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June 07, 2004

Hitch on The Gipper, with some notes of my own

All weekend, David has been flipping on the TV and announcing "NEWS FLASH: Ronald Reagan still dead!" Clearly, he is new to America's reflexive hagiography, in which dead presidents enter the firmament washed of their sins by an entirely unquestioning media.

Don't get me wrong... I have, in spite of myself, a warm feeling towards Reagan. Indeed, his better qualities (chiefly the ability to communicate like a sentient human being) shine all the brighter with Shrub as a foil. He is the paterfamilias shining in a lot of dim memories of the 1980s. I was, for most of that decade, a dutiful Reagan Youth, even playing him in the 1984 mock elections at my elementary school. I recall shaming my opponent (my blond-tressed nemesis Erika, playing Mondale) with the shocking news that Managua was closer to Dallas than Washington D.C. How could she (or, um, he) remain blind to the red threat to the south? What, I asked, if Mexico fell to the communists?! (I could have titled this "Notes from a Cold War childhood.")

Reagan was, though, eventually the agent of my conversion to liberalism as well. The Iran-Contra affair occured just as I was beginning to study American history in a critical, adult fashion, and I saw it as a threat to the rule of law, which of course it was. The more I dug into the question of America's role in Central America, the more disillusioned I became. My rebellion was swift and strong: by 1988 I had hung a Sandinista flag in my room (to the horror of my grandparents, who had given money to the Contras following their personal friendship with Anastazio Somoza), subscribed to Harper's, and started receiving mail from the ACLU. My mother will be horrified in her latter-day enlightenment to recall once threatening me, upon the arrival of my ACLU membership card, "Not if you are going to live in this house!" The card went in the trash, and I stayed at home. But I would never go back to the simple faith of my youth.

"Times have changed, and we've often re-wound the clock," as Cole Porter put it so well. My mother is in the minority of Americans who have moved left since Reagan. The tidal forces he unleashed have reshaped the country's politics irrevocably. Where before the American narrative was one of progress, Reagan brought us the essentially pessimistic idea that there was a prelapsarian Golden Age that we could and should return to (eliding the excesses of the Gilded Age, Jim Crow, and the policies that led to the Great Depression); what's more, he was able to package this reactionary vision as optimism about America's future. He taught the GOP that the country would buy (on credit, no less) this revanchist vision of a foregone future. He sold us the sugar-plum fantasy of Star Wars defenses, while unable to mention--even once--the bitter reality of AIDS. His leadership could have slowed the epidemic, but of course his communications director was Pat Buchanan, who opined publicly that AIDS was "nature's revenge" on homosexuals.

I could go on... Reagan's disastrous environmental policies, the huge national debt he wrung up, his cavalier attitude towards human rights worldwide, the policy toward Soviet Afghanistan that aided the rise of Osama bin Laden and transnational Islamic militancy in general, his attacks on free speech and freedom of information... the list goes on and on. I do think it's impossible to neglect the fact that his policy toward the USSR, however it looked like brinkmanship at the time, worked out quite well. And his suppleness in recognizing Gorbachev's true willingness to reform is something of a miracle (again, especially compared with W's unchangeable mind). So we'll give him that, and credit his charm. But I think it's critical that we be critical in looking back... something the mainstream media have no interest in doing. Reagan is the patron saint of the right, and they will brook no criticism at all of his record.

Of course, Christopher Hitchens doesn't care about that, and his article on the stupidity of Ronald Reagan in Slate today is an important read. Hitchens, like almost everyone else, has lurched to the right in recent years (especially in his support of the war on Iraq), but not so far that he forgets what he knows to be true. Bless him for being brave enough to tell the truth--something missing from the ad nauseum encomiums to Reagan we'll be enduring for weeks.

Posted by jay at June 7, 2004 10:33 AM | TrackBack
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Thanks for the link, Jay. Hitch made me feel a little more on kilter after the surprisingly warm stroll down the memory lane of the Reagan years that NPR's usually reasonable Morning Edition inundated my unsuspecting radio this morning.

Posted by: paulette on June 7, 2004 11:37 AM
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