In 1952 (60 years ago at the time of this writing), Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man was published.
In 1953, it won the National Book Award.
Invisible Man is a vital piece of American literature. Any student of writing should read it as it is, arguably, one of the most important novels of the 20th century for multiple reasons.
However, I’m not here to conduct a lecture. If you want to read Ellison’s great novel, go over to Amazon and pick up a copy. You needn’t have read the book to understand the gist of what I go into here.
I’m here to discuss the actions of a man who was 22 at the time that novel was published. Whether or not he ever read Ellison’s book isn’t something I know, nor does it really matter. This young man was working on breaking into a career in Hollywood, and he eventually did, getting his break in the western TV series Rawhide, and later having a long and successful career most widely known actors in Hollywood with great influence and clout. He has created great works of cinematic art (and some poor ones), and has greatly influenced the generations of actors after him.
He is, of course, Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood stood in front of the delegates at the 2012 Republican National Convention and proceeded to have a talk, of sorts, with President Obama (who, being a Democrat, was absent from those proceedings) by pretending the president was sitting in a chair to Eastwood’s left.
He is clearly intending to have a one-way dialogue, while also making asides to the delegates, with President Obama when he states “So I — so I’ve got Mr. Obama sitting here. And he’s — I was going to ask him a couple of questions.”
So, Eastwood is talking to, as one Twitter user appropriately called his or her spoof account, “InvisibleObama.”
The president’s campaign, naturally, shot back at Eastwood:
Now, just as this post isn’t about discussing Ellison’s novel, it’s also not about discussing politics. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve never voted for a Republican (though, keep in mind that doesn’t mean I’ve always voted for Democrats), but this is not about politics. I would be making this same exact observation if it were, let’s say, Alec Baldwin doing a similar bit about J.C. Watts at the Democratic convention.
This is a social observation. One that I think needs to be made.
Clint Eastwood, in that ad-libbed, impromptu, un-rehearsed bit summed up the attitude some of (not all of) President Obama’s detractors have had since day one of his arrival on the national stage:
They don’t want to see him, so he’s invisible to them. He is not white, so has no merit in their mind as a man, much less a president, so they completely dismiss him.
Make any arguments of substance you wish against him — I will gladly accept it.
I, for one, think health care reform should have been a single payer system and not echoed the Republicans’ reform efforts from 20 years ago. I want to see Gitmo closed. I want to see the PATRIOT Act repealed and warrantless wiretapping done away with. These are issues of merit.
But these are not the things I hear about from his detractors.
I hear vague fear-mongering — He’s taking away our freedom!
I hear conspiracy theories — His father conspired to make him president to turn the country into a muslim dictatorship!
I hear outright lies that attack the man’s basic identity as an American — He wasn’t born in the US. The birth certificate is fake!
He’s not our president, I’ve heard them say. I don’t think his wife acts like a First Lady. I don’t like to look at either of them. He’s not like us, and, because of that, we do not like him.
Yes, this is about the color of President Obama’s skin.
But, for these detractors to speak up and simply admit to their racism is something they are not prepared for and will not admit.
So they couch it by marginalizing, obstructing, and ignoring. They claim the work he’s done has amounted to nothing, that he has done no good, and that he is inept.
They call him a socialist (without knowing what a socialist is) and attempt to confuse the situation with non-defensible name calling and fear-mongering. And when they do criticize him, they do so in a way that trivializes who he is. They make him imaginary and essentially hurdle insults at him. This marginalizes him… not just as the president, but as a man.
He is to be avoided, shunned, and ignored. He is to be seen as nothing more than a shade passing through our lives. He is to be fought against and demeaned because he is “other” and, to his detractors, being “other” is scary because that’s not the way America used to be.
This is all done in order to tiptoe around their issues with his skin color, which is how these detractors have made him the perfect example of Ellison’s invisible man.
For all that his bit was, I must thank Mr. Eastwood. He underscored the specific thing this group of the president’s detractors have been doing since 2008: Treating him as if he wasn’t there, as if this invisible man might just fade completely away come January of 2013 so life can return to “normal” (a normal that involves a white male president).
This is no different than attitudes during slavery. The dismissal of any humanity the slaves had, the arrogance that they were simply property, and the thinking the slaves should know their place and stay in it… this is the same attitude. The slaves were the invisible men and women of the colonial times and the first 90 years of this country… they were there, but they weren’t there.
The Civil War began 150 years ago.
150 years, yet we still fight the same attitudes and have the same arguments.
Ellison’s novel was published 60 years ago.
60 years, yet Ellison’s invisible man, and the society around him, hasn’t aged a damn day for all that has happened in that time.
If you think any of the non-substantive vitriol is about President Obama’s policies, take a look at the old white man asking questions of the “InvisibleObama” on the chair and making up the answers and reactions.
Take a look at that and realize that has nothing to do with political disagreements. It has everything to do with telling President Obama he has overstepped his boundaries as a black man in America and needs to be put back in his place.