The Corner

D’Souza v. Ponnuru, Ideology v. Personality

I started writing this last night  before I saw Mike Potemra’s post (which I basically agree with) after reading Kathryn’s interview with Dinesh D’Souza. The short version: Dinesh says that his “anti-colonial” theory of Obama is a Rosetta stone that explains everything. Ramesh says “Meh, Obama’s a liberal.” Here’s a slightly longer version from the interview:

LOPEZ: What are some clear examples of how this anti-colonialist mindset can be seen in the presidency of Barack Obama?

D’SOUZA: Ramesh Ponnuru and others say Obama is a conventional liberal. But conventional liberals don’t come out for the release of the Lockerbie bomber. Conventional liberals don’t return the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. Conventional liberals don’t block oil drilling in America while subsidizing oil drilling in Brazil. Conventional liberals don’t try to turn the space agency NASA into a Muslim-outreach program.

My anti-colonial theory beautifully explains all these facts. If Obama views America as the neocolonial occupier of Iraq and Afghanistan, then Muslims fighting against America are anti-colonial resisters and deserve a measure of sympathy; no wonder Obama has no problem with releasing the Lockerbie bomber. Obama hates Churchill because Churchill was the prime minister who cracked down on an anti-colonial uprising in Kenya, one in which Obama’s father and grandfather were both arrested. Obama’s oil-drilling double standard is fully understandable when you see that he wants the neocolonial oppressors to have less and the former colonized countries to have more. If Obama sees NASA as a symbol of American power — not only are we the world’s superpower, but now we are trying to colonize space — then we can see why he might want to convert NASA into a symbol of international achievement, not American greatness. So plug in the anti-colonial theory and you can explain the facts; remove it and Obama’s behavior becomes almost impossibly difficult to account for.

Here’s where I think Dinesh is wrong: Lots of liberals would give back Churchill’s bust. Lots of liberals would tell NASA to work in some blather about Muslim outreach. Lots of liberals would have released the Lockerbie bomber. Not all of these liberals have anti-colonial Luo socialists as fathers. 

Here’s where I think Ramesh is wrong: I don’t think Obama is simply a conventional liberal. Obama has a pretty unique story and he’s been fairly honest about his influences, including those of his father. Dinesh is perfectly entitled to take Obama at his word when Obama says that he was influenced by his Dad.

My problem with Dinesh’s approach — at least as explicated in the interview, I’ve not read the book yet — is that it’s too dependent on a mono-causal explanation of Obama’s motives. That’s not how people operate. Some liberals liked to argue that Bush was solely motivated by a desire to vindicate his father. The real nonsense wasn’t the theory, but the “solely.”  Sure, maybe part of Bush was pulled in a certain direction because of his dad’s experience. That’s plausible, at least. But the idea that the entire decision to invade Iraq was based on that single psychological factor is beyond idiotic.

People are complicated and very, very few important decisions are made because of a single reason. We use checklists, not yes/no questions, to make our big decisions. No one walks into a car dealership and says “Do you have any red cars?” No, they say do you have this kind of car, what are the terms, what are the specs and, eventually, if all else goes right: “Oh, does it come in red?”

In politics, we often hold a suite of ideological positions that compliment each other most of the time but conflict with each other when taken to the extreme. Some folks favor school choice for libertarian reasons others for socially conservative reasons. But social conservatives will often invoke the libertarian arguments when useful and vice versa. Psychological factors make us more persuadable to some arguments and less so to others, but they don’t short circuit our ability to reason. And for politicians, there are the demands of politics, constituencies, bureaucratic rivalries, etc. The idea that you can boil down all of a president’s behavior on major issues to a single ideological narrative is hopelessly reductive.  Again,  the idea you can boil down any of us to a simple ideological script is too reductive. Humans are complicated, torn by different tendencies, desires, agendas, notions.

Put another way, Obama cannot be simply an “anti-colonialist” because if he was, he would never have run for president, never would have been elected, never would have surged troops into Afghanistan,  never  listened to Rahm Emanuel about anything and so on. His views and positions have been tempered by the demands of the system. Why can’t Obama be a conventional liberal with exotic baggage? Why can’t his “anti-colonialist” views inform his liberal ones, and vice versa? 

On the other hand, I am entirely sympathetic with the need to generalize, to think conceptually. If we don’t generalize, we’re left with nothing but noise — or what William James called a great bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion. So I have no problem with Dinesh’s interpretation as one explanation among many, valuable in some instances, probably useless in others. If Dinesh were to say, “this is the missing piece of the puzzle” while conceding there’s more to the puzzle than the anti-colonial Luo tribesman stuff, I’d be much more sympathetic. Because as it is, I don’t think that perspective helps us understand all that much of Obama’s day-to-day behavior.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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