Dinesh D'Souza: Knave or Fool?
Ad for Obama 2016.
Recently right-wing commentator Dinesh d'Souza released 2016: Obama's America, a movie trashing President Obama. (D'Souza is also president of King's College, a small religious college in Manhattan that is a subsidiary of Campus Crusade for Christ.) Obama's America is now playing in 1,500 theaters across the nation.
According to an NPR interview with d'Souza broadcast on September 1, 2012, its thesis is "that President Obama is weakening the country -- deliberately." The film paints Obama as "anti-colonialist," and D'Souza does not intend the term as a compliment. Anti-colonialism means, according to d'Souza, "Western countries, and now the United States, have become rich by invading and occupying and looting the poor countries, so that the wealth of the world is unfairly distributed. And what Obama wants to do is correct that."
Some anti-colonialists, such as Walter Rodney (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa), do hold the view that d'Souza attributes to Obama. Others do not agree that imperialism and mercantilism provided the foundation of Western economic progress. They see colonialism as largely an exercise in hubris, made easy by Western military superiority. I believe that the first takeovers -- of North and South America -- helped Christianity against Islam, fueled the triumph of Europe over Asia and Africa, and led to the rise of capitalism. Later takeovers, like France in Indochina and Germany in Namibia, seem less important to the rise of the West.
So far as I can tell, D'Souza ignores these issues. His focus is really on President Obama. As he put it at the end of the interview, "President Obama has an agenda for downsizing America that he dare not share with the American people because it would endanger his support." According to d'Souza, the point of his film, which he calls a "documentary," is to convince Americans of this hidden agenda. D'Souza wants to convince us that Obama "wants America to have less wealth and power so that people in other countries can have more wealth and power."
Several reasonable responses to d'Souza spring to mind. One might be to note that in his first term Obama has acted in our national interest -- from killing bin Laden to advocating that we reward companies for keeping jobs at home. But I have a personal response. Having had a work of mine trashed by d'Souza years ago, I wish to denounce him as either a knave or a fool. His standards of intellectual work are so low, at least in my own experience, as to dismiss him from the company of people whose voices are worth considering.
Years ago, teaching at Tougaloo College convinced me that "aptitude tests" like the SAT and ACT did not really measure aptitude, at least not across different subcultures and social structures. My classes at Tougaloo, a black college in Mississippi, contained students with extraordinary ability. They would have stood out in a Harvard seminar, as I knew from four years of graduate work at Harvard. One Tougaloo graduate went on to finish her doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in just three years. Others earned doctorates from Harvard, Berkeley, and other sociological powerhouses. Yet the SAT scores of these outstanding students averaged around 560. (Probably you know that SAT scores range from 200 to 800. 500 is average.) In contrast, a Harvard student of mine with 560 on his SATs, admitted as a legacy, was mired in the lowest quintile and simply could not do high-level college work.
To show this problem, I concocted the "Loewen Low-Aptitude Test." It contains five items. Each is biased against upper-middle-class white people in its own way. For example, one uses carpentry terms. Teaching Sociology published the test back in April of 1979 (6 #3, 221-44).
In 1991, Dinesh d'Souza published Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. It became a best seller. For a page or two, probably because it was featured on ABC-TV's "20/20," d'Souza attacked my article. Here is his treatment. He picks on the item biased in favor of African Americans:
James Loewen of Catholic University, who alleges cultural bias in testing, gives an example of an alternate SAT question that would be more comprehensible to blacks.
Saturday Ajax got an LD:
(a) He had smoked too much grass.
(b) He tripped out on drugs.
(c) He brought her to his apartment.
(d) He showed it off to his fox.
(e) He became wised up (less dense).
I need to explain, as I did in Teaching Sociology, that I adapted this item from a then-well-known test by Robert Williams, a black social psychologist in St. Louis. Williams saw that his African American students were not as inept as their "standardized" test scores made them out to be. Inferring that cultural bias was involved, he developed the "Black Intelligence Test for Cultural Homogeneity," based on the vocabulary of inner-city St. Louis. It proved a "BITCH" for nonblack people to pass, because it relied on vocabulary relatively unfamiliar to them. Language has long been an area of noteworthy black creativity, and "LD" was a term for Cadillac Eldorado, then a stylish luxury car. "Fox" of course meant attractive girlfriend, a black invention that got picked up by the larger culture and has now become a variant meaning of the word, along with its adjectival form, "foxy."
As I wrote in Teaching Sociology, the point of the exercise was to show that some of "our meritocratic barriers are not meritocratic at all." Often the reasoning involved in answering even difficult items on "standardized" tests turns out to be trivial, if one knows the vocabulary. For example, an item from the Miller Analogy Test, required by some graduate and professional schools, is elementary if one knows that a meaning of "sake" is Japanese rice wine, impenetrable if one only knows the "for God's sake" meaning of the word.
D'Souza completely missed and misrepresented my point. He went on to write "that this line of criticism stereotypes blacks. [Loewen's] model presumes that blacks are most at home in the world of slang, womanizing, and drugs. Why a familiarity with this vocabulary is a good preparation for college, Loewen does not say."
Of course, the item had nothing to do with womanizing or drugs. And of course, I had not claimed that familiarity with black slang provides good preparation for college. Neither does familiarity with Japanese rice wine. To misread the exercise so completely marks d'Souza as either a knave or a fool, depending upon whether his misreading was deliberate or the result of too-quick reading.
In case his mistake was an honest one, let me spell out once more the point of the "Loewen Low-Aptitude Test." I deliberately created a test that was biased against upper-middle class white students. I did so to show it can be done, to give such students the experience of failing a test owing to test bias, and to suggest that cultural bias may explain at least some of the gaps between the scores of minority students and white upper-middle-class students.
For the record, I do believe that within a population, either test -- the SAT or the BITCH -- may provide useful information. Within my class in introductory sociology at Tougaloo, for instance, most students who scored in the lowest quintile on the BITCH test came from truly rural backgrounds. They had no more knowledge of urban black slang than did most white suburbanites. Among my sociology students at Tougaloo, the SAT listed many in the "right order" -- matching professors' assessments of their abilities. Across cultures, however, both tests would prove to be of little value.
Incidentally, partly as a result of similar arguments I made to Nancy Cole, then Vice-President of Educational Testing Services, purveyor of the SAT, ETS removed "aptitude" from the title of the SAT. (See The Validity of Testing in Education and Employment.) In 1994 it became the "Scholastic Assessment Test." A few years later, painfully aware that "Assessment Test" was redundant, repetitive, and said the same thing twice, ETS renamed the SAT once more. Now it merely stands for "S.A.T." -- the initials mean nothing at all! The change also amounts to nothing at all, however, because most people don't know it occurred. Google sends people who search for "Scholastic Aptitude Test" to ETS's home page for the SAT, even though neither "scholastic" nor "aptitude" appear visibly on that page. Hence students from rural Mississippi -- disadvantaged on both the SAT and the BITCH -- remain likely to infer that their test scores tell them they have low aptitude -- even if they don't, even if test bias remains the culprit.
Surely d'Souza could not have missed my point. Hence, I do suggest that his mischaracterization of my work derived from knavery, not ignorance or stupidity. He knew that few readers of his book would have access to Teaching Sociology in that pre-internet age; fewer still would use that access. So he was free to misuse the item for his own purposes. I suspect he did the same with the sources and interviews he compiled for 2016: Obama's America. Beware!
Copyright James Loewen
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