One sees Andy Warhol, the other sees Jackson Pollack

In reality it was Norman Rockwell all along

by Scott L. VanatterRockwell

The dialogue this political season is at least as polarized as any in the past. Perhaps more. Much more so.

Strike that. It is really two parallel monologues. As usual there has been very little real dialogue.

Though there are always two opposing sides, still we yearn for the ideal of honest dialogue, where respect, maturity, wisdom, and proper judgment is manifest.

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

    (From Kipling’s, “The Ballad of East and West”)

Kipling bespeaks a rough equality of foes. No matter where they come from, no matter who they are. For president it is almost always “two strong men.” Just as in most Super Bowls, two strong teams prevail in the playoffs. They get to the Super Bowl by maximizing their strengths. Sometimes they exit the stadium having their previously-hidden weaknesses exploited. Though they enter as equals, they exit one as champion, the other not. There are blowouts (not that enjoyable to watch, except for diehard fans of the winning team) and there are last-second, one-point come-from-behind wins.

Each of the two monologues is so differently situated with respect to their base assumptions, as to destroy all confidence in a shared conception of the world. One or the other side can become quasi-solipsistic. Looking at the same famous painting, one side would declare it to be by Andy Warhol, while the other side would swear is was by Jackson Pollack. But in reality it was a Norman Rockwell illustration all the time.

Both sides are buttressed by well-known supporters. Both sides are also supported by supposedly unbiased analysts and commentators. Though some analysts are so unaware that they don’t know that they see the Rockwell as Warhol.

It is sometimes difficult to locate unbiased commentary. Always has been. Henry Ford said, “History is more or less bunk.* It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” I would suggest there is another reason that history (or, in our case, commentary, analysis, and polemic political discourse) is nonsense. Much of it is so radically unreasonable that it can only be trusted by True Believers. All others — even those who are unknowledgeable about the details of the complexities at hand – can usually sniff out the nonsense. They see the Rockwell, when one side (to them) sees a Warhol or a Pollack. The side that more closely describes the Rockwell gets their vote.

*The definition of bunk, nonsense.

All this said, see below for an excerpt from Michael Gerson’s reasonable take on Romney’s persona and performance in the third debate.

“Romney often acted as if he were the only person on the stage — like a man trying to paint a self-portrait in the midst of a food fight. The image that emerged was a foreign policy moderate in tone and substance. Romney seemed a man who holds certain values but lacks disruptive projects and causes. He criticized Obama’s foreign policy mainly on implementation — pressure for Middle Eastern reform should have come earlier, Iranian sanctions should be tighter — rather than proposing an alternative grand strategy.

“Romney summarized his own views as ‘principles of peace.’ No direct intervention in Syria. No extension of the withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan. ‘We can’t kill our way out of this mess,’ he insisted, unexpectedly pointing to the limits of drone strikes and special operations. In a deft, sophisticated move, Romney recommended a comprehensive soft-power strategy in the Middle East — economic development, better education, gender equality, the rule of law — as an alternative to later, messier interventions.

“All this was an homage — perhaps a conscious one — to Ronald Reagan’s debate performance in 1980 against Jimmy Carter. Reagan was fighting a reputation for militarism and intemperance. In answer to his first question, he said, ‘I’m only here to tell you that I believe with all my heart that our first priority must be world peace, and that use of force is always and only a last resort, when everything else has failed, and then only with regard to our national security.’ This reassurance was a hurdle cleared in his race to the presidency.

“Romney employed the same argument, using some of the same words. Obama came into the foreign policy debate prepared to attack Romney as ‘wrong and reckless.’ Every moment of Romney’s actual performance was a refutation of this argument. Obama’s incessant aggressiveness was a lingering reaction to the passivity of his first debate performance. For someone who believes navies and bayonets are equally outdated, Obama has a rhetorical tendency to fight the last war.”

In less than two short weeks, two strong men will complete their shared description of the painting (think of American and the world situation). But in a very real way, rather than describing a self-existent painting, both are actually creating their own painting, hoping that we see their original art as the simple and majestic Rockwell we want it to be.


Click here for Gerson’s full piece in the Washington Post.