The ‘Racist’ Wink: Race in Clint Eastwood’s Films

Alex Fontana

DiGeorgio: That’s one thing about our Harry. He doesn’t play any favorites, Harry hates everybody: Limeys, Micks, Hebes, fat dagos, niggers, honkies, chinks. You name it.
Chico: How’s he feel about Mexicans?
DiGeorgio: Ask him.
Harry: Especially Spics.
(Harry winks at Digeorgio as he walks off).
Dirty Harry (1971)

Slavoj Zizek has repeatedly made the seemingly contradictory point that Leftists should adopt “progressive racism” in order to counter racism. This would involve telling racist jokes that would produce “solidarity” by a communal sharing in obscenity. The joke and the laughter would effectively function as an assuaging mechanism to mask the very real and prescient tribal instincts, especially of whites whose countries are being invaded by a waves of foreign competitors.

The function of the racial joke for the ‘progressive racist’ is not to put down the Other, but rather to create a kind of Bakunian folk humor in which the otherness of the Other functions as a kind of post-modern grotesque realism. However, New Leftist political theorist Andrew Robinson sees potential dangers in this:

“The tendentialy resistant space of fan culture, by being displaced through repression, is turned into the pseudo-transgression of performative racism. At one level, racial abuse is transgressive (of liberal norms), but on another, it reproduces dominant structures (of underlying racism).

Such displays are similar to true carnival in their excess and expressiveness, but they ultimately uphold the transcendentalism of the in-group through transgressions which reinforce their privilege at the expense of an out-group… reactionaries and fascists are terrified of being overwhelmed by the ‘floods’ and ‘bodies’ of interpenetration with the other, though they must constantly return to the point of the threat of interpenetration so as to ward it off.”

What Robinson misses, and what Zizek and Dirty Harry both get, is that in-group hierarchies in a time of multiculturalism and multiracialism, when we have seen a two-term Black President of the United States, is no longer as racially valid as it once was. Hierarchies are much more fluid, and professional and class based, than racial. Even then, Robinson’s point about false transgressions is valid in some respects:

“Hierarchies were perhaps simpler in medieval times. We get into complexities today around the distinction between ‘true’ transgressions and those which repeat dynamics of the system at a deeper level. The system can use such ‘false’ transgressions to channel the carnivalesque into its own reproduction. Consider, for instance, how the transgressiveness of football culture has been displaced into the fascism of the EDL.”

Robinson, like most Leftists, gets it backwards. Rather than football culture being displaced by fascism, it is rather the historical movement of fascism being displaced (or rather ‘muted’ or ‘transfigured’) into the false transgressions of football culture.

Still the specter of white supremacy haunts Leftist imaginations. So much so that the mass appeal of brown racial humorists, like Russell Peters, has been more acceptable in our politically correct times than a white comedic counterpart. Although this too is rapidly changing, especially given a sampling of Comedy Central’s roasting of Shaquille O’Neil. When a white comedian can allude to ‘Shaq’ being a gorilla, the giant multimillionaire Negro can indulge in a full-bellied laugh at himself—at a joke that would likely offend most blacks.

Often when a joke pushes that politically correct line, the camera cuts to an audience member who resembles the recipient of the joke, laughing at it—”progressive racism” (freeze frame at 5:21 for the obvious Jew laughing at the Holocaust™ joke).

Shaq is part of the hierarchy of the Empire of Meaninglessness, the Empire of the Punch-line and the Slam Dunk Contest. The functions and irrationality of the market destroys and is destroying natural hierarchies between people at an unprecedented rate, helped along the way by the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood.

Shaquille O’Neil’s social status destroys the stigma of black inferiority and invites other Blacks and even whites to not take themselves so seriously. The growing acceptability of White racial humor directed against Blacks and other ‘visible minorities’ is indicative of the totalizing monolithic egalitarian tendency of what David Richards calls ‘radical constitutionalism’ in American values. Hence in Franz Kafka’s short novel Amerika, the European Immigrant Karl, adopts the name Negro for himself, because despite representing the exploitation of the immigrant worker, it functions more broadly to describe the ‘negrofication’ of all identities below a certain professional or social status in America, and more generally still of the radical leveling of the democratic type as identified in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s mass man. The solidarity of American values is the dog-eat-dog individualism of WASP capitalism and utilitarianism, emblematic of so many of Clint Eastwood’s characters—“make my day,” as Ronald Reagan said.

Eastwood at 86 years old is something of a throwback, a dinosaur, an homage to White American virility, poise, confidence and coolness. His early roles in spaghetti westerns connected him with the historical frontiersman, but in this he was always a loner, a desperado, an outsider, an individualist…an American.

These roles also connected him to the cinematic tradition of self-proclaimed ‘white supremacist’ John Wayne and the ‘Eurocentric racism’ of John Ford. ‘Blondie’ and the rest of Eastwood’s portrayals were usually gunning down swarthier gangs in credulous retroactive acclamation of the triumph of the solitary white man. Later on Eastwood achieved superstar status for his role as the straight-talking ‘Dirty Harry,’ which solidified his image of Old Stock grit. Continuing with this image, Eastwood has caught some flak for some comments in a just published interview in Esquire magazine:

Esquire: Your characters have become touchstones in the culture, whether it’s Reagan invoking “Make my day” or now Trump … I swear he’s even practiced your scowl.

Eastwood: Maybe. But he’s onto something, because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist. And then when I did Gran Torino, even my associate said, “This is a really good script, but it’s politically incorrect.” And I said, “Good. Let me read it tonight.” The next morning, I came in and I threw it on his desk and I said, “We’re starting this immediately.”

Eastwood’s Gran Torino is “politically incorrect” in the same vein of the ‘racist wink,’ that is it is performative racism, Zizek’s “progressive racism.”

Eastwood’s Polish-American character in Gran Torino identifies with, and forms a self-sacrificing bond with, his South Asian neighbors, while simultaneously making racial slurs at their expense. Ironically, Eastwood’s character appreciates the communal values of his immigrant neighbors, while his own white ethnic Catholic family has succumbed to the individualism of Americanization.

In the end the self-sacrificing white man gives his most prized possession to his Asian neighbor and snubs his own family—in part because they have grown apart and see their relationship in materialistic terms, while discarding those values of family, community, kinship, homemaking and hard work, traditionally associated with white Catholic ethnics. But the image of the young Asian driving the American muscle car down the highway at the end of the film is inclusive of that group’s own impending Americanization.

Ironically the values that the son of Eastwood’s character lists as those that his father imparted to him are not those that make a community:

“It’s an interesting time. My father’s definitely old-school. And he raised me with integrity—to be places on time, show up, and work hard.”

Rather these are the values that make an obedient and efficient worker. Still, Clint Eastwood can continue to cultivate the image of himself as a straight-talking tough guy, a real Reagan Republican, while the Empire of Meaninglessness laughs and sometimes winks its way to racial dispossession.

Originally published at Alternative Right 2.0 on 7th August, 2016.