Reagan, Eyeless and Tongueless and Earless Wandering the Underworld

So. Finally.

LOS ANGELES : Former US president Ronald Reagan died at the age of 93 after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, his office said.

Reagan, a two-term president and former Hollywood star, died at his high-fenced home in the fashionable Bel Air section of Los Angeles shortly before 2:00 pm (2100 GMT) Saturday afternoon.

Actually, Lime told me about this piece of news this morning, while browsing the net waiting for me to finish cooking. At the time, all I could spare attention to respond was. “Huh. Good. He screwed up America.” She didn’t say anything, but this was uncharacteristically brash of me—not the fact that I thought it, but the fact that I said it aloud in quite those terms.

I was thinking perhaps it was unfair, disrespectful, nasty to say it like that, to say such a thing about a man who had just died.

But I have been thinking all day, and while I sat through the movie Troy, I thought about it more. More about the movie another time, for now I’ll just comment on one thing. Whatever problems there are with the movie, and I am certain there are many, one thing they managed to get across was the idea which—at least in the Homeric representation of ancient Greece, if not in real ancient Greece—makes The Iliad the book it is: the notion of a culture obsessed more with glory than with shame, where shame exists not in wrongful acts, but in not having the strength and valour—the power—to evade punishment by those one had wronged.

I was thinking about what a profoundly different society from ours this would have been, and what European society may have been like if the shame-culture element of Christianity hadn’t altered the course of Roman cultural history. Perhaps the Romans would also have had a glory culture? What would have happened to Western society, I wondered, if we had a society in which leaders waged war over the most flimsy, ridiculous of causes, where they were immune from punishment by those they had wronged, where they could lead whole states willy-nilly into destruction, and still be hailed as leaders, given respect and able still to hold onto power long enough to forbid their even being questioned? And what if the sole route to such power was birth, and aristocracies ruled the earth, their front-man proxies only barely disguising the power-structure supporting them?

And oh, how very foolish I felt for having believed for a moment we didn’t live in some fattened-up, postindustrial version of that.

I instinctively wanted to feel, next, that it was the wickedness of the Republicans. I wanted to believe it was the greed and wicked cleverness of one of the two major American political parties—the one clearly allied to the rich, the one most openly in bed with corporate interests—that was to blame. It didn’t take long, though, before I thought about all I’d read concerning America’s role in Kosovo, under Clinton. That, as I recall, was as wicked as Reagan’s era was in Nicaragua, Grenada, Iran, as Bush Sr. in Iraq, and Bush Jr. in Iraq and Afghanistan. This man was a supporter of Pinochet, for God’s sakes. Pinochet, whom one nutcase even describes as the Ronald Reagan of Chile.

I don’t know whether joining the culture war will do anyone any good. Does rooting for left instead of right make a difference any more? Does it matter any more? It seems to me the whole game is something like a chess game being played on the back of a turtle swimming through toxic sludge—it’s gonna drown in the stuff and if you’re not prepared you’ll go into the sludge with it.

But that great issue, I’ll have to take up elsewhere. For now, I take back my twinge of shame for criticizing Reagan as harshly as I did. The man stuck a broomstick into the bicycle wheel of America. The economic policies named after him—the infamous “Reaganomics”—were as much an exercise in science-fiction as were the Star Wars weapons created under his Administration. Many of the man’s promises went out the window as soon as he got into office, which perhaps may be understandable; but his targeting of the poorest in America certainly was not, and could never be, understandable.

If there was a war to be fought against the Soviets, then fine, so be it. But under Reagan that war was always, always, without exception, fought by people other than those who gained the most from Reagan’s operations, and those who benefitted the most from his policies. It’s important that people see a unity between his foreign policy—using “local terrorists” to fight his battles abroad—and his domestic economic policies on the other—using the money that was put aside by his predecessors to keep American society whole and healthy, cutting as many social programs as possible, relying on the fact that the poor and expendable rarely fight back against this sort of thing.

It was under Reagan that the economy was so badly damaged that even years after he left office, debates were focused on which social programs not to cut. It was under him that The USSR collapsed, as well… but then, that happened not so very long ago, when speaking in terms of history, and we have yet to see the full results of the Cold War’s arms race. Uranium from hastily built-and-abandoned power plants in the ex-USSR, being sought and perhaps someday deployed by people who were once Reagan’s policy favorites abroad… people like, say, the Taliban. Wouldn’t that have to be part of Reagan’s legacy as well?

My first memory of Ronald Reagan was thinking, “This guy was an actor? Are you kidding me? Why did they vote for an actor for President? That’s crazy, isn’t it?” Of course, now I see that a distinct majority Americans will generally vote for any bloody thing that gets party backing; just as they’ll buy any bloody music that involves a pair of big enough breasts bouncing around in the video, or eat anything that has enough MSG and/or sugar in it. To quote Bill Hicks’ routine on his CD Arizona Bay, “God? Help us. God, are you there? Surely this is a really bad fuckin’ joke, God. This B-actor, idiot, fuckin’ illiterate bozo-lookin’ fuck can’t be the president of the country, can he God?”

Unfortunately, he could… and he was. But now he’s dead and I feel like Achilles, now, looking down on the corpse of Hector, wanting to gouge out the eyes and tongue and cut off the ears. What this means is not a real desire to maim a body that, dead, has no use or meaning anyway. It is the name; over and over in the Homeric world we are reminded that what lasts long after a man’s great-grandchildren is in name, and I feel a distinct desire to make sure people do not paint Reagan’s name with anything like the kind of respect and devotion that it absolutely does not deserve. It’s nothing like the brave souls who criticized Mao on the Democracy Wall in Beijing at the end of the 70s, but I feel as if I need to leave behind this strange shame I feel at my disust for him.

After all, it seems to me that someone, someone or indeed many of us, must speak out against the hagiographies and respectful rememberances. The man deserves not to be remembered, or at least to be a memory that brings to one’s lips only a harsh curse spat angrily and with disgust. After all, he, unlike us, was living in a glory culture. It is to take him on his own terms, and on the standard terms of the American political world, that we should remember him with such harshness and vitriol; it is the fate of all such people in a glory-centered culture.

2 thoughts on “Reagan, Eyeless and Tongueless and Earless Wandering the Underworld

  1. The thing that strikes me most about the Reagan legacy is that he seems to have bequeathed the gift of illogic (even more than the usual political illogic and spin) to the GOP. “Funnelling taxpayer money to the rich = helping the poor,” is a formula that now allows the far right to claim that Christianizing public institutions is required by the First Amendment or that the absence of government institutions to check the power of the rich is the same as liberty for all.

    Still, it’s probably good that Bill Hicks didn’t live to see Shrub in office. That would’ve killed him.

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