Portraits of a Changing America

Last month, I watched a number of new documentaries. Three of these stood out thanks to their connective stories.

Three stories that each follow an American protagonist.

Three legal battles over ideology, whether good or bad.

Three very different areas of society that link past challenges to future opportunities, through present discussions.

Past: Welcome to Leith

White supremacist Craig Cobb tries to take over a small town in North Dakota. As his behavior becomes more threatening, residents wrestle with democratic principles as they try to get rid of their unwanted neighbor.

welcome_to_leith_xlgWelcome to Leith looks at the two unfortunate realities in the United States that intersect in a small town in North Dakota: the economic decline of rural America and the long history of white nationalist hatred. Leith is a town of about 30 people, where the mayor also drives the school bus. With many people leaving for the opportunities, land and houses are for sale for extremely low prices.

The United States has a long history of white supremacy, going back to the end of the Civil War and the creation of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It’s not surprising that hate groups formed, since the country was founded on the economic model of enslaving humans of a darker complexion. These early hate groups used terrorism against groups they hated (African Americans) as well as groups that challenged them (white Americans). It hasn’t ended either. Many hate groups now use Nazi propaganda and imagery to continue to promote white supremacy.

With its small population and isolated geography, one white supremacist moved into town and tried to turn Leith into a fascist paradise. Craig Cobb and his associated started by flying Nazi flags and interrupting town meetings but soon moved to patrolling the community with guns. This was too much for the town and inevitably lead to Cobb’s arrest.

This confrontation between a small town and a group with small-minded ideas should not be seen in isolation. Hate groups have a long history within the United States and need to be taken on by everyone, especially white Americans who have sat by while these groups spread hate and commit white terrorism inside the country.


Present: Unlocking the Cage

Lawyer Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project file lawsuits to give animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants limited personhood rights.

unlocking-the-cageSteven Wise is President of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). Thee NhRP fights for the rights of highly intelligent nonhumans who have long been seen as things and not beings. Unlocking the Cage follows their recent battles to have chimpanzees freed from their cages using the legal writ of habeas corpus (freedom from unlawful detention), which has never been applied to nonhuman animals before.

Across the world, several groups of people are fighting for their rights – right to be recognized as fully human. In the United States, it wasn’t too long ago that African Americans were deemed to be worth three-fifths of a white American. It took time but this injustice was eventually overcome through changes in the law and fights in the courts. Steven Wise wants to give the same rights to the most intelligent of nonhuman creatures, those who can speak and think like a human child can.

Biological, psychological and other scientific research in recent years has shown that the animals that the NhRP fights for – chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants – have the ability to use language, to use tools, to pass learning down through generations, to develop communities, to understand complex thoughts. These discoveries are broadening the understanding of what our world truly offers. We, as human beings, must work towards ending the pain and violence directed towards highly sentient creatures, understanding that they are not just things.

Unlocking the Cage continues the path of humanity towards a more just world where all beings, whether human or not, are deserving of respect and a peaceful existence. Here’s hoping that the NhRP will continue their legal fights and begin to challenge society’s consciousness for the better.


Future: Deep Web

A feature documentary that explores the rise of a new Internet; decentralized, encrypted, dangerous and beyond the law.

deep_web_xlgDeep Web chronicles the rise of the black market website Silk Road, were users could purchase illegal drugs anonymously, and Bitcoin, a digital currency that is all but untraceable to authorities. Beyond the hidden nature of these tools, the film explores the politics that led to their creation and use.

The film covers the trial of Ross Ulbricht, known under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, who was convicted of creating and running the Silk Road until his 2013 arrest. On its surface it is difficult to know whether Ulbricht is responsible for all of the crimes alleged since the DPR account was used by multiple persons.

Deeper down, the understand the saga of the Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht is to examine the United States’ “War or Drugs” and the response of libertarian free-market solutions crafted by Ulbricht and many others. Ulbricht wished to “use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind” and claimed that he was “creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.”

Like the mythical Hydra, the Silk Road has now sprouted dozens of offshoots with the same purpose. Bitcoin is becoming a household name and being used for purchasing more products digitally each day. Ultimately, politics and economics will become more intertwined with the Internet and digital technology in the future. Whether society is ready to deal with that fact is to be seen.

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