Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Rescuing Political Dialogue: Bring It To The Table

Yesterday I went to a session being offered in the event space of B&H Photo in Manhattan.  All I knew about the event was the name of its presenter, Julie Winokur, and its title, “Where Video Meets Politics.”  Naturally, the title resonated with my interest in politics, and so I went to feed my curiosity.  As I sat in the event space watching the presenting team set up the room, I worried that I must have had the wrong day;  all I saw were several people adjusting lights and a Canon EOS5D Camera on a tripod, focused on a small table between the camera and the audience, and on that table was a glass with a single, yellow flower.  I thought, “Is this about politics, or is it about still-life photography?”

I was soon to learn that the table and its single flower were the essential and sole props for a very imaginative attempt to engage the American public in genuine political dialogue.  The principals behind this admirable effort are Julie Winokur and her husband, Ed Kashi.  Julie gave an enormously engaging presentation and showed some video clips of her project.  Its title is Bring It To The Table.

Julie Winokur

Bring It To The Table is a video and web project designed to bring Americans together.   Participants are asked to present their political beliefs and discuss them with Julie, who sits across from them and encourages them to elaborate on their statements.  She and her team then edit these videos into what they are calling a series of “webisodes.”  These “webisodes” will make up a participatory on-line platform for community engagement.

Julie’s hope is for Bring It To The Table to bridge political divides, elevate our national conversation, and serve “those who are tired of hyper-partisanship and want to steer political discourse back into the hands of the American people.”

And, about that flower: Each participant, early in the discourse, is asked to move the flower from its position at the center of the table to the approximate position that defines her/his political persuasion on a sliding scale from conservative to liberal.  So, as the viewer sees the video, the flower to the viewer’s right will signify some level of conservatism of the participant, and vice-versa if on the left.

Participant of Bring It To The Table

 However, in order that the viewers of the video correctly read the flower’s position, the participant at the table must move the flower in the opposite direction to her/his political inclinations. Intentional or not, this becomes a clever opening gambit that plays into the intentions of the entire project, which are to reinstate a healthy political discourse and actually encourage Americans of different political persuasions to begin talking to--and more importantly, listening to--each other. 

Participant and Bring It To The Table, Madison Square Park, NYC

Americans today tend to avoid political discourse except in the company of people and friends who hold similar opinions.  As Winokur laments, “somewhere along the line, politics replaced sex as the one thing in America we don't discuss in mixed company – even amongst friends and family.   Democracy is founded on robust dialogue, and if we can’t have conversations across party lines, democracy doesn’t work.

Today, most of us have had similar misgivings, especially when we see evidence of an entire political party agreeing to do everything--or nothing--in order for the other party to fail.  For example, last month Jay Rosen wrote in his blog, News From Nowhere (a title most likely borrowed from that classic work of late-nineteenth century utopian socialist fiction by William Morris), that “over the last few years our political discourse has completely deteriorated.”  He rightly blames this on the media, rather than on our political parties.  As he notes, “news organizations refuse to place any kind of filter on what they print...[and] nothing will change until journalists are willing to risk printing an article that appears to have a “view from somewhere” because one side didn’t bother to chime in with anything substantive.”

Similar misgivings were stated a few months earlier by Marjorie Pritchard, who began an article entitled “What Happened to Civility?” with these words: “American political discourse seems to be on a path to paralysis. Extremist rhetoric and demagoguery, half-truths and outright lies, and the politics of personal destruction permeate every level of public debate, from Congress to traditional media to the Internet. This lack of civility appears to threaten central features of our democracy and is a cause of increasing alarm among the general public.”

Redressing this imbalance in contemporary American political discourse will not be easy.  We see some rare attempts, such as Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who has done her best to invite major Republican figures onto her show and also regularly brings on Michael Steele, the former RNC Chairman.

Then there are a few, random, personal encounters with the “other side,” as when the Baltimore-based filmmaker, actor and journalist, John Waters--creator of Hairspray--decided to hitchhike across the country and spent many hours in a car with a conservative Republican councilman from Myersville, MD, Brett Bidle, discussing politics.  Bidle stated of this experience, “We are polar opposites when it comes to our politics, religious beliefs. But that’s what I loved about the whole trip. It was two people able to agree to disagree and still move on and have a great time.  I think that’s what America’s all about.”  Waters remarked that, because of their engagement, Bidle was “the first Republican I’d ever vote for.”

Brett Bidle and hitchhiker John Waters

This is, indeed, “what America’s all about,” or what America ought to be all about.   But something sadly has gone amiss in our country, and we need more than an occasional, serendipitous encounter with a hitchhiker to put America back on an even keel, to bring it back to a place where Republicans and Democrats might disagree but also are willing to work together for the good of our nation.

Can we envision a future in which American politicians from both aisles will work together once more to serve the interests of our entire citizenry?  Wouldn’t we all want to enjoy the fruits of the sort of bipartisan efforts that gave us TVA (1933), PWA (1933), the Social Security Act (1935), the Federal Aid Highway Act (1956), or the Civil Rights Act (1964)?   All of these were passed by margins of over 60% in each party as well as in each chamber of Congress.  Such numbers seem impossible to achieve today.

In an environment in which top Democrats are accusing their Republican colleagues of deliberately sabotaging our economy in order to weaken President Obama’s re-election chances, and in a time when sixteen major Republican lawmakers and three others met secretly on the night of Obama’s inauguration to propose “unyielding opposition” to every Obama proposal, it is hard to imagine how our elected representatives could ever regain the cooperative high road of American politics.

Simply stated, they can't.  Instead, the American people are going to have to bear the burden of generating the atmosphere for a new, bipartisan political climate.  And this is where Bring It To The Table may blaze a path over the next five months and even after the November elections.  After all, it is about--and by--Americans of every political persuasion.  It intends to set up its “Star-Spangled Table” in both of the convention cities, in our various “swing states,” and all across America, in libraries, malls, parks and barbershops.

For this, it will need support, of course, and--appropriately-- it is using the most grass-roots of methods to raise the money: Kickstarter.  It (Bring It To The Table) is proposing to raise $30,000.00 to develop its “webisodes” and offer up its participatory web site in promotion of a healthy political discourse.  So far, it has raised $26,192.00, but unless it gets the last $3,808.00, it will receive none of the money so far raised. This is how Kickstarter works.

I have just contributed $75.00 to its cause (so now Bring It To The Table only needs another $3,733.00). I urge you, my readers, to consider supporting this interesting and unusual political cause as well.  Here is Bring It To The Table's 

Kickstarter url.  I hope you at least will open it and look through it.  Considering the potential of Bring It To The Table to bring together our political factions and enrich our democracy, it is asking for a pittance.  It would be a tragedy if it were not able to raise the rest of the money by the deadline of Monday, June 18, at 11:00 pm. edt. 

If you require a bit more persuasion, I encourage you to look at two brief videos that Julie has done on other projects:  One is a moving piece about how she and her husband altered their lives in order to take care of an aging father with dementia, The Sandwich Generation.  The other is a powerful and gorgeously photographed piece about international oil exploration (and exploitation) in the Niger Delta, Curse of the Black Gold.

I hope that some of you will join me in supporting this experiment in political dialogue.  Here I am, by the way, having taken my seat at yesterday's table at B&H Photo.

Tyko Kihlstedt participating in Bring It To The Table, B&H event space, NYC


  1. Done.

    A much cooler version of what I'm trying to do.

  2. You were quite eloquent at B&H Event Space taping, Tyko - Ann