Pulling Ourselves Together

Last week I saw a movie that kicked off a train of thought I didn’t expect. The movie was “The Rider.” It’s a “small” film, done on a relatively small budget but it is creating some buzz in the film festival world. In the coming months you may hear more about it and maybe even see it.

The movie isn’t especially unusual in a general sense. It involves difficulties faced by a young man who must make a life-altering personal decision. It takes place in the wide-open spaces of America’s West. And it portrays warm friendships as well as family tensions and ties. – I’m sure we’ve all seen plenty of films with those ingredients.

But this film’s young director, Chloe’ Zhao, who also wrote the screenplay, draws performances from the cast of amateurs, all local people, that are so completely natural I felt like somehow I was peering in on real lives. And they were lives in a part of America completely unfamiliar to me.

The young men in the film are immersed in the culture of rodeo riding, and the protagonist is not only a rider, he is a “horse whisperer.”

However, beyond those “exotic” characteristics, the friendship between the young men, their small talk, their roughhouse games make them pretty much the same as young guys anywhere else in America. I liked them.

Relatively early in the film, after getting acquainted with characters from a culture completely new to me, the camera cut to a wide shot of the vast land and endless sky of the Dakotas. It was at this point that I thought to myself, ” My God, our United States is a huge country! And the diversity of its people is breathtaking. How could any political party or candidate ever think they could get their arms around this mass of humanity?”

(Right here I want to clarify that I didn’t keep thinking such political thoughts throughout the rest of the movie. Thankfully, I haven’t become that completely obsessed with such stuff.)

But in the days since seeing “The Rider,” I have thought more about that question that popped into my head. How does a nation as large and diverse as ours achieve a level of cohesion that will see us through the perils of the 21st century? The divisive rhetoric of the Trump Administration and the far right Republicans controlling Congress  certainly aren’t helping. 

Now, I realize that every nation on earth must deal with diversity. No doubt even tiny Lichtenstein and Andorra have economic and societal strata. And at the other end of the spectrum there’s India with over 800 separate languages and religious conflicts dating back centuries.

Russia has over 6.6 million square miles of territory, encompassing a number of European and Asian cultures. Under Communism, they used Marxist-Leninist doctrine and dictatorial power to create a single-minded national focus. And now under Putin’s autocratic rule, nationalistic propaganda is keeping most Russians on the same page — at least, for now.

The Chinese government’s answer for uniting its 1.4 billion people (incredible!) has been to open up the economy to some level of free enterprise under the ever-watchful eye of the Communist Party apparatus. The people are, in general, much better off than they were two generations ago, but they still live under a political party dictatorship.

So here in the U.S.A., in these divisive times, what will it take to see our own huge, multi-cultured country become more closely united in a common purpose? I’m sure there are some people who, looking at the growth of our economic rival China, would conclude that some “mild” form of dictatorship might be considered — perhaps a corporate-friendly cousin of fascism. There are outrageously influential Americans, billionaires, who believe that nothing should get in the way of their accumulation of more wealth, no matter how that wealth is acquired.

But those few thousand people of super wealth are outnumbered by tens of millions of Americans who share the belief in their unalienable rights to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That remains a promise that should inspire all American people, no matter what their wealth or circumstance.

As we approach the 2018 mid-term elections and the desperately critical presidential election in 2020, the Democratic Party and its candidates must put forward a unifying message that speaks positively toward a better future for everyday Americans.

The bronco-buster in South Dakota, the NASCAR driver in Florida….the wine grower in California…the school teacher in Maine… may each have quite different personalities, backgrounds, situations and personal priorities. But they still all feel a connection to the nation they call home. The concept of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, still resonates with them. They are ready to hear the Democratic Party and its candidates present well thought out positions that go beyond the hollow jingoism of “Make America great again.”

The idealist in me clings to the belief that intelligent leadership can inspire a free people, if given the opportunity, to develop their individual talents to the benefit of our nation as a whole. This should be the Democrats’ unifying message.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973