Ronald Wilson Reagan, RIP


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


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. 

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. 

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?” 

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. 

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. 

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

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.