So when I first considering this chapter, I figured that it would be about Ronald Reagan and memory, and I’d like to head you off at the pass if I may – I’m not taking pot shots at the man for having alzheimers. Largely I’m not taking pot shots at all. I don’t have an issue with Reagan’s memory, but a problem with the way he appears in memory.
Any catholic folk out there have more than likely run into a picture of Jesus. He’s on the candles, he’s on that sacred heart picture and all that. We have this collective image of Jesus, and if you pay attention to… anything outside of the Jesus myth you’re probably of the opinion that he wasn’t a fine haired, blue eyed, all American white guy, but a short middle eastern dude who just wanted to make the world a better place.
You can see the similarities in the Reagan story. And it is a story at this point. Ronald Reagan, for those of you that are young or hard of learning, was the President of the United States of America from January of 1981 to January of 1989, inclusive. He was a member of the republican party, and he did many things that presidents do. He said no to drugs, agencies under his purview funded terrorists and toppled regimes, and he pardoned turkeys every year. Also – how fucking sarcastic is it that the president of the US pardons a turkey on the same day as Americans consumer millions of them. Bet they make the pardoned guy watch. Sick bastards.
Anyway, Reagan was governor of California prior to becoming president, and a movie actor prior to that. But that’s not really important, because Reagan will always be remembered because he was president. And this is where the memory comes in.
There are two Ronald Reagans. One section of the public views Reagan as a tyrant that made mental patients homeless, created the Taliban, influenced elections with taxpayer money, supported apartheid, sold arms to Iran, and supported genocide. Apparently there are 10 reprehensible crimes committed by Reagan, all in this handy list.
The other Ronald Reagan, unlike the hairy troll of a man that had a picture of emperor palpatine in his locker described above, was like the white blue eyed Jesus described further above. This Reagan stamped out Communism by ending the cold war, he created jobs with his Reaganomics, he revitalized conservatism, he created “peace through strength” by maintaining a large military, he cut taxes, he diced, he sliced, he was 67 tools in one for one low price but wait there’s more. This Reagan also has a list.
The reason behind the two is that memory is a very selective thing, among all peoples but more so among the American populace. Nothing happens that doesn’t fit into a worldview, which is precisely why after a mass shooting people advocate more guns, and after the First Lady suggests maybe we should eat some veg people start wrapping their bacon in bacon and covering it in a healthy dollop of fuck-you-I’m-free sauce. Each of us crafts our own worldview, because you’d go insane if you didn’t. Everything would just be a procession of events that never ended, nothing would have meaning, and you’d have no way to deal with. So people remember the good and bad that they like, and they disregard the information that doesn’t fit it.
So Reagan was both. He was both of these big archetypes, because no person is a cardboard cutout of themselves. It’s hard to imagine your enemies, or your heroes for that matter, as fleshed out human beings that laugh at knob jokes, and enjoy their mother’s cooking. Reagan was a tyrant, or Reagan was a messiah, and if Reagan happened to enjoy needlepoint you’d see someone release a patriotic needlepoint kit where you could stitch your own 40th president picture, and someone else release video of burning needlepoint kits.
Nothing slices as cleanly as a worldview would have you believe, especially history. History is not full of great men making the big decisions, it’s full of other humans doing a bunch of shit to try and make it through to tomorrow. Statistically, you never met Ronald Reagan, just like most of the supporters and lambasters of Reagan didn’t. So he morphs into this icon, this defender of our beliefs, this archetype that we can reference. He’s a common cultural landmark that we share. And that’s what presidents are – largely ineffectual figureheads. History is much less kind to the clerks that wrote the bills, the judges that fought off the lawsuits, the state officials that added it to their state ledgers. The public functionaries, the paper pushers, the working stiffs that have to deal with the fallout are the people that built the Reagan’s America during his presidency. But we can’t put them all on the collective hook, so we hang Reagan out to dry. Or we put him on a pedestal.
This situation is precisely mirrored by Barack Obama’s presidency. He inherited a shitty situation, he’s dealing with a shitty economy, and there’s a looming threat half a world away that half of Americans want nuked to ash, and the other half want left well enough alone. But President Obama represents no shining city on a hill either. He’s just a guy. Well he’s two guys. A tyrant and a savior, a whore and a madonna, a striding colossus of hope and change, and a democrat that’s come to raise your taxes yet again with his Obamacare. Also Kenya, Hawaii, take your guns, deport the illegals, allow the illegal in and give them cars, the most un American all American man, who drinks beer and wants to take your canned goods and give them to welfare mothers. Your tax dollars.
And all of this is both a marker of the American ability to construct divided worldviews, and a marker of their ability to forget. There’s lots of things that America as a collective would like to forget. Slavery would be near the top of that list. Prohibition. Women’s suffrage. Native Americans. So the American mind does its best to select the good and exclude the bad. This is not without its benefits. By exorcising from the collective that America treats its black population very poorly, we can do people a great disservice. But then again, people choose to forget that this was once much worse, and they choose to remember that things are getting better. I guess my point is that people remember the worst of it to keep the people of the present more compassionate, and they forget the best or worst of it as applicable to make the past more bearable.
Irish people never forget a god damned thing about their history. Not a single slight from the english, or the europeans, or the americans, or the other Irish is ever forgotten. Entire pubs are themed around a historical event or figure, so that while you get shit faced you can read all about Wolfe Tone, and Michael Collins on the wall posters. Irish people carry their suffering around like a cross, just waiting to be asked about it so they can go on at length about the emigration, and the famine, and the persecution, and the alcoholism, and the water charges, and the banks and everything else that’s got us pressed to the ground with the heel of its boot.
I once saw an interview with Mexican Polish American comedian Louis CK, wherein he noted that white people in America add 100 years to the distance from slavery every decade. As if slavery in the United States was hundreds of years ago while we all wore ruffs and listened to Shakespeare on the wireless. But slavery existed in the US until the end of the civil war, which was 1865. The Irish potato famine ended in 1852. Both of these events are no more than 3 generations away from us. My Grandfather told me a story once that his grandmother had told him about people during the famine. Skeletal humans wandered the countryside looking for watercress and other edible plants. Ireland is as removed from the famine as the US is from slavery, but these events don’t seem to occur in the same timeline in the minds of most.
There’s no forgetting the famine in Ireland, but there’s apparently a lot of forgetting of the slavery going on. And there’s a lot of forgetting about Reagan’s flaws or accomplishments too. In time Obama shall receive the same treatment, as will all of our figureheads. And I wonder why I see Americans as prone to this selective forgetting.
Europe’s history is lying all over the place. There’s castles, there are stone age burial sites, there are buildings that predate the printing press scattered all over Europe. You can’t go half a mile on mainland Europe without tripping over some history. America’s history is spread a lot thinner, and is much less rich. The majority of the history has been shaped by things like slavery, and gold rushes, and other things that many would prefer to forget. I get that it’s embarrassing to hold up your national faults and failures when you’re supposed to be the greatest nation on earth, and you’re a shining city on a hill and all that.
But is that not how you grow as a nation? Introspection is certainly a key component to the national debate, but so few people seem to come equipped with introspection. The election cycle is always the same here. The last round of elections here they wouldn’t stop banging on about the border fence. I’m sure they did the same the previous election cycle, and I’m sure they’ll do it next time too. But I so rarely hear anyone say
“Hang on a fucking minute. Four years ago you said that ISIS and Al Qaeda were streaming across that self-same border, disguised as pregnant children carrying drugs to sell to welfare recipients. What the fuck happened, precisely and in excruciating detail if you please, to all of those people that were supposedly coming? My house remains remarkably free from anchor children, and terrorists of every flavor. Why the fuck are we voting for you again?”
It doesn’t even take a whole election cycle for people to forget shit to the point that there’s just making things up. I have heard that nearly a third of republicans blame Obama for the poor response to Katrina. Despite the fact that the storm happened three years before he took office. What’s more, is that 44 percent of the people polled didn’t know who to blame. I’d say that it’s clear who needs the blame, but President Bush was as much of a figurehead, so getting angry about the fact that he responded slowly makes as much sense as blaming Obama.
History is not simple. It’s nice when it looks simple – one guy shot Franz Ferdinand, ergo World War One. But there was so much fucking going on, with some many tissue paper thin alliances and treaties that weren’t worth the ink written on them, that thirty or forty things were to blame. Just like the Katrina response, just like Obama’s presidency, just like Supreme Tyrant Reagan’s iron reign. Or Saviour Reagan’s eight years of benevolent prosperity and justice.
Studying history is hard because when it’s packaged neatly it’s almost always vastly oversimplified, and when it hasn’t been packaged it’s a giant clusterfuck that makes you want to throw your hands up. The effect so rarely has anything to do with the cause that it’s hardly worth blaming anybody for what happens during their presidency.
If I can offer some closing advice – remember more shit. It’s not hard to do now that the internet is out there. You can learn anything you want, and you can take in as much nuance as you can cram into your brain. So why not go learn about Ronald Reagan and decide for yourself if he was a normal human placed into a situation that’s essentially unwinnable no matter what you do. If you don’t decide that after your research then feel free to live in a world where Ronald Reagan shot commies with a bazooka while riding a velociraptor. Or live in a world where Reagan was a mecha-Hitler lizard in a man suit.
Just be aware that once you’ve made your conclusion you’ll continue to live in the same world you always did, where your heroes and villains drank milk from the carton, and scratched their genitals and then smelled their fingers, and probably had a lot less impact on the world than you imagine they did.