I have a degree from UCLA. I’m an amateur historian who has written books about World War II, the Harlem Renaissance, and African-American inventors. I read a lot of fiction as well as non-fiction. I watch TV and movies. I have acted in both. I have been a political activist and an advocate for children’s education. How should an aging, black jock like myself know anything about pop culture? Man, I am a living part of pop culture and have been for nearly 50 years. Beyond that, I think pop culture expresses our needs, fears, hopes and whole zeitgeist better than some of the more esoteric and obscure forms of art.
“Go Ahead: Make My Day”: Clint Eastwood and Our Collective Memory
In my U.S. Media History course, I spend a few minutes each session discussing current affairs with my students with the hopes that they (a) will gain an interest in learning about what is occurring in the world outside of the campus gates and (b) will be able to draw connections between contemporary events and the past. I do not tell students what to follow; instead, each session, they report to me what stories are of interest to them.
During our Friday class meetings, someone in each of the three sections of the class that I teach mentioned Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the Republican National Convention (RNC). Students struggled to understand the significance of both Eastwood’s performance—in which he performs an apparently freeform monologue with an empty chair meant to symbolize an absentee Obama—and of the decision to have Eastwood himself appear. The former was particularly easy to explain; the latter not so much.
In an attempt to address why Eastwood was there, I had to delve a bit into what place Eastwood holds in our collective memory; after all, Eastwood was not there solely because he is a conservative celebrity. Conveniently enough, in the first week of my U.S. Media History course, I have introduced students to the theory of collective memory, which Barbie Zelizer—in Covering the Body: The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory—suggests “helps people use the past to give meaning to the present and to exercise full spread of power across time and space” (3). Zelizer further writes that collective memory incorporates what we as a collective society find “important, preferred, and appropriate” (3).
As a venerated actor and director with a storied career, Eastwood holds a particularly important place in our collective memory. Indeed, over the years, Eastwood has projected a persona that and played characters who embody virtues Americans find important: rugged individualism, courage under fire, wisdom, integrity. Of the Eastwood films for which my students (most of whom were born in the early 1990s) are most familiar, he has played wizened yet fiery characters who stand their ground in the face of rambunctious youth. As Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino (2008), he attempts to protect his neighbors from the Hmong gang members who threaten them. As grizzled boxing trainer Frankie Dunn in Million Dollar Baby (2004), he guides a young woman boxer through the many obstacles she faces in her journey to become a champion. In both roles, Eastwood plays a gruff, well-meaning protagonist whose integrity, steadfastness, and virtue allow him to survive in a world in which those values essentially have lost meaning.
However, this wise codger with the big heart and rough exterior is only one aspect of Eastwood’s place in our collective memory. The other perhaps more prominent one is his role as “Dirty Harry” Callahan, the gritty San Francisco detective whom he has reprised in five films: Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool (1988). Callahan was a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners detective whose willingness to enact deadly justice on criminals made him a fan favorite. Indeed, two of Callahan’s signature catchphrases reverberate in the American lexicon: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” from Dirty Harry and “Go ahead: Make my day” from Sudden Impact. It is the latter phrase that proves to be the more intriguing, for it is the one the RNC crowd chants as Eastwood prepares to perform and ends his monologue. When my students inquired about the meaning of the phrase, I showed them the (in)famous scene from Sudden Impact.
To their credit (and without provocation), many of my students quickly understood why the phrase—and thus Eastwood and Dirty Harry—would appeal to the RNC crowd. Clearly, Dirty Harry is restoring order and providing protection from those who would steal from hardworking folks, both of which are promises made by Republicans. However, I wanted to make sure to provide them with a broader context for the scene so that they could truly understand Callahan’s (and thus Eastwood’s) significance.
In his essay “Film, Politics, and Ideology,” Douglas Kellner suggests that films such as Dirty Harry functioned as a harbinger of the new right dominance to come in the 1980s: “[R]eading Hollywood films [of the 1970s] politically allowed one to anticipate the coming of Reagan and the New Right to power by demonstrating that conservative yearnings were ever more popular within the culture and that film and popular culture were helping to form an ideological matrix more hospitable to Reagan and conservatives than to embattled liberals” (9). In the early 1970s, according to Kellner, gritty law and order films such as Dirty Harry indicated that Hollywood was as much of a “contested terrain” as was Washington and that films “can be interpreted as a struggle over representation of how to construct a social world and everyday life” (9). In Camera Politica, Kellner and Michael Ryan position these films as “conservative counterattacks against the liberalism… blamed for the crisis in domestic order brought about by the sixties” (42). All of the Dirty Harry films feature the detective maligned by liberal policies that seemingly gave more rights to criminals—particularly in the form of Miranda laws—than to those seeking to uphold the law. These films’ interest in law and order are consistent with the new right’s embrace of the same, which Michael Omi and Howard Winant suggest in Racial Formation emerged out of the success of “‘coded’ antiblack campaign rhetoric” that emphasized law and order (124).
Thus, it is of little coincidence that at a time in which the Grand Old Party (GOP) frequently has asserted that the nation’s very existence is under threat by a biracial president and by liberalism—particularly in the form of advocacy for gay marriage, stricter gun control, expansion of so-called entitlement programs, etc.—that it would call upon a hallmark of tough conservatism. And not just any hallmark, but one whose signature role was as a rogue cop who had little problem dispensing of black bodies (among others), as is evident in the above clip. After all, Dirty Harry’s body count consists primarily of those who seemingly evidence liberalism gone wrong, from the drug addled hippy to the violent black thug. Furthermore, Dirty Harry emerged at a time in which the militant Black Panther Party was decried by then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” a claim not unlike that made by former GOP presidential candidate and current Texas governor Rick Perry about President Barack Obama.
To his credit, Eastwood has distanced himself from the Dirty Harry character in recent years. As Robert Kapsis notes in “Clint Eastwood’s Politics of Reputation,” Eastwood—particularly as a director—has been particularly sensitive to issues of race and gender and has dialed back the uber-macho nature of the characters whom he portrays (71). As is evident in his RNC monologue, he is initially hesitant to evoke Dirty Harry’s signature catchphrase, telling the crowd “I don’t say that word [sic] anymore.” Indeed, the clamor for him to say “Go ahead: Make my day” is deeply at odds with the partisan yet reasonably toned, even humorous (at times) monologue he had just delivered. However, he eventually acquiesces and (reluctantly?) leads the crowd in chanting it. As a result, both Eastwood and the American public bore witness to an actor faced with reconciling the differences between his own persona and that of a character he has chosen to leave behind. The results, as one might imagine, were quite messy.
Thus, the lesson for my students—and for us all—is that collective memory is useful for making sense of the present by evoking the past. However, the lesson also is that our collective memory is often complex and contradictory. Furthermore, what some tend to remember fondly, others tend to remember with disdain. While “Go ahead: Make my day” drew boisterous applause from the crowd, it made Eastwood bristle a bit—just as it did for me.
Today, we bank at our own peril. Indeed, the average customer often faces the choice of either being fleeced by the bankers inside the bank or being robbed by someone outside it. The fleecer often wears a suit; the robber often wears a hood.
However, we tend not to fear the fleecer. Even in the midst of a financial crisis that has had dramatic global implications, we—albeit begrudgingly—still entrust our hard-earned dollars to the very same people who quite literally have destroyed economies. This goes against what conventional wisdom suggests about danger, which is to avoid it at all cost. And it is easy to avoid, right? After all, we know the profile of the fleecer.
Or do we?
In March 2009, during a meeting with then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva boldly stated, “This [global economic] crisis that was caused by people, white with blue eyes. And before the crisis they looked as if they knew everything about economics.” On the surface, his comments appear correct: when the (mostly) men who most often are blamed for the world financial crisis are shown, they are usually white men in expensive suits. Names such as current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, incarcerated investor Bernie Madoff, and current Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson are often tied to the crisis. Of the 25 people whom TIME blames for the American financial crisis, only two are people of color (former Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O’Neal and current Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao). Even if we blame the financial crisis on an amorphous Wall Street, one likely conjures up an image of white men in suits who resemble Gordon Gekko, the malicious investor immortalized by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film Wall Street and its 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Furthermore, even if we blame the financial crisis on an equally amorphous Congress, one likely conjures up an image of white men in suits. After all, Congress is comprised of upwards of 90 percent white men.
Despite the apparent “truthiness” (to borrow a term from Stephen Colbert) of white men in suits as fleecers behind the national and global economic crises, many vehemently rejected President da Silva’s profiling of “white [men] with blue eyes.” While chiding President Barack Obama’s praise of President da Silva, political pundit Michelle Malkin calls the latter a “race baiter.” American Thinker’s Rick Moran writes, “It’s a shame Lula doesn’t get out much. If he did, he’d know that there are many African American bankers in America and plenty of people of color working in finance in Great Britain. But Mr. Brown didn’t see fit to mention that.”
Of course, not everyone rejects this notion. There are many who likely find truth in comedian Patrice O’Neal’s joke, “When four white men get together in the middle of the afternoon, that’s not a meeting. That’s a crime scene.” However, we do not fear the suit nearly as much as we fear the hood—if at all. Certainly, this in part because the hood conceals just as much as it protects. However, obviously, it is often the person who dons the hood who is the source of our fear.
Thus, in the midst of the current imbroglio over the murder of Floridian teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, an overzealous resident of Martin’s father’s girlfriend’s gated community who shot Martin as he returned from a trip to a convenient store, the notion that a hood is indicative of potential danger has re-emerged. The most poignant example of this is the recent comments of FOX News host Geraldo Rivera, who stated on an episode of FOX & Friends, “I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly not to let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin‘s death as much as George Zimmerman was.”
Rivera goes on to suggest that “dark skinned” childen such as Trayvon Martin (and even his own son Cruz, whom he mentions in the above clip) all too often fit the “instant identification” and “instant association” of “crime scene surveillance tapes,” and thus there is a measure of justification when society perceives hooded black and Latino teenagers as “gangstas.” After all, as we have learned, the community had faced a rash of break-ins by black men—some of who may have worn hoods.
The hypocrisy of and irony in Rivera’s comments—particularly as several photos of Rivera wearing a hooded sweatshirt have made the rounds—are obvious and rightly have seen him pillorized in the court of public opinion. However, the hypocrisy and irony are not solely what make Rivera’s comments problematic. The real problem is that they attempt to justify and reflect the very lack of discernment that Zimmerman showed when he encountered Martin, who by no means whatsoever was a robber. These comments protect whiteness in any garb, for he does not include white or “light skinned” people among those who can fit the “instant association” with a “menace.” The white body is rarely criminalized or subjected to the same conventional wisdom as is the black body. Rivera and his ilk likely would never profile the fleecer by his clothes or his race but gladly do so for the robber.
Nor should they: profiling a person by his or her attire is just as foolish as profiling him or her by race. Neither the suit nor the hood, neither white skin nor black skin are indicators of criminality. More importantly, wisdom is rarely if ever conventional.