The success of Dinesh D’Souza’s new movie, 2016: Obama’s America, leads me to revisit my thoughts about his recent book on which the film is based, The Roots of Obama’s Rage. I was and remain unconvinced by the argument that Obama’s anti-colonialist father explains his governing mentality. By my reckoning, the emerging postmodern liberalism of Columbia University circa 1982 (where I was for a semester as a visiting student) explains Obama pretty well.
Not only do we not need to go to Kenya to find the sources of Obama’s worldview (the Ivy League will do just fine), but in fact the very realistic and at times cold-blooded sentiments of post-colonial Africans who wrested their futures out of the hands of their European masters cuts against the magical thinking that characterizes the sort of liberalism that the Obama White House represents.
For example, D’Souza writes in a Forbes article that served as a précis for his book: “From a very young age and through his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global dominance and destruction. He came to view America’s military as an instrument for neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father’s position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder.”
Accurate or not as a description of our president’s intellectual development, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and a whole raft of Vietnam era baby boomers thought the same thing (and passed it on to their kids)—and yet none had Kenyan fathers.
More decisive still, I think, is a passage that D’Souza quotes from Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father. In this passage Obama is talking about his undergraduate experience reading Joseph Conrad’s famous novella about white imperialism in Africa, The Heart of Darkness. Obama recalls, “I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. . . . It helps me understand how people learn to hate.”
Learn to hate! I cannot imagine that Barack Obama, Sr., a man formed in the crucible of the Kenyan struggle for independence, would have ever entertained the facile notion that human beings are inherently good, and only hate because they are socialized into negative worldviews. The sad fact of the matter is that we hate quite naturally. We need to learn decency, to say nothing of the ideal of loving one’s enemies.
D’Souza’s argument is not just unpersuasive; it is positively misleading. Obama is very much a man formed by American culture. He is, in fact, our first therapeutic president. He doesn’t so much have beliefs as critical perspectives, not convictions but instead expertise. He doesn’t confront our enemies, but rather tries to understand them, empathize, and gain their trust—perhaps in order to help overcome their fears and learn how not to hate . . .
Philip Rieff announced the triumph of the therapeutic nearly 50 years ago, so in a way it’s surprising that it took so long for us to have a president like Obama. But now we do, and it does us no good at all to imagine that his mentality comes from alien shores, as D’Souza suggests. On the contrary, Barack Obama strikes me as an intelligent, ambitious, and fully committed representative of the therapeutic American liberalism of our day.
At its worst it’s a smug liberalism that refuses to see itself as an ideology but instead postures as our national (and global!) guidance counselor, which explains why Obama can push for liberal policies while insisting that he is nonpartisan. The therapist, after all, has no “interests,” only “understanding.”
Far from having sources in the Third World, I’m willing to bet that the therapeutic liberalism that Obama represents gives most anti-colonial African nationalists the creeps.
We need to be careful in assessing our liberal adversaries. They represent an American progressive tradition that has strong, deep roots in our society. As a conservative, I want to work against the predominance of this tradition to prevent it from controlling the future of our country. But my fight, our fight, is with our brothers, not with aliens from a different planet (or Africa, or Europe, as the case may be).
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. This article is based on his 2010 First Thoughts post, “D’Souza Unconvincing.”
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