This Divided State

I caught a review copy of Steven Greenstreet’s 2005 documentary, This Divided State (IMDB) last night, and I’m still sorting out what to write about the film. This Divided State focuses on the heated conflict at Utah Valley State College when the student government invites filmmaker Michael Moore to campus just a few weeks before the 2004 presidential election. Moore’s planned visit to USVC, a campus of over 25,000 students in Orem (a predominantly Mormon and conservative town just outside of Provo), is greeted with alarm by many of USCV’s conservative students. The resulting film is a sometimes humorous and often unsettling meditation on political discourse, especially in a community in which religious beliefs (95% of Orem’s residents are Mormon) is so important.

Eric Snider’s review of TDS offers a glimpse of the political atmosphere in Orem, drawing from his own first-hand observations of the controversy that spilled into local newspapers, radio and television stations, and even the courts, as one local businessman, Kay Anderson, eventually brought a lawsuit against the USVC student government. In addition, one group of students attempts to organize a recall of the student government president and vice-president, in more than a faint echo of the California recall. Early on, there are some debates about the $40,000 fee paid for Moore’s visit, but when his appearance sells out, concerns about money turn out to be less significant. Eventually, in a last-minute attempt at achieving “balance,” USVC invites the ubiquitous conservative radio and TV host Sean Hannity to speak a few days before Moore’s scheduled visit. These narrative threads make for compelling viewing, but the film’s most powerful and troubling scenes include student government presidnet Jim Bassi fileding phone calls asking him if USVC will follow up Moore’s talk with a speech by Hitler or Saddam Hussein.

Of course, the film isn’t entirely bleak. Many of the students, professors, and locals welcome Moore to campus, many because of their experiences as Mormons. One college student, pointing out that Mormons fled Chicago because of persecution, explains that he thinks it would be inappropriate to prevent others from speaking freely. Others point out that colleges and universities have the responsibility to present students with viewpoints they might not encounter under normal circumstances. Greenstreet also introduces us to some of Orem’s quirky characters including a local who strongly resembles Michael Moore and even plays up that resemblance by wearing jeans and baseball caps and shaving his beard to look like Moore’s (oddly enough, even with this physical imitation of Moore, he identifies as Republican).

TDS builds to Hannity and Moore’s visits, and Greenstreet gives a significant portion of the film to both speakers. In both cases, Moore and Hannity play to sold-out, cheering audiences. In his review, Jesus’ General argues that these scenes depict Moore (and liebrals) as more inclusive than Hannity (and conesrvatives). There’s a case to be made to support this claim, especially when Hannity belittles a liberal heckler by putting him on the spot in front of thousands of people, while Moore is shown emphasizing a position of tolerance. This opposition needs to be complicated to some extent, however, to ask why or how Moore becomes such a divisive figure (and I think this goes far beyond mere conservative dislike of his ideas).

While Greenstreet’s film is clearly sympathetic with the groups who support the decision to bring Moore to campus, the film is generally respectful of all participants in the controversy and seems to recognize why the community became so divided by Moore’s visit. And the film offers some reasons for optimism. Student protests and rallies challenge arguments that suggest that young people are disengaged from politics. While many of the arguments are heated, Moore’s visit provokes a conversation about political discourse that might not have taken place otherwise, challenging the members of the college community to reflect on what kinds of political language should be permissible in the public sphere.

This Divided State (blog) is available on Netflix and deserves to be a part of the ongoing conversation about politics, popular culture, and polarization.

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