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While Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood’s recent performance at the Republican National Convention in Tampa has been the subject of a considerable degree of criticism, much of this revolves around the mere form of his speech – e.g. his incessant stammering, and his use of an empty chair as a prop containing an imaginary Obama. Rather than examining the form of his speech, however, an examination of its content may provide us with some insight into the ideological situation presently confronting us.
Among the quips and commonplace distortions of fact that one has come to expect from such speeches (such as the suggestion that US forces invaded Afghanistan under Obama’s, rather than Bush’s command ) was the memorable if not completely clear statement that “we own this country.” Possessing multiple meanings, “we own this country” is ambiguous. On the one hand, in a loose sense, the idea is imbued with an emancipatory dimension. Indeed, the socialistic Woody Guthrie expressed something very close to this in his “This Land Is Your Land.” In his most well-known song, Guthrie suggests that all people own “this land,” collectively. It is “your land,” and it “is my land,” and it is “made for you and me.” Implied in this is the idea that if the land, the country, is made for all of us, none ought to be able to lord it over any of us, and none should have to serve another. However, while this collectivist sense is implicit in Eastwood’s syntagma, unlike Guthrie, Eastwood does not seem to be addressing humanity as a whole.
Rather, Eastwood seems to be exclusively addressing the Republican party. And though the term republican derives from the Latin res publicum – which means the public thing, or the thing held in common – the Republican Party views itself not so much as members of a community so much as owners, of private property holders, antagonistically related to members of the larger society. To be sure, Eastwood’s audience seems interested in the “commons” only to the degree that they can privatize it and reap a profit from it. Not only that, as one of the leading spokespeople of the conservative movement, Margaret Thatcher, phrased it, “there is no society.” As the Hobbesian implication goes, we are all a bunch of atomized individuals with fundamentally opposed interests, individuals who must protect themselves from other individuals. And like Thatcher’s soul-mate Ronald Reagan, with his western persona, and other cowboy actors like John Wayne, it is noteworthy that Eastwood achieved his iconic status in large part through the portrayal of gunfighters – indispensable aspects of the apparatus employed in the extermination of the Native American population, those socialists, and the ‘privatization’ of the North American continent.
In light of this, it should come as little surprise that Eastwood’s statement concerning ownership would be diametrical to the ecological, indigenist notion attributed to Chief Seattle that “the earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth.” Contrary to the sensibility inherent in that remark, the Republicans (but not only the Republicans) ardently believe that, no, the earth does indeed belong to them. They own it. And, consequently, they can frack it, and mine it, and drill it, and pollute it to their hearts’ content, irrespective of the harms such practices cause.
So, while Eastwood’s statement that “we own the country” and his remark that “politicians are our employees,” may hearken to the populism of Woody Guthrie, and to notions of democratic forms of self-government, this should not be confused with the fact that it actually represents a remarkably regressive notion of political life, one that is not only complementary with contemporary efforts by the Roberts Court, among others, to roll back the legislation of the Civil Rights Era and the New Deal, but much of the 19th century as well. Indeed, wrapped up in his statement is an extremely reactionary sentiment that would hurtle us back to well before the time of Lincoln, to the period prior to the Jacksonian Era, when only those who owned land were extended the franchise and allowed to otherwise participate in the course of social development.
Another part of Eastwood’s speech that ought to be examined concerns his quip about lawyers and businessmen. Rather than have a lawyer like Obama for president, Eastwood opined, it might be time to elect a businessman – as though George W. Bush’s business credentials and tenure in the oval office had not only not occurred, but had not initiated two huge wars, and paved the way for Obama’s kill list either – not to mention the fact that Romney is an attorney as well. Lawyers, Eastwood further explained, are always “devils advocating this,” and “bifurcating that,” and looking at both sides of things. Beyond the reproduction of the simplistic binary that posits merely two sides to things, Eastwood couples this with the presumption that looking at both sides is little more than a nuisance, an elitist indulgence that the decisionistic businessperson has little patience or time for. Of course, it is never a difficult task to raise a laugh with a lawyer joke. For who doesn’t dislike lawyers? Indeed, beyond the prospect of one’s adversary’s lawyer screwing you over lies the probability that one’s very own lawyer will commit just such an act. However, it is important to note that, for the most part, when a lawyer screws over his or her client, the lawyer is acting, beyond any other, in the capacity of the businessperson.
My point here is not to defend lawyers, but to point out the conflict of interests that of necessity arises when social relations are subordinated to commerce – a notion that, around Labor Day, one would hope would be at the fore of people’s thoughts. Nor am I defending the law which the lawyer serves. Written in large part by the forces of business, or by other forms of coercive power, in many respects the law transmits far more harm than anything salutary. Beyond the problem of unjust laws, however, which are ubiquitous, and the reproduction and institutionalization of harms, the fidelity to the mere letter of the law is the purest type of dogmatism. Indeed, it is only to the degree that the law pursues justice, rather than mere law, that it frees itself at all from such inertial stupidities. But just what are we referring to when we speak of justice?
As the theme of justice recurs throughout his work, Clint Eastwood’s films may give us some insight into this question. In addition to encountering the theme in relatively early films like The Outlaw Josie Wales, in which Josie Wales spends the length of the movie avenging the massacre of his family, the theme reappears in his middle and later work as well. In among others, we see the theme of justice in Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films. Most notably perhaps, the theme appears in the only Dirty Harry film Eastwood himself directed, Sudden Impact, involving a rape victim hunting down her rapists. In Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven, the theme occurs once more, when the notorious shootist William Munny comes out of retirement to avenge the slashing of a prostitute. However, while retribution, or retributive justice is an ancient form of justice, one dating back to the Code of Hammurabi’s ( c.1770 BCE) exhortation that one must repay an eye with an eye, and a tooth with a tooth, retributive justice comprises only one form of justice. To be sure, instead of seeing another lose his or her eye as a punishment, many argue that justice requires the replacement of one’s lost eye, or its equivalent. This theory of justice which, instead of bringing the harmer to the harmed one’s position, seeks to restore the harmed one’s pre-harmed position is known as restorative justice. Others, still, might see justice inhering in an arrangement of social life that precludes foreseeable injustices from arising in the first place. This notion of justice that seeks to obviate harms from arising, and distributes social resources in an equitable manner in order to do so, is known as distributive justice. These examples of alternate notions of justice, however, do not exhaust the subject.
In spite of this, though, and as much as his films contend with the issue of justice, Clint Eastwood does not seem to veer from the retributive model. While this may be unfortunate, it nevertheless should not come as much of a surprise. For over the course of Eastwood’s film career the retributive theory of justice has come to assume a hegemonic position within the so-called justice system. The most disturbing result of this has been the ballooning of the prison population. In the early 1970s around 300,000 men and women were incarcerated in the United States. By the end of 2010 the number of incarcerated climbed to over 2,200,000 men and women – an incarcerated population surpassing in both absolute and relative numbers the incarcerated populations of any other country in human history. Indeed, while the US has only five percent of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s total prison population. And while this statistic may to some degree appear to be tangential to the subject at hand, it leads us back to the point. For above all, in interrogating the invisible Obama, Eastwood is raising the issue of justice. Although he was mocked and derided for it by many, Eastwood should instead be lauded for putting Obama in the chair and submitting him to questioning, pantomiming the possibility that Obama, or Bush, among others, may one day sit in such a chair facing prosecution for war crimes.
But while Eastwood’s theatrical trick may in some respects be laudable, rather than interrogating Obama for the latter’s war crimes, persecutions of whistle blowers, unprecedented corrosion of the Fourth Amendment, and the maintenance of a kill list and the executions attending it, among other heinous acts, Eastwood instead expressed his support for some of the most grievous of injustices. Regarding the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay, for instance, Eastwood expressed his opinion that it ought to be kept open, remarking “why close that, we spent so much money on it.”
Considering his premises concerning ownership and the merits of businessmen, among other things, it is not surprising that Eastwood and his fellow travelers would arrive at such conclusions. And while the people of the world are facing unprecedented injustices and harms, ranging from war to ecocide, to the elimination of the most basic conditions for well-being, like clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and nutritious food – conditions that in some contexts are referred to as the General Welfare, and are in many respects the preconditions of a just society – it is important to bear in mind that it is not only Eastwood and the Republicans but the Democrats as well who, owing to their basic political-economic philosophies, and the conflicts of interest these give rise to, are fundamentally incapable of pursuing anything beyond the most superficial, retributive types of justice. More than ever it seems that these ideologues, and their benefactors, can merely dole out their spokespeople, apologists, and disinformation experts, obfuscating the fact that their policies are the direct source of much of the injustice in the world. Until the question of justice is addressed in a critical and comprehensive manner, we will not have politics so much as the semblance of politics.