The final presidential debate was about domestic policy, as it should be — we’re in a financial crisis. But, I’ve been thinking more about foreign policy lately. There are huge differences between the two candidates where domestic affairs are concerned — especially in regard to taxes and health care — but both agree for the most part that reform is needed. When it comes to foreign policy, however, the contrasts are far more extreme, and I think what it boils down to is a distinction of approach at a basic social-interaction level.
Let’s take two examples that somewhat illustrate what I’ve been considering. First, the classic scene from Dirty Harry where the titular character aggressively dominates an adversary despite having an empty weapon. He presents what seems like a logical argument, a nearly Pascalian one — the .44 Magnum will decapitate you if you choose wrong, so why bother even tempting fate? Are you really that lucky? We might call this “Harry’s Wager”. The more we consider this, however, the more it seems like fascist manipulation — I’m the law, I’m stronger than you are, it doesn’t matter if your weapon’s loaded and mine’s not. I will always have the upperhand (this is underlined later in the film where another criminal chooses to call Harry’s bluff, and of course the Magnum still has a bullet left. “Harry’s Wager” ensures that there will ALWAYS be a bullet remaining for those that “feel lucky”). I hesitate to stoop to gender generalization and refer to this as the “masculine” method of intimidation (note that Harry must always proclaim the size and force of his firearm…just look at that photo, above!).
Second, we have essentially the same scene in a very interesting B western — The Tall Stranger with Joel McCrea. At the end of the film McCrea is battling the primary villain and inevitably finds himself at the wrong end of a shot gun with no weapon. But, McCrea thinks aloud — “How many shots did you fire? That gun only holds six bullets, so let’s see…” and the character actually begins enumerating each round he has heard thus far while slowly advancing on his trembling antagonist. Of course, the villain’s shot gun turns out to be empty, and McCrea gains the upper hand.
This scene is practically identical to the one in Dirty Harry with one essential difference — McCrea is having the empty gun pointed at him rather than pointing the empty gun himself. His wit revolves not around a survivalist wager but a soft sell of self-doubt — he has nothing to “dominate” with. Harry Callahan peddles self-doubt too, but does this by swelling himself up into a turgidly archetypal image of strength. McCrea works the vulnerable underbelly, playing on the lack of self esteem he senses in his opponent. Also note that both characters present their emotional argument in logical terms — pathos in logos’ clothing — but one has a male potency, the other a feminine puissance.
Don’t get me wrong. Knowing how to bluff when you’ve got a crap hand is essential, especially in the vast, apocalyptic poker game that is global politics. But we are in an age where “antagonists” do not even need loaded guns themselves for us to point ours at them. Were I at a townhall meeting, I would tease out the differences between the presidential candidates by asking the following question: You’re in a gun fight. You’re pretty sure your gun is empty, but you’re pretty sure your adversary’s is as well. Both of you are trapped in a stand-off, the potentially vacant firearms aimed to kill. What do you do?