Robert Ashton Winslow is a civic journalist seeking to capture the South and Chattanooga's place in it. (Photo YouTube)

Robert Ashton Winslow is a documentary filmmaker and artist seeking to capture the South and his hometown’s place in it. (Photo YouTube)

By David Tulis

Robert Ashton Winslow is a filmmaker depicting the people in Chattanooga in a series of videos that attempt to give the viewer a rich insight of the city and its people’s desires.

His Southern Dialogues project presents the viewer with a cross-section of people whose callings affect the public welfare and the conception of Chattanooga as a place and people with whom one might identify.

“To me, Chattanooga is the story of the American city,” Mr. Winslow says, suggesting a public conservation or “vision conversation” is needed. “In 2015 Chattanooga is having this conversation, and I just want to capture it, to bring it together, to be a resource.” On his fourth floor public library studio and media lab he provides a “confessional.”

Among the talking heads interviewed in their offices: A state school superintendent (Rick Smith), a regionalist plan marketer (Bridgett Massengill), a former mayor (Ron Littlefield), a minority activist (Warren Logan), a public school tout (Mark Neal), a police chief (Fred Fletcher), a charity chief (Jens Christensen) and a Gig City promoter (Alex Lavidge).

Mr. Winslow’s project is one he calls civic media, and by interviews and street scenes he intends to tell viewers about Americans, their cities, political polarization and their humanity.

Journalism works by presenting arguments, people and facts and letting the viewer decide. It empowers because it informs. It is neutral in that it accurately quotes people and documents and presents them in their own terms. But in the artistic or religious sense journalism is not neutral. It presents the author’s presuppositions and furthers his view of the world. It invariably lets him argue for his vision of ultimate cause or purpose, for his source of predestination and standard by which he is judged. Mr. Winslow’s interviews bear the arguments of his subjects and, within them, Mr. Winslow’s fruitfulness as a creator, artist and interpreter. The Rick Montague and other talking heads and Mr. Winslow make an assertion about a city and propose a summary.

What does Mr. Winslow want his viewers to believe? Does he want the viewer to come away with an ideal, a sense of an ultimate truth that pervades his subject matter and yet consolidates itself above and beyond it? Is there something poetic that touches on the human soul toward which he would have us reach?

Is there a truth Southern Dialogues is trying to discover and present, or do they offer only perspectives? Does there arise from Mr. Winslow’s work a principle, or merely perspectives and personal opinion of interviewees? Is the point merely that, in the end, all we have are human actors working to bring their ideas to life in the public square — and that there is no fixed truth against which some fall?


One effect of Mr. Winslow’s labor is that it creates empathy. Empathy is a tonic in local economy, a vital fluid that keeps people of diverse background civil. A homeschooling mom can hear Dr. Rick Smith bemoan his local school funding lack from the state, and empathize. We hear Dr. Elenora Woods of the NAACP and have an insight into the lives of blacks. We listen, and we are able to have compassion, even though she complaineth too much for the race. With empathy generated within the steady frame of Mr. Winslow’s lens, we “get” other people even if they appear to be on the wrong side or a false category.

An interview of special interest is that with Bridgett Massengill, working on the Thrive 2055 “action plan” for Chattanooga. It brings up the question of whether people here are guided by a visible hand or by the invisible hand of the marketplace proposed by Adam Smith in his 1776 volume, The Wealth of Nations.

Mrs. Massengill argues winningly for centralization, management by our betters and administrative hierarchies’ taking charge of local economy and providing another layer of official oversight. She favors the visible hand, where there seems little trust that teeming masses will best allocate limited resources and set the price of goods and services by their voluntary economic dealings. She favors gentle government, but an organized and coherent governance by stakeholders, as such a scheme might be called.

Role of marketplace in attaining ideal

In contrast, local economy and its conception of sustainability favors the free market, a withdrawal by commercial government and civil engineering minders from the scene, an eventual restoration of the blessings of capitalism, equity and the rule of law back to the common people from whom these were stolen. Its genius is that whenever paper money, national economy and government relinquish a role, local economy immediately fills the new space with rightly priced goods and services, with accurate price bringing about an ideal allocation of limited resources. Local economy and Chattanooga local economy presume that no party has a built-in advantage granted by the tax or policy authority, that a “level playing field” exists.

Mr. Winslow’s work delves into a mystery best accounted for by religion, by which I mean Christianity. He wants viewers to attain to his sense of identity with place, a connection with place every resident deserves, even if a refugee. I think that if Local Economy Man (or Local Economy Woman) identifies with a place he is in fact accepting God’s providence, even if he is an atheist, secularist or Hindu. The spirit of restless, wanderlust and dissatisfaction with which we all familiar is strongest when our affection for God’s rule is weakest.

Though Mr. Winslow has a theory about Chattanooga that varies from mine, we share in a philosophical commitment to self-determination, to a liberation within the economy that gives the greatest liberty to the greatest number, so each by his labor finds his place in society. If each finds his highest purpose in the marketplace in service to others (service to customers, clients, the elderly, the poor, the dispossessed, the imprisoned), the city will not need the caretaker machinery and so-called leadership of Thrive 2055.

If we remove the vastly subdivided mechanisms of force and coercion of whom police departments are a picture, we will over hundreds of years attain the promises of the gospel, which is the prevailing of righteousness, goodness, truth, justice and prosperity. In a voluntary society where no one has privatized power, there is greater blessing than in society where compulsion, taxation, threat and official corruption reign.

Mrs. Massengill represents a collective view of Chattanooga, and her analysis wins by suggesting a better life if only we can unite and coalesce under a pretendedly democratic political plan.

I suspect Mr. Winslow’s work, seeking a coherent view and a clear analysis, will tend to favor Mrs. Massengill’s theory rather than the wild, diverse and hard-to-report argument of the free market. The free market isn’t controlled, managed, organized and collected; its players are free, and aren’t held to account by anyone except by the rules of equity (the court) and charity (the church). The free market doesn’t provide as simple and as clear a narrative about progress in Chattanooga, its architectural revitalization and the goodwill of wealthy benefactors. And so that analysis may be a harder one at which to arrive.

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