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Ronald Wilson Reagan, RIP
T hose of us who came of age during the Reagan years did so in an era that had optimism surgically removed. Perhaps our parents, as young people in the 1950s and 1960s, had thought that by 1984 the nation would truly be a sweet land of liberty. Instead, 1984 looked a lot more like 1984 , in the Orwellian sense of the year. For all of the false sense of me-first optimism, a cynical era produced a cynical generation. It is a wonder any of us, now in our early 30s, managed to pick up a picket sign.
Amnesia has always been the fuel of empires. Reagan perfected the art and science of perverting language in order to justify tyranny and inaction. Reagan’s understanding of science could be summed up by his statement that “Trees cause more pollution than cars,” his concern for child hunger pinpointed in the moment that he declared ketchup a vegetable.
So, when conservative commentators attack my generation’s use of language to justify “moral relativity,” I have to ask, “Where did we learn that trick from?”
In Reagan’s America, an army of “welfare queens” secretly ruled the nation, strong by ill-gotten gains pilfered from the paychecks of ordinary people. In the America that the rest of us lived in, junk-bond traders and savings and loan scandals robbed many senior citizens of their retirement.
In Reagan’s America, the lives of regular Nicaraguans and others in Central America weren’t considered for even a moment in the grand chess game of cold-war brinkmanship. When the United States was found guilty by a United Nations tribunal of mining Managua Harbor, the government didn’t blink an eye. Yet many of Reagan’s ilk still cry out about a lack of “moral responsibility” in our generation.
When asked about the Iran-Contra affair, Reagan said he couldn’t remember. It took the focused direct action of ACT-UP for the president to even utter the word AIDS and by that time it was too late, thousands had died. The epidemic even claimed the master of amnesia, Roy Cohn, chief council to Joe McCarthy. Even in the 1950s, when Reagan still positioned himself as a liberal, he had no problem naming names of the “disloyal” in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
While we were expected to say no to drugs, the CIA, looking for another source of funding for Banana Republic excursions, was not only expected to say yes, but encouraged wholesale importation.
In the dying Navy town I grew up in, I remember an aging librarian, rumored to be a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, warning me to be careful about what I checked out, as the FBI regularly accessed patron’s personal information. When I studied the USA PATRIOT Act years later, I found that Section 215 basically lifted this kind of behavior to the level of sacrament.
Reagan’s legacy is his strategic use of amnesia and denial to assault the very social gains that our parents and grandparents had helped to build. High-paid consultants led the union-busting onslaught, civil rights protections were stripped back, and the privatization bonanza began. Although he frequently compared himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he put many of the New Deal gains to sleep once and for all. This was the same governor who gassed the Berkeley anti-war protestors and called for the “eradication” of the Black Panther Party.
President Reagan was the president of a nation that never really existed—an affluent ivory white one powered in part by the nuclear family. In reality, nuclear families and power plants were both on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In the nation we all lived in, we saw wages for majority decrease and lay-offs devastate once stable communities—while profits for pirates skyrocketed.
Today, George W. Bush II is as much the son of President Reagan as he is that of his own father. While other presidents have at least given lip-service to the horrors of nuclear war, Bush has openly discussed the possibility of using mini- nukes. The Cold War has been replaced with a never ending series of warm ones.
Yet, the battle for memory is far from over. Today’s young people, perhaps the first generation in 50 years in the U.S. to live completely without a safety net, are turning to activism. Significantly, many elders are also returning. In just over three decades on this earth, I know better than to hold too many illusions about this, but it is enough to spark hope.
As the Republicans prepare to exploit New York’s trauma yet again for their convention/coronation this summer, we do well to remember that the best way to memorialize Ronald Wilson Reagan is to organize to defeat the conservative agendas of both parties—which can only be done without even a small dose of amnesia.
James Tracy is an anti-poverty organizer in San Francisco, active with the Coalition On Homelessness.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.