I’d be surprised if even the most ardent avoider of American politics had not seen it by now. It has quickly become the most watched clip from this years Republican National Convention. It was the one moment out of three-days of flag-drenched hoopla that will be remembered in the years to come, when all the rest is forgotten.
I wish that I were speaking of some ground-breaking speech by the Republican nominee or his Vice-Presidential pick. While not a Republican myself, I am a sucker for a good speech and would have loved to hear something new and inspiring from either of the them.
Alas, it was not to be.
Instead the moment which will, in the long run, encapsulate the 2012 RNC is the image of Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair.
I’m certain that it was supposed to be funny.
Instead, I could feel only sadness while watching this once great hollywood icon stammering in his dotage at an imaginary opponent. Please understand, I mean no disrespect to Mr. Eastwood. I have a lot of admiration for the man as an actor and a particular nostalgic fondness for the old Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns in which he rose to fame.
I simply cannot get that image of him talking to an empty chair out of my mind. It is, in many ways, the perfect metaphor to sum up what was really happening at the RNC last week.
During the course of the “skit”, Eastwood was supposed to be conversing with an invisible President Obama (represented by the chair). Addressing the chair in what feels like a parody of his gruff “Dirty Harry” tone, he asks it a question and then, after a pause, shakes his head at an answer only he can hear.
Tucked in among a multitude of speeches that have the fact-checkers swamped, this bit of play-acting may actually have been the most honest moment in the entire convention. Certainly, it’s the first time I have ever seen the tactic of putting words and motivations in your opponents mouth, depicted in such an blatantly visual format.
I understand that what we were supposed to see was a strong western icon verbally hammering the misguided opposition. Instead, we glimpsed the internal struggle of a fractured party, grasping tightly to a largely antiquated set of beliefs and muttering incoherently to itself while the world moves on.
This alone would make for a sad commentary but the symbolism of the “empty chair” does not end there.
For a great many, the initials GOP stand not for ‘Grand Old Party’ but for ‘God’s Own Party’. The importance of Evangelical Christianity and Dominionist Theology within the Republican base has become hard to ignore. This is particularly so when all the major players are making a big show of their support for what can only be seen as a religious agenda put forward by groups such as the ‘Traditional Values Coalition’.
While the party line mouths a message of tolerance and diversity (especially important while pushing for the Mormon at the top of the ticket), the actual language being used at the podium and the party platform seems inclusive only if viewed from a fairly conservative Judeo/Christian perspective. To anyone from outside that spiritual heritage, the “tolerance” and “diversity” they speak of sounds like so much empty lip-service just to garner a few more votes from those who will not bother to look beneath the words themselves.
More and more, the GOP claims to be working on behalf of the Christian God against a secular society. Like Eastwood, they appear to take their cues from an Empty Chair. Santorum and Perry, Bachmann and Huckabee, they reveal to us the answers to our national problems, as revealed to them by the Empty Chair. Answers which no one else can actually hear, but which coincide nicely with what they wanted to hear in the first place.
When Paul Ryan says…,
Our different faiths come together in the same moral creed. We believe that in every life there is goodness; for every person, there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of Life. –– Each of these great moral ideas is essential to democratic government, to the rule of law, to life in a humane and decent society. They are the moral creed of our country, as powerful in our time, as on the day of America’s founding. They are self-evident and unchanging, and sometimes, even presidents need reminding, that our rights come from nature and God, not from government.
He ignores the fact (along with many others) that for a great many of his would-be constituents, his God is not the only god or indeed even a god at all. He ignores the Constitution, which he is sworn to protect, and it’s clear stipulation that there be no religious test to hold political office and that religious commandments do not constitute the laws of the land, which must work for all people and all beliefs equally.
For those who think that the willingness of the evangelicals to support a heretical Mormon and a papist Catholic on the presidential ticket is a sign of diversity and “big-tent” thinking, I would suggest a closer look at the rhetoric espoused by those men.
Neither man is fighting very hard for the tenants of their individual faith. Instead they kowtow (by choice or political necessity) before their hard-line protestant masters within the party. These men are Trojan Horses for an evangelical political movement, which is neither friendly with nor tolerant of, Mormons, Catholics, Atheists, Hindus, Pagans or any other group unwilling to toe their very specific line.
As hard as the candidates will try to focus the attention of the voters on the economy and their “trickle-down” plans for it’s revival, it is important that we not forget the stark social-conservative drumbeat which drives their efforts.
Ours is a society governed by laws written by the men and women whom we elect to represent us. Whatever we may do as individuals, we will not be forced, as a people, to follow the dictates of any god.
Those who would compel us to do so will find themselves speaking to Empty Chairs.