I have been reflecting a good deal on this past year and why my new project Story of America means so much to me.
It was a difficult year for many of us because, regardless of how you feel about the outcome of the 2012 election, the debates that we witnessed this year were a reminder that we are indeed very divided from each other.
As some of you know, I have deep faith in the transformative power of dialogue and storytelling. Even during the ugliest moments during the election, I maintained the faith that we can heal the divide in our country through dialogue.
We began filming Story of America in the first week of November and documented just how divided we were as voters even down to our experiences of voting. We created videos about Battleground Virginia and were featured in the Washington Post for our dramatic coverage of the 5-hour lines at polling stations in Prince William County.
After the Newtown massacre, I must confess, my faith in dialogue was tested. Two days after the shooting, I wrote a blog post, Replying to my pro-gun friends, addressing some popular pro-gun talking points and pointing out that we need sensible gun regulation. My basic point is that gun laws should be regarded as a public safety issue. With nearly 50k likes and over 650 comments, it generated a lot of discussion. Along with hundreds of people, I tried to reply to some of the angry comments on that page and in my inbox. I found it incredibly challenging to engage people in a constructive dialogue.
I get the self-defense argument, especially for those living in rural areas. I’m not someone calling for a ban on all guns — not at all. I’m aware that most gun owners are responsible. I personally know plenty of responsible gun owners.
What I don’t get is the desire and need for military-style assault weapons. The argument that this kind of weapon is needed for defending oneself from home invaders and wild animals or hunting animals for food is not convincing to me. The fact that so many people desire and own these weapons makes me wonder if people approach ordinary life in America as warfare. Why do we need such powerful weapons? Are we in a war of some kind against one another and I didn’t know it?
While trying to talk to people online about gun control after Newtown, I started to wonder if we just live in different worlds and we don’t have enough in common for dialogue. I feared that my critics are living in the Walking Dead, the post-apocalyptic TV show about zombies, and I’m living in a Frank Capra movie. That is, we’re not just divided, we live in such different realities that we cannot understand each other and feel alienated from each other.
I’m not saying that all pro-gun people live in this world. I worry that there is a subset of pro-gun advocates who do live in this world and those are the people who test my faith in dialogue.
This is my fear and this is what some people tried to tell me in the last three years since the rise of the Tea Party: the other side is full of crazy, evil, and horrible people. You can’t reason with them. You can only beat them or eliminate them from the process. I had insisted that this is just not how American democracy works. We need many voices, a diversity of people freely expressing their opinions: E pluribus unum.
Last Friday, Eric Byler and I documented the protest outside the NRA press conference in Washington DC, their first one after Newtown. We captured NRA protesters shouting at pro-gun activists trying to disrupt their protest. I was confronted face-to-face with the specter of that existential chasm — it looked like the NRA protesters and the pro-gun activists were utterly alien and zombie-like to each other.
In fact, when I was interviewing Larry Ward, one of the pro-gun advocates arguing with the NRA protesters, he specifically asked what would happen to us if we declared a zombie-free zone. We’d get eaten by zombies. He started out speaking about zombies figuratively, but then compared people addicted to meth to zombies.
This is my fear about America in a nutshell: Are we feeling so alienated from one another that we see the other as zombie-like and worthless? That is, not deserving of compassion, a voice in the political process, or even life? And, is this alienation creeping into our legislative process? Everything from gun control to the budget, immigration laws, and Stand Your Ground laws?
And if that is the case, what are the ultimate consequences and the remedies?
I do accept the point of my pro-gun friends and perhaps the creators of the Walking Dead that to some extent that civilization (law and order) is more fragile than we’d like to believe it is and there are some truly awful and destructive people out there. I can readily imagine needing to defend myself from chaotic and violent forces in our society.
The problem is that the belief that civilization is breaking down can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The less you trust and value civilization and the inherent worth of human beings, the more willing you will be to live outside it and see the people inside as weak, parasitic and worthless. This kind of alienation from our society just is destabilizing.
I believe we have a big choice to make right now and this is the bigger point that I think the creators of the Walking Dead are making: civilization is a choice not a given. In order to make that choice, we must think about some fundamental questions about our relationship to each other. Do we see value in each other as human beings? As fellow Americans? Do we want to reaffirm the Union? Do we choose to commit to the principles and the experiment that is America? Is so, what does that mean? Do we consent to the social contract? If so, what does that mean? And, how do we (re)commit to the social contract in a meaningful way?
Something interesting happened for me last Friday outside the NRA press conference that helped me answer some of those questions. Despite my fear that Larry Ward and Adam Kokesh (independent journalist who created Adam Vs the Man) lived in a different world, we talked.
After a few minutes of talking, they did not seem alien to me at all. I quickly realized that my initial assessment of them was fear-based and way off. I didn’t agree with them, but I was able to have a civil and reasonable conversation with them. In engaging them on this polarizing topic, I thought it would be helpful if we can begin the conversation with the agreement that guns are already regulated so that discussion is not centered on IF it should be since it already is. Both Larry and Adam readily agreed that guns were already regulated. Now the question is, which regulations are actually helpful from the standpoint of public safety and acceptable from the standpoint of self-defense/gun rights of individuals? Surely, we can have a balance of those two. I do believe there was some progress made. What do you think? I’m curious to hear your opinion on these videos.
Beyond the issue of regulating guns, I realized that my anxiety about our alienation from each other, the Walking Dead problem, can be addressed by talking. Moreover, I think dialogue is itself a reaffirmation of the social contract. If we didn’t care about that contract at all, we wouldn’t be talking; we’d be shooting or eating each other. We would resort to violence much more often than communication. As it is, even though we’re often uncivil and ineffective, we’re still talking to each other. That says something. The more we talk to each other with respect (speaking our minds and listening), the less alienated we will be from each other, and the stronger our nation will be.
I know that’s a lot of pressure to place on talking and dialogue. However, a sophisticated language is, after all, what distinguishes human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom.
It’s tempting to think that the main problem with politics in America is extremism. I think it’s a combination of extremism and the silent, browbeaten, apathetic, exhausted, cynical, disengaged and marginalized majority. That majority must now stand together with a roar to reset the course for America by dominating the national dialogue instead of allowing it to be controlled by the loudest and the most divisive few.
This has been a long explanation of why I’m putting my heart and soul into the Story of America. Thank you for listening.
Before I sign off, I need to ask for your support and partnership. I just can’t continue the work without it. Our goal is to raise $60,000 by February 3rd for start-up funds so that we can continue to tell the Story of America and help unite the county.
- CLICK HERE to make a tax-deductible donation to our Indiegogo campaign and become Founding Member, Angel Investor or Co-Producer.
Thanks, always, for the dialogue!
All the best in the New Year,
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