Saturday, September 1, 2012

President Obama as Clint Eastwood's Invisible Straw Man


As an English major and bookish person, it's fascinating to me that iconic books are beginning to define the candidates.

For the Republicans it's clearly anything written by Ayn Rand from Atlas Shrugged to The Fountainhead.  John Galt represents the selfish "every person for themselves" attitude that causes the Republican Congress to block or stonewall every social program that might help anyone, and their vision of society is of one divided between successful wealthy people and the slacker rabble who are beneath them.

My posts about the Republicans and Ayn Rand's books:
Ayn Rand and the Politics of Egomania
More on the Ryan and Ayn Connection

For the Democrats, the new book reference, thanks to Clint Eastwood, is Ralph Ellison's amazing book, Invisible Man.

Thursday night at the Republican Convention, Clint Eastwood played out a bizarre ad lib between himself as a typical Republican and an empty chair representing President Obama. While it's easy to laugh and blame the whole thing on the senility of an aging actor past his prime, what he did was quite symbolic.

Obviously the Republicans want Obama's chair to be "empty" - they want him gone from the White House.  Back in April,  the Romneys were asked in an interview what they would like to say to President Obama, they said Obama should just get out of the White House. Get out of the Oval Office - here we come!

Source: The Hill
"Well, start packing. That's what I'd like to say. Obviously we have a very different view. The president, I'm sure wants another four years, but the first few didn't go so well," Romney said.
"His policies have not helped the American people. They have not helped get jobs, they have not helped raise incomes and they’ve added trillions of dollars of debt,” Romney added.
The sentiment was echoed by Romney's wife, Ann, who has played an increasingly prominent role in the campaign in recent weeks.
"I believe it's Mitt's time. I believe the country needs the kind of leadership he's going to offer… So I think it's our turn now," Ann Romney said.

Notice what he also does in that quote - Mitt blabs a bunch of other things about Obama implying he hasn't done any good for the country and has created all the national debt by himself, which is a lie. In fact, Romney lies nearly continuously in his speeches about what Obama has or hasn't done, and other Republicans are worse. John Sununu and Donald Trump call him "foreign," and the birthers cheer. Sarah Palin says he wants to kill Grandma with a death panel, and everyone waves a flag. It's just rank propoganda and vicious rhetoric that bears no likeness to the truth.

In debate, that is known as creating a "straw man."
From "Fallacy Files":
"Straw man" is one of the best-named fallacies, because it is memorable and vividly illustrates the nature of the fallacy. Imagine a fight in which one of the combatants sets up a man of straw, attacks it, then proclaims victory. All the while, the real opponent stands by untouched.

So we have real Obama, who was born in the United States and has been a really good President for four years, then we have this demon straw man who is just a diabolical fiend, conspiring with his own parents before he was born to become President and drive Tea Party members insane 50 years later.

What Clint Eastwood did with his comedy sketch was to imagine Obama sitting in that chair on stage, in effect creating an "imaginary straw man." How do we know that his vision of Obama was not the real thing? Well, he put words into Obama's mouth that he wouldn't say - our President just isn't going to tell Mitt or anyone else to "F*** himself," which is what Clint implied as a joke. It was just unfunny.

Eric Stetson wrote in an essay called "Attacking an Imaginary Obama"
It is not insignificant that Clint Eastwood pretended that the imaginary Barack Obama he was talking to responded to him with vulgarity. On multiple occasions, he pretended that Obama cursed him with the f-word as a response to his political criticisms. The real President Obama would not do this, of course, because he is a gentleman who speaks in a dignified manner. Republicans like Clint Eastwood cannot stand that. The Obama of their imagination is ghetto trash, the kind of person who would cuss and make his points using vulgarity rather than well-reasoned arguments. They literally imagine him as their image of the stereotypical young urban thug, because the reality of a young black liberal gentleman is too difficult for them to comprehend or accept.

Exactly. The invisible straw man in that chair is not the real Obama.

Hungry Coyote on Daily Kos has a great diary about the disrespect shown to Obama by Eastwood, and I won't try to repeat all of it because I want to actually discuss the literature involved with some quotes from Ellison.

But first let's just look at a quote from MSNBC transcript she has kindly provided, a snippet of discussion between James Lipton of the Actor's Studio and Chris Hayes.

Chris Hayes: . . . he was sitting in a chair. So he was being literally talked; literally, physically talked down to.

James Liption: Down to.

Chris Hayes: Down to, and like a school boy; like an errant school boy, and my executive producer made this point about you know, Clint Eastwood and the RNC should go back and read The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison because actually, there's a whole masterpiece of American literature ... around the experience of invisibility in front of the white power structure for a black man in America. And obviously that was; I don't want to say like that that was obviously the intentional subtext. I think it was not thought out. I just think it was they wanted to have a gag. But the way it reads was deeply, deeply profoundly, profoundly disrespectful in a way that really, I found kind of upsetting.

James Liption: One of the things about this campaign that has fascinated me is the number of jokes that have gone over like lead balloons.

Alex Wagner: yes.

James Liption: I've never heard quite so many jokes that weren't really funny. They're structured like a joke, sounds like a joke; you think you're listening to a joke, except it's not funny.

I think Ralph Ellison would concur - it's unfunny to imagine a black man as errant schoolboy - or "boy" of any kind, especially in the 21st century. The trouble is, the Republicans seem to long for the plantation past with their talk of secession as the answer to all problems, and their denial about America becoming more brown and less white all the time. I think that's why they are desperate enough to let their racism show.

Every time we hear a string of dog whistles in a speech, what the speaker is really just showing you his ideal straw man - a black person who never heard of civil rights, who never went to college, who never wrote a book or owned a house or entered the middle class. In his convention acceptance speech Mitt Romney, like Santorum before him, mocked Obama for being a lawyer, when all three of them went to the same exact Law School at Harvard. That is like making yourself into a straw man, then attacking yourself with just as much ferocity lest someone mistake you for your enemy. It must be painful to go on stabbing yourself that way, but Mitt, Ryan and the others want to highlight differences, not similarities.

African Americans back in the day endured a type of apartheid, restricted to certain neighborhoods, certain jobs, certain schools, certain expectations. Ellison was a man of that time, and as in Kathryn Stockett's recent novel The Help set in Mississippi during the sixties civil rights movement, people were expected to "know their place," to sit in the corner, to look down, and to never speak up. Ironically, that learned behavior of obsequiousness certainly helped the struggle as they followed Gandhi's rules of non-violence and Thoreau's idea of civil disobedience. Brave people were willing to endure anything to change the system, from the indignity of mustard poured over their heads at a lunch counter or being chased by police dogs on a public street or thrown in jail.

And Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel was just one of a number of great American books that influenced social change in the 60s, but given that the Republicans don't see President Obama clearly and Eastwood literally made him the "Invisible Man" on stage in Tampa, here are some quotes from the book that can remind us of the plight of President Obama. No matter what he does, 30% of American won't accept him as a "real American," and many of them will never admit they were wrong. But they are the ones who can't see themselves clearly.

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

“I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone's way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.”

“I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I've tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied”

"America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It's 'winner take nothing' that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many -- This in not prophecy, but description."

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