Take a look around this website. Notice the titles of the blog posts. The podcasts we’ve been featured on. The color scheme of Jordan O’Donnell’s debut novel, Zoon Garden: Decline of a Nation. Notice any themes? If you’re paying attention, you should see that most of our content centers around travel, politics, connection, and creativity – all themes which directly relate to the product we want to sell you, which is O’Donnell’s breakout political satire Zoon Garden and the tour we’re taking across the country.
Now take a stroll over to Walmart’s website. Check out the sleek, modernized format. The constant use of the color blue. The top three headlines: “College prep for less,” “Supplies from 25 cents” and “A+ savings.” They, too, are following a brand narrative that attempts to convince you, the consumer, to buy their product.
The key to understanding media literacy is knowing that, to some extent, all media presents information with the goal of maintaining a brand narrative – and often that brand narrative aims to convince you, the viewer, to buy their company’s product. FOX and CNN want you to watch their channels and subscribe to their websites. Starbucks wants you to purchase a cup of coffee. Even individual social media accounts aren’t immune to brand narrative – your old friend from high school posted that picture of his vacation because that picture aligns with how he wants to be perceived by the public.
Once we understand that all media is created from a certain perspective, and that this perspective almost always has a financial motive, it becomes easier to analyze media and mine for “truth.” The Young Africans Leaders Initiative puts it nicely: “Each form of communication has its own creative language: scary music heightens fear, camera close-ups convey intimacy, big headlines signal significance. Understanding the grammar, syntax, and metaphor of media language helps us to be less susceptible to manipulation.”
So, next time you’re reading the news, scrolling through Instagram, or grocery shopping, pause to ask yourself: who’s talking? Where is this information coming from? How and why does the speaker distribute this information to you, the buyer? And what parts of the message ring true?
It’s a question that has haunted philosophers for centuries – one that’s been examined in classrooms and whispered in kitchens, buried in clear-cut forests and sunk into uneasy conversation: what does it mean to be human? Jordan O’Donnell’s political satire, Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation faces this question even as its characters inhabit symbolic animal roles, and the Zoon Garden Team has used this question to inspire connection on their socially distant book tour this summer.
“I think to truly be human means to experience all aspects of life,” says O’Donnell. “The sadness, the suffering, the joys, the laughs, the sorrows, the bliss, the infatuation – to live a life balanced between good and evil and work every day to allow the good to win.”
Mallory Nolte, the team’s Videographer and Content Creator, emphasizes the humanity of recognizing mistakes and overcoming challenges. “Working remotely this week has been a huge change in speed,” she says. “I have to find new ways to keep the vlogs interesting, which relates back to the question. I’m well aware that not much ‘vlog-worthy’ content is going on right now, but I still have to push myself to create interesting videos.”
Leanne Weaver, the team’s Website and SEO Manager, cites a quote from Kevyn Aucoin: “Today I choose life. Every morning when I wake up I can choose joy, happiness, negativity, pain…to feel the freedom that comes from being able to continue to make mistakes and choices – today, I choose to feel life, not deny my humanity but embrace it.”
The honest expression of humanity amidst material challenges has driven deep, long-lasting connection between team members.
“In 4 weeks we have experienced a lot together, more than some family members or lifelong friends,” says O’Donnell. “We have laughed long and deep, cried, yelled, stood in wonder of amazing sites, had deep conversation, been completely authentic. I think we have shared our raw humanity with one another and that has taught us a lot about humanity as a whole.”
On April 23, 1910, former United States president Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic.” Now, a century later, many aspects of this speech remain relevant, especially for the Zoon Garden mission led by author Jordan O’Donnell.
“This speech is, in my opinion, one of the key texts we need to return to as a society to realign the principles that should govern our republic,” says O’Donnell. “There are certain aspects that are antiquated such as the continual emphasis on child-rearing, but many of the lessons in the speech are vital to the preservation of our nation.”
What follows are several such lessons – handpicked by O’Donnell himself.
1. “The main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore, it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average can not be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”
2. “In the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional crises which call for the heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed.”
3. “The power of the journalist is great, but he is entitled neither to respect nor admiration because of that power unless it is used aright. He can do, and he often does, great good. He can do, and he often does, infinite mischief. All journalists, all writers, for the very reason that they appreciate the vast possibilities of their profession, should bear testimony against those who deeply discredit it.”
Another issue Roosevelt delves into is the idea of self-mastery – which ties neatly into the concern of expanding the compassion of the average citizen. “I think one of our greatest problems is that we long ago moved from a people of self-mastery to a people who are mastered by practically everything,” says O’Donnell. In other words, rather than mastering our surroundings, we allow our surroundings – often in the form of technology, media, and hegemonic ideals – to master us.
In order to improve our nation as a whole, it is essential that we evaluate ourselves – that we point our fingers not only at one another, but at ourselves, and work to rebuild a nation of unity, trust, and self-mastery. Check out O'Donnell's book for more info on this, and check out our tour itinerary to catch the Team as they tour a city near you!
The Zoon Garden Team has completed the third week of their socially distant book tour across the United States – and, though the tour hasn’t always been easy, they are not shying away from the hard conversations that make the experience so unique. This week’s conversation is about “truth”: what it means to be honest, how perceptions of reality have become political, and how this theme has translated into the day-to-day work the team is doing on tour.
“For me, being honest is usually the most difficult when people ask a personal question or if I think my opinion might not be a popular opinion,” says Alan Kratz, the team’s General Manager. “I think being honest is akin to giving your own opinion of yourself more weight than others' opinion of you.”
In other words, honesty is deeply connected with self-respect. In order to speak your truth, you must respect yourself enough to take risks in conveying it. In a cultural landscape that is increasingly devoted to political rather than individual thinking, this self-respect becomes more important than ever.
“The key is not necessarily to find truth, but rather to shift the individual's mind to desire truth, not their tribe's dogma,” says author Jordan O’Donnell. “Media might be lying to us, but they are continuing to flourish because people take the lies as facts. A large portion of the society, on both sides, would rather hear the same myopic mimicries than hear the truth. To really begin to find truth, we must shift the populace's desires from lies which make them comfortable to the truth which hurts but sets them free.”
It’s not always easy to look truth in the eye. The Zoon Garden Team has taken their fair share of tough truths while on the road, as the pandemic continually forces them to re-calibrate their plans, adjust their itinerary, and adjust their safety measures according to shifting state regulations.
“As we continue to face more and more adversity we have had to be more and more honest,” says O’Donnell. “It is easy to be open and honest when things are going well. As the trip has become more difficult, we were faced with the choice to avoid annoying truths or to embrace them, talk about them, and become better because of them. Our adherence to honesty has led to tough conversations – but helped forge the team's bond.”
This week, the Zoon Garden blog is joined by Marc Linn, the Co-Founder of the Affordable Housing Tips platform. Linn hosts the Affordable Housing Tips talk show on radio station KZZH, 96.7 FM in Humboldt County California, and he has an extensive background in conflict resolution, a theme which is deeply relevant amidst Zoon Garden’s aim to decrease polarization through compassionate connection. A self-proclaimed radical, Linn considers himself “a fierce foe of the unnecessary conflict in our world.”
On Tuesday, Linn and I had a chat about the intersections between polarization and affordable housing. “Affordable housing” itself can be a slippery concept – so Linn began by explaining both the personal and institutional elements at play.
“When cities and states get involved and they build projects, they want it to be ‘affordable,’” says Linn. “They have all kinds of formulas. I think the standard one is no more than 30% of your after-tax income, and then they factor in things like how much you have left over for food and how many kids you have and so on. But that’s macro. That’s general. To me, the question is, is that housing affordable for me?”
Personal factors play a distinct role in home affordability – but alarmingly, they are also used to control who has access to housing in the United States.
“Single family zoning and redlining are both ways that the power structure of the predominant group has managed to define the preferred mode of housing,” says Linn. “The ‘ideal’ housing format was decided some time ago as a single family home: one family, one house on presumably a good size lot, two children, a white picket fence, and maybe a dog. The trouble is, rather than just decide that, okay, this is how some of us prefer to live and others can live how they want, the predominant groups have passed zoning laws which have prevented housing that doesn't fit the single family description.”
These zoning laws have prevented the construction of higher density, and therefore more affordable, housing. “The desirable parts of the area would be restricted from any kind of housing, other than single family,” says Linn. This, coupled with the financial discrimination faced by black Americans, institutionalized barriers for minority access to affordable housing.
These institutionalized barriers are not often considered in hegemonic discussions of impoverished Americans. Consider the blame culture surrounding the homeless – rather than recognize the deep-set economic and governmental factors that led to this poverty, upper-class Americans’ attention is instead directed to issues of drug use and alcoholism, factors which, as noted by various affordable housing experts, are often the result of homelessness rather than the cause.
The issue of homelessness shot into American consciousness largely following the shut-down of residential hotels during the Progressive Era. This shut-down of residential hotels removed the “bottom rung on the housing ladder,” and forced many low-income Americans onto the streets. This displacement was framed as a downtown “clean up” and driven by upper-class businessmen and religious activists who felt the residential hotels allowed for “immoral” lifestyles. According to Paul Groth, historian and author of Living Downtown, the perception of “immoral lifestyles” has its “historical roots in generations of middle and upper-class complaints about urban density, mixture, and diversity—key aspects of hotel living” (1994).
Linn feels that the social and economic factors surrounding affordable housing has a common denominator: greed. “At root, it seems like there have always been people that just aren't content with a reasonable lifestyle,” says Linn. “They want more, and then when they get more, they want more still.”
Linn attributes this particular type of greed to an imbalance between material and emotional needs.
“Yeah, we have material needs,” he says. “But I think we need peace of mind and some self respect as well. And when those are not in balance, people try to fill the gap by going overboard with the material needs. That leads to doing whatever it takes to get a bigger house – and the way you get a bigger house is by passing legislation that prevents others from having any house at all.”
It’s week two on the road for the Zoon Garden Team, and the group has already seen Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma – and today, they are on their way to Flagstaff, Arizona. As the team grapples with communication, storytelling, and connection amidst social distancing precautions, many have taken the time to consider what it means to change deeply, at a personal, interpersonal, and systemic level.
“To have a personal revolution is to simultaneously halt and contradict rigid patterns of thought and rule-governed behavior that previously infiltrated the mind,” says Grace Tierney, the team’s Media and Marketing specialist. “On an interpersonal level, a revolution might take place along the spectrum of boundaries, where friendships morph into romance, a son tolerates paternal abuse, or a marriage becomes non-monogamous. Systemically, revolutions hold the utmost significance as they possess a measurable net benefit or disadvantage. For this reason, systemic revolutions often heighten emotions, create tension, and invoke a sense of urgency.”
These emotionally charged cultural revolutions are constantly in flux, often rising in reaction to acts of violence and injustice. But how can we ensure these changes remain in place – that our activism is proactive rather than reactive? Tribe Supply’s Creative Director, Jonah Baker, highlights the need for constant vigilance, the ceaseless movement toward a better world.
“For me, revolution is a kind of constant state,” he says. “In the same way that the earth is naturally revolving around the sun, we have to be in a constant state of update and revision. This can sound tiring, especially on a personal level, but I've found that as I keep reconsidering myself, revolution comes easier and allows me to update myself easily and bring that same energy into my environment. If we push that through line out to interpersonal and systemic levels, there is a kind of osmotic effect that translates from our basic behaviors into the people and places around us. Constant vigilance (and when necessary, revolution) is the sort of thing we can act into existence.”
Internal revolution is an act which requires courage, honesty, and a good long look at yourself. It is impossible to improve society at a systemic level without improving the culture that inhabits it.
“I love the sacrificial nature of revolution,” says Tierney. “It requires a great deal of courage and trust to make oneself vulnerable for the sake of some greater good.”
Environmentalists across the country were met with outstanding news yesterday, July 5, as Dominion and Duke Energy announced they will abandon the $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline. This pipeline would have ravaged the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains and threatened the public safety of vulnerable communities across the south. Its cancellation is cause for celebration, and should be considered a win – a single step in a better direction.
The energy companies claim their decision was triggered by “legal uncertainty,” despite their recent win in Supreme Court. It seems clear that this decision is actually the result of years of dedicated activism by the indigenous communities who opposed the pipeline.
This news is a reminder that our voices matter. It’s a reminder that we have the power to build a better world if we take the time to educate ourselves, speak out, and do better. We aim to continue using the Zoon Garden platform to this end.
The Zoon Garden Tour is two weeks in, and the team is working hard to connect with readers across the continental United States.
"Connection makes the heart beat; it is the crux of joy," says Grace Tierney, the team's Media and Marketing Specialist. "Authentic conversation begins when the threshold of comfort is crossed and the exploration of vulnerability manifests."