The Disturbing Symbolism of the GOP Convention

Like tens of millions of other people, I watched the Republican National Convention. During the week we were subjected to a new high in the political dangers of the narrow-casting of our media world and the debasement of public discourse, both of which were most startlingly demonstrated by Paul Ryan's willingness deceive the American public with what Joan Walsh described as a "speech that was stunning in its dishonesty." When Karl Rove said "When we act, we create our own reality," people like Paul Ryan gleefully had the words tattooed on their chests so that when they thump them rhythmically they pulsate. That was a matter of content and even conservative media outlets like Fox News had to acknowledge the disservice done to everyone by his actions. But, as deeply disturbing as the content issues were, they were sadly predictable. This convention, however, was profoundly jarring for its form and symbolism. A form reflected the real understanding of how the world should be organized according to the GOP.
  • Complementary Roles for Women and Men. A 1863 etiquette book written by a woman named Lady Gough instructed thus: "The perfect hostess will see to it that the works of male and female authors be properly separated on her bookshelves. Their proximity, unless married, should not be tolerated." Did you notice the order of speakers? The GOP took a page out of her Victorian era book and a hosted a party with a "woman's night" and a "men's night." A diverse group of smart, highly competent, politically ambitious women like Condoleezza Rice, Nikki Haley, Mia Love and Susana Martinez spoke. They were joined by wife/mother (sometimes of five, sometimes of six boys) Ann Romney. They all spoke on the same night and on the night before the really important one. People who support the view that women and men are more different than they are alike (and that there is nothing in between) insist that there is no hierarchy implied by this division and assignment of behaviors, attributes, labour and responsibilities. In addition, proper ladies and gentleman believe that "women (and children) first" is a sound rule. It also lends itself to protective male mythologies that reinforce a father-knows-best model central to the conservative agenda. But life and experience have a way of proving that chivalry and complementarianism ill serve women. In the first place, chivalry is an empty promise, as in this example of who survives ships sinking in the 20th century. Even though men and women are theoretically equal in their complementary spheres this equation rarely results in true equality - in terms of independent agency, political power, public or religious leadership or financial and economic freedom. Which gets us to power.
 
  • The Patrimony of Power. Mitt Romney had a great dad. And, he is a great dad to his sons. In addition, he has chosen Paul "rape-is-just-another-method-of-conception-and-women-don't-care-they-want-jobs" Ryan, a person many people now refer to as his sixth son, as his vice president. The narrative of the Mitt Acceptence night - the imagery, the language, the stories - was clearly one of patriarchy and patrimony. Of power and responsibility passing from father to son. Mitt's Father to Mitt. Mitt to [insert Republican "son" of your choice here. ] First, women, no matter how smart, able, popular, talented or proudly gun toting have nothing to do with this passage of power from one man to the next. They were isolated and grouped together. Fully excluded symbolically from this narrative core. Second, been there, done that. Didn't we have our revolution in order to overthrow a hereditary (even symbolically) divine-right king?
  • Mitt as Savior. Romney doesn't just want to be Father of the Nation. He is, as we were told in coded and not-so-coded ways, our savior. In his faith, Mitt is personally responsible for the salvation of his family. His wife, by virtue of gender, is unable to participate in the priesthood that their family's afterlife depends on. This is a central fact of Mitt Romney's life as a religious leader, husband and father. That idea, of a savior, rife with religious, political, theocratic overtones, was also a central aspect of his image in this convention.
  • The Invisible Man. What is left to say about Clint Eastwood' s unplanned appearance, which will long be remembered as one of the oddest convention speeches ever. It was impossible to watch his bizarre performance and not be struck by the actual Invisible Man, in Ralph Ellison's explicit terms, on the stage. In June of this year, writing in The Daily Beast, Nathaniel Rich commented on the lasting relevance of this book sixty years after its publication. But, who would have ever guessed that its enduring ideas about race and power would be so visibly represented and in this way. If only this level of cluelessness and privilege were harmful. But, it's not. It's dangerous. Just read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow if you want to talk about men, chairs, race and power.
  • The Dottering Icon of Hypermasculine Violence. In the same vein, hearing an tens of thousands cheer so fervently for this rambling symbol of angry, white, male vigilante violence wasn't just odd, but frightening. "It's just entertainment!" people say. "Don't be such a stick in the mud! " (Code #3 for "humorless feminist.") It should "just entertainment," but unfortunately it's not. I think Clint Eastwood is a remarkable actor and director. I have always enjoyed his movies - even the most violent. But to see him, and the entertainment products of his work, used in this way and in this forum was deeply demoralizing given the tragic few years of gun related violence our country now regularly reels from. And, to marry this with the empty chair, in the stand-your-ground year of Trayvon Martin's death was just obscene. But, violence and guns, are of course, part of the contemporary Republican Party's defining ethos: the man alone, protecting what is his and defending his life, property, family.
The GOP convention made this year's Oscar nostalgia for bygone days of male supremacy look like the action plan for a diverse progressive youth workshop by comparison. So what? It was a political convention. Which is now really more like a circus than anything else. I am cynical about politics, and the degree to which this convention relied on delusion still surprised me. But, it's hard to shake the ways in which the sexist, homophobic and racist symbolism of the Convention was just plain sad and depressing.   Photo Credit *sean via the Creative Commons License.

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