotry comes in other forms. The Tea Party Right has tolerated the insufferable Birthers, it has openly denounced the president’s patriotism, and it has persisted in judging him in terms of his circle of acquaintances (as opposed to his actual policies), which includes a professional relationship with a prominent race theorist. His respect for the secular nature of his office has led him to discharge his duties in a way that has been twisted into a perceived “war on Christianity,” and then there are the paranoiacs who still maintain that he’s a “secret Muslim.”
None of this is to say that every person who criticizes the president or refuses to support his campaign for presidency is a bigot. But it would require a very special brand of willful blindness to maintain that bigotry of various kinds (if not racial, then religious, nationalist, cultural, etc.) has been absent from the criticism Obama has received from the Right. Identity politics may now be more complicated than simple divisions along racial lines, but Obama’s particular heritage has made him the focal point of a goulash of uniquely American prejudices that have little to do with his politics and much to do with the way the electorate conflates image management with personal integrity. And when image is concerned, you’re dealing primarily with perception, not reality. The way the Right perceives Obama may not be dominated by his status as half-Kenyan, but, as this trailer proves, it is not insignificant.
When I look at something like the trailer for 2016, I am deeply ashamed that the racial/cultural identity of a sitting president is the locus of manifold bigotry among some political activists in my country. I am ashamed because one of my fellow Americans — Barack Hussein Obama — is being persecuted by my other fellow Americans on the charge that he is not “one of us.” I’m not willing to say that, because of their prejudices, those bigots are not “real” Americans. The reason I’m ashamed is because I’m as American as they are, and, unlike them, I feel obliged to own that fact.☕
* I’m not criticizing the film. I’m discussing how the trailer creates its own form of discourse as a discrete form of media. If the film develops a much more cogent, informed, and non-bigoted argument, then that’s another issue. The trailer, however, brings together a whole raft of signs that I find to be problematic and/or offensive. Let me once more underscore this point: even if the people who made the trailer aren’t bigoted, the trailer sends a bigoted message.