D’Souza’s “Rage” a Middling Psychoanalysis

Dinesh D’Souza ’83 (and former Review editor) is currently the president of King’s College in New York City.By Elizabeth Reynolds

Barack Obama’s first book, a memoir published in July 1995 called Dreams From My Father, has become quite the success-story. It has topped best-seller lists and is now available in an abridged, youth-oriented version. As Obama has ascended in the political world in recent years, his book has increased in popularity, becoming more and more of a necessary read for all Americans; in fact, it was added to the required reading list for the high school senior class of my alma mater just this year. 

Dreams From My Father tells the story of Obama’s early life – highlighting the figure of his father – beginning with the current President’s birth in Honolulu, Hawaii and ending with his admittance to Harvard Law School. Within his narrative, Obama weaves his considerations on race relations and what it means to be biracial in America – a concept reminiscent of Jean Toomer’s Cane and other works of the Harlem Renaissance. 

The American public and media have given Dreams From My Father an overwhelmingly positive reception. Columnist Joe Klein of Time Magazine claimed that the book “may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” The audio book edition of the book even received a prestigious Grammy Award in 2005 in the Best Spoken Word Album category. 

One man in particular had an impassioned reaction to Dreams From My Father — Dinesh D’Souza. In his recent release, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, D’Souza, an ultra-conservative member of the Dartmouth Class of 1983 (and former editor of The Dartmouth Review) used the framework of Dreams From My Father and turned it around, using the story of the president’s father as a cudgel with which to attack the Obama Administration. 

D’Souza takes the title of Obama’s memoir to heart; the thesis of The Roots of Obama’s Rage is that Obama is currently running the country not by pursuing his own aspirations for America, but by striving to achieve the goals of his African father. In other words, Barack Obama’s dreams are literally derived from his father’s. What the junior Obama inherited from his father was a sense of rage against colonialism, Western supremacy, and the power of the United States. 

Is this the work of another extreme right-winger proclaiming that Obama is a terrorist and a socialist? Perhaps. D’Souza’s analysis, based on what D’Souza considers facts, deserves careful consideration. 

Although a staunch conservative, D’Souza points out that he actually has much in common with our president. Like Obama, D’Souza is a nonwhite American who grew up in another country; the two were even born in the same year, graduated college in the same year, and got married the same year. While D’Souza did not vote for Obama in 2008, he explains that the sight of him taking the oath of office was a moving symbol of the possible end of racism in America. In short, D’Souza has some level of empathy with President Obama, and concedes that, symbolically, the value of his elevation to office is profound. 

However, this does not stop D’Souza from criticizing the direction in which Obama is steering the nation. D’Souza seeks to provide at least a partial answer to the question: who is Barack Obama, and what has driven him to the presidency? All presidents — not least Obama — tend to spawn this kind of contemporary enquiry, both friendly and hostile. D’Souza’s work might thus be lumped in with others of its type: David Remnick’s The Bridge, James T. Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama, and Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy, among others.

Many (including the aforementioned Remnick) believe that Obama is driven by race, but D’Souza is quick to debunk this notion. His thesis is that Obama has almost nothing in common with the majority of black America. He is not a descendent of slaves; instead he is the child of his Harvard-educated, African immigrant father and his white mother. He lived a privileged life growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii, attending a prestigious prep school, the Punahou School. His story does not emerge directly from America’s own history of segregated water fountains and lunch tables that some Americans, including in the media, are quick to place him in. 

D’Souza writes that the true essence of Barack Obama is that he, like many in American society, is his father’s son. This is most evident in the fact that Obama, who went by Barry for this first part of his life, changed his name to Barack as a young man, matching his father’s name. Even though Obama Jr. never really knew his father – he abandoned the family shortly after President Obama was born – he indentified with his father the most. Barack Obama Sr. was a selfish alcoholic, yet the son chose to undertake the vision of the father. D’Souza explains, “In changing the world into the image of his [Obama’s] father, he would complete the task that his father couldn’t, and thus he would become worthy of his a father, a real African and a real man.”

D’Souza’s idea that Obama has literally taken up the ideals of his father, which were anti-colonial ideals, is — whatever else you say about it — original. D’Souza presents a theory that, correct or not, demonstrates a fresh perspective on the president, who is so well known for his detachment and reserve.  

But D’Souza doesn’t just introduce a new theory: he also strives to verify his hypothesis by using it to explain Obama’s current policies and perhaps his plans for the future. To do so, D’Souza examines the life and work of Barack Obama Sr. D’Souza understands Obama’s father primarily as an anti-colonialist. Growing up under British rule in Kenya, Obama Sr. rallied against European rule and adopted a set of understandings about imperialism: that empires are produced with violence, colonial regimes are racist, colonialism is a system of piracy, and that the United States is the new leading colonial power.

According to D’Souza, the anti-colonial legacy of his father deeply resonated with Barack Obama. As a young boy, Obama was made to believe that America was destructive and imperialistic, and the bully of the world. Obama’s mentors as a young adult — Frank Marshall Davis, Edward Said, the infamous Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and Roberto Mangabeira Unger (who, on his own, admitted that his association with Obama could be a liability to his presidential campaign) — only solidified the President’s anti-colonial tendencies. D’Souza argues these beliefs are still held close to Obama’s heart, and goes so far as to say that our President’s main goal today is to destroy the neocolonial, dominating nature of our country by restricting our military, diminishing our consumption of global resources, punishing the rich, and putting industries like health care and the banks under government control. 

Hold on a minute before buying a one-way ticket to Canada. The validity of D’Souza’s argument is up for discussion. On one side of the aisle, big-name Newt Gingrich has called The Roots of Obama’s Rage “the most profound insight [he has] read in the last six years about Barack Obama.” Democrats, however, have named the book “a mess” and criticized the “tissue-thin” research. I think D’Souza’s book is worth reading, but I would place D’Souza’s theory somewhere in the middle of these two extremes – giving his work a B- in my grade book. 

While I applaud D’Souza’s thoroughness and originality, the conclusion he reaches should certainly be taken with a large grain of salt. It seems unlikely that Obama, an intelligent and respected man, would base his decisions solely on what his father would have desired. The anti-colonialism of his father indubitably had an impact on Obama’s worldview, but it is completely unreasonable to say that our President is trying to steer our country into poverty; D’Souza claims that “Obama’s economic policies are actually designed to make America poorer compared to the rest of the world.” D’Souza also alleges that Obama believes Republicans are evil, and “he has no desire to work with the enemy [the Republicans].” This statement is simply false, especially in light of the President’s recent deal with congressional Republicans to extend Bush’s tax breaks. 

Perhaps D’Souza’s anti-colonial theory does help explain, as the Weekly Standard put it, Obama’s omnipotence at home and impotence abroad. It is a matter of the reader’s opinion. Regardless, D’Souza brings something new to the table with his latest book.  It seems clear to me that D’Souza has done his research, with his extensive history of colonial Africa and insightful background information on Obama’s early life. His concept of investigating the impact of Barack Obama’s father had potential, but I’m afraid that D’Souza’s conclusion, that Obama is trying to essentially destroy America , ultimately takes it too far.