Saturday, February 05, 2011

Reagan at 100/30

Tomorrow Is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, and we just passed the thirtieth anniversary of his inauguration as president, so we have already been subjected to hagiographic portrayals of him, his life, and his supposedly classic American virtues.

That makes this an appropriate time to consider some of the truth of Ronald Reagan as an antidote to the lies, half truths, and mythology that we are about to hear. There are many reasons to despise and scorn the memory of Ronald Reagan, so I'll just concentrate on a few of them.

Racism. It's impossible to consider Reagan's presidency without confronting the centrality of his appeals to racism. He opened his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the city most famous for the murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman. His speech made an appeal to "states' rights", a code word for segregation and racial oppression since the earliest days of the Civil Rigjhts Movement (not to mention the Civil War). His announcement was an explicit message to any who would hear that he would support the aims of the racist South. In this way, Reagan's presidency can be understood as the culmination of Nixon's Southern Strategy.

As he ran, so he governed. From his support for the racist policies of Bob Jones University to his references to "big bucks" abusing Food Stamps; from his support for apartheid to the clear understanding of his aide Lee Atwater, who explained how Reagan and Bush used concealed racism to win Southern votes, Reagan's presidency was suffused with racism, but you won't hear any of his acolytes discuss it this week.

Support for dictators. If you listen to the Reagan apologists this week you'll hear endless recitations of claims that he revered and valued democracy and freedom. Of course, the opposite is true. As I mentioned, he supported apartheid and resisted any efforts to attack or dismantle it. His foreign policy is characterized by support for the most vicious dictators, with his support for the incumbent dictator in El Salvador and his creation of the contra mercenaries in Nicaragua to restore the Somoza dictatorship there the most outstanding example.

Bargaining with terrorists. Maybe a smaller point, but remember that part of Reagan's support for the contras was giving weapons to terrorists to free American hostages.

Corruption. Let's not forget: Reagan's administration may have been the most corrupt in our history.

Superstition. It's a daily event that American presidents engage in superstition and mythology to gain public support. (Hint: when's the last time you heard a presidential speech that didn't end with "God bless you and God bless the United States"?) Reagan went beyond this by basing his public decisions on the favorite superstition of the soft-headed, astrology.

Taxes. Even today, every Republican pledges loyalty to Reagan's anti-tax ideology. We know that after he cut taxes he raised them again, so take it as stipulated that he wasn't as consistently opposed to taxation as his worshippers claim. Nevertheless, the message stuck. This is what I would say is the worst of the many evils that Ronald Reagan is responsible for: he convinced a wide swath of the American people that they can have all the benefits of our American society and government without paying for it. When the teabaggers claim him as their political and spiritual godfather, this is really what they're talking about.

Oh, just one last thing: it has become a shibboleth to ask Republican candidates for president or RNC chair who their favorite Republican president was. The universal answer is Ronald Reagan. When they give that answer, they're not lying. They actually do prefer the racist tool of the wealthy to the man who preserved the Union and ended slavery.

So this weekend, do contemplate the legacy and nature of Ronald Reagan. Just remember the reality, and not the myth.

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