Friday, November 16, 2007

REAGAN THE CLASS-BAITER

(10 June 2004 cover of the Portland Mercury)

It's encouraging to see some folks out there daring to eat a peach when it comes to redefining the reality of the so-called Reagan legacy -- currently, the history of his race-baiting is being illuminated at the New York Times. I guess he's been dead long enough for some of those who allowed themselves to be whipped into a corner by the "liberal" taunt to venture forward and reach out toward the third rail that is his popularity.

Likely there's some cultural sociologist taking measure of the interval between burial and when questioning of myths begins. It was at least a decade before I heard the first JFK joke -- I mean, after he died (the comedian who made fun of him before his assassination, Vaughn Meader, had his career interred along with the President at Arlington, of course). It was so shocking: "You remember what John-John got for Christmas in 1963? A jack-in-the-box". When we finally gave ourselves permission to laugh, it was a little crazed, that release.


I happened to be in Washington, DC at the time of Reagan's funeral. I was performing with Actual Lives as part of the VSA International Arts Festival. Artists and attendees from all 50 states and 64 countries were staying at the Hilton where John Hinkley Jr. had tried to kill Reagan in 1981. I rode my scooter out to the side driveway and, with the help of a worried doorman, found one of the remaining bullet gouges in the rock wall beside the entrance. I ran my fingers over the depression and considered who we've lost to assassinations (JFK, RFK, Dr. King, Gandhi, Lincoln) and whom we have not (Reagan, George Wallace, Hitler, bin Laden).

Later that day, I was in an extremely crowded elevator riding up to my hotel room when a young man with Down's syndrome said to us all conversationally, "Reagan was a great President, huh!" I smiled at him, to make sure he knew I meant him no ill will, as I answered "No, he most definitely was not. He and his administration have done lasting damage to this country." I could have taken a dump on the plush carpeting with less opprobrium. I got off at my floor to disbelieving silence.

Two days later, I was returning from one of the best memories of my life, visiting the Smithsonian and the Botanical Gardens with a group of three other women, all of them brilliant, progressive, and beautiful. As we waited at a streetlight, a camera crew of four Middle Eastern men approached us. I don't know why they selected me to ask if I'd be willing to be interviewed for a documentary about American reaction to Reagan's death -- something about my openness usually makes me a target in such situations. Not that I mind, and I guess that's the point.

The interviewer's first question was respectful and tenative. But once I began answering, they knew they'd struck gold and gave me free rein. They used ten minutes of tape on me, and no doubt Cheney and his Morlocks have that footage somewhere. The documentary guys were effusive in their thanks, and my companions were laughing wildly as we went on to find a restaurant.

Currently, Republican contenders for the 2008 Presidential election are all but dying their hair orange and hitting on Nancy in their attempts to convince voters they are walking in Ronnie's boots. I hope progressives and other members of the reality-based community continue to offer a cheerful counterpoint commentary on the emperor's tanlines, ass acne and similar evidence that the man is wearing no clothes, people.

My contribution will be to remind you of how, during the 1980 campaign, Reagan allegedly deflated Jimmy Carter's re-election bid with the question "Are you better off today than four years ago?" This was supposedly aimed at "the American people" and was repeated often during the 1984 campaign. But Reagan was not asking this question of everyone. This one line is evidence of subtle and deeply cynical class-baiting, a tactic that worked brilliantly.

Those who did not benefit from Reagan's policies include a staggeringly long list: air traffic controllers (how did our current airport congestion happen, again?), union members in general, people with AIDS, people with mental health disabilities, refugees from Central America, and the vast majority of the working class. Just to name a few. Homelessness became an American way of life under Reagan. Neocons got their KY-sticky little hands on the car keys in his administration, and one of their first calculated moves was to make sure disposable income was removed from the hands of those who might agitate for social reform and instead swelled the accounts of the owning class.

But they understood that, overwhelmingly, the working class in this country believes we are middle class, or will be in another few years ("We're outta the woods, we're outta the dark, we're into the light!"). Playing into that fantasy was something Reagan did to B-movie perfection, using Hollywood technique to convince the public that he was "folksy" (more accurate, I think, to call him "volksy" as Hans F. K. Günt might use the term). Watch footage of him delivering that line in 1984 -- "Are ya better off..." -- and ignore the make-up, the glib smile, focus on his eyes, and you can see the cold lie of it all.

Reagan played on the working class hunger to belong, to be decent folks rewarded for their effort, by pretending he was talking to them, exploiting their/our class-based survival mechanism of believing "maybe what's good gets a little bit better, and maybe what's bad gets gone", as the Theme from Norma Rae explains.

He never intended to be around when the bills came due, and neither do his descendants, the Bushies who are Paraguay-bound as soon as either the coup fails or several hundred million people wake all the way up. It wasn't Reagan who sleep-walked through his Presidency, it was the working class. We once again bought the earnest incoherence of yet another man who is all hat and no cattle, because Culver City told us cowboys don't lie to plain ordinary working people. Right?

But here's the bottom line: Race-baiting and the rollback of gender equality cannot take place if working class people aren't deluding themselves about their connection to how things function. Playing us off against each other is the only hope they have of keeping America from growing up into a genuine democracy. Reagan's gone. Let's bury the last of his snake-oil with him.

3 comments:

Squidgeon58 said...

(From Cheryl who was with Maggie that trip in DC, and who gave her the Portland Mercury newspaper with the Ronnie and McChimpy cover)

OH Meg!!

yes, yes, yes. Then we ate Lebanese food after you let us in on a secret about you: that some of your best friends are Lebanese.

You may or may not have known about my personal connection to Reagan's death on that trip. My flight was changed on me with no warning whatsoever. So instead of arriving in D.C. very late at night, I showed up around 9 or 10 am the next day. But what ever did I do with all those hours in between? I lay on the floor, in a wilted heap in the Newark airport, beneath a hovering big-screen TV tuned to CNN. For 11 hours, they played nothing but interviews with, interviews about, and footage of Reagan for 50 minutes and then 8 or fewer minutes on Ray Charles' death. Oh my fucking god. 11 hours. By the middle of the night, they were so out of information that they were actually having rousing exchanges about Reagan's ties. And I am not
even making that up. I would shiver beneath my flimsy sweater, try to readjust my head on a pile of books and trail mix, and hold my breath until the next musical break came on. This went on all night until the sweet relief of the vacuum cleaners showed up before dawn to clean the place up and drown out the Reagan-humping fest on the TVs. I didn't think to try to turn the TV off till just now, three years later. Perhaps I enjoyed the surreality and pain of lying on the ground, listening to this drivel while I hadn't the money to even dream of getting myself a Motel 6 room for the night, much less pay for a cab out of the airport and back. I knew my flight wouldn't leave until 8am, but I had no means to leave the building. I sneaked into your hotel room for two nights for free, in fact.

It was good to reminisce. I do so enjoy it. I've since caught back up on my missed sleep, but I have never seen that documentary about this country's response to his death. But clearly, as politicians today evidence, Elvis has actually not left the building.

I love you so much.

I plan to come home in June so I'll meet up with you at Threadgills then. I am so worn out by graduate school this term. And I've only been working a couple hours a week and need to use December to catch up financially and work as much as possible. The plan is to bring Andy to Texas with me. So you can meet this gem of a partner I have. You'll want to roll him in lacquer and post him on your mantel. I know I do.

Oh, and yes I very much do remember that Mercury cover art. I stared at it for a very long time when it came out, kind of stunned. We'd all made the Shrub/Hitler connection, but to see that groveling mini-me (and know for a fact that since you can't see his lower half, he must be humping Reagan's leg), was an eye-opener for me three years ago.

kat said...

for some inexplicable reason, Reagan was at a lunch for a bunch of engineers the day Iran Contra hit the news. My grandparents were there, cuz my grandpa's an engineer. My grandma (whom I've mentioned at Maoist Orange Cake) had the best summary:
"You know, he was so cheery and polite, as if nothing were wrong in the world.....I never was too keen on him as a president, but that day really cemented my belief in his acting!"

shadocat said...

Maggie, I know I wrote of this on another blog, but I think it bears repeating. Here's what Ronald "Ray gun" means to me:

It started in 1978, before his tenure as Prez. My father-in-law died of a heart attack. All of his children were grown and gone, save one---his youngest, a 17 year old boy, still in high school. At that time, a person in that situation could get payments from social security not only through high school graduation, but if they chose to go to college, they could continue to get those payments until the age of 23. A couple of years after Ronnie came into office, his administration pushed through legislation stopping these payments when the person in question reached the age of 18, whether or not they had finished high school yet. This information was not widely publicized, and even as late as 2003, when my child's father died, they repeated the erroneous information to her. I quickly corrected them---it was the first they had heard of the change in a law that had occurred over 20 years ago. Because of this cutback, my brother-in-law was forced to drop out of college, and he never did go back, Because of this change, my daughter also dropped out of college after only a year---it was just too hard to do financially.

My husband at the time, got into a carpenter's apprentiship program, which when he would finish would help him find a high paying job in the building trades. But Ronnie cut the funds to the program. My husband then went to college on the GI bill, but eventually that was altered and the funding for that went away as well. Jim dropped out and got a job as a school custodian, which he held until he died in 2003.

I also went back to school, on scholarship money and Pell Grants. That lasted about a year. Then, guess what? Since we owned our teeny-tiny ranch house, the government counted it's value as "income" for me, and I lost the grants. The scholarship money lasted another 6 months or so, then I lost that too---I had to work so much, my grade point average dropped, and it was bye-bye scholarships. I was forced to get student loans, which I am still paying off today.

No, I am no fan of Reagan; I suppose if you compare someone to Shrub, anyone would look a little better. But Reagan's policies affected my family for the worse, and will continue for many years to come. And I know there are many families out there who went through the same things and worse than we did. I didn't celebrate his death. But I shed no tears over it , either.