by Nipuni Gomes
On March 7th, the controversial Indian-American political commentator, author, and film director Dinesh D’Souza spoke at Trinity University’s Laurie Auditorium to a near full house. The event was sponsored mainly by Tigers of Liberty (TFL), a conservative political group at Trinity. To advertise the upcoming event, the leaders of TFL, Manfred and Jonah Wendt, distributed flyers throughout the residence halls on campus, placing them on the door handles of each dormitory. In almost four years as a student at Trinity University, I had never seen a politics-related event advertised in this way.
Events like town halls, diversity dialogues, and upcoming lectures are always promoted in The Leeroy – our daily student newsletter –, posters in class buildings, or via Facebook event pages. The first thing that caught my eye on the flyer I plucked from my dorm’s door handle was the name of the speaker which, like my own, is a South Asian name with a surname of European descent. It was also a name I had never heard before. Wow, I thought, I have yet to witness a person of South Asian descent come to Trinity to talk about American politics. This looks cool. Then I noticed the name of the sponsoring organization. Wait…
Dinesh D’Souza’s Road to Prominence
I sat down at my computer and typed the name on my internet browser. Indian-American political commentator, Dartmouth English grad, over twenty books to his name, director of three anti-Barrack Obama/Hillary Clinton films, convicted and imprisoned for campaign finance violation… I then stumbled upon a 2015 Vanity Fair article titled, “Dinesh D’Souza’s Life after Conviction.” I chuckled when I noticed that the piece began with a photo of D’Souza strolling along the seashore with the sunset in the backdrop, his hands in the pockets of loose, white dress trousers: a cliché scene in Bollywood films and photoshoots of South Asian celebrities. Ha ha, he’s one of those people.
As I scrolled downward, however, the scroll bar was soon accompanied by my jaw, which dropped progressively lower as I read the piece. What follows is a a few key points in that article, including direct quotes (please note that the words in the outermost double quotation marks are those of the author of the article, and D’Souza’s words will usually appear within single quotes).
D’Souza grew up in a middle class family in Mumbai, came to the United States at the age of 17, excelled in his SATs and was subsequently admitted into Dartmouth College, where he “quickly found a group of students that would become his ‘surrogate family’ and unleash his inner frat-boy knucklehead.” Under D’Souza’s editorship, the Dartmouth Review “published a ‘lighthearted interview’ with a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, accompanied by a staged photo of a black man hanging from a tree; an article about affirmative action entitled ‘Dis Sho’ Ain’t No Jive, Bro,’ written in Ebonics; and the names of members of the Gay Student Alliance.” He believed that being brown “put him in a privileged position to comment on race and would inoculate him against criticism.”
In marriage, “he found the ultimate prize in Dixie Brubaker, a beautiful blonde from a conservative California family, whom he had met while working in the White House; they married in 1992. D’Souza admits, ‘It was my mission to marry the all-American girl.’”
In his 1995 book, The End of Racism, D’Souza asserted that “slavery in this country was not actually based on race. That if we’re going to discuss America owing blacks reparations for slavery, then what do blacks owe America for the abolition of slavery? He riffed on ‘widely different personalities’ developed during slavery—‘the playful Sambo, the sullen ‘field nigger,’ the dependable Mammy, the sly and inscrutable trickster’—that, he claimed, were ‘still recognizable.’” In regards to critics calling out the insensitivity of his rhetoric, D’Souza said, “I didn’t believe that sensitivity had a legitimate place in the debate. Sensitivity was the reason why the debate had the artificiality it did. Everyone has to walk on eggshells…. And I’m like, ‘I’m not going to do that…. I didn’t do any of this to you. So I don’t owe you anything.’”
In his 2010 book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, he wrote, “The most powerful country in the world is being governed according to the dream of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s—a polygamist who abandoned his wives, drank himself into a stupor, and bounced around on two iron legs … raging against the world for denying him the realization of his anti-colonial ambitions. This philandering, inebriated, African socialist is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.”
I finished the article with a sigh. “Oh my goodness. He’s one of those people.”
A Culture Critique
There is a commonly occurring story in the South Asian world, of a certain type of family. I myself grew up in an environment with more than enough exposure to it. The father is usually a successful businessman, politician, engineer, or doctor; the mother is usually a homemaker, devoted to her children, especially her sons, and especially her eldest son, on whom she waits hand and foot, who is her “baby,” her “treasure,” her sun. He deserves nothing but the best money can buy: the best education, the best woman, and the best opportunities in life.
The family moves within upper middle to high society, and tends towards the political parties that benefit their social class the most, regardless of the amount of publicized corruption associated with the candidates. The negative consequences their ideologies will have for the less economically fortunate population of the country do not matter – even if that population includes relatives of their own, left behind in their quest for success and no longer associated with for fear of tainting a reputation so meticulously manufactured. The members of these families are surrounded by rhetoric rife with racial, gender, and class discrimination, which molds the children’s social interactions from a very early age (yes, people of color can also be racist – see Jeet Heer’s article in New Republic on the psychology of D’Souza’s and South Asian anti-black racism).
The children of these families typically attend private, international schools, where most of the curriculum is taught in English in preparation for a future of studying abroad. The culture, media, and entertainment surrounding them shies away from the customs of the motherland, favoring westernized standards of behavior, beauty, and speech. Broken English is soon mixed into their everyday dialogue, and traditional clothing and hairstyles are shed in favor of a “white,” “cool” appearance accomplished by skin-lightening creams, brand name clothing, tattoos, piercings, and faux-hawks. “You look like a white man/woman!” is a compliment to style, speech, and behavior considered refined. Eventually, a thick line becomes drawn in the child’s mind about what is and is not acceptable in this refined society. He or she looks back at the motherland’s culture, now socially primitive in their eyes, with a single feeling: disdain.
There are a number of variations to this story. For example, the married couple who migrated to a Western country (already having had children or having children after the migration) and do their best to assimilate to the local culture, even if that means not teaching their children the mother language and discarding the majority of their native cultural traditions. The children, in turn, become foreigners everywhere they go, not completely Western, yet utterly alienated in the lands where everybody looks just like them, due to barriers of language and culture. There are also the children that migrated to the West for the sake of their education and desperately try to fit in with their peers. The assimilation and desperate endeavor to be accepted into the society immediately around them boils down to one thing: adopting the political ideology of that milieu. It is all the more convenient for them if that ideology aligns with the racist, sexist, and classist rhetoric they grew up surrounded by in their home environments.
Ultimately, the difference between whether or not the children in these situations grow up to succumb to the notions of Western cultural superiority and hatred towards their culture of origin is whether or not their parents espouse similar ideologies.
Thus, if these children’s parents actively encourage complete westernization within their families, these children will eventually forget where they came from. In the Western world, though they may not have light skin, they have money, social status, and formal education – and they will use those things to the full advantage of their interests.
My father is a successful chemical engineer, and my mother is a stay-at-home mom. We moved from Sri Lanka to Honduras when I was barely two years old. Growing up in the industrial capital of the country, I went to a prestigious private school and lacked for absolutely nothing. I was constantly surrounded by racist, sexist, and elitist rhetoric coming from extended family, family friends, and acquaintances, and have experienced firsthand the cultural self-hatred of first-generation South Asian immigrants both in my family-related social circles and after I came to the United States for college.
It would have been so very easy and convenient to succumb to these ideas. After all, they benefit people like me on the long run.
However, my mother and father taught me to never forget where we came from: to remember and respect our native language and culture despite adapting to the Western world as necessary, and to always keep in mind that the world is composed of all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances, and that we, as part of the more fortunate members of society, must do what is within our power to help the less fortunate, just like we would want someone to help us if we were in those shoes. Above all, they taught me to never sacrifice another individual for my personal interests, to be grateful to those who have helped me in my path to success, and to never kick down the ladder I climbed to get to where I am today.
There was no way I would miss this event, and there was no way I was not going to write about it.
The Ironic Lead-Up
It seems that I was not the only one taken aback by the method of distribution of these flyers. A group of students reportedly wrote answers to the question “what’s so great about America?” and returned many of the flyers to the Wendts’ dorm room door in a neatly rubber-banded stack with a note attached to it that read, “Keep your propaganda to yourselves. We don’t like it in our faces.” Somebody also decided to turn two American flags hanging outside their door upside down. Deciding this was “harassment” and “a clear attempt at intimidation,” the Wendts filed a harassment report with the Trinity University Police Department and went to the press about the incident. Our Dean of Students later wrote a piece for his blog on the incident and asserted that what TFL “deliver is an organization for others to push against, and challenge,” and reminded students that “the best way to oppose ideas and words are with other ideas and words.”
Thus, here we are.
To use Jonah Wendt’s words to the Rivard Report back in January when describing the Trinity University professors who requested to be added to Turning Point USA’s “Professor Watchlist” as a form of protest against an attempt to publicly accuse college professors of “discriminat[ing] against conservative students and advance[ing] leftist propaganda in the classroom:” it is “laughable that we have” two college-educated young adults “looking for attention this way.” Even a writer for Breitbart was amused enough to write a piece entitled “Snowflake Alert: Trinity University Conservatives Adopt Leftist Victim Rhetoric Over Minor Transgression”about the incident.
If the Wendts call this “harassment,” what shall we call the taunting and hurling of insults by members of TFL at the Democrats in the room during Trinity’s Election Watch Party? Or that time in the campus-wide Post-Election Dialogue when one of the Wendts laughed in the face of a young woman who was explaining, in tears, her fears about the possibility of abortion rights disappearing under the current government? Please don’t even try to deny the second statement, Wendt brothers. The Dean of Students, the President of the university, the Vice President of Student Life, and several of your own Political Science professors were in the room when this happened.
As for my thoughts on misleading information and intimidation tactics they engage in which I observed during my interactions with them in my time as a reporter for on-campus news outlets, please refer to the transcript of Brendan Kennedy’s Contemporary article about the Professor Watchlist incident.
The audience for D’Souza’s speech consisted of both Trinity students and members of the surrounding community, and was, for the most part, very vocally supportive of D’Souza and his arguments. At the beginning of the event, the Wendts spoke to the crowd about the conduct expected from them during the evening, concluding, to any party that engaged in persistent disrespectful behavior: “we will throw you out.”
The irony of that statement was soon to follow.
D’Souza: Unchained by ‘Conservatism’
During his lecture, D’Souza could not help himself from bringing up the flyer incident in mockery on four separate occasions, as well as criticizing other universities that had not allowed him to speak on their campuses. In the Q&A session, two Trinity students asked questions that challenged D’Souza’s claims. The first one was junior Cristian Vargas:
In some of your previous writings you indicated that the reason why America, or why the West, rather, is great is because of science, technology, and capitalism. My question is, how can you say that Trump makes America great when he’s anti-science, denies global warming, anti-capitalism, he is protectionist, and does not believe in things such as the TPP and free trade deals, and has shown a flagrant disregard for democracy through executive overreach?
During Vargas’ inquiry, several members of the audience laughed, “booed,” and threw insults at him. In the tried and true fashion of panderers of extreme ideas and rhetoric, D’Souza answered Vargas’ question only partially, stating that he would not “get into global warming because it’s too big of a hole for [him] to get in right now.” He vaguely addressed policies on auto industry tariffs which he deemed “effeminate,” and asserted that President Donald Trump considers “unmanly.” The use of this terminology garnered hoots and applause from the audience, amidst which D’Souza remarked that Trump’s views on increased import tariffs are “not protectionist at all,” ending the time for his response to Vargas.
Did you mean the big hole in the ozone or the one in your argument, Mr. D’Souza? For a dissection and fact-check of D’Souza’s claims that night, read Benjamin Collinger and Cristian Vargas’ fact check and annotation of D’Souza’s speech.
The second Trinity student to ask a challenging question was junior Gabriel Levine:
Hello, Mr. D’Souza. I’m an op-ed writer for the school paper, and, in full disclosure, I wrote an article saying that I think you’re a hack. Now, I came with an open mind, and I was disappointed to find that much like [many] of the current president’s comments, yours are based on sort of shallow logic, a lack of expertise, no real facts, and economic ignorance – and some conservatives have said that too. But, I have a question about the broader conservative philosophy, and this gets back to what you said about trade. Now, you said that we’ve got to get trade back in order, but with the trending technology nowadays the real threat is not trade, the loss of jobs overseas, but automation, artificial intelligence, the replacement of many of the jobs that serve as a starting level for economic advancement. What role does conservatism have in a world in which machines and automation can take the place of much of human labor and activity that generates income and value for everyday people?
Okay, so Levine’s introduction to his question was the epitome of “full disclosure.” The actual inquiry, though, was completely legitimate. D’Souza, as the adult that he is supposed to be, could have answered it – or at least come up with a clever “hole” pun to worm his way out of it like he did the last question. Naturally, he said this instead:
“Alright; well, man. Um, let me say this: if it is the case that, in what I said tonight – and I put some fairly incendiary material on the table – if I had said something that was even arguably wrong, factually wrong, about the Democratic Party or about fascism or about Trump, it would be very easy for someone to point it out. So normally, if you’re gonna call someone a ‘hack,’ you should kinda try to establish your own bona fides, you know? It’s okay, it’s okay. Look, um, a certain amount of moral indignation is the staple of being a late teen, and so I think we should be indulgent. Now, technology, look, here’s the point: we have seen in the United States the ordinary working guy – I don’t just mean the white guy; the black guy, the Hispanic guy – the working class in this country has been hit by three powerful winds blowing in the same direction, and those winds are named ‘globalization,’ ‘immigration,’ and ‘technology.’ Now…”
The rest of D’Souza’s response (which I encourage you to watch – from 1:25:42 to 1:28:26 of the video of the lecture uploaded to YouTube by the Young America’s Foundation), revolved around Hillary Clinton-bashing, talking about ladders of opportunity and family values of the working class, and praise for Donald Trump’s “down-to-earthedness.” Not a single mention of automation or artificial intelligence, and not a single attempt at a direct answer to Levine’s question.
“My approach was probably not ideal but his response wasn’t either,” Levine later wrote to me in an email, “Aside from the immaturity of implying teenage angst on my part (I’m 20), he kind of threw a smoke bomb when he sort of asked for anybody to challenge the facts he had presented, implying that because his cherry-picked facts were true, the logically dubious conclusions he had drawn from those facts were also true.”
D’Souza ended the event by saying, “We have had a very respectful, cordial, and stimulating dialogue tonight.”
For those historical and political bona fides, again, please refer to Benjamin Collinger and Cristian Vargas’ article. Allow me, however, to tackle what I am writing this op-ed for – besides pointing out the utter hypocrisy of the ideas of “real debate and real dialogue” and “free speech” that TFL and people like D’Souza pander.
Cultural self-hatred, the skewed American Dream, and kicking of the ladder climbed to success
D’Souza asserted his belief in “American exceptionalism,” arguing that, if all cultures were inherently equal, there would be no reason for migration. The American government, he said, holds up the “ladder of opportunity,” which is what the Republican party represents. As immigrants, we have the job to climb this ladder through our own hard work. A rival approach to upward mobility in the U.S., he said, is called “the politics of the rope.” The Democrats let down a rope that they will pull up individuals who hold onto it. This, D’Souza argued, is the easy way out, because there is no work involved. However, those climbing the ladder will have to work hard to get to the top. Most immigrants would go for the ladder, “and that’s Trump’s bargain,” he said, “and Trump’s bargain is a great club. We want people who want to be members, and we want to make sure that the people who are outside the club who are trying to get in don’t wish any harm to the people who are in the club.” He continued, “The primary reason for having a government at all is to protect us from foreign and domestic thugs” (see 54:30 to 59:50 of the video).
The ladder of opportunity for immigrants in any country is real. I can speak from my own parents’ experience that uprooting one’s entire life to move to a different part of the world while not truly knowing what is in store is a terrifying process, which they engaged in because they firmly believed that they could build a better life in Honduras, which they accomplished. They sent me to college in the United States because the quality of higher education in this country is unparalleled. Indeed, people would not go through all that trouble if all countries in this world were equal in cultural and economic terms. There are two parts to social mobility for immigrants: economic mobility through hard work, and mobility in social circles. These aspects go hand-in-hand most of the time. What D’Souza calls “the politics of the rope” when it comes to immigrants has two sides: the rope in the government and the rope in the society one is attempting to assimilate to.
Dinesh D’Souza climbed a ladder through education and hard work, but he was also assisted by a rope, a rope that was first held out to him by those Dartmouth students from the Northeast elite who became his “surrogate family,” who held ideals similar to those D’Souza may have absorbed in his familial and social circles back in India, and aligned with his version of the American dream. D’Souza saw the opportunity and seized the rope, and by pandering to the elitist, racist, sexist, ideals in the political community around him, he became the token person of color who made it okay for these ideas to continue circulating. The reasoning goes as follows: If a person of color believes that blacks are inferior, then there must be a certain truth to it. If an immigrant speaks against immigration policies that are anything less than extremely stringent, then these ideals must be right.
What Dinesh D’Souza and people like him do not realize is that they are puppets to the conservative elite, convenient and loyal mouthpieces to give a semblance of legitimacy to ideals that they are made to believe are in their own best interest.
They fail to see that, if the ideas they so fervently support today had been in full application at the time when they were attempting to migrate to the United States, they would not have made the cut either. But they do not care now, because they have made it into the “club.” They sincerely believe that those around them view them as equals and that they are true, permanent members of that club when, in reality, if they were not dancing to the exact tune the gatekeepers wanted them to, they would be the first to go.
The issue with rhetoric perpetuating suspicion aimed at immigrants and supporting efforts like indiscriminate travel bans lies in the reinforcement of racial prejudice. Individuals who have nothing to do with groups involved in crime are suddenly dragged into the stereotype of “potential terrorists.” As I mentioned in another Contemporary article by Benjamin Collinger, the current political environment in the United States puts individuals with passports of any country in South Asia or the Arab world at risk of being victims of cultural bias, decreasing our chances of even getting to the first rung of the “ladder of opportunity.” When this rhetoric is supported by established immigrants with political influence, it is reinforced. This is how people like Dinesh D’Souza kick down the ladder of opportunity they climbed and strip their immigrant successors from the opportunities they had themselves.
After this article is published, I will face considerable backlash from members of the community immediately around me and from individuals who have influence in my life and career. I will run the risk of some immigration officer recognizing my name/face, or coming upon this article during one of those “random” background checks at my initial port of entry to the U.S. whenever I return from abroad, and accusing me of “speaking against the government.” I will run the risk of potential employers not wanting to hire me because of some of my views in this piece. If any of the South Asian men my father engages in business with happens upon this article, they will no doubt bring it up and ask him how he managed to raise such an “ungrateful” daughter.
I can live with that. This is for those who feel like their voices won’t be heard even if they try to speak up. This is for the international students in the United States who see everything that is wrong with racial and class relations in their college campuses and immediate communities but are afraid to speak their minds for fear of backlash or because they feel that they have no right to voice their opinions as non-U.S. citizens. The easiest thing to do as an international student is, of course, to remain silent regarding political and racial matters, or to agree with the most powerful side of the race/immigration arguments in our respective college campuses.
We could come here, get our degrees, graduate without incident, and continue our careers in the U.S. or elsewhere. However, for those of us who have an American Dream, a dream that includes opportunities for career improvement, advocacy for race and gender equality, women’s rights, trans rights, equal opportunity, top notch higher education, freedom of speech and expression, gay marriage, W. Kamau Bell, Amy Schumer, and Mindy Kaling, we need to keep in mind how truly hard we must work for it, because the current political environment has made the other side more vocal than ever.
Our silence only means acceptance.
There is power in dialogue and sound counter arguments. We come to college to learn, engage, grow, and become better versions of ourselves. Let us speak up and do just that.
Nipuni Gomes is a senior Communication and English Major at Trinity University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The photo above was taken of Dinesh D’Souza by Gage Skidmore at CPAC in 2016. It is under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license and can be found here.