Empty Chair Politics
It was a shameful and possibly racist performance – if you’re on the left. Exhilarating and spot on if you are on the right. Clint Eastwood, the beloved Hollywood actor of Dirty Harry fame, spoke to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention as if he were talking to President Obama and the polarized reaction he got was emblematic of our polarized political landscape. The reaction to Clint is simply a variation on the game everyone’s been playing during the conventions: “Liar, liar pants on fire”. You know the rules: If we suspect one of our guys of lying (or making off-color remarks), we make excuses. If we suspect the other guys of lying (or being racist), we hurl accusations. And because of the internet, we play it all with the intensity of a lightning round. What could be more fun that catching your opponent in a lie or embarrassing himself on a national stage? Adrenalin rush of partisan glee, am I right?
That rush comes from a jolt of self-righteousness – kind of like Red Bull for our self-image. You see, believing in our own goodness is a fragile thing. It is built jolt by jolt from the rush we get from turning others into bad guys. The logic goes that if they are the wicked ones then that makes us the good guys. Unfortunately, that’s not goodness – it’s scapegoating. Scapegoating is using and abusing another to create a convincing illusion of our own goodness. The success of the illusion depends on us believing in our scapegoat’s guilt – any smidgen of doubt would call into question our own goodness, which is built by comparison with our scapegoat’s wickedness. Unfortunately, our scapegoat is not committing evil deeds without remorse like some villain from a Dirty Harry movie. He’s shouting to anyone who will listen about how unfair, cruel, or heartless we are being toward him. If given the chance, he’d present a different version of the “facts” from our own, a version that threatens to bust our goodness illusion into smithereens. To prevent that rather shameful outcome, we silence our scapegoat and render him invisible by demeaning, belittling or accusing him of evil. We put him in an empty chair so we can put words in his mouth, words that prove his wickedness and confirm our goodness.
At his best Clint is showing us what empty chair politics looks like. It constructs goodness on a foundation of lies. What would goodness look if it were built on truth? Authentic goodness treats others the way we want to be treated. It’s as simple as that. Authentic goodness does not take delight in another’s mistakes. It does not shame, demean or accuse others of evil because if someone did that to us, we’d feel terrible or defensive or angry. Goodness built on truth recognizes that we are all flawed, all guilty of lying, and all prone to mistakes. The foundation of authentic goodness is self-reflection, self-doubt and forgiveness. When it confronts evil it does so with humility, recognizing that when we accuse others of evil we may be avoiding the truth about our own complicity in an evil system.
I’ll wrap this up with an excerpt from Clint’s remarks. He reminded the folks in the convention hall that politics is a predictable and sometimes uninspired enterprise. “Politicians are employees of ours,” he said, who “come around and beg for our votes every few years” as if he wanted to tamp down the partisan fervor a bit. And then he paid everyone a non-partisan complement: “But I just think it is important that you realize, that you’re the best in the world. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican or whether you’re libertarian or whatever, you are the best. And we should not ever forget that.” I don’t know if Clint meant it this way, but for me being “the best in the world” means we are learning to be good without needing to put anyone in an empty chair. I think at our best, we do just that.