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By Bryan Newbury
October 11, 2008

To state that the United States of America is increasingly politically polarized will do little to confirm one’s acuity in matters of state. By now, it has entered into bromide territory. The progression from observation to recognized fact to platitude is seldom a straight road, and the oddity with this particular bit of wisdom is just how incorrect – or imprecise, if you prefer – the definition of the division happens to be.  

It doesn’t take long for Split to point out the imprecision in the Red State/Blue State narrative. This is to be commended, because looking to closely at ill-defined macro classifications will invariably end up in a film, or even a conversation, losing the plot. As Jack Hitt and a host of others astutely observe, the notion of a neatly divided group of states defining the political culture of a nominally democratic republic is quite absurd. Were it true, we’d be in more trouble than we have already. Looking at demographic data, it’d be closer to accurate to describe the break as Rural versus Urban. Closer, but not quite there. 

Split certainly succeeds at viewing the political situation, so often represented by the primary colors equation, in a more reasoned and deliberate way. We get to see where the real divisions are and how geography, religion, media and money fit into the picture. There are real issues with the nature of the composition, which we’ll attend to later, but the film can be said to achieve its objective by illustrating how confusing and complex the American political landscape is. 

Religion looms large, and begs the viewer to ask himself whether that complexity is really there. Right now, and for some time before and likely to come, the split between secular and religious worldviews has dictated the debate in most of the world. The main sticking point with defining a person or group with so basic a term is that the definition becomes muddled when one considers that there are some in the “secular” camp that display characteristics more befitting our picture of the religious mindset and the other way about. (Think of the secular humanist who accepts nothing that our limited perspectives and perceptions can’t classify on the one hand and the progressive Christian who espouses the red words of the New Testament as beacons of tolerance on the other.) To make it plain, we could paraphrase an old division into the cognitive versus the moral. What we collectively describe as the “religious” outlook in the U.S. is largely understood to be the evangelical Christian element. Nyks speaks with a few proponents of this quaint watch post against rational thought, and the responses they give are telling, as are those of the people on the other side of the thought fence. What occurs reminds one of the ever- pervasive influence of Islam in western Europe more than any other correlative. 

What happens during Split conjures the debate of the Cologne mega mosque, which quickly deteriorated to a pissing match between pious Muslims and protofascist nationalists. Left on the sidelines to ponder the finer elements were the rational leftists. Eventually, they sided more often with the go-ahead on building. After all, what are progressive western values if not tolerant? That the ambitions behind such structures don’t generally end up on the tolerant side of things had to be tossed aside in the final analysis. One can see the same type of losing battle the cognitive minority fights in an interviewee for the film, who asserts that it isn’t in the national interest (maybe not even possible) to divorce the faith of people from their view of governance, though it is a great danger when such faith can be manipulated and then foist upon the population through legislation and overall atmosphere in the public discourse. While it is pretty to think so, it is madness to assume that religion, when mobilized to a political end, will do anything else. So, there you have why the assorted crackpots and snake oil men, along with their snake handling cousins, are winning the war globally as well as nationally. For the religious section of this split, there are really three factions. The first are the types who insist the Founding Fathers thought the bible should be the law of the land and who illustrate issues of human sexuality with hardware implements. The second are stridently secular or involved with a much more nuanced view of history and religion. The third are of a secular bent, but wouldn’t want to dictate their outlook to the other two. Groups two and three being roughly equal to group one, it is little surprise that the lack of fight in the third opens us all to the whim of the first.  

As Split develops, we see that the two major players in our political dance are media and money, if indeed the two can be separated. As is so often the case with political documentaries, the viewer would be better served by a much longer runtime. The section on media scratches the surface, and if allowed a two hour or longer screen time, there was probably enough from the interviews to paint a very clear picture of the problem. As it stands, we can get the hint. The public at large tends to define media in left and right, with The New York Times assuming the role of the first and Fox News that of the latter. In truth, Fox News is a wild exception to just about every rule in our media atmosphere and The Times is hardly a leftist enterprise. When we step back from this Manichean construction we see that the media problem is that it limits debate and in so doing is derelict in its duty to create an atmosphere where the truth wins out. Informed consent is hard to come by when information is filtered by about seven companies or ignored completely.  

Finally, we come to money. Nyks has a tremendous segment where two people who live in neighboring states define the division in America as one between the idle rich aristocracy and the salt of the earth workers and small business owners. From one side of Llano Estacado, those who vote Democratic are the salt and the Republicans the kleptocrats. Naturally, the interviewee on the other side sees it in precisely the opposite way. Like everything else with the Red-Blue split, the dissonance is predictable if not logical. From each man’s brief statement, one can divine with a good deal of accuracy just where the man stands on twenty issues. That at least five of the twenty stances don’t hold up to inquiry probably says more about the challenges than anything else. 

While it is compelling and entertaining, Split does leave something to be desired. The more troubling elements of continuity and composition lead to the conclusion that this film is a work of the text message generation. Nyks begins with a personal narrative, introduces the project by stating that all interview subjects would get six questions, and then takes to the road. What, exactly, the six questions are is up for debate. Though questions and chapters do appear on the screen, it happens in a way that is random to the point of bothersome. The individual journey also unravels early, with the bulk of the film developing quite apart from the set up. Add to this subsections, such as “A Brief History” bits and Joe Citizen animation, that are too cute by half and take up valuable screen time better served by more interviews and analysis, and what we’re left with is a sort of jarring unevenness. These failings are forgivable in a young filmmaker, but they portend a disturbing future. It is imaginable that a younger viewer won’t have such criticisms, and that these shortcomings are, relative to the times, necessary for sustained viewing. As it happens, Nyks somehow provides a very thoughtful and illuminating vision of current American politics and culture despite the apparent unevenness. Time will tell. 

In its conclusion, Split points to the current election. Given the financial crisis, the ongoing (and expensive, to say nothing of illegal) wars, and the biblical plagues bearing down upon the nation, the electoral map could look decidedly different from recent memory. It should, after all. If the 2008 presidential election ends up anything short of a large Obama victory, the proper subject for debate as well as documentaries is not what divides us but whether a huge segment of the electorate exhibit the intelligence to be trusted with their civic charge. Beyond that, whether it is time for a national sanity exam.  

That, or just why it is he who counts the votes that matters. Time, again, will tell. Let us hope that we don’t run out before it does.


Split: A Divided America

A film by Kelly Nyks

Color, 2008, Splitfilms

B Comenius on November 24th, 2012 at 10:34 am 

The part about Republicans “going negative” is blatant disinformation. Norquist himself is behind the funding for newspeak about gay rights, abortion, etc. to divide the people. Greg Palast’s book Billionaires and Ballot Bandits shows just how long and deep has been the Donor funding for efforts to suppress voters and rig elections in swing state congressional districts. These allegations go way back before 2008. The Red/Blue binary is a coverup for what is really going on here which is the 0.1% against the 99%, with a few 0.9% paid well enough to go along with it! Shame on NCSS or NASSP or State Department for screening this film when the cause and effect the money forces behind funding controversy in this country.

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