Rebuilding Democracy

America in Crisis film & lecture series presents important issues threatening American democracy

Staff Writer: Rosannah Gosser

Staff Photographer: Karlee Oyama

Most of us can agree that we are living in a time of political unreality. American politics seem to have spiraled into a maelstrom of controversies, from “alternative facts” to “fake news,” “rigged” elections to email scandals, climate change denial to “unprecedented” mega-hurricanes. In an age of skewed sensibility and political polarization, how do we find out the truth?

The easiest way is to become an informed citizen. That’s precisely what Professor Noelie Rodriguez is aiming to do: to build our community into a place that is “safe for genuine democracy and participation.” The America in Crisis series, held every Thursday night at 7p.m. in UCB 100, features films and lectures highlighting some of the biggest issues we face today.

Since the beginning of the semester, the series has showcased films dealing with our nation’s current sociopolitical environment. Inequality for All (2013) addresses the problem of wealth distribution in America, featuring Robert Reich, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor. In the documentary, Reich explains the concentration of wealth that has gathered at the very top of America’s richest class and how these differences in income have shifted over the past half century. Requiem for the American Dream (2015) is comprised of interviews with Noam Chomsky, the internationally-renowned American linguist, activist, and philosopher. Chomsky discusses the transformation of the national economy and the ways in which the “American dream” ideal has declined in modern times. The series has also covered the healthcare debate, in Michael Moore’s film Sicko (2007), and a lecture about climate change by Professor Tim Freeman.

Noelie Rodriguez, a sociology professor here at UH Hilo since 1976, has pursued activism for decades. A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for many years, she also began and ran the Earth Day fair on campus for twenty years. She recalls counting the flyers of all of the events she’s put together, and found that they number about 583. “I’ve always been working for racial, gender, and human equality,” she says. “With those ideals in mind, I’m really disturbed to see America becoming a society of terrible class inequality. We could be such a wonderful society if the people were more aware of what is really going on. Americans have been watching ‘Fox News’ too much.”

The country’s political scene that continues to baffle many Americans, along with the wide gaps in honest coverage from mainstream news, are some of the reasons why Professor Rodriguez has organized the America in Crisis series. “I think that Americans, unfortunately, are politically naive,” she explains, and states that President Trump’s rhetoric “is a total rejection of democracy.” Spreading awareness about the truth is integral in standing up for our country’s foundational values and rights. Through the series, Rodriguez hopes to bring back cohesion and togetherness, not just to our student body, but to the community as a whole.

Universities used to be more like petri dishes for the growth of social movements fighting to protect our democracy. Rodriguez remembers when she was studying for her doctorate at UCLA. “There would be people all out on the grass, having their lunch that they brought in brown bags, and listening to speakers that were discussing the issues of the day, which were the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War.” What has happened to those days of active political engagement from students?

A placard of Kennedy's famous quote

Change starts with us, as individuals and as communities. And that begins when we stand up for what is and is not right, when we demand a say in the principles of our democracy, and when we educate ourselves about the gears and cogs in the workings of our world. So talk politics, listen to reliable news, vote both nationally and locally, spread the word, and urge your family and friends to do the same. And take advantage of every opportunity on campus, such as Professor Rodriguez’s America in Crisis series. As the memorial in the heart of our campus says, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.”