Friday, September 29, 2006

Michael Shea and Red State

[Michael Shea with interview subjects in Arkansas.]

I had lunch the other day with Michael Shea, the independent filmmaker whose first solo work, Red State, deserves a national audience. I describe it here. We got on nicely, since it seemed we both were operating from a similar wavelength.

Michael agreed to do a regular interview with me, so the next day, we talked by phone. Here's the result.


What I wanted to talk about, after watching the film, was the odyssey you underwent. When you describe it to people who haven't seen the film, or even those who have, how do you sum it up? How do you explain what you encountered en route during this trip?

I sometimes struggle with synthesizing it all into a few sentences. I guess that the best way I can put it is that I went out and came face to face with an emerging theocracy in America, an emerging theocratic worldview, based on certain people's conception of Christianity here.

But it's not just theocratic, it also ties into issues like race and white privilege. There was a lot of talk, I thought, about defending what we've got, that sort of thing.

Certainly, if I were to attempt to psychoanalyze my experience, I would say that there are a lot of people who don't like America changing to a multicultural society, and are afraid of where we're going as a country culturally, and want it to stop, want it to reverse to a simpler time. The '50s seem to be a big iconic time for them. They just want life to be how they feel it once was.

Sort of this mythical Golden Era that actually never existed, right?

Yeah, exactly. These people seem to long for this time that from my understanding never existed.

Or if it existed, it also had certain features that I don't think any of us would accept today, including all the racial prejudice. And yet that was kind of explicitly what at least one of your interviewees [Gladys Gill] seemed to long for.

Yeah, absolutely. There were people -- Gladys in particular -- who were longing for a time when white people could pretty much do what they wanted institutionally, and the other people -- women and minorities -- knew their place.

It seemed like there was a trajectory to the interviews too, where initially a lot of the interviews, except for Dennis Mansfield, were people who were reachable. As you say later in that clip from the radio show you were on, some of these people you can't help but be impressed by their dignity and decency, even when they're suckering for the whole morals/values schtick that conservatives have mastered.

The film and my experience definitely kind of illustrates that that has happened -- that people are being marketed their worldview. And they are almost using their decency against them, in a way. They are preying upon the notion of this golden time, and they're preying upon people's nostalgia and longing for that to get them to oppose other groups.

It seems like the key to that has been this propaganda mill has been pretty incessant out there in rural America for the last 15 years -- you know, Rush Limbaugh and all his wannabees. You kind of noted the effect on one of your interviewees -- someone who had voted Democratic for years but didn't like Democrats now because they were just too liberal, but couldn't say why thought so.

I felt like I was speaking with people who were, for lack of a better term, parroting the media they were consuming -- Rush Limbaugh, local conservative talk radio which is similar to him, Fox News -- that there is indeed a concerted effort, and it's very well organized and intricate and total, to convince these people to think they want, to respond the way that they want them to.

I mean, look at the gay marriage issue. In a time when American soldiers are dying in various places around the globe, I went out to talk to people about the state of the country and why they voted for whom they voted for, and most of them want to talk about gay marriage. Which couldn't possibly really affect their lives. But it's become the issue for them, and that was absolutely based on the marketing campaign that the administration and its media arm put forth.

They wrap themselves in this blanket of morality and value, but at their core they are deeply amoral. I think that's been revealed by the torture issue.

That was one of the main conflicts for me personally was that I was having trouble reconciling any notion of morality with many of the folks that I spoke with. While they were waving about this moral superiority, this moral high ground.

And then there were people at the other end of the spectrum, the people who were clearly theocratic authoritarians -- kind of glassy-eyed ideologues almost. Those people just seem to me impossible to reach.

One of the great contradictions of my experience was that I would be talking to people and having a great time with them, enjoying them as people -- when we were talking about a ball game or the weather or our trip or whatever. But when we'd move into the political arena, I often felt like I wasn't speaking to a human being anymore, I was listening to the recitation of the programming.

It looked in at least a moment there like -- I couldn't tell whether you were dumbfounded or upset, maybe both, with the fellow you interviewed at the giant cross memorial. The associate pastor.

I was actually upset. I'd been doing it for a long time at that point, and you know, I had just been hearing this hatred being put forth as faith, and I couldn't take it anymore. I was quite upset with that gentleman. He was advocating torture and saying that God would advocate that. Yeah, I was angry.

You talk about how people like that scare you, and I think that's true for a lot of people, that they would scare us.

It is scary. It's chilling. I think there's that phrase, "the dead eye" -- to be looking into someone's eyes and to see no humanity there, to see no compassion for others. It's scary. It freaked me out. I talk about that in the film, how I would be at times freaked out by these people, and how I struggled with that.

Because of the gay marriage issue, the film became kind of a gay rights film in a way, and that wasn't my intention. But for me the logic of the gay marriage issue is just so easy to digest that I couldn't believe that I couldn't have a conversation with folks and have them agree.

It seems like if you try to talk logic with these people, especially on an issue like gay marriage, they often just shut down. Logic and reason are no longer operative things.

It certainly isn't logic the way you or I would understand it. I'd guess you could, if you were being generous, a logic borne of their faith. But it certainly wasn't logic as I know it.

I guess the lingering question is: What next? Now that we have this kind of insight into the state of the nation, how should we act? What should we be doing?

I made the film without any knowledge of where it was going to end, and of where to go after. And in many ways, I still am in that place. I think it's truly for us to begin asking these questions. Calling things what they are and then trying to see what makes sense from there.

First of all, we have to recognize and repeat that there are people who arguably are in power in this country, and that they have been put in power by these people who are inclined to think theocratically. What are going to do about that?

Well, I guess what I would tell you is that my film, I hope it can have some impact on Republicans. And by Republicans I mean these people who were Republican before the theocrats took power, the people who were Republican for economic reasons. People who were Republican and might have been just fine with the Clinton economy. I think there is room to have these people, these Republicans, see the danger posed by the folks that they're sharing this party with. And I think we ought to do all that we can do to educate them on what their party has become.

I didn't think of Republicans as wrong dangerous 20, 30 years ago. I thought at that time I disagreed with them, but I don't know that they were necessarily dangerous to our way of life. I think the Republican Party has become dangerous to our way of life, and that we need to act as if that were the case.

It seems that what the film also did -- at least what I came away from it with -- was this sense you were also pointing to ways that we can find common ground with some of these people. I think when we speak from a moral center of our own, we do well -- and I think the torture issue is a perfect example of that. I think the reason that a lot of people don't vote Democrat now is that they don't believe we have a moral center.

I think that's absolutely right. I think that morality, and values, have not been heeded by the left, because we've bought into this language that make radical Christians the "values voters" -- as if we don't have values of our own. And I think that that kind of propaganda that uses language is something that the left has really been asleep about. In the way that the word "liberal" was demonized, that's an example of what has happened in many different areas, with many different words and phrases.

In the film, I proclaim that I am a liberal. And I'm proud of being a liberal. Liberals are responsible for nearly all the cultural growth that we've had. We need to take it back. We can't allow our values and our society to become marginalized just because of the propaganda being put forth by the other side.

Part of what I was looking for in my project was two kinds of understanding, like I said. While I don't feel I found a way to have the common ground with the Christianists, that doesn't mean there isn't possibility for common ground with some on the right. We need to find a way to peel away some of those votes, and then we can begin repairing the damage that's been done.

Michael's showing the film today in the Bay Area twice at Cafe lo Cubano.

No comments: