“One thing’s for sure. Pessimism never created a job.”
– From Bush’s new anti-Kerry television ad
For my first two months out here, watching the Republican goon-machine retreat into the shadows in shame as their paradigm crumbled around them provided an excellent source of entertainment. But over the past week, the madness has come full circle. The shock of imperial decay has been too much to bear — and so a strange moratorium has been imposed upon all current events in America.
It started at the end of May, with the longest and most gratuitous celebration of D-Day imaginable. The D-Day celebrations on cable news networks ran every single day for over a week, taking up nearly every minute of every news program. Nothing but long, weepy elegies to the Greatest Generation, a lone trumpet wistfully soundtracking to shots of the flag and steely, wrinkled veterans.
These overwrought D-Day celebrations served one purpose: to make Americans forget about all the depressing news about Iraq and George W. Bush. We’ve been forced to watch the collapse of the American empire right before our very eyes, the imperial death-agonies twitching in every American family room’s home theater system. It’s so depressing that even FoxNews can’t get it up anymore. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. America is supposed to win, and the drama should unfold in an upward, positive direction. That’s what we were promised! So how could the Iraq War start off great and go into a long, downhill spiral from there? How can you smile and be optimistic?
You can’t. So now America has decided that if the reality won’t fit our expectations, then reality is fired. America abruptly canceled its subscription to current events, and signed up for a heavy dose of the glorious past to replace it. Thus, we’ve been subjected to a two-week-long self-congratulatory circle jerk over the 60th anniversary of D-Day, and the Greatest Generation — burying the depressing present in an idealized American past when we were the good guys who won the good wars, rather than today’s prisoner-torturing imperialist morons who blew the empire to ruins fighting a handful of tin-pot surrender-monkeys.
O how the mighty have fallen. Only dead civilizations make a fetish of the glorious past. Isn’t this looking-backwards a specialty of the Brits? Or the Arabs? Weren’t they always once great, and someday destined to be great again? Has the American rot set in that quickly? Are we already dead?
On MSNBC, the cutting and pasting of the glorious past over the depressing present was taken to such an extreme that they actually replaced current news with simulated news from D-Day, only they used the same newscasters and analysts to “report” the events. They re-enacted D-Day on their regular news broadcasts, issuing up-to-date news accounts of the invasion of Normandy as if it was going on today, while totally ignoring Iraq for almost 10 days. They used their own newscasters and their Iraq War military analyst, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, standing on oversized maps of the English Channel in clear imitation of the graphics used during the invasion of Iraq last year. Both newscaster and McCaffrey played it with a straight face, as if relieved that they didn’t have to talk about the depressing failure in Iraq. “This is a brilliant, bold plan, and it’s not at all certain to succeed,” they’d say of the D-Day invasion. “The German defenses are strong, and Rommel is a military genius. If we lose this, we could lose the war.” This is how we like it served up — fake cliffhangers with the triumphant outcome already telegraphed in-advance. The MSNBC re-enactment served another purpose — to remind viewers that the press had been just as unquestioning and cheerleading during the glorious D-Day invasion as during Iraq, and since no one made a fuss then, well, gosh, maybe their behavior last year over the Iraq War was just, you know, Greatest Generation patriotism. Right?
And then Ronald Reagan died.
What a relief! Now the awful present could be buried under two thick layers of the idealized past. The lies they’re feeding us about Reagan, about his alleged kind-heartedness, his alleged defeat of the Soviet Union, the allegedly wonderful 80s, and his alleged resolute fight against terrorism (in fact no single president was a greater fool, liar and coward when it came to the fight against terrorism)… It was strange to watch because I WAS THERE. I was alive during the Reagan years, I know what went on!
The lies about Reagan weren’t just offensive. They were desperate. They were a sign of profound weakness that I haven’t seen here, and quite frankly, watching them really depressed the shit out of me. I realized watching the bizarre stories they spun about a mythical Ronald Reagan served the same purpose as the D-Day glorification. The point is to promote a mythical past over a depressing present.
We’re already dead, folks. As dead as Ronald Reagan. Russia, China, you guys can stick a fork in our asses. The meat is so well-cooked that it falls off the bone.
* * *
I took Kanan Road through the dry, jagged desert coastal mountains, out to Simi Valley, to pay my last respects to Reagan’s body. It is fitting that Reagan wanted to be buried in Simi Valley, site of the all-white jury that acquitted the LA cops who pulled an Abu Ghraib on Rodney King, a verdict that set off the greatest riots in America this century.
Nearly all of the thousands who gathered to say goodbye to the Gipper were white, aging and lumpy. The networks still won’t report this factoid about the racial makeup of the “throngs” visiting his coffin — instead, they run rigged polls showing that most Americans believe Reagan was “one of the two greatest presidents of the 20th century” or that he’s “on my short list of the greatest presidents in U.S. history.”
I parked in the lot and took the shuttle bus to the library. The TV networks spoke of crushing crowds, but I didn’t see them. Ah well, if that’s the only lie that they can get away with now, let ‘em have it. On the way to the library, the passengers laughed and spoke about their diets.
The line outside of the Reagan Library moved slowly. It was hot and dry, not a cloud in the sky. We inched forward, into the high-ceilinged anteroom where Reagan’s coffin lay. As we got closer, I noticed that each person leaned down into the coffin. I was surprised that this was an open-casket wake. The mourners paused briefly at the coffin, leaned down, and seemed to be saying some last words to the president. An arm moved — and they leaned up again. When they were through, each passed something that looked like a pen to the person behind them — the next mourner leaned down, appeared to write something, say some last words, then walk away in tears.
Ronald Reagan looks at Milton Friedman and thinks, “Bonzo! You’re back!”
It wasn’t until I was two people away from the coffin that I understood what was happening. A lumpy old man with large glasses took the “pen” from the last mourner — it was a long, thin ice pick with a makeshift cloth handle — and he leaned into Reagan’s casket, and stabbed the corpse in the neck repeatedly, like Joe Pesci in Casino. “Who’s the tough guy now?! Huh motherfucker?!” When the man was through jabbing Reagan’s corpse, he stood up, tears running down his face. “The bastard…ruined my life…” He handed it to the old woman in front of me, who took the pick and jabbed Reagan’s throat, which was now just a torn mesh of dried tendon meat. Incredibly enough, Reagan’s corpse kept his famous charming smile. When it was my turn, I saw the Gipper’s smile and thought, “Gosh, it’s hard to hate the guy.” Then I stabbed his neck with the pick, and handed it to the weeping yuppie behind me, who cried about his 80 hour workweeks as he jabbed away.
When Ronald Reagan took power in 1981, Americans lived completely different lives. Health care insurance was a given for nearly all working Americans. Downsizing — the concept of mass layoffs in order to boost a CEO’s bonus — hadn’t entered the vocabulary. Neither had outsourcing. Working parents came home from work before sundown and ate dinners with their families. Unions were strong, and the industrialists felt a social responsibility to ensuring their workers’ well-being. This was all reflected in the income differential: in 1979, the average CEO earned 30 times his average employees’ wage. For some reason no one wants to remember this part of the past — because it’s too depressing, and speaks too obviously to the real decline in America.
Reagan came to office and told the plutocrats to take everything that they wanted. I mean everything. Today, CEOs make 571 times their average employees’ wage. Today’s male white collar workers in America only earn, in real dollars, six cents per hour more today than they earned in 1973. Health care is increasingly hard to come by, no job is ever safe, Americans work far longer hours and suffer from stress-related illnesses once unheard of. As an Economic Policy Institute report noted, “What income growth there was over the 1979-1989 period was driven primarily by more work at lower wages.” What happened to Russia in the 90s was really started by Reagan’s attack on Americans in the 80s. When Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981, he told America he was literally willing to kill us all if we didn’t give in to his plan to transfer the wealth out of the pockets of the middle- and lower-middle classes and into the plutocrats’ offshore accounts. It was so shocking that it worked. The air controller’s union broke — and so did a whole way of life. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, we are all miserable wage slaves…or exiles.
Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond.
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