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Zaki Hasan Headshot

Gingrich, D'Souza, and the New Language of Political Discourse

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So, have you heard the one about how President Obama hates America because he's motivated by "anti-colonialist" loyalty to the ghost of his dead Kenyan father?

That's the talking point that began circulating last week, coughed up by conservative writer (and walking, talking embodiment of racial Stockholm Syndrome) Dinesh D'Souza by way of Forbes magazine and his impending book The Roots of Obama's Rage (and based on his use of "rage" as a given, I'm wondering what Obama he's talking about exactly, because honestly I'd settle for "mildly annoyed" at this point). Anyway, this meme was then propagated through the media on the back of Newt Gingrich's ringing endorsement, which Slate's Dave Weigel rightly refers to as "a nuclear trigger" in the current political environment.

While poorly researched and pedantic in its conclusions, D'Souza's article has nonetheless been embraced as some staggering work of genius in conservative circles, as if he'd somehow cracked the Da Vinci Code ("We already know that Obama hates America, but now, at long last, we have the why!"). Still, of all of the innuendo and supposition that D'Souza ladles into the piece, it's the wink, wink, nudge, nudge use of "anti-colonial" as a conservative dog whistle that's perhaps most egregious. As articulated by Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review,

The veneer of respectability, if you can call it that, that D'Souza and Forbes put on this noxious near-McCarthyite junk is that Obama is an "anticolonialist." It's thin gruel. And, hey--I'm an anticolonialist, too. And so were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of the gang.

(But then, those guys would all be against Obama anyway.  See?)

Now, as with most of D'Souza's prior attempts at profundity, this too would likely have come and gone like a ship in the night were it not for the eternally-politicking Newt Gingrich (who we've already established really wants to be president) finding in "anti-colonialism" a made-to-order codeword on which to hang all of the "Obama as Other" memes already floating out there in the ether.  D'Souza's thesis, said Gingrich, made clear to him that "this is a person [Obama] who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president."

I'll grant that a man who asked his then-wife to tolerate his extra-marital dalliances while lecturing the nation on family values would have to know all about playing cons, but we already know that this is really about Gingrich trying like heck to corner the wingnut section of the GOP base. And if that means launching rhetorical volleys of ever-escalating absurdity, hey, more's the pleasure. Still, this latest gambit proved a bridge too far even for David Frum, no flag-waving Leftie he, who drew a straight line between Gingrich's cry of "anti-colonial" to the strain of racism he's directly appealing to (of the D'Souza article, Frum says even noted race-baiting politico George Wallace "took more care to sound race-neutral." Ouch!)

What I find irksome in all of this, more than D'Souza running with an inherently ridiculous premise, more than Gingrich strapping booster rockets to that inherently ridiculous premise, is the gleeful high-fiving it engendered on the Right as if it was anything other than Newt Gingrich being his usual, vile, cynical self.  Say what you need to get your base suitably riled up, and damn the consequences. As Bill Clinton said (again, to Gregory), this is Gingrich's "schtick," going on to say, "He knows better."

While Gingrich may indeed know better, clearly the people he's preaching to don't. Just recently I had a teeth-grinding exchange with someone who described Barack Obama, whose policy on surveillance and detention extends and in some cases even surpasses that of George Bush, whose health care plan doesn't provide a public option but does mandate coverage in the private sector, and who's escalated the war in Afghanistan to its largest level ever, as "extremely liberal." And that from a self-proclaimed moderate!

Then again, as far as political epithets go, "extremely liberal" can't help but seem moderate when the language of political discourse has been re-ordered to include "anti-colonial," "anti-American," and, yes, "anti-white" as acceptable lines of attack.  Our sense of language defines our sense of reality, and by hiding behind the facade of D'Souza's professorial credibility, Newt Gingrich and his ilk have pushed the mainstream Right further to the fringes and dragged the Left right along with it, much to the country's detriment.