Red, Blue and Blank

LAST FEBRUARY DOUG LEVITT had this great idea: Gather up a lot of artistic and politically committed people (committed against George W. Bush, that is), put them on a bus and visit the country’s “blue” swing states like a USO tour, registering voters and performing music, comedy and poetry in town squares. The 32-year-old Levitt, a former stringer for CNN who’d reported from Bosnia and Rwanda, begged and borrowed money to rent some airy office space in a vintage Hollywood building. He even penned a song about what he saw as “the two Americas,” called “McLean, Virginia” — named for the affluent Virginia suburb.

By the end of July’s Democratic convention, Levitt realized none of it was ever going to happen — he could barely raise rent, much less build a tour and lease a blue-colored bus. Instead, he had to send everyone home.

“I was totally broke and my car was dead,” Levitt says. “So I thought, Okay, what’ll I do? I figured if a reservist is going to Iraq just because he needs the money to go to college, the least I can do is talk to people in my own country.”

Levitt borrowed $500, bought a Greyhound AmeriPass and hit the road in September as a one-man version of his original dream, performing “McLean” on a cracked guitar and registering voters in a dozen undecided states.

“I was stranded and broke the entire time,” he says. “I’d play to just four or five people or get to a place where I was listening to some crazy guy talking. Sometimes I was the crazy guy.”

I spoke with Levitt in a Silver Lake coffeehouse that was worlds removed from the America he’d just returned from. It was two days after the election.

“I was not entirely surprised by the outcome,” he says. “After six weeks on the Greyhound, I saw that there is the Red America, the Blue America and a third America — a blank America of about 90 million adults who are not in the political system, who aren’t even near the Excel sheet. They are the ones most on the margins, the most disaffected — and the ones most affected by this election.”

Suddenly, in small-town bus stops, in cheap motels and while canvassing door to door, Levitt saw an America divided not just between left and right but up and down as well.

“Even today,” he says, “when registering has been made easier, voting’s still not in the fabric of everyday life, it’s not accessible. The system is weighted against the working class, for whom daily life is triage and just getting to a polling place is difficult.”

Levitt’s epiphany may seem to be the discovery of a child of privilege, and in some ways it is. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended Cornell and the London School of Economics. When Levitt was 16, however, his father committed suicide, a tragedy he credits with steering him toward becoming an artist. It’s this sensitivity that has opened his eyes to the gray landscape that forms much of American life — and to the tiny, defiant gestures of people barely hanging on.

“One night in Ohio,” he says, “some guy handed me this Xeroxed sheet of paper and I’m, ‘No — I’m good, I’m good.’ But I read it. It was handwritten by his sister or mom, and it was beautifully eloquent. She didn’t have access to Bodoni fonts, but her note said why you should vote for John Kerry, and at the end it said, ‘One person can make a difference.’ On this trip I learned to listen to people I ordinarily wouldn’t listen to.”

 

LEVITT RETURNED FROM HIS road trip convinced that liberals and the left need to get their messages across through entertainment and the arts. Not through the mouths of celebrities, but from a new generation of singers and artists who have not yet breached the event horizon of MTV or Hollywood. They are the ones who must tell the story of Levitt’s blank America.

“There are very few people narrating this story,” he says. “If you watch television you see celebrities and reality shows that are anything but reality. Nobody has come up with a reality show that’s real. It doesn’t have to be about white people living in a house — and when you’re eliminated it turns out you can’t pay the rent, much less your kids’ doctor bills. That’s compelling, dramatic and it’s real.”

There’s a history behind Levitt’s vision. The 1960s, after all, were built on the poetry readings, folk-music gatherings and standup comedy of the late 1950s. In a very real way, our debauched and servile age of fear is a blood descendant of the Eisenhower years.

“The right has talk,” Levitt says. “Talk is their format, it plays to their strength because vitriol and the lowest common denominator play to their strength. But we’ve got music, we’ve got film, we’ve got the graphic arts. We listen to music to know that we’re not alone. We read or go to movies to know we’re not alone. Melodies can always reach people, people who might otherwise be Republicans. We’re going to have to start incorporating politics into our art.”

A piercing alarm goes off in my head. Is Levitt proposing an era of hand-
wringing documentaries and P.C.-coded dramas?

“Politics isn’t always naming the names of people or things,” he assures. “Politics is things that people have in common. What binds us? What collects us? It is a problem, but you know what? We have to get over it. We have no other choice.”


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