One of the most interesting e-mails I have received since my first piece of hate mail was a note from a reader of The Uncommon Sense that I received this afternoon. The highlights (spelling and punctuation are retained):
“You are another issue I pity you because your just to stupid to see the facts or really care about them.Your really need to take a hard look at what YOU are trying to sell. The problem is there are other people who read your article that think you know something. This takes us back to F-911 people watch this and think it is all fact. Triumph of the Will and Fahrenheit 911 are one and the same, creative pieces of propaganda presented in the form of entertainment. I suggest you find another job since you can’t tell them apart from a real documentary.”
Instead of responding to this note, it got me thinking about the way such anger and the urge to silence others is inspired by disagreement and the exercise of free speech. It is, after all, the 4th of July weekend. What better time to think about American identity, about who we are as a nation, and about how the act of defining ourselves as a people is ultimately a limiting, incomplete activity.
During a recent discussion with Catherine Tambini and Carlos Sandoval, directors of the film Farmingville, I asked them about how some people ended up with such a narrow definition of what an American is. In the film, citizens of a small Long Island town try to deal with the issue of migrant workers and day laborers by banning them from gathering in public, ultimately forming a group that seeks their deportation because they aren’t documented citizens. In the film program, I had coupled this movie with a short film called My First War by Douglas Katelus and Theo Rigby, which examines intolerance of dissent in the American discussion about the War in Iraq. Both films, though very different, clearly showed the passion and division that can erupt between people when their conceptions of themselves as Americans are challenged. Our discussion yielded no easy answers, but what remains most disturbing to me is the certainty and confidence of those who would seek limitations to American identity. What is there about dissent, or language, or national origin, that drives people to such distraction?
My belief is that these are issues of insecurity, that the very institutions that people cling to with such fervor– the state, concepts of national identity, taxation, immigration law– are the very things that have alienated them from the fundamental principle of life as an American: change. Institutions, particularly the enormous, inflexible state, do not handle the concept of change nearly as effectively as small communities and individuals do.The tension between fundamental social institutions and the individual only enhance the difficulty of change, and thereby create insecurity and uncertainty. This inspires many people to hate change and the agents of change, because change eliminates the fundamental concept of fixed identity.
There is a great scene in Henry Bean’s The Believer when Daniel, the Jewish nazi played by Ryan Gossling, explains his stance on the fundamental problem with the Jewish influence on identity. He lists three names, Marx, Freud and Einstein, and lists their acheivements as Communism, Infantile Sexuality, and The Atomic Bomb. Because of men like these, identity (he argues) is an abstraction. The world has been transformed into a subjective, abstract place. Daniel never mentions is his own insecurity under these circumstances, but it is clear that his hatred stems from this uncertainty. I believe this scene is masterful in its understanding of the central issue of American identity.
If what it means to be an American is always in flux, subjective, abstract, and change is simultaneously being created across several different ‘categories’ of American identity (gender, race, family roles, work, etc.), then who are we? It is understandable that people will seek the comfort of fixed definitions and institutions in the hope of finding and securing an idea of themselves. And certainly, the context of “isms”– racism, nationalism, war time patriotism– go a long way toward providing a narrow and limiting context within which people can define themselves. However, it is more depressing to me to think that people need these things to recognize their individuality outside of their common humanity with their fellow citizens. Unfortunately for them, the reality is that change will never stop and their anxiety will only intensify. It is a difficult thing to be on the wrong side of history.
Because, of course, there is no objective experience of life or identity. We are millions of individual people, trying to figure ourselves out, trying to understand who we are and what we believe in. I turn to film and its wonderful ability to show me a diverse range of human experience, to make me feel and empathize. The movie theater is an unparalleled agent of change, a place where stories and ideas have the silence and space required to truly be heard. There may be no place more perfectly democratic than the dark of a crowded theater. I only hope that on this most patriotic of weekends, Americans pack themselves into the air-conditioned comfort of our most empathetic institution. Maybe they can find their experience in the story on the screen and recognize themselves in the face of the person in the seat next to them.