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 countrys 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 whod 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 Julys 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, whatll 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. Id 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 hed 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 arent 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, votings still not in the fabric of everyday life, its 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.
Levitts 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. Its 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 Im, No Im good, Im good. But I read it. It was handwritten by his sister or mom, and it was beautifully eloquent. She didnt 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 wouldnt 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 Levitts 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 thats real. It doesnt have to be about white people living in a house and when youre eliminated it turns out you cant pay the rent, much less your kids doctor bills. Thats compelling, dramatic and its real.
Theres a history behind Levitts 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 weve got music, weve got film, weve got the graphic arts. We listen to music to know that were not alone. We read or go to movies to know were not alone. Melodies can always reach people, people who might otherwise be Republicans. Were 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 isnt 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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