This Divided State Movie Review
If anyone imagines that the answer to that question is yes, this documentary stands to wipe out that rosy picture. Sadly and profoundly, the tendency in the human race to gather into groups that think themselves superior to others is alive and well in the Mormon community of Utah where, in some places, principles of democracy, inclusion, and concepts like freedom of speech just don't apply.
Imagine a community college that is so shaky as a bastion of political conservatism that it fears a speaking engagement by Michael Moore when he's invited for a taste of "the other side." Imagine, if you can, a level of debate and invective that rips away all traces of collegiality and balance. Imagine death threats and near-violent demonstrations. Director Steven Greenstreet, a former Brigham Young University student, vividly documents all of it in a real-time record of frenzy in 2004, just before the election.
It all started when Sean Hannity was invited to speak at Utah Valley State College and someone (student body president Jim Bassi and student Michael Nagro) had the temerity and judgment to think that, in the interest of balance, a voice from the other side should also be heard. A call then went out to Michael Moore, offering a speaker fee of $40,000, to be paid out of ticket sales. Hannity was appearing for free, but the college would have to pay his expenses, including a round trip on a private jet which, it could be assumed, was to let no one misunderstand what an important person this talk show host was.
The concept of balance is passionately and instantly rejected by the majority of Orem City students and residents. To them, the notion of listening to a dissenting voice is a non-starter, unacceptable. Democracy on campus... here? Fuggedaboudit.
When a student extremist-activist (Sean Vreeland) starts a petition drive to prevent Moore's appearance, he sets up his station for signatures on campus. While claiming objectivity, he falsely spins the idea that Moore's $40,000 fee is coming directly from student pockets, but he quickly denies he ever said it when the lie is exposed. He just goes on and continues his rant and, when he finds his efforts unsuccessful at protecting the student body from exposure to a voice that opposes his own, the next option he chooses is a legal attack.
In this, he's not alone. Kay Anderson, an apparently well-to-do homeowner who lives across from the Orem City campus, takes it on as a personal mission to keep his community pure. He's all over, making specious arguments about the sanctity of the community and its love of everything republican. But there's a hysteria about the energy he brings to the debate, a fear. In a state where the political right to left ratio is 12:1, the extremity of the effort is enough to cause one to wonder where the fear originates. Is their belief so shaky, and so subject to weakening, that this minion of the status quo needs to come up with a multi-thousand dollar check to compensate the college if it will cancel the Devil of Liberalism's appearance?
The school debate is raucous and emotionally charged as assemblies are held to hear people out on the issue. When freedom of speech and hearing-the-other-side notions are raised, they're drowned out in a sound wall of insult and outrage. These paragons of righteousness and family values don't, apparently, have the confidence in their own family's training (and you can bet these kids are rubber stamped in the political image of their parents' ideology) that they regard a spokesman for another point of view as too great a risk. This person might undermine convictions, after all. And theirs is a campaign against the devil. They have their own version of the "Great Satan," and that version includes some of us. My lord. When did Michael Moore become an Iranian Ayatollah?
It must be added that plenty of the students express collegiate objectivity and an open attitude, and the faculty seems mostly in tune with the principles of balance and what some of us think of as the nature of our country. When someone points out that the Mormons were forced to come to Utah in the first place because of intolerance, the room goes silent for a moment. But, to young fundamentalist republicans, there'll be no dilution of their stock or their credos. The great diluter approaches, and they're angry about it.
Intolerance and Bigotry 101. In 2005.
Director Steven Greenstreet (also cinematographer, editor, and producer) includes events and interviews -- everything and anyone relevant to the controversy, recording all sides equally in good documentary fashion. Taking no editorial position, he allows the subjects to expose themselves to his audience, for viewers to praise or to ridicule. Selfishness, bombast, fear, class loathing... it all reveals itself before Greenstreet's objective lens. The approach to recording the story is everything its subjects aren't.
While it's very much in the eye of the beholder, my take is that an objective view of what's really going on here will see this uprising against a different viewpoint as the refuge of scoundrels who have no clue how disgusting their hysteria registers on the rest of us. I only hope "the rest of us" is the majority.