Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Growing Up With Ronald Reagan

Frederick Turner

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When I was a young professor at the University of California in the late sixties I despised Governor Reagan, the more fool I. His whispery voice and downhome manner struck me as both cornpone and phony, and his occasional use of a more intellectually sophisticated vocabulary annoyed me, because it felt as if he was assuming scholarship he did not have in order to appear respectable. He was like Robert Stack using his magisterial manner to shill for some crackpot ghost or flying saucer show, or, later, Pat Robertson in a coat and tie interviewing a creationist with a PhD from Podunk Christian University. I was embarrassed whenever I saw him on TV; he was so uncool, he was the Frank Burns of politics.

I was, as I say, a fool. The fog began to clear from my eyes when the Iranians released the hostages on the eve of his inauguration, obviously terrified of what Reagan would do if they didn't. They believed in him, so to speak, and maybe they had seen something that I had missed. Still, he was just an actor, I thought. How could they take an actor seriously? But I was saying this to myself at the very time that I was writing about how Hamlet grows up into a man who can truly act, by "playing the part" of someone who can actually do something. I had failed to apply my own knowledge to the world.

Later I read the Austrian free market economists, and realized two things: one, that they had essentially won the argument with the socialists, both on the theoretical level and on the level of practical results; and two, that Reagan had realized this twenty or thirty years earlier, and it was I, the socialist, who had been the pseudo-intellectual, and not he. Later still, after I had been practicing the martial arts for a few years and had been in enough championship bouts to validate the ancient teachings about clarity of spirit and trained instinctiveness of decision, I came to another realization. The enemy can only be defeated through his own feelings; he can only be defeated if you recognize him as your enemy; and he will only concede when he realizes that you are crazier -- more committed to victory -- than he is.

And there were indeed enemies in this world. As Yitzhak Rabin said, "You make peace with your enemies, not with your friends." Ronald Reagan could well have coined the same words. If we pretend that our enemies are really our friends, and that if we make nice with them they will do what we want, then we will never be able to make peace with them. Why should they make peace -- looking at it from their point of view -- when we do not even respect them enough to recognize them fair and square as our enemy? Christ said "love your enemy," but he did not say "don't have enemies," because that is not in our power. We love our enemies by respecting them, and we are able to make peace with them if we respect them enough to take them seriously, and put them in a position where it is in their interest to make peace with us. We make peace with them, but peace comes through strength, and trust must be verified. When I became a father and a man, and I actually encountered situations in the world where I was asked to do things and say things I did not agree with, and had to refuse those in authority and those who had power to harm me, I changed. I had to fight. I had to grow up.

It is a weak child's way to blame his parents when someone bullies him, to run to them tearfully and rage against them when they tell him to fight his own battles. The rage should rightly be directed against the injurer, but the weak child respects only the one he fears. And since he dare not rage against the injurer, he rages against his authority figures, whom he does not fear because he knows they love him, and whom he does not respect because they will not harm him. This is the pathology of our "baby boomers" -- or that part of them who yearn for and can never grow out of the Summer of Love, the happy time when the parents were indulgent enough to give them everything they wanted, but fuddy-duddy enough to be dismissed as competitors. Those who never grow up in our society always blame our own responsible officials when something goes wrong. Reagan taught us to place the blame where it belonged, on the enemy, and to make peace with them as our enemies -- without firing a shot, as Margaret Thatcher put it. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

The intellectuals and the Europeans persistently "misunderestimated" Reagan (in George Bush's splendid phrase). Part of being an adult is that one realizes that one makes a better fighter if one does not give away one's "strategery," and a better trader if one does not make a big show of one's intelligence. One knows that one is going to win, and one knows that the trade will be made on terms that are at least as profitable to oneself as to one's bargaining partner -- but one does not parade one's degrees and one's medals. Intellectuals in believe that complication in expression is the great sign of intelligence; adults know that the acme of intelligence is to express something simply. The intellectuals despised Reagan for his simplicity, and set out to create the most obfuscatory language ever devised by human beings: deconstructionism. Safe in their cocoon of verbiage they might be safe from the world and never die. Europeans always saw war and bargaining as ways to get territory, to expand the motherland, and have enough money to look after all the "enfants de la patrie" from cradle to grave. They could not understand a grownup American president who bargained for the opportunity to compete, fair and square, whose ambition was not to dominate other peoples but to free them from tyrants and make them stronger, better trading partners. The Europeans and intellectuals thought Reagan was brain dead; but he was Old Possum: he was only playing brain dead. Don't throw me in the briar patch, Br'er Rabbit always said; and they threw him in every time. "Possum," the American icon of the advantages of being underestimated, means "I have the power" in Latin. Reports of the death of American power are now as then, in Mark Twain's word, exaggerated.

So who was the fool? Rudyard Kipling had the answer:

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man-
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began:-
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Reaganomics were likewise just a matter of being adult. The child lives in a world of gift, and rightly so. The world owes children a living. But to remain in a world of gift alone is to never grow up, to fail to gain the resources needed to have children of one's own and care for them responsibly. To move from being a receiver of gifts to a giver of them we must pass through the vale of earning and trading and selling. The child sees this as a wicked and cruel and unnecessary journey, and never realizes that trade and earning and selling have their own mysterious sociality, their own form of love. Two trading partners can both profit by the deal, and the harder the bargain is driven, the better the bargain. But to bargain, as to fight, one must take the position of being somebody, with all the risks of being somebody and all the sacrifice of all the other things one might have been. To bargain and to fight one must "put away childish things."

Indeed, there is a stage in real grownups' lives when they become more givers than earners or fighters or sellers. We all do when we die, at least. The grownups among us can become net givers before we die. But the only way to get there is through the work of life. I realized this at the death of my own father -- a great giver if ever there was one -- and I now feel an echo of that death as we prepare for the funeral of Ronald Reagan. The work of life is only possible if we accept that we are going to die. But the eternal children in our society refused, and still refuse, to accept that they will die. Their anguish at the cost of the war is the great symptom of that refusal, of the inability to grow up. There should be no costs, they feel; when we were children there were no costs, in a socialist society there would be no costs.

George W. Bush all too obviously, all too embarrassingly, had to grow up, and he did it before us, in public, for all to see. He went through that terrible moment when he had to give up alcohol, his refuge and solace, if he was to hang on to his wife and his potential as a father. He had to give his life over to a higher authority, one to whom he would be responsible when he died. He thus implicitly accepted death at that moment, accepted costs and tradeoffs. He stands as an example to his generation of how to begin to follow in the path of a Reagan, how to grow up. Thus the current hatred of the President is, strangely, at bottom a fear of death.

The cruelty of Alzheimer's is that it separates the soul from the body in a terrible unnatural way. The body still lives, but the soul is away or asleep. When friends of mine died after a period of dementia I felt an enormous relief -- it was as if their souls, in all their vitality and intelligence and humor, had woken up, released from the clogged brain that had trapped them. I say this as one who does not philosophically separate body from soul. We, his friends, his world, his posterity, had become the new body of the dead one's spirit. I feel that now. We need Ronald Reagan's great spirit among us, as the last stage of the growing-up of the world begins.

Copyright 2004 Tech Central Station. This article first appeared in www.techcentralstation.com. Reprinted with permission of Tech Central Station. Read this article on the Tech Central Station website.

Posted: 6/20/04

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