This Divided State

This Divided State: A Brilliant Film
March 24, 2005

At a recent screening of “This Divided State,” a brilliant documentary by Steven Greenstreet, someone in the audience asked the 25-year-old director what he thought would change the minds of conservatives in the film who expressed fear that liberals would corrupt their children, and who on that basis fought to keep all liberal opinions out of their community.

Greenstreet’s answer was not what you’d expect to hear in a gathering of political progressives. He didn’t advise better framing and messaging. He didn’t produce a slogan or a sound bite. He didn’t even mention the name George Lakoff. He didn’t suggest particular points to make or issues to focus on. Nor did he, for that matter, propose ways to create new media outlets or to infiltrate or reform existing ones. In fact, he didn’t suggest saying anything at all. He recommended sitting down with conservatives and asking them what they thought, and shutting up and listening to them.

Does that sound like a non-answer? Does it sound too time-consuming? But it is absolutely necessary. It is necessary in academic success, in relations among family and friends, and in grassroots organizing. Why wouldn’t it be necessary in politics? It is much easier to persuade someone who believes that you understand and respect them.

Of course we also need democratic media, populist candidates, and snappy slogans. And, if anything, liberals are already more often good listeners than conservatives are. I don’t think Greenstreet’s answer identifies the single cause of or solution to all our woes. I suspect that honest elections combined with public financing of elections and publicly funded media outlets would be enough to start badly defeated conservatives on a long bout of self-flagellation, reframing, and creative messaging.

Nonetheless, I think Greenstreet hit on something that is missing from our political activism and from our public discourse – a discourse that involves two, and only two, sides, which must entertain viewers through take-no-prisoners combat.

Greenstreet’s open and humble attitude is reflected in his film. It tells the story of weeks of heated debate and controversy on a Utah college campus to which Michael Moore had been invited to speak. Leading up to Moore’s appearance, shortly before last year’s presidential election, students launched a petition to recall the student government officers who had invited him, a community resident publicly offered to bribe the college if they kept Moore from speaking, the college invited right-wing talking head Sean Hannity to appear on campus, demonstrators met counter-demonstrators, law suits were filed, the local and state media provided blanket coverage, and people talked to or shouted at each other in various forums.

Greenstreet’s film-making is more mature than that of many progressive film-makers twice his age. Remarkably, he does not star in his own documentary. Even when Sean Hannity’s body guard slams him up against a wall, he does not come in front of the camera to talk about it. What he does behind the camera and in editing the footage, however, is remarkable. Shots of crowds and of individuals in crowds are creative and smoothly pieced together. Extreme close-ups on the faces of speakers work surprisingly well.

Participants in this drama speak for themselves, at public events and in interviews. Greenstreet screened the film for them in Utah, and says that most believed he’d treated them fairly. This is somewhat jarring to hear after viewing the film in a theater full of progressives who’ve just laughed at the outrageousness and hypocrisy of various conservative characters. But the divide through our nation state is not complete. The individual who comes off most poorly in the film is himself unhappy with it. Were he not, I’d have to say we were in serious trouble.

This is the film to go to with your friend who didn’t like “Fahrenheit 9-11” despite never having been willing to watch it. If you don’t have such a friend, now is the time to make one.

The film’s website is:
http://www.thisdividedstate.com

Campus Progress is launching a 20-campus tour:
http://www.campusprogress.org

Utah newspapers print great stuff:
http://www.slweekly.com/editorial/2005/city_3_2005-03-24.cfm

David Swanson is a writer and activist, and a board member of Progressive Democrats of America. He can be heard every Monday on the Thom Hartmann Show. His website is http://www.davidswanson.org.

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