The Power of Political Narrative: Part One, The GOP (Revisited)

** FILE** Actor Ronald Reagan loads his gun in the 1953 western film "Law and Order", in which Reagan plays a retired U.S. marshall who can't hang up his holster. It is reported that Reagan died on Saturday, June 5, 2004 at 93. (AP Photo)

LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad, at least for the middle class kids. During the extreme periods of Boom and Busted, Pro and Convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feels the pain; they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles playing out cause and effect: the haves doing things the have-nots don’t have the voice or power to protest. The have-lesses can afford to ignore the news or else lay back like so many frogs, believing the boiling pan is actually a Jacuzzi.

Question: How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter almost each admonition of the (white, muscle-bound) Jesus and stagnate growth for every sector except, of course, the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along?

Answer: The power of magical thinking. It’s the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and it’s amazing how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, regulation is anathema, raising the minimum wage kills job creation, et cetera.

Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient board members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters.

Which brings us to the looming midterm elections. If Obama has been sufficiently underwhelming to induce depression, at least he staved off a Depression. If we have nothing else going for us, no one wants to return to the bad old days when W. took us on a (dry) drunk drive into the ditch, right? The silver lining of falling so far is the full and final repudiation of a greed-first ethos so aggressively sold for thirty-plus years. Isn’t it? Oh…

Instead of putting his boot on the squirming corpse of Reagan’s revolution, Obama postulated that we should heal. Instead of accountability for the Masters of the Universe who insisted the ensuing debacle was not possible even as they gorged at the trough, Obama appointed some of them in charge of the clean-up. Instead of a reckoning—and the welcome spectacle of some well-warranted tar and feathering on Wall Street—we suffered the indignity of a gigantic reset button, paid for by the taxpayers whose 401(k)’s got fucked. The super-connected swindlers whose idea of trickle-down economics is pissing on the collective heads of the middle and lower classes bounced right back into the saddle. Check them out: their fattened wallets broke their falls.

The Democrats, who had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebrand (reestablish?) themselves as the party that not only cared, but governed for the 98%, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as only Dems can do. More egregiously by far, the GOP, who have dedicated six years to temper tantrums and intransigence, stand poised to retake the Senate and retain the House.

How did this happen? How is it possible? The power of political narrative.

 

ii. The Power of Political Narrative

Understanding, and exploiting, the power of Narrative is the impetus that unites such unlikely—and antithetical—endeavors as Art, Business and Politics. The ones that can tell a story about what you need to know are important; the ones who tell you a story about what you want to hear can become immortal.

Our country was founded on the Narrative of The Future (City upon a Hill, anyone?): always looking toward what we could be, collectively, if we appealed to the better angels of our Nature, our Natural State being invariably democratic, tolerant of disparate faiths—including those without faith—and apparently unperturbed by the genocides inflicted upon our Native and African American brethren. Some eggs, after all, had to be broken in the service of this great experimental omelette called America.

Eventually, it required a Civil War to determine if we would keep looking forward or be cleaved forever into (at least) two countries, one peering over its shoulder, pining to preserve a way of life that never existed in the first place, at least for the majority of the people. (Sound familiar?)

Flash forward one hundred years to the Civil Rights Movement: a generational and geographic divide that once again found us at a crossroads of progress and reactionary segregation. History, as the cliché goes, is ghost-written by the winners. Looking at American history, for good or ill we’ve tended to define our triumphs as events that unified us, moving us along a progressive path from there to here, consistent with the founding notion—however fanciful—that we were collectively edging toward improvement and inclusion.

Two of the big “wins” of the 20th Century involved presidents named Roosevelt. First, Teddy, who took on Big Business and monopolies, instituting some overdue governmental oversight. His Square Deal regulated out-of-control American industry in the name of safety. A few decades later, his cousin Franklin ushered in The New Deal, ensuring that, for the next several decades government would, on balance, be seen as an institution that did more good than ill. Until the ‘80s, both of these developments were generally considered positive for all citizens, regardless of their political affiliation. Books like Sinclair’s The Jungle or indelible memories from the Great Depression reminded people—and their heirs—that government was the last thing standing between them and unfettered market forces. The notable exception, as ever, being the wealthiest percentile, whose disdain FDR all but celebrated (“I welcome their hatred”), a provocation Obama might wish he’d emulated in 2009.

In an exploit that still resonates for its audacity, Ronald Reagan drew a conservative line in the sand, assailing the presumption of government as an constructive agent, not by nitpicking but taking aim at its raison d’être .With a country still reeling from the apathy and cynicism of the post-Nixon nadir, he pre-empted that anger and uttered the immortal words: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And for the first time in half a century the Republicans steadily assumed control of a new narrative. It was simple as it was shameless; it was the most facile strategy fathomable, and the GOP finally had a patron saint to make it sacrosanct. Needless to say, it worked brilliantly.

 

iii. The Ill Communicator

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote, was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and never, ever question The Man—unless he happens to be a Democrat.

All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spike, it’s all good because we feel good. It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend—literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion.

Along came St. Ronnie, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies, parlaying this into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a True Believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine catastrophe and fortified the middle-class for decades.

Now it’s an open competition to see which Republican can invoke him most often and they can’t name buildings after him quickly enough. Reagan has become the conservative alternative to Che Guevara. As we’ve seen in the short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket, by those who stand to profit most from his hagiography), a very intense and deliberate effort was undertaken to beatify and whitewash a legacy that was far from undisputed in the late ‘80s.

The Reagan Revolution built its momentum on a shameful vilification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and transformed them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people—then; now—understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-smaller tax rates. Meanwhile, young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.

Despite an inconvenient eight year blip on the radar, where taxes were raised and the economy soared, the GOP, led by Dick “Deficits Don’t Matter” Cheney, had eight years to use the country as a demented sort of lab experiment. The result: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.

 

iv. The Five Commandments

After the disgust and disbelief settles, one feels obliged to give props to the Republican ratfuckers. Over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. This strategy has many moving parts, but can be boiled down to a handful of inviolable commandments, the enforcement of which ensures that no one is ever off script. And make no mistake, this script is like religion—only belief is not optional. The first and foremost commandment, propagated to the extent that it’s literally received as gospel—no matter how repeatedly disproven it is in practice—is that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. They’ve succeeded so thoroughly in this monomaniacal mission that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content excessively enough to render them neutral, if not neutered. The Op-Ed page has for more than a decade been patrolled by whacked-out hardliners who would have been laughed out of conservative circles only twenty years ago; back in the days when the GOP was devising health care reform that is now successfully considered socialism.

The third, which has been accomplished with considerable assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, is the demonization of unions. Long, sad story in one sentence or less: during the last half-century—but with a vengeance beginning in the ‘70s—unions lost influence while Democrats simultaneously abandoned them to court wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses. Why the Republicans want to eradicate the same movement that helped bring us regulation, forty hour work weeks, overtime and collective bargaining is beyond no-brainer. Why the Democrats have allowed this to happen, abetting it more often than not, is owed to an opportunistic cynicism that has gutted the sensible and effective backbone of the Progressive cause in ways both myopic and tragic.

The fourth is that public education fails us, that teachers are overpaid and underachieving, and that while no cuts to any military spending are conceivable, all manner of funds and aid to public schools are forever on the table.

The fifth, final and most cheeky involves the mantra that government does not work. It’s a neat trick in which, when Republicans take power, they spend their time ensuring this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the national debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess, and the disloyal opposition becomes a cadre of small government deficit hawks. That this same farce was pulled off so spectacularly after our recent recession says as much, if not more, about the aforementioned media and the supine Democrats as it does about the unabashed GOP.

 

v. Faith in Something Bigger than God

To see the full flowering of this psychosis, one needs look no further than the recent passing of James Brady.

Brady, for those who weren’t alive in 1981, is the unfortunate aid who had the bad luck of being mortal, and getting in the way of some bullets that could never have killed Reagan anyway. Before Brady died I might have been embarrassed to write something so churlish; a cursory glance at the comments section of any of the Brady obits confirms that there are a lot of people out there spouting shit like this, if even sardonically. Don’t kid yourself, beneath the sarcasm is a sincere reverence, the type of veneration we typically reserve for saints (and members of the Kennedy clan).

It’s a matter of Faith: Reagan wasn’t meant to be assassinated. And by Faith, of course, I don’t mean God (Reagan didn’t need God), I mean the Free Market. If the Free Market had wanted him to die, he would have died.

Speaking of faith, freedom and folly: the only force of nature more powerful than any of the fixations previously mentioned is that of the gun fanatics. Maybe, maybe—coming as it did less than half a year after John Lennon was murdered—if Hinckley’s assassination attempt had been successful, we might have had a national consensus of sorts. This, after all, was the moment, where we could—and should—have rallied around sensible gun control. It was the moment when all forces came into focus; it was, after all, their hero in the crosshairs.

Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. Brady became an advocate for a more sane approach to gun ownership, earning him the enmity of idiots who should have never ceased appreciating him. These, after all, are the same sorts who will swear up and down that Reagan did as much as anyone not named Rocky Balboa to defeat the Evil Empire.

How then, was any of this possible and how can such farce still hold sway over a sizable portion of our populace? The same technique that ensures certain stories get told and taught centuries after they are composed: the power of good narrative. That the Iran-contra affair is glossed over the way we never talk about our drunken uncle in the retirement home, or that taxes are actually lower during Obama’s tenure than Reagan’s, or that the First Couple regularly consulted an astrologist never tends to come up in not-so-casual conversation is part and parcel of the almost entirely successful enterprise to consecrate The Gipper.

The moral, as it applies to our contemporary political scene, is straightforward as it is distressing: risible dialogue delivered by a screen-tested salesman will always win more votes than substance offered up, however earnestly, by a substitute teacher. This helps explain the (mostly) refreshing phenomenon of Bill Clinton and underscores the inestimable potential squandered by Barack Obama: when the Democrats have a personality commensurate with their common-sense policies, they have half a chance.

There have, of course, been elections won and lost by both parties, PR initiatives shifting momentum (and money, always money) from the haves to the have-mores and there is little new under the sun. But if we look back at the last three decades, the Biggest Victory—transcending all the skirmishes fought during the last several presidential terms—and the enduring legacy of the Reagan Revolution, is the impervious story it continues to tell, and sell. It informs our craven political discourse; it intimidates an increasingly incurious media and bulldozes an ever credulous Republican base.

Data, facts and near-depressions be damned, we have seen one side nominate a succession of buffoons who should only have inspired bad fiction instead of engineering ever-more-implausible reality. Against all probability, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

Against all tolerability, the rest of us might remain stuck to it.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part One, The GOP

RONALD REAGAN

i. Magical Thinking and the Memory Hole

LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad, at least for the middle class kids. During the extreme periods of Boom and Busted, Pro and Convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feels the pain; they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles playing out cause and effect: the haves doing things the have-nots don’t have the voice or power to protest. The have-lesses can afford to ignore the news or else lay back like so many frogs, believing the boiling pan is actually a Jacuzzi.

Question: How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter almost each admonition of the (white, muscle-bound) Jesus and stagnate growth for every sector except, of course, the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along?

Answer: The power of magical thinking. It’s the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and it’s amazing how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, regulation is anathema, raising the minimum wage kills job creation, et cetera.

Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient board members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters.

Which brings us to the looming midterm elections. If Obama has been sufficiently underwhelming to induce depression, at least he staved off a Depression. If we have nothing else going for us, no one wants to return to the bad old days when W. took us on a (dry) drunk drive into the ditch, right? The silver lining of falling so far is the full and final repudiation of a greed-first ethos so aggressively sold for thirty-plus years. Isn’t it? Oh…

Instead of putting his boot on the squirming corpse of Reagan’s revolution, Obama postulated that we should heal. Instead of accountability for the Masters of the Universe who insisted the ensuing debacle was not possible even as they gorged at the trough, Obama appointed some of them in charge of the clean-up. Instead of a reckoning—and the welcome spectacle of some well-warranted tar and feathering on Wall Street—we suffered the indignity of a gigantic reset button, paid for by the taxpayers whose 401(k)’s got fucked.  The super-connected swindlers whose idea of trickle-down economics is pissing on the collective heads of the middle and lower classes bounced right back into the saddle. Check them out: their fattened wallets broke their falls.

The Democrats, who had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebrand (reestablish?) themselves as the party that not only cared, but governed for the 98%, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as only Dems can do. More egregiously by far, the GOP, who have dedicated six years to temper tantrums and intransigence, stand poised to retake the Senate and retain the House.

How did this happen? How is it possible? The power of political narrative.

 

ii. The Power of Political Narrative

Understanding, and exploiting, the power of Narrative is the impetus that unites such unlikely—and antithetical—endeavors as Art, Business and Politics. The ones that can tell a story about what you need to know are important; the ones who tell you a story about what you want to hear can become immortal.

Our country was founded on the Narrative of The Future (City upon a Hill, anyone?): always looking toward what we could be, collectively, if we appealed to the better angels of our Nature, our Natural State being invariably democratic, tolerant of disparate faiths—including those without faith—and apparently unperturbed by the genocides inflicted upon our Native and African American brethren. Some eggs, after all, had to be broken in the service of this great experimental omelette called America.

Eventually, it required a Civil War to determine if we would keep looking forward or be cleaved forever into (at least) two countries, one peering over its shoulder, pining to preserve a way of life that never existed in the first place, at least for the majority of the people. (Sound familiar?)

Flash forward one hundred years to the Civil Rights Movement: a generational and geographic divide that once again found us at a crossroads of progress and reactionary segregation. History, as the cliché goes, is ghost-written by the winners. Looking at American history, for good or ill we’ve tended to define our triumphs as events that unified us, moving us along a progressive path from there to here, consistent with the founding notion—however fanciful—that we were collectively edging toward improvement and inclusion.

Two of the big “wins” of the 20th Century involved presidents named Roosevelt. First, Teddy, who took on Big Business and monopolies, instituting some overdue governmental oversight. His Square Deal regulated out-of-control American industry in the name of safety. A few decades later, his cousin Franklin ushered in The New Deal, ensuring that, for the next several decades government would, on balance, be seen as an institution that did more good than ill. Until the ‘80s, both of these developments were generally considered positive for all citizens, regardless of their political affiliation. Books like Sinclair’s The Jungle or indelible memories from the Great Depression reminded people—and their heirs—that government was the last thing standing between them and unfettered market forces. The notable exception, as ever, being the wealthiest percentile, whose disdain FDR all but celebrated (“I welcome their hatred”), a provocation Obama might wish he’d emulated in 2009.

In an exploit that still resonates for its audacity, Ronald Reagan drew a conservative line in the sand, assailing the presumption of government as an constructive agent, not by nitpicking but taking aim at its raison d’être .With a country still reeling from the apathy and cynicism of the post-Nixon nadir, he pre-empted that anger and uttered the immortal words: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And for the first time in half a century the Republicans steadily assumed control of a new narrative. It was simple as it was shameless; it was the most facile strategy fathomable, and the GOP finally had a patron saint to make it sacrosanct. Needless to say, it worked brilliantly.

 

iii. The Ill Communicator

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote, was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and never, ever question The Man—unless he happens to be a Democrat.

All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spike, it’s all good because we feel good. It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend—literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion.

Along came St. Ronnie, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies, parlaying this into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a True Believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine catastrophe and fortified the middle-class for decades.

Now it’s an open competition to see which Republican can invoke him most often and they can’t name buildings after him quickly enough. Reagan has become the conservative alternative to Che Guevara.  As we’ve seen in the short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket, by those who stand to profit most from his hagiography), a very intense and deliberate effort was undertaken to beatify and whitewash a legacy that was far from undisputed in the late ‘80s.

The Reagan Revolution built its momentum on a shameful vilification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and transformed them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people—then; now—understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-smaller tax rates. Meanwhile, young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.

Despite an inconvenient eight year blip on the radar, where taxes were raised and the economy soared, the GOP, led by Dick “Deficits Don’t Matter” Cheney, had eight years to use the country as a demented sort of lab experiment. The result: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.

 

 iv. The Five Commandments

After the disgust and disbelief settles, one feels obliged to give props to the Republican ratfuckers. Over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. This strategy has many moving parts, but can be boiled down to a handful of inviolable commandments, the enforcement of which ensures that no one is ever off script. And make no mistake, this script is like religion—only belief is not optional. The first and foremost commandment, propagated to the extent that it’s literally received as gospel—no matter how repeatedly disproven it is in practice—is that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. They’ve succeeded so thoroughly in this monomaniacal mission that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content excessively enough to render them neutral, if not neutered. The Op-Ed page has for more than a decade been patrolled by whacked-out hardliners who would have been laughed out of conservative circles only twenty years ago; back in the days when the GOP was devising health care reform that is now successfully considered socialism.

The third, which has been accomplished with considerable assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, is the demonization of unions. Long, sad story in one sentence or less: during the last half-century—but with a vengeance beginning in the ‘70s—unions lost influence while Democrats simultaneously abandoned them to court wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses. Why the Republicans want to eradicate the same movement that helped bring us regulation, forty hour work weeks, overtime and collective bargaining is beyond no-brainer. Why the Democrats have allowed this to happen, abetting it more often than not, is owed to an opportunistic cynicism that has gutted the sensible and effective backbone of the Progressive cause in ways both myopic and tragic.

The fourth is that public education fails us, that teachers are overpaid and underachieving, and that while no cuts to any military spending are conceivable, all manner of funds and aid to public schools are forever on the table.

The fifth, final and most cheeky involves the mantra that government does not work. It’s a neat trick in which, when Republicans take power, they spend their time ensuring this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the national debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess, and the disloyal opposition becomes a cadre of small government deficit hawks. That this same farce was pulled off so spectacularly after our recent recession says as much, if not more, about the aforementioned media and the supine Democrats as it does about the unabashed GOP.

 

v. Faith in Something Bigger than God

To see the full flowering of this psychosis, one needs look no further than the recent passing of James Brady.

Brady, for those who weren’t alive in 1981, is the unfortunate aid who had the bad luck of being mortal, and getting in the way of some bullets that could never have killed Reagan anyway. Before Brady died I might have been embarrassed to write something so churlish; a cursory glance at the comments section of any of the Brady obits confirms that there are a lot of people out there spouting shit like this, if even sardonically. Don’t kid yourself, beneath the sarcasm is a sincere reverence, the type of veneration we typically reserve for saints (and members of the Kennedy clan).

It’s a matter of Faith: Reagan wasn’t meant to be assassinated. And by Faith, of course, I don’t mean God (Reagan didn’t need God), I mean the Free Market. If the Free Market had wanted him to die, he would have died.

Speaking of faith, freedom and folly: the only force of nature more powerful than any of the fixations previously mentioned is that of the gun fanatics. Maybe, maybe—coming as it did less than half a year after John Lennon was murdered—if Hinckley’s assassination attempt had been successful, we might have had a national consensus of sorts. This, after all, was the moment, where we could—and should—have rallied around sensible gun control. It was the moment when all forces came into focus; it was, after all, their hero in the crosshairs.

Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. Brady became an advocate for a more sane approach to gun ownership, earning him the enmity of idiots who should have never ceased appreciating him. These, after all, are the same sorts who will swear up and down that Reagan did as much as anyone not named Rocky Balboa to defeat the Evil Empire.

How then, was any of this possible and how can such farce still hold sway over a sizable portion of our populace? The same technique that ensures certain stories get told and taught centuries after they are composed: the power of good narrative. That the Iran-contra affair is glossed over the way we never talk about our drunken uncle in the retirement home, or that taxes are actually lower during Obama’s tenure than Reagan’s, or that the First Couple regularly consulted an astrologist never tends to come up in not-so-casual conversation is part and parcel of the almost entirely successful enterprise to consecrate The Gipper.

The moral, as it applies to our contemporary political scene, is straightforward as it is distressing: risible dialogue delivered by a screen-tested salesman will always win more votes than substance offered up, however earnestly, by a substitute teacher. This helps explain the (mostly) refreshing phenomenon of Bill Clinton and underscores the inestimable potential squandered by Barack Obama: when the Democrats have a personality commensurate with their common-sense policies, they have half a chance.

There have, of course, been elections won and lost by both parties, PR initiatives shifting momentum (and money, always money) from the haves to the have-mores and there is little new under the sun. But if we look back at the last three decades, the Biggest Victory—transcending all the skirmishes fought during the last several presidential terms—and the enduring legacy of the Reagan Revolution, is the impervious story it continues to tell, and sell. It informs our craven political discourse; it intimidates an increasingly incurious media and bulldozes an ever credulous Republican base.

Data, facts and near-depressions be damned, we have seen one side nominate a succession of buffoons who should only have inspired bad fiction instead of engineering ever-more-implausible reality. Against all probability, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

Against all tolerability, the rest of us might remain stuck to it.

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The Power of Magical Thinking: Reflections on Reagan

Part One: Fact

The fortieth president turns 100 and a religious cult (also known as the Republican Party) can’t name buildings after him quickly enough.

Is there room for Reagan on Mt. Rushmore?

I’ll leave it to the inimitable Bill Hicks who suggested: “Let’s put him under Mt. Rushmore.”

But on the occasion of The Ill Communicator’s centennial, it is important –if not particularly instructive– to remember what actually happened, and how we got to where we are today: a political landscape where any conservative has learned to praise the holy trinity: Reagan, God and country.

It’s too easy, right?

Has it really come to this? (Has it always been thus?) All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spikes, it’s all good because we feel good? It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend –literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion. What exacerbates the inanity of this (very remunerative, just ask He Who Is Incapable of Shame, our old friend Newt Gingrich) enterprise is the fact that virtually everything today’s wide-eyed republicans want to believe about St. Ronnie doesn’t square with the, well, inconvenient truth of his actual record.

But, after considerable deliberation, oceans of black ink (er…galaxies of electronic ink) and head-scratching intense enough to furrow trenches on sentient scalps, it turns out that it really is that easy.

It is the power of magical thinking, the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and you’d be amazed how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, God is white, Jesus is a capitalist and the New Testament is a socialist primer.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote,  was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and believe a few immutable commandments: no taxes ever on anyone, the media is liberal, government is the problem (by far the most invoked and insidious lie of Reagan’s legacy), and never, ever question The Man –unless he happens to be a Democrat.

How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter every teaching of the (honky) Jesus and weaken our country except, of course, for the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along.

So…what does any of this have to do with Reagan?

To paraphrase the not-so-great Donald Rumsfeld: “You go to war with the president you have, not the president you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

So it was in 1981.

We did not go to war, of course, and that may –or may not– be the point. Is there a point (literally, figuratively) to reimagining the causes, effects, errors and triumphs of a particular presidency? It happened. I’m at peace with it (what choice do I have?), and if I refuse to call Washington National Airport by another name, so be it; in fact, Christopher Hitchens put it best when he opined that it was already named after a rather important president, thank you very much.

The good folks at ThinkProgress have done some nice work, reminding people who already know (the people who don’t know and need to read this will never go to that site, naturally) the facts vs. the fabrications. It’s a good primer in the event you find yourself discussing Reagan’s dubious legacy with a true believer. Check it out.

Then, of course, we always have the aforementioned Bill Hicks, who saw through the B.S. (even before it went into the full-power spin cycle) two decades ago:

So let’s review the facts.  Historical fact (as in: the record, on file, which is growing and decaying before our widening eyes) would make it challenging to counter the assertion that Reagan’s enduring legacy is one of exclusion and inequity. Many people would love to argue the point, and many have been. Of course, it always helps to consider who is doing the spinning. As we’ve seen in the very short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket), a very intense and targeted effort was undertaken to ensure that the beatification of Reagan became the cause nearest and dearest to those who stand to profit the most from his hagiography. Led by the insufferable conjoined twins of neo-con nationalism, Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, it became good business to do everything humanly possible in the way of rehabilitating an image that was far from lionized in the late ’80s.

Fortunately, in the week some celebrate his life, we can revisit two fantastic pieces debunking the very cynical (and appallingly successful) attempt to mythologize this very simple and radioactive political poseur. William Kleinknecht here and Will Bunch here do some heavy lifting in the service of truth. And to say the scales covering the eyes of the hoodwinked are heavy is understating the obvious, as Reagan becomes the conservative alternative to Che Guevara. To say that we are in dire need of some uncomfortable (for some) corrections for the sake of perspective, particularly as we see the soiled seeds of this Reagan Revolution bearing full fruit in our imploding economy, is scarcely stating the case strongly enough.

Part Two: Fiction (sort of)*

Like everyone else I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. During the extreme periods of boom and busted, pro and convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feel the pain, they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles, the haves and haven’ts, who taste the changes the have lesses can afford to ignore.

But now, after the 90’s—on the verge of oblivion, as always—we have anti-inflation. We’ve got more money than we know what to do with; we’ve gotten so good at counting it we need to make more just to keep up, we keep making it so that we will still have something to do. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money—someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the ass so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). In other words, working where I work, with neither the best nor the brightest bulbs in the professional firmament, I can see for myself that this has nothing to do with talent, necessarily. It’s about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough manpower so that nothing else matters. Quality? Integrity? Originality? Nice, all, but they’ve got nothing on the numbers. When you’re big enough, you don’t have to beat anyone up, your rep precedes you and quells all contenders. You don’t have to fight anymore. Safety in numbers, sure, but there’s more at stake than simply survival—people are trying to make money.

Look: I’m not unaware of the wealth our deal cutters are creating, and I’m not unappreciative when they sign my paychecks. In the 80’s, or any other time, you had the fat-walleted fuckheads trying to multiply their millions by any means necessary; they didn’t just disregard the reality of putting their foot on nameless faces to divide and conquer, they reveled in it. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business, and it wasn’t their fault they excelled at it, it isn’t their fault they were born into this. The only responsibility they had was to ensure that all this affluence they had no part in amassing stayed safely outside the reaches of normal, taxpaying proletariat.

Let’s face it: it’s not as though the five or six folks who actually flip the switches and decide who gets what (after, of course, they’ve had theirs) ever consented to this sudden, and by all accounts inexplicable, turn of events. They certainly didn’t plan it this way. And you can be certain they don’t condone it or in any way seek to keep it around if they can help it. But that’s the thing: they can’t help it. They never saw it coming. I definitely didn’t see it coming. I see it every time I look at Otis: who could possibly have predicted this? The guys that—if they were lucky—were going to be chain restaurant managers and counter-jockeys at Radio Shack suddenly had the keys to the kingdom, because they understood how the world-wide-web worked.

But I’m willing to bet some of the money I’m supposedly worth that these unsettled old sons of bitches are very interested in redirecting wealth back into the hoary hands of those used to handling it. How, they must stay awake during the day worrying, can this country continue to run right when so many regular people start getting involved? It happened before, in the 20’s, and if they had to eliminate alcohol for a few years then maybe it’s time to start confiscating computers.

Still, I can’t shake the suspicion that these visionaries are doing many of us a disservice by manufacturing this much money, for making it so easy. Everyone loves their job these days, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s all about the money. The money this and the money that. You lose money to make money, you make money to make money, you take money to make money, you make up anything—to make money. Right now, as the new century sucks in its gut for the changing of the guard, unearned money hangs heavy in the air like encouraging ozone: a soft rain’s gonna fall eventually, inevitably, and everyone will wonder why they’re soaking wet and insolvent.

*taken from a work of fiction, written before it all happened to come true in 2008.

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The Reagan Revolution, Redux

He played one in real life, too...

He played one in real life, too...

        No way I was going to soil the remembrance of Bob Marley by noting that another well-known figure happened to share a birthday yesterday. But in an almost perfect Yin-Yang, truth stranger than fiction sort of fashion, another dearly beloved figured did indeed have an anniversary yesterday: Ronald Reagan. This is beyond ironic in many ways since the reasons the two are remembered, and the ways in which the groups promoting their legacies, could not be further apart. It would be difficult to deny, no matter how simply reduced, that Marley’s message was one of inclusion and justice. On the other hand, historical fact (as in: the record, on file, which is growing and decaying before our widening eyes) would make it challenging to counter the assertion that Reagan’s enduring legacy is one of exclusion and inequity. Many people would love to argue the point, and many have been. Of course, it always helps to consider who is doing the spinning. As we’ve seen in the very short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket), a very intense and targeted effort was undertaken to ensure that the beatification of Reagan became the cause nearest and dearest to those who stand to profit the most from his hagiography. Led by the insufferable conjoined twins of neo-con nationalism, Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, it became good business to do everything humanly possible in the way of rehabilitating an image that was far from lionized in the late ’80s. Fortunately, in the week some celebrate his life, we have two fantastic pieces debunking the very cynical (and appallingly successful) attempt to mythologize this very simple and radioactive political poseur. William Kleinknecht here and Will Bunch here do some heavy lifting in the service of truth. And to say the scales covering the eyes of the hoodwinked are heavy is understating the obvious, as Reagan becomes the conservative alternative to Che Guevara. To say that we are in dire need of some uncomfortable (for some) corrections for the sake of perspective, particularly as we see the soiled seeds of this Reagan Revolution bearing full fruit in our imploding economy, is scarcely stating the case strongly enough.

Like everyone else I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. During the extreme periods of boom and busted, pro and convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feel the pain, they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles, the haves and haven’ts, who taste the changes the have lesses can afford to ignore.

            But now, after the 90’s—on the verge of oblivion, as always—we have anti-inflation. We’ve got more money than we know what to do with; we’ve gotten so good at counting it we need to make more just to keep up, we keep making it so that we will still have something to do. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money—someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the ass so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). In other words, working where I work, with neither the best nor the brightest bulbs in the professional firmament, I can see for myself that this has nothing to do with talent, necessarily. It’s about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough manpower so that nothing else matters. Quality? Integrity? Originality? Nice, all, but they’ve got nothing on the numbers. When you’re big enough, you don’t have to beat anyone up, your rep precedes you and quells all contenders. You don’t have to fight anymore. Safety in numbers, sure, but there’s more at stake than simply survival—people are trying to make money.

Look: I’m not unaware of the wealth our deal cutters are creating, and I’m not unappreciative when they sign my paychecks. In the 80’s, or any other time, you had the fat-walleted fuckheads trying to multiply their millions by any means necessary; they didn’t just disregard the reality of putting their foot on nameless faces to divide and conquer, they reveled in it. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business, and it wasn’t their fault they excelled at it, it isn’t their fault they were born into this. The only responsibility they had was to ensure that all this affluence they had no part in amassing stayed safely outside the reaches of normal, taxpaying proletariat.

Let’s face it: it’s not as though the five or six folks who actually flip the switches and decide who gets what (after, of course, they’ve had theirs) ever consented to this sudden, and by all accounts inexplicable, turn of events. They certainly didn’t plan it this way. And you can be certain they don’t condone it or in any way seek to keep it around if they can help it. But that’s the thing: they can’t help it. They never saw it coming. I definitely didn’t see it coming. I see it every time I look at Otis: who could possibly have predicted this? The guys that—if they were lucky—were going to be chain restaurant managers and counter-jockeys at Radio Shack suddenly had the keys to the kingdom, because they understood how the world-wide-web worked.

But I’m willing to bet some of the money I’m supposedly worth that these unsettled old sons of bitches are very interested in redirecting wealth back into the hoary hands of those used to handling it. How, they must stay awake during the day worrying, can this country continue to run right when so many regular people start getting involved? It happened before, in the 20’s, and if they had to eliminate alcohol for a few years then maybe it’s time to start confiscating computers.

Still, I can’t shake the suspicion that these visionaries are doing many of us a disservice by manufacturing this much money, for making it so easy. Everyone loves their job these days, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s all about the money. The money this and the money that. You lose money to make money, you make money to make money, you take money to make money, you make up anything—to make money. Right now, as the new century sucks in its gut for the changing of the guard, unearned money hangs heavy in the air like encouraging ozone: a soft rain’s gonna fall eventually, inevitably, and everyone will wonder why they’re soaking wet and insolvent.**

(**excerpt from novel Myself When I’m Real)

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The Money Dread, Redux

Huge props to Slate’s Stephen Metcalf for nailing the empty enigma that is Tom Cruise as well as the enigmatic emptiness of the ’80s, all in one piece, here.

It doesn’t get much better than this:

As a full co-production of Reaganism, Cruise helped synthesize a new personality type: neat, clean, personable, and lacking in either adult probity or the stray edge, for fear of pricking the surface of a giant bubble. But to live within “what the fuck” is to die within “what the fuck.” Jerry Maguire is Maverick’s idea of an adult, just as von Stauffenberg is Jerry Maguire’s idea of a serious acting role. Of course audiences are tempted to laugh. The Cruise persona, like a junk bond, was never meant to reach maturity.

Like everyone else I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. During the extreme periods of boom and busted, pro and convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feel the pain, they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles, the haves and haven’ts, who taste the changes the have lesses can afford to ignore.

            But now, after the 90’s—on the verge of oblivion, as always—we have anti-inflation. We’ve got more money than we know what to do with; we’ve gotten so good at counting it we need to make more just to keep up, we keep making it so that we will still have something to do. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money—someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the ass so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). In other words, working where I work, with neither the best nor the brightest bulbs in the professional firmament, I can see for myself that this has nothing to do with talent, necessarily. It’s about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough manpower so that nothing else matters. Quality? Integrity? Originality? Nice, all, but they’ve got nothing on the numbers. When you’re big enough, you don’t have to beat anyone up, your rep precedes you and quells all contenders. You don’t have to fight anymore. Safety in numbers, sure, but there’s more at stake than simply survival—people are trying to make money.

Look: I’m not unaware of the wealth our deal cutters are creating, and I’m not unappreciative when they sign my paychecks. In the 80’s, or any other time, you had the fat-walleted fuckheads trying to multiply their millions by any means necessary; they didn’t just disregard the reality of putting their foot on nameless faces to divide and conquer, they reveled in it. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business, and it wasn’t their fault they excelled at it, it isn’t their fault they were born into this. The only responsibility they had was to ensure that all this affluence they had no part in amassing stayed safely outside the reaches of normal, taxpaying proletariat.

But I’m willing to bet some of the money I’m supposedly worth that these unsettled old sons of bitches are very interested in redirecting wealth back into the hoary hands of those used to handling it. How, they must stay awake during the day worrying, can this country continue to run right when so many regular people start getting involved? It happened before, in the 20’s, and if they had to eliminate alcohol for a few years then maybe it’s time to start confiscating computers.

Still, I can’t shake the suspicion that these visionaries are doing many of us a disservice by manufacturing this much money, for making it so easy. Everyone loves their job these days, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s all about the money. The money this and the money that. You lose money to make money, you make money to make money, you take money to make money, you make up anything—to make money. Right now, as the new century sucks in its gut for the changing of the guard, unearned money hangs heavy in the air like encouraging ozone: a soft rain’s gonna fall eventually, inevitably, and everyone will wonder why they’re soaking wet and insolvent.*

*from The Money Dread link

 

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