Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater”, Revolutions, Hope, and the America We Deserve

I saw Jon Stewart’s Rosewater last night out of a sense of curiostiy because I’ve loved watching The Daily Show for years. I came out inspired, moved, and eager to talk about the film to anyone who would listen. It was a truly incredible, poignant film in large part because of just how very human the protagonist was, made even more so by the fact that it’s based on a true story, the story of Maziar Bahari, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who was incarcerated by the Iranian government from June to October 2009 in the wake of the protests after the Iranian elections and his appearance on Stewart’s own show. There are tons of quotes in that stood out to me, but there was one that I would probably wouldn’t mind tattooing on my skin, to be honest:

“Revolutions, like people, must grow up.”

Ah. Just…what a FANTASTIC quote. Revolutions and wide-spread social changes don’t just begin and end. They start off small, they grow, they spread with the right spark. They fall and they fail and then they rise up again because people don’t give up. They make mistakes and learn from them, a life-cycle all unto themselves. It’s a beautiful idea, that the revolutions humans create are flawed and human themselves.

The fear of Bahari’s captors was a theme that was all over Stewart’s film; their fear of revolt, their fear of people standing up against them, a fear so great that their unimaginative brains thought he was a spy instead of a journalist because of the satiric nature of The Daily Show, which they completely misunderstood. “In their hearts,” Bahari says “they know they cannot win.” What a powerful concept, and one that holds true in the inevitable progress humanity has made throughout history, progress that was a choice rather than a chance, because what good can come from people sitting back and doing nothing? What good can come from people saying there is nothing to be done? That kind of cynicism is unhelpful at best and damaging at worst.

Lately, it seems to me, America is full of fear, and the party that was so recently elected to take control of Congress (I won’t say the people elected them, not given that it was the lowest turn-out since 1942) loves creating it. Differing on politics is an everyday occurrence and there will always be republicans and democrats, independents and socialists and all sorts of different people. But the Republican party has become a caricature of itself, a caricature that spouts reactionary vitriol and doesn’t think twice. According to them, ISIS is bringing the apocalypse, Ebola will kill us all, the Affordable Care Act is the work of a dictator (though I’m sure the millions who now have healthcare, myself included, don’t think so), and if you take any government assistance (but hark, what EXACTLY are corporate tax breaks and subsidies?) you are a lazy person who is deserving of no human dignities.

I think Americans could take some lessons from this film which is inspiring, intense, heartbreaking, funny, and oh so incredibly human, rather than listen to this fear-based drivel that will hurt EVERYONE if it continues.  Because the America we have right now is decidedly not what it should be, and definitely not what it could be.

We are an America where allowing people to open carry assault weapons to Target and Wal-Mart is more important than protecting the people, children so sadly included, from the shootings that happen so frequently we don’t even notice anymore. We are an America that allows young black men to get shot dead in a Wal-Mart for holding an air soft rifle while letting white men walk past with actual rifles slung across their backs.

We are an America where we tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and then snatch their bootstraps away, if there were even any in the first place. We assume that everyone comes from the same privilege and the same opportunities.  We are an America that takes away the social safety nets that made us so prosperous before. We are an America that believes in social Darwinism without believing in evolution itself.

We are an America full of politicians who hate President Obama so much that they would take healthcare out of the hands of millions, and through their reactionary hatred, drag others along with them.

We are an America that gives police officers armored vehicles, allowing them to call Black American protestors “animals” while shooting rubber bullets and using tear gas.

We are an America that allows CEOs to line their pockets so heavily every year that it would take most minimum wage workers 1,000 years of daily work to make what some CEOs make during ONE.

We are an America that allows a high school football player who was convicted of rape back onto the football team because winning a game is more important than the sexual violation of a young woman. We live in an America that perpetuates rape culture and asks women “what were you wearing” after she gets raped as though it should matter.

This is an America where corporations are people and they pay less taxes than actual flesh and blood human beings. Some of the biggest paid little to no income taxes from 2008-2012.

It is easy to say there’s nothing we can do, that the game is rigged and our democracy is done for. But I won’t accept that. I won’t accept that a people whose ancestors were the first colony to break away from a mother country will just let all the progress and all the trails blazed fall to ash. I will not accept a party of people actively willing to abandon and abuse the vast majority of its citizens. Unless you are a straight, white, wealthy, evangelical Christian man, this America is not for you. But it should be. It was meant to be.

Take it back.

Because no matter how angry their words make me, no matter how frustrated I get with this turn toward regression, I know they cannot win. I know they cannot win because throughout history, throughout all kinds of ordeals, people have fought for progress, for rights, and for dignity.

America didn’t start off as the perfect beacon of equality by any stretch, but the spirit was there. Our ancestors fought to break away from England and gain independence. Then they fought to end the unconscionable institution of slavery. Then they fought to gain voting rights for people of color and for women. Then they fought the immense battle against segregation and for civil rights in the 1960s. The fight for LGBTQA rights began and still goes on. So does the fight for racial and gender equality. Across generations immigrants have poured onto American shores looking for a home, looking for a place they could be free, because that’s what the promise of America is supposed to be. I want that promise to remain and grow more and more inclusive. I want it to be real, and I want it to be for everyone.

As Ichabod Crane of the (awesome) Sleepy Hollow TV series said: “…but this country was founded by men who fought for nothing if not individual liberty, forged by the blood of men who refused to bow to a tyrant’s will, and as I stand in this public house of law and order, built to defend that very liberty, I declare: I’m well within my rights to be here.”

The thing is, apparently in this America, individual liberties are only for some. This is not a place where we get liberty and justice for all, at least not right now. Perhaps they hoped if we recited the pledge of allegiance enough in elementary school we would let these blatant injustices slides, but they were wrong. Everyone deserves liberty and justice, but no one has ever gotten those things without resisting, without fighting. Somehow the term individual liberties has become associated only with things like the right to carry around a massive gun in public or the right of Hobby Lobby to opt out of the ACA birth control mandate. But what the right to affordable healthcare? What about the right to work 40 hours a week and have a living wage? What about the right to be able to marry whoever you love, no matter their gender? What about a woman’s right to have protection under the law when her husband abuses her? I could go on.

You’re too political, I hear. Don’t talk about it you just end up arguing, I hear. Do you have to have a soapbox for everything, I hear.

Yes, I do. Because politics isn’t some far off thing people can ignore, some abstract concept reserved for Washington and pundits on 24 hour cable news. These politics affect the lives and well-being of our country, of flesh and blood human beings, every day, all the time. I will “get political” because I care so much I could bleed with it. I will get political because the Tea Party and it’s leaders would like nothing more than to rip healthcare out of the hands of millions of Americans who through the ACA were finally able to afford it, because they would deport immigrant children who scraped their way here to escape the horror of their home countries, believing they’d be safe here, in this land that is supposed to open its arms to everyone. I will get political because they stomp on raising the minimum wage, a wage that people cannot live on, a wage where people must decide between food and electricity, between healthcare and shelter even while working a solid 40 hours a week or more, because they would ruin our planet by denying the unquestionable existence of climate change, because they don’t believe the pay gap between men and women is important. Because a member of that party once actually used the term “legitimate rape” and then DEFENDED himself.

We deserve an America that doesn’t abandon our most vulnerable populations, that doesn’t throw them out into the cold when they need our help the most. We deserve an America who remembers that homelessness, financial instability, and hunger can happen to anyone, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean they deserved it. No one living in a country that claims it’s the land of the free and the home of the brave deserves to not have their basic needs met.

One of the moments that will never leave me from Rosewater took place between the man in charge of the prison and the specialist who oversaw Bahari’s interrogation, a line that sent chills down my spine and ran my blood cold, but that also made an inescapable point:

“You must not just take his blood. You must take his hope.”

Even their unimaginative minds knew just how important hope was. Because without hope, nothing is possible. With it, anything is. Throughout history tyrants have tried taking away people’s hope. They’ve tried beating it out and choking it silent and slamming it shut. But it’s important to remember that it never worked.

For months, Bahari was trapped in that prison without word from his loved ones, trapped in a hell and losing his hope. But then he found out that outside, people all over the world were fighting for his release thanks to the efforts of his mother and wife. Outside, his captors were losing. Outside, they had no power, and in that moment, they no longer had power over him, either. “Control your wife!” his specialist screamed in his ear while seizing Bahari by the hair. “Make her stop!” he shouted, because the actions of a single woman alerted the world to her husband’s plight and validated the paranoid fears of his captors. In the end, Bahari’s captors had to release him or admit they were afraid of him, and Bahari has dedicated his life to helping others like himself stuck behind bars for letting their voices be heard.

People in America are not generally held in prison for speaking up (though the arrests of some reporters in Ferguson was alarming and not a good precedent) but they are silenced. They are told they’re wrong and they’re made to feel crazy. They’re told they don’t matter because they’re poor or gay or transgender or a woman. They’re told there is no hope from the opposing side and sometimes their own. They’re told they did something to deserve their injustices. It’s important to remember that even though we enjoy many freedoms here, that things are not perfect, that there is so much work to be done and there are always people who would seek to send us backward instead of forward because it benefits them. It’s important that we do not stand on the precipice and let our country slip through our fingers.

It’s important to remember that this should be your America, too. And that you can always fight for it.

Don’t let them silence you.

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