The Great American Think Off

Big story from Nik’s News today - I’m honored to be a recipient of a 2018 Jerome Foundation Grant, which will fund the production of a documentary film about the Great American Think-Off, a rural philosophy debate that happens every year in New York Mills, Minnesota (population 1,199).

Four people from around the country compete to come to this central Minnesota town to debate questions like “Does Life Have Meaning?”, “Does Technology Free Us or Trap Us?", and "Has the 2016 election changed our perception of the truth?". The New York Mills Cultural Center (also known as the “Kulcher Center”), which hosts the debate, encourages writers "to ground their essays in personal experience rather than philosophical abstraction. "Four “thinkers” who have submitted essays on the agreed-upon philosophical question are brought to New York Mills, where they are invited to make their arguments before the town, who chooses a “Great American Thinker” by vote in their elementary school’s gym.

I applied like I do to many grants and residencies; by applying and then promptly forgetting about it, hardening myself to likely rejection and preparing to steamroll on ahead. So you can imagine what it was like when I got the phone call from the Jerome Foundation last week. I thought it must be a mistake!

I empathize with my colleagues and collaborators who might have applied for the same grant and whose projects weren’t accepted. The application pool seems to have been quite big (and likely strong!) and there are probably lots of factors that influence how the committee chooses. I get many more rejected than accepted applications, but that process helps me hone my application-writing skills to a fine, dagger-like point. This time, the persistence paid off. I’m both humbled and ecstatic to have been chosen! For now, here’s a little bit of my application narrative.

“An accessible open call like this attracts strong thinkers from all walks of life. Previous “Thinkers” include a 16-year old Eagle Scout, a doctoral candidate specializing in biomedical ethics, a retired assembly-line worker, a man incarcerated for murder whose essay was read aloud on stage in his absence, a staff writer of the Baltimore Sun, a World War II veteran, and my childhood dentist (he won twice). The “Great American Thinker” is never crowned as such for having the ‘right’ argument, but only for having the best-argued stance. “Honestly,” as the founder of the Kulcher Center said in 2012, “I think this idea of, 'I'm not changing my opinion, but really, the best argument tonight was made by this person,' is a pretty neat thing to do, isn't it?”

I’ve wanted to make a film about the Think-Off ever since I heard about it two years ago while working as a resident artist at the New York Mills Cultural Center. While there, I learned that New York Mills has a unique history of debate and dissent, being shaped by the many Finnish immigrants living there, who were often marginalized because of their socialist heritage. The 2017 Think-Off will no doubt feature strong characters, whom the film will follow from their arrival in New York Mills to their arguments on-stage, culminating in the winner’s announcement.

Since the 2016 election, rural communities have been psychoanalyzed ad-nauseum in the national media; they are mired in patronizing representations and surface assumptions of conservatism. As somebody with deep and continuing roots in rural Minnesota, I'm interested in depictions of rural life that contradict urban assumptions. In our fraught national political climate, these assumptions need to be challenged more than ever. At its core, this project is about complicating the dominant representation of rural people, by documenting a thoughtful and ideas-based debate happening in the deep north woods. I believe that now is the right time for a project like this.”

More to come soon!