At last week’s Republican National Convention, the most talked about speech did not dribble from the mouth of a politician. Actor/director Clint Eastwood stole the show during his bizarre dialog with an empty chair on which an invisible President Obama sat. Mr. Eastwood chided the transparent president for numerous perceived shortcomings, some of which were actually the work of his predecessor.
The speech was but one in a string of over-the-top attacks bearing little resemblance to Mr. Obama or his policies. While there are legitimate gripes regarding the president’s performance, his foes seem to focus their opposition on misleading or patently false information (e.g., cuts to Medicare, welfare reform, the “you didn’t build that” misquote, or Paul Ryan blaming Obama for the closure of an auto plant that actually shut down while Bush was president). Why would Republicans resort to half-truths and bald-faced lies when so much factual economic data is in their favor? Jon Stewart said that Mr. Eastwood’s rant at an empty-chair explains the Republicans’ detached-from-reality behavior because there is obviously “a President Obama that only Republicans can see.”
What can you see? When thinking of those with opposing political views, most of us resort to “Eastwooding”, which is already becoming part of our everyday vocabulary. It is the act of spewing vitriolic venom against an absent foe. Raging monologues can be psychologically cathartic for an individual when done in private. Public “Eastwooding”, however, epitomizes our immaturity as a nation. We don’t see complex, often self-contradictory human beings; we see imaginary caricatures. We don’t listen in order to understand; we pontificate. We don’t converse and connect; we preach to the choir and rant at empty seats.
We can bludgeon our way to political victory, but lose our souls in the process and become the very ogres against whom we rail. Of course, the solution is not the opposite extreme in which we ignore crucial differences and play nice while the world spirals into self-destruction.
How can we be true both to our convictions and to our humanity? It is one of those questions for which the answer is not deduced but rather lived. One experimental notion is “transpartisanship”, which seeks to find common ground beyond traditional parties and labels. You can read more about the movement: http://www.transpartisancenter.org/.
On a personal level, we start by slowly stretching beyond our comfort zones. We expand our capacity for truth-telling while also keeping a compassionate, open presence. We speak up and stand up while refusing to become self-righteous or rigid. We choose to see those with opposing views as fellow, imperfect human beings with similar needs. If we are willing to sit still long enough to get to know each other, we may even discover we share some basic values and goals around which consensus might gradually coalesce. That’s uncomfortable. It’s work. It’s humbling. And it’s a lot less fun than yelling at an empty chair. But it’s what grownups and nations that have a future choose to do.
I’ve read rumors that Betty White might appear at the Democratic National Convention for an empty-chair row with Mitt Romney. Now that would be entertaining! Would she be more like Sue Ann Nivens or Rose Nylund? I do love our last living Golden Girl, and I continue to enjoy Clint Eastwood’s films. Perhaps someday the two of them will transcend mere entertainment and sit down for an adult conversation: occupied chair facing occupied chair.