The Roots of American Rage

by zunguzungu

Dinesh D’Souza has a book coming out (oh-so-cleverly riffing on Bernard Lewis in describing “The Roots of Muslim Obama’s Rage”), and a version of it is the cover article for Forbes. It’s a moronic article, but when Newt Gingrich started rolling around talking about how Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial” viewpoint explains everything about the man, and calling the article brilliant, a lot of people noticed; for reasons which are worth thinking about, what Gingrich does and says is taken seriously.

The first and most obvious response is that D’Souza is a nightmarishly incoherent thinker, and that this is a nightmarishly incoherent article. Timothy Burke and the Economist say all you need to know about that, really. But the real problem posed by D’Souza is whether his argument is so pernicious it requires a response or whether it’s so stupid it calls for apathy. Dave Weigel, for example, suggested that the real reason D’Souza exists — as a publishing phenomenon — is “that there is literally no conservative argument too “crazy” to be obsessed over by liberals,” and that “[e]very time a new one surfaces, they try to run it out of the mainstream by drawing extra attention to it.” I find the argument that the people driving the D’Souza phenomenon are liberals who denounce the book to be pretty weak, though. His ability to make liberals angry isn’t what causes people to buy the book, since people who are willing to entertain ideas like his tend to be more or less completely unacquainted with the media outlets where liberals express that outrage. And it wasn’t liberals that put the excerpt on the cover of Forbes, since people don’t buy a subscription to a magazine that outrages them. Nor was it liberals that put the book in Gingrich’s hands.

A book like this one can get published, it seems to me, because it provides an apparently scholarly version of what the angry bigots out there want to hear: Obama is an alien seeking to take away what’s rightfully ours. Think of the phrase “why do they hate us?” (the superstructure of Lewis’ original manifesto): it never has to get answered to fulfill its primary function, distinguishing “them” from “us” on the basis of “their” rage. The fact that D’Souza explains the origin of Obama’s rage is far less important than way articles like his reinforce the notion that he has it. And nothing in D’Souza’s painfully vast leaps of logic has anything to do with what the article all the more effectively asserts by not bothering to assert: Obama hates you, whitey. Demonstrating his argument to be specious does nothing to dismantle the points he doesn’t even argue (or have to).

In that context, both liberal indignation at D’Souza and D’Souza himself really are irrelevant. His books get published — and Gingrich hawks them — because there are people out there that want to hear those ideas and because Gingrich and co. want their votes. There are people for whom “Kenyan, anti-Colonial” not only makes sense as an epithet, but scans as anti-American.  Where do these people come from?

There are lots of ways to approach this particular problem. I’ll probably write a bit on this, as it happens to nicely intersect with the sorts of things I’ve been writing and reading about in my great sprawling dissertation. But to start off, I want to re-state that D’Souza really is, himself, irrelevant. The writer of this Economist article does good work demonstrating why someone from D’Souza’s background might be insane in the particular way he is, but this shouldn’t lead us to make the same mistake D’Souza himself makes: explaining a widely shared belief in terms of a formative experience that is not widely shared. The fact that Obama is in favor of things that most Democrats are in favor of, for good or for ill, is not well explained by circumstances that are particular to him but not to most Democrats. But by the same token, while the fact that D’Souza would pen that fever dream of an article might make more sense when we take his personal background into account, his personal biography doesn’t explain why someone like Newt Gingrich would pick it up and run with it. What makes a white American, for example, find “Kenyan, anti-colonial” to signify in terms of their hatred of us?

For a start, and only for a start, try this article from TIME in 1960, published on the doorstep of independence in Kenya but recalling the “Mau Mau” insurgency of the early-mid fifties:

Like African leaders everywhere, the men who organized the Mau Mau faced one basic difficulty in forging a nationalist spirit: for the ordinary African, a man’s overriding loyalties are to his family and his tribe. By compelling Mau Mau members to violate not only Christian ethics but every tribal taboo as well, says Corfield, Mau Mau leaders deliberately reduced their victims to a state where a man who took the Mau Mau oath was cut off “from all hope, outside Mau Mau, in this world or the next.” To achieve this, the Mau Mau leadership forced its recruits, voluntary or involuntary, to seal their oaths by digging up corpses and eating their putrefied flesh, copulating with sheep, dogs or adolescent girls, and by drinking the famed “Kaberichia cocktail”—a mixture of semen and menstrual blood. And when he was assigned to kill an enemy of the movement, a sworn Mau Mau pledged himself to remove the eyeballs of his victim and drink the liquid from them.

Once the blood lust had been aroused to this pitch, the oath taker was easily led to kill his own father or mother, wife, child or master at Mau Mau command. And any local Mau Mau leader devising a fouler ritual was under obligation to pass along his recipe immediately to his less inventive colleagues. Since there were seven basic oaths, which could be taken over and over again, Mau Mau ceremonies thus became perpetual orgies. The result was that, when a Mau Mau convert did repent and vomit out his story to authorities, he sometimes ended by humbly asking to be taken out and shot. His sense of absolute degradation and “absolute sin,” says the Corfield report, left him no choice.

I could spend some time demonstrating why almost every aspect of that article is at least as innocent of truth as D’Souza’s, but that’s not really the point. You’ll just have to take my word for this– Mau Mau violence porn is a genre unto itself (I’m going to view Ruark’s Something of Value soon, so expect a post on that) and it as accurately chronicles what really went on in the Kenyan highlands as Birth of a Nation tells the story of reconstruction. Which is an apt analogy, actually. But what Americans know about “Kenyan, anti-colonial” — to extent that they know anything at all — comes from stuff like this, also from TIME, stories of white women shooting their knife-wielding home-invading black rapists or the rumor that “Negro nursemaids had been ordered by the Mau Mau to murder white babies in their charge.” Or just this:

Update 9/16: Apparently Glenn Beck and Ralph Reed have hopped on the D’Souza bandwagon.

Update #2, 9/16: TexasinAfrica, who once actually read parts of Newt Gingrich’s dissertation on the Belgian Congo — which answers so many old questions, yet raises so many horrible new ones — has this to say about what that yeoman’s work taught him:

For those of you who have better things to do on a Thursday morning, suffice it to say that I’m not surprised by any of this. Gingrich liked colonialism. Especially the Belgian variety, which limited the vast majority of Congolese to a sixth-grade education, taught children that God wanted them to obey the exploitative colonial authorities, and was the reason the country had fewer than 20 university graduates and no indigenous doctors at independence. Which was one of the reasons the country immediately erupted into chaos, which made it possible for Joseph Mobutu to take over, which allowed him to loot the public treasury for three decades, which caused a breakdown in public service provision, which kept Mobutu using public funds to manipulate patronage networks in his favor, which fell apart with the end of the Cold War when funds dried up, which laid the groundwork for the chaos that would erupt after the Rwandan genocide (which, let’s not forget, was caused in part because of – you guessed it – Belgian colonial education policy that favored the Tutsis for educational opportunities, thus breeding resentment among the Hutu, which set off a chain of rounds of ethnic cleansing that led to the 1994 genocide), which spilled over into the Congo, which led to a series of wars, which were only partly settled in 2003 and that have, so far, caused more than 5 million deaths of perfectly innocent people.

Update #3, 9/16: D’Souza made the mistake of complaining about the Columbia Journalism Review’s criticism of his article, which was the wrong thing to do. You wouldn’t like CJR when they’re angry.