Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Red State of mind

[Some excerpts from Red State, courtesy of Jesus' General.]

So, just after the 2004 election, I had this great idea for doing something genuinely useful with Orcinus: Traveling to the Great American Interior, visting the Vast Red State Heartland, and talking to people there. Trying to get a sense of what it was that drove so many people out there not just to enthusiastically embrace the conservative movement and Republican rule, but to also so decisively reject liberalism and Democratic rule.

Well, due to a combination of the duties of stay-at-home fatherhood and my own inclination to procrastinate, I never embarked on the venture.

Fortunately, Michael Shea, a California-based filmmaker, also had the same idea -- and had the energy and drive enough to actually carry it out. The result is his remarkable film Red State, which records his odyssey through rural America, interviewing its denizens in the hope of coming to terms with why they vote as they do.

The biggest question, I think, most of us had after the 2004 election, was this: Why do people in rural states so readily support a president whose policies clearly harm them?

Why, when faced with the destruction of their communities at the hand of corporatists, resulting in an increasing gap between rural and urban wages and quality of life, do they consistently reward the politicians who coddle those corporations and exploit that gap?

Red State starts out exploring this question, but by the time you reach the end, most of us will be asking: What the hell is happening to this country?

There's a certain trajectory to Shea's odyssey. At first he encounters the rural folks who used to vote Democrat but haven't for years, because they've become too "liberal" -- but asked to explain what they mean, they can't. Shea hits the right note: "It sounded like he listened to Rush Limbaugh."

Exactly right. Limbaugh and his army of local imitators dominate the airwaves in rural America, and dominate the public discourse there as well, and their drumbeat message is ceaseless: Urban liberals hate people in the heartland, and want to destroy their way of life. And liberals, in their ignorance and arrogance, have done nothing to counter that message.

But as the film progresses, Shea travels deeper into the dark heart of the red states, and encounters finally the theocrats, the closet racists, the right-wing authoritarians and extremists who give this shift to the right its gravitational center. The people who want to remake America into their own lily-white vision of a "Christian nation" that never was.

Shea finds these people "scary," and I suspect that this is how a lot of people will react. My reaction, perhaps predictably, was somewhat different; after all, I've met and interviewed a lot of these people myself, and long ago ceased being scared by them. Instead, I've simply tried to bring them to the attention of the larger public, and I always thought it kind of odd to find my work frequently described as "scary." In gauging other people's reactions to these sequences in Red State, I can see a little better how that happens. Some of these people are scary.

And yet not all of them are, by any means. As Shea notes at the end of the film, he vacillates between being scared by his interview subjects and being impressed by their basic decency. And it's clear that the "Red State America" he uncovers is constituted of two populations -- decent, caring people for whom core values surmount their personal well-being, people who might be reachable through an alternative appeal to their values; and the authoritarians whose glassy eyes conceal a closeted extremism and lurking bigotry, the people who not only condone but legitimize torture, the people who are unreachable.

In the end, Red State leaves us to figure out where to go from there, from that nugget of understanding. It's a terrific way of getting a handle on what is happening to us; but like any good filmmaker, Shea respects his audience enough to let them think it through for themselves.

It's an unflinchingly honest film -- Shea's interviewing skills are rough at first, and he lets us see that; but by the end he hones in beautifully -- and accordingly, Red State should force us all to reassess a lot of our assumptions, both urban liberals as well as garden-variety conservatives. In these times of faux docudramas and endless propaganda, it's exactly what we need.

The General and Digby have more.

I interviewed Shea yesterday and will post the interview tomorrow.

P.S. If you're in the Bay Area, there will be a screening of the film Friday at Cafe lo Cubano, with Shea in attendance. We're still trying to find a screening opportunity in the Seattle area.

No comments: