Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Reagan Myth

The CNN Republican Presidential Debate just concluded at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. In attendance, sitting in the front row, were California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former First Lady Nancy Reagan. The evening was lit with a backdrop of Ronald Reagan's legacy and the broadcast is scheduled to be followed by a glowing look back at Ronald Reagan's years in office.

The GOP rallies around the Reagan years as the Golden Age of American politics, and a time that stood up America before the world as a beacon of prosperity, compassion, democracy, and freedom. In order to be a successful Republican politician in the modern age, one must attach his or her own record and philosophy to that of Reagan. Recently, Barack Obama pointed out the transformative presence of Reagan's ideas, holding that legacy up as a model for the Democratic Party and its challenge to tranform the current climate of doubt and bitterness into one of hope and unity. Of course, Hillary Clinton tried to spin that statement to work against Obama, painting him as a closet Reagan conservative. Patently absurd.

The point here, is that Reagan's greatest quality was his ability to lead as an icon. He represented the proud patriot son of America, born into freedom and willing to die for the ideals of our forefathers. It's both hard to attack that icon, and hold it up to the scrutiny of political opposition. Reagan was able to do so effortlessly, and hence his glowing image is burned into the collective consciousness of the American people alongside the Stars and Stripes, the bald eagle, and the dollar bill. Every society needs its icons, as they fulfill a particular mythology about our own national character. The myth is far more important than the man in every case. Reagan is no different, and we are fortunate enough to have lived in such close proximity to his legacy that we have a chance at remembering the truth behind the veil of mythology that surrounds him.

While the GOP like to hold this myth up as a symbol of the ideal form of government, and as a sort of infallible philosophy of governance, there is much to remember about the Reagan years that bring shame to us as a people. The fiscal conservatism that the GOP holds up as the model of economic genius during these years also saw a spending deficit in the trillions. Surely the Democratic Congress was equally responsible for that dilemma, but the trickle down economics of the Reagan era took that deficit and placed it firmly in the laps of the hardest working Americans. The trickle down theory of economics never stimulated the economy as long as it was the dominant form of fiscal management, and it perpetuated hardship on the poor and middle class, while filling the pockets of the richest 2%.

Likewise, Reagan sold out the religious Right at every turn by taking their support, promising to ban abortion and fill the Supreme Court with Christian soldiers. He did neither, stabbing them in the back and going against every promise he made while it was politically expedient to do so. He perpetuated a Cold War that escalated military spending, handing over the tax money of the hardest working Americans while cutting social programs designed to uplift them. The scare tactics that we see today in the so-called "War on Terror" were honed and sharpened during the Cold War era of propaganda, headed by the Reagan administration. In fact, most of the architects of the Bush "terror strategy" were former Reagan soldiers, including Cheney and Rumsfeld.

The foreign policy of the United States under Ronald Reagan is known primarily for the statement "peace through strength", which is a very convenient abstraction that culminated in some of the bloodiest state-sponsored terror that the world has ever seen. "Peace through Strength" is a sentiment convenient for politicians and the military-industrial-complex to work hand in hand at building a military economy supported by empire building around the world. Of course, no one would support such a policy if it were spelled out in its most specific terms, but the convenience of "Peace through Strength" is that it plays on the notion that we will protect the interests of the everyday American by holding a stiff national backbone in the face of threats from dark corners of the world. Sound familiar?

The facts on Reagan's foreign policy are bleak in many respects. Central and South America were battlefields for the CIA and its state-sponsored death squads. The historical records clearly show this to be the case, although it is politically expedient for people on both sides of the aisle to sweep it under the carpet. It's there in black and white and we should own up to our role in the deaths of millions of poor and oppressed people below our southern border. John Negroponte, the current Director of Homeland Security, was the architect of those death squads, not to mention the former ambassador to Iraq during the early part of our occupation.

All of this is simply to say that we have to be honest about all the bumps and warts of our presidents and representatives if we hope to go forward in an honest and positive way. If we don't live up to our own evils, our future is destined to repeat them over and over and over again. History bears this out. To be lost in the mythology of our past, despite the harsh glare of reality, is denial of the worst kind. We can never be a true beacon of freedom around the world if we systematically deny our own oppression. Slavery, WWII era internments, torture.....all swept under the carpet as someone else's reprehensible acts of history. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. FDR allowed American citizens to be rounded up and imprisoned simply for their DNA. Reagan sanctioned the murder of millions in South and Central America. Clinton bombed a baby milk factory in Sudan, creating a crisis of starvation from which the people of that nation have never recovered, and Bush has done any number of things for which we should all be ashamed.

Use your eyes, ears, and powers of critical thinking to see American history as it really is and don't blindly follow the mythology that makes us all feel good about ourselves, whatever the truth may be.


Paul Levinson said...

Well said, Mike.

Mike Plugh said...

Thanks. Mythology is an important element in determining who we are and what we value, but we should never let it cloud our better judgement.