Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida lawmakers would add movie time to the curriculum

Wonder how students and teachers and principals and school boards, already groaning under the burden of high stakes testing, would react to the yet another addition to their required curriculum.

Florida Sen. Alan Hays wants to mandate movie time.

But only one, very special movie — at least to Hays, a Republican from Umatilla, who has introduced a bill “relating to patriotic film screening.”

Hays’ bill, and a companion measure in the House sponsored by fellow Republican Neil Combee of Lakeland, would require: “Each district school board shall ensure that each middle school and high school within its jurisdiction requires its eighth-grade and 11th-grade students, respectively, to annually attend a screening of the film America: Imagine the World Without Her.”

So any school kid in the seventh grade or below would be guaranteed a double dose of the paranoid patriotism proffered by right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza.

The University of Miami’s Nicole Hemmer, a historian of modern American politics and media, reviewed D’Souza’s film last summer for U.S. News and World Report. “The premise of the film is straightforward,” she wrote. “Leftists, conspiring to overtake the political machinery of America, convinced Americans that their country was a force of evil in the world. Advancing a ‘shame narrative’ of American history, these radicals carried out a ‘political shakedown’ in which they secured power by exploiting the guilt of the good-hearted American people.”

Hemmer observed that D’Souza also has a grievance against historians who would emphasize America’s past transgressions. “He argues, for instance, that annexing northern Mexico in 1848 wasn’t theft. After all, the U.S. technically took all of Mexico in the war (American troops occupied Mexico City for the better part of a year), then generously gave half of it back. He adds that since America today offers more opportunities than Mexico, Mexicans should be grateful that the U.S. expanded its borders so dramatically.”

The movie’s notion of slavery continues the argument D’Souza made in his 1996 book, The End of Racism, which included such notable gems as “the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.”

The movie was aimed at that fervent niche of right-wing Americans, who, as Hemmer put it, “see hating their government as a corollary to loving their country.”

But his movie was also whacked by the very conservative John Tamny, who wrote in Forbes that “viewers should be offended simply because what is promoted as serious documentary about the problems in this country is so silly, not to mention plainly dishonest.”

Tamny added, “Obama’s presidency deserves rebuke much like Bush’s before it, but in falsely billing America as a serious documentary, a once serious D’Souza has turned what should be a sober analysis of Obama’s failed presidency into a joke.”

He wrote, “Conservatives deserve better, and D’Souza could surely do better. Logic dictates that serious people should laugh at D’Souza’s latest offering, but the problem there is that what’s comically bad isn’t very funny.”

That last observation ought be particularly sobering to the schoolchildren who would be forced, by state law, to endure the movie. That and the fact that the Rotten Tomatoes movie rating website’s Tomatometer, based on a consensus of critical reviews, scored the film a paltry 8 percent. The first and only movie that Florida would declare mandatory watching for school kids rates a very rotten tomato.

I asked Hemmer, via email Friday, what she thought of the Hays bill that would make America: Imagine the World Without Her required watching.

“Even if we accept Sen. Hays’ argument that Florida’s students are being indoctrinated with the ‘politically slanted opinion of a textbook author’ (and let me be clear: I do not accept that argument) surely the answer is not to introduce more bad history and more politically slanted propaganda into the mix,” she wrote. “America is a political entertainment, not academic history, and it’s troubling that Florida’s legislators can’t tell the difference between the two.”

It’s also odd that Hays and Combee are pushing the work of a political filmmaker and writer who happens to be doing an eight-month stretch in a community confinement center for a federal felony conviction. He pleaded guilty in May to illegally reimbursing straw donors — one of whom was his mistress — who had contributed $10,000 each to the failed U.S. Senate campaign of Wendy Long of New York, a longtime D’Souza confidant. He was lucky to get off with community confinement and five years probation. Federal prosecutors wanted him locked up in an actual prison for 10 to 16 months.

Before his sentencing, when D’Souza became quite contrite (“I cannot believe how stupid I was, how careless, and how irresponsible.”), he had claimed that the prosecution was Barack Obama’s revenge against D’Souza for his previous film, 2016: Obama’s America, another descent into right wing paranoia that claimed the president, inheriting his Kenyan father’s anti-colonial rage, was determined “that the sins of colonialism be set right and America be downsized.” (A theory the conservative Weekly Standard dismantled under the headline, “The Roots of Dinesh D’Souza's Lunacy.”)

At the sentencing, the judge referred to a damning letter from Dixie D’Souza, who warned that her ex-husband had misled the court about “the extent and nature of his criminal conduct.” She added that Florida’s favorite moviemaker had also physically abused her during their marriage.

To be fair, her pique against her ex-husband might have had something to do with the 2012 scandal that saw D’Souza forced out of his job as president of Kings College, an evangelical school in New York, after he announced his engagement to his mistress while he was still married to Dixie.

All of which would seem to make a film by the likes of D’Souza an odd addition to Florida’s required curriculum. But politics do tend to leech into the classroom. A Coral Gables mother with an eighth-grader at Ponce de Leon Middle School told me that her child’s language arts class has spent several weeks studying the autobiography of Dr. Ben Carson. The narrative is apparently inspiring stuff. Except that Carson also is frequently touted as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. One wonders, out of fairness, whether the kids will be subjected to the mind-numbing books hawked by nearly every other would-be presidential candidate, none of which have been short listed for literary awards.

Beyond the political implications, there’s the odd scenario of a language arts class studying the work of an author who didn’t actually write his own autobiography. Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story was cranked out by well-known ghostwriter Cecil Murphey.

Carson is credited with writing other books, including the America the Beautiful in 2012 with his wife, Candy. But American the Beautiful didn’t much enhance his reputation as a practitioner of the language arts either, given that in January, BuzzFeed reported that he had plagiarized a number of passages from other writers. “Plagiarism, there were some mistakes made there. It was a historical book. It had a lot of quotations and citations. We happened to miss a couple. I take full responsibility for that,” the errant author explained last week.

The kids at Ponce de Leon also spent a couple days in the classroom watching a movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. based on Carson’s autobiography. But only students in that particular eight-grade class had to watch. Unless Sen. Hays happens to catch a screening, Gifted Hands won’t be declared mandatory watching for every public school kid in the state.

That singular honor, if Hays and Combee can round up the votes, will go to the work of a convicted felon.