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Eastwood the racist: The ugly, the ugly and the ugly

August 31, 2012

When Clint Eastwood pulled out his now-notorious empty chair at the RNC, I was lounging in front of the TV with my glasses off, resting my eyes after a long day of working on the computer. In my myopic stupor, I couldn’t tell what in the hell was going on; I had to ask my wife what sort of prop Eastwood was pretending to interact with. At first, I was desperately afraid it was some sort of toy monkey.

That wouldn’t have been entirely surprising at a convention that had already seen two attendees bounced (or so we were promised) for pelting a CNN camerawoman with peanuts and insults, all for the simple sin of being black. But Eastwood’s choice of foil was worse than some wind-up, wide-eyed Mister Jiggs: The empty chair was the perfect metaphor for a campaign, and a party, that would like to see all record of the first African-American President disappear completely. And if they can’t have that, they’ll settle for replacing that record with their own profane, prejudiced caricature.

“Invisible Obama” isn’t some innocuous morning-after joke about an addled 82-year-old’s ill-advised ad libs. “Eastwooding” isn’t the new planking. Rather, this is a tandem meme that sums up the attitude the modern-day GOP has toward an African-American who has shown the effrontery of acting like he’s the President, all because a majority of the voters ordained him so. Eastwood got to live out the Republicans’ most fervent dreams, first by making Obama literally vanish; then by relegating him to a chair like some errant child; and finally by admonishing him to “shut up” though they had already robbed him of his power to speak. Even the implication that he would dare talk was a waving red flag for this crowd.

Shutting down African-American voices is nothing new for Eastwood. When he was criticized by Spike Lee a few years ago, his response was to tell an interviewer that Lee should just “shut his face.” Why engage with the substance of some younger, darker punk’s critique, when you can just deny his right to utter it?

Lee, face duly shut.

There’s a pattern here, on the part of both Dirty Harry and the party that hosted him. We often hear complaints from the right that they shouldn’t have to shrink from criticizing Obama just because he’s black — yet the withering contempt inherent in Eastwood’s routine would never have been leveled at a white president. How do we know this? Because it hasn’t been. The empty chair routine, most commentators have agreed, was sui generis for a major American political party’s national convention; sadly, it may not remain that way forever.

It would have been bad enough had Eastwood stopped at reducing Obama to the Invisible Man of Ralph Ellison’s postulation. But he really gave away the game when he put words in the President’s mouth, imagining that Obama was telling Mitt Romney to “go fuck himself.” That was insulting not just because it was dismissive, but for another reason: because it was inauthentic.

Understand: I’m not one of those white liberals who believe that a standup comic (which is what Eastwood was at least endeavoring to be last night) should never assume the persona of someone of another race. There’s nothing wrong with a cross-racial impression; what’s objectionable is an inaccurate one. If Jon Stewart were to attempt to impersonate Obama by lowering his voice a few frequencies and intoning “Boogedy boogedy boogedy! I’m-a raise me a debt limit,” that would be invalid and offensive. It would assign a stereotypical early-20th-century idea of “blackness” to a man who doesn’t exhibit a shred of it. But Stewart’s impression of Herman Cain was not racist (as Cain subsequently charged), simply because Cain does indeed sound the way Stewart portrayed him to. In fact, I’d venture a guess that Cain has spent quite a bit of time practicing how to sound that way. You live by the shucky ducky, you die by the shucky ducky.

Would this really have been worse?

But what Eastwood did was to attribute to the President a kind of gutter discourse that the record doesn’t support. Obama may be an arrogant know-it-all who tells even his self-chosen expert advisers that their ideas are unlikely to be as good as his; there’s certainly testimony to it. But he is not, as far as we have any reason to suspect, someone who tells his detractors to go fuck themselves. Lyndon Johnson likely did, and with punishing regularity; Dick Cheney we know did. But not Obama –not anywhere but in the minds of his highly reactionary enemies.

And there are quite a few of them. Eastwood is not a “unique guy” who “did a unique thing,” as Ann Romney told CBS the following morning, through a mouth no doubt choked with flop sweat. He did just what her party has been doing for three and a half years. And in so doing, he showed the world not only who he is, but who they are. Condi Rice’s Stockholm Syndrome to the contrary, this is the party of old, angry white guys who believe that even their least coherent ramblings deserve the air space we might otherwise dare to devote to a dignified and eloquent African-American.

To which I say: Here’s a chair for you. Now sit on it.

UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention that the “shut up” comment was not made by Eastwood to Invisible Obama, but “by” Invisible Obama to Eastwood. (For whatever it’s worth, several other outlets made this same mistake, from The Daily Beast to even FOX.) So we’ll move this one remark from the column “Disrespectful Comments Made by White Man to Imaginary Black Man” and into the column “Demeaning, Inaccurate Comments Attributed by White Man to Imaginary Black Man.” Doesn’t change the balance sheet in any palpable way, obviously.

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  • Deidra Gwyther

    I found Clint Eastwood’s mean spirited improvisation utterly despicable. Did anyone else notice that he appeared drunk or stoned?

  • Julia

    Bravo! VERY well said.

  • Brian

    This article has as much plasticity as a Stretch Armstrong doll, and as much hyperbole as an ad for one. Call it vulgar, hurtful, or distasteful, but to call it racist is ridiculous.

  • bmfoto

    You idiot liberals consistently charge racism with no evidence! Eastwood made no racist comments. Only whining losers like the writer see racism in anything a conservative says, especially when they criticize the worst president in history, Barack husein Obama!

  • bmfoto

    Clint Eastwood corrected spike lees ignorance of history ….spike lee is the true racist. But your too much of a coward to admit that…he has made anti Jewish comments. But that doesn’t count to a white liberal weasel….did you complain when Hollywood actors said the most vile comments about president Bush?

  • bmfoto

    Julia’s braindead

  • Julia

    Wow. Who are you to say such a thing? And a parent as well? How sad.

  • Julia

    Or maybe I don’t know what ‘parent’ means next to your name. I hope I’m wrong.

  • Julia

    And I see that I am. Good. It doesn’t mean you’re a parent. But, maybe you are…. regardless, still sad.

  • Honest_Liberal

    I’m a Liberal and I did not get a racism from that little Eastwood. I think you need to come off from the partisan cliff and come down for a little oxygen. If you thought that was racism but cannot see the more clear distinction of Joe Biden’s latest remarks about putting “Y’all back in chains”. As if Joe is somehow superior to the somewhat African American crowd among him. That the “chains” will go on “y’all” not “us” or even “him”.

  • bmfoto

    Don’t worry, I’m not a parent, you moon bat

  • bmfoto

    Stop whining you liberal idiot

  • Julia

    You are such an eloquent spokesperson for your ‘side’.

  • bmfoto

    And your an embarrassment to this country

  • Proud_NIMBY

    There was absolutely nothing racist about Eastwood’s routine. LIberals have proven they have nothing to offer except socialism and arrogant speeches filled with blameshifting, class warfare and distraction. Four years of Hope N’ Change has gotten us 5 trillion of new debt and no real decrease in unemployment….ie. no hope and no change. Let’s get rid of these worthless democrats in november!

  • DirtyDan

    You also forgot about the part when Spike Lee retaliated by misquoting American History and Clint Eastwood proved him wrong by saying the reason he didn’t have black actors in his movies about WWII is because the U.S. military was segregated then. Spike Lee is intelligent and makes great movies, but he is probably more racially prejudice that Clint Eastwood. He is boycotting Django just because a white guy made the movie about slavery. I imagine he saw Roots which was a work written by a black man after he plagiarized a white mans work entitled “The African”.

  • Pennywise

    Why would it matter that hes racist HES CLINT FUCKING EASTWOOD fuck niggers

  • JerrodKnight

    Mr. Schneider,

    Although Clint Eastwood’s RNC performance certainly proved unfortunate, he is married to a part-black, multi-racial woman (with whom he has a daughter), he is a self-described “social liberal” and “liberal on civil rights,” and many of his films have spoken to the plight of minorities. In 1988, Eastwood even received an NAACP Image Award. His 2008 comment in reference Spike Lee was unfortunate, too, but certainly not a sign of racism. Eastwood indeed dealt with the supposed substance of Lee’s critique (which missed both Eastwood’s visual inclusion of black soldiers, however brief, and Eastwood’s far more prominent exploration of the bigotry encountered by the Native American soldier upon returning home), and only then did he add that rude throwaway line. Later, Eastwood indicated that he’d merely shot his mouth off in a meaningless manner, and he was annoyed because Lee had unfairly derided Eastwood before. After Eastwood had directed and produced “Bird,” a brilliant biography of jazz legend Charlie Parker, in the late 1980s, Lee denounced the film (which earned Eastwood a Golden Globe for Best Director of a Drama) and said that the story should have been told by a black man. So there was a history of Lee picking at Eastwood, rather unfairly (as Lee has sometimes done to other filmmakers, such as Quentin Tarantino), and Eastwood was tired of it. Yes, he should have responded more politely, but when people grow old, they sometimes stop caring and just shoot from the lip. Obviously, Eastwood is one of those people, as witnessed in Tampa in 2012.

  • JerrodKnight

    Eastwood wasn’t racist, but you are … otherwise, why would you be citing Obama’s middle name? For what purpose?

  • Joe Smith

    Eastwood’s address was stupid, not racist. Clint Eastwood was married to a part-black, multiracial woman and he has received an NAACP Image Award (for his 1988 film “Bird”). He has made some exceptional movies about race (especially see 1999’s “True Crime”) and frequently empathized with (and included) minorities in his films. He is also a self-declared “liberal on civil rights.” His motivation for this skit was the 1971 Neil Diamond song “I Am… I Said,” which he was listening to on the oldies radio station in his Tampa hotel room, where he happened to be napping until he arrived at the convention hall fifteen minutes before his scheduled address. The man was eighty-two years old, after all.

    Eastwood was basically just winging matters off the cuff; the spectacle was ugly, but don’t mistake ugliness as necessarily racist.

    As for Eastwood trying to suppress black voices, give me a break. That exchange with Spike Lee happened after Lee falsely claimed that Eastwood never included any black faces in either of his two recent World War II movies. Actually, in “Flags of Our Fathers,” the film shown from an American perspective, Eastwood did show black soldiers in a couple of shots. But since black soldiers were not integral to the particular story that Eastwood was telling, they did not feature a larger role. However, Eastwood addressed racism and discrimination through the Native American character, Ira Hayes, who returns home only to face segregation and bigoted paternalism. Lee, unfortunately, fails to acknowledge Eastwood’s powerful treatment of he issue because, well, the character is not black.

    Lee also offered an intellectually dishonest argument by stating that Eastwood made two movies about World War II without showing any black faces. As I have noted, not only was the argument incorrect, but Lee knew full well that the second film, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” depicted the movie exclusively from the Japanese perspective and humanized the previously demonized opponents. Lee fails to acknowledge that point and Eastwood’s transcendence of racial stereotypes, and he fails to note that “Letters from Iwo Jima” was essentially a Japanese movie. The last time that I checked, there were no African-Americans fighting for the Japanese during World War II.

    By the way, Eastwood also responded dismissively to Lee because years earlier, Lee criticized Eastwood for making a bio-pic of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, saying that the movie should have been directed by a black man, not white man. Whether or not one agrees with Lee’s perspective, the bottom-line if Clint Eastwood (white or not) had not directed the film, then it may have never reached the screen.

  • Joe Smith

    Shut up, you un-American Nazi.