Living the surreal

/ 9 June 2004

My whole morning has felt surreal. On the one hand, I’ve been reading the proofs of a friend’s book, thinking deeply about media constructions and the ways in which we engage news. On the other hand, when I’ve come up for air and needed a breather, I’ve glanced at the news headlines on the web. The latter — especially in the US press — are full of odes to President Reagan.

I remember this man, he was largely responsible for my political awakening. I arrived as a green little undergraduate to Yale's campus in September of 1981. I hadn't been old enough to vote in that previous fall's election, but I had watched with tears streaming down my face as the hostages were released and Reagan was inaugurated. I knew, I just knew in my bones, with all of the adolescent angst of high school, that Reagan had conspired to keep the hostages there until then, as one last final humiliation to Jimmy Carter. I went from there to college, and met, for the first time, people who had no homes, people who were forced to stand outside my dormitory in the mornings and beg for whatever coins I might have in my pocket. It was not my expectation of what going to Yale would be about.

In the early 80's New Haven was the seventh poorest city of its size in the country, and Yale was plunked down right in the middle of prime downtown real estate -- paying no taxes. I spent most of the next four years trying to reconcile the enormous privilege of the education I was receiving, with the crumbling of the social/common good so evident around me. Oh yes, I remember Ronald Reagan.

I remember the discussions in the Yale Chaplain's Office as Rev. John Vannorsdall, the Chaplain at the time, tried to deal with the new, frightening epidemic that was ravaging the city's prostitutes, and soon, its young gay men, as well. I remember how hard we fought just to get the University Health Service to make HepB vaccines available to students, and I remember as word began to spread about what we now know is HIV/AIDS. Reagan's administration actively sought not to halt the spread of the disease and deal with its consequences, but instead to stigmatize people who were dying from it. Oh yes, I remember this man.

I remember the hushed and anguished tone of the voices of refugees from Central America who were smuggled into church basements for sanctuary. I remember listening to them talk about seeing pregnant women's bellies ripped open by bayonets, and children forced to carry machine guns. I remember learning of the active support of our government for the Contras, and learning of the ways in which we supported the sale of drugs to finance them. And I remember hating the ways in which Christian language was being used to justify much of this. These innovations were surely not unique to Reagan's government, but I had never heard of such evil before. This was my political awakening. I remember this man all too well.

And now I sit and read on the web -- a communications mode that did not exist back in the 80's -- about the current machinations of yet another "Christian" president. I realize that life is complicated, that we are all sinful, and that no doubt there must have been a few good things that Reagan accomplished. But it is difficult for me to accept this highly uncritical outpouring of media affection for the "great communicator." If it weren't for the writing of people like Eric Alterman, Geov Parrish, Juan Cole, Billmon, Steve Gilliard and Matt Foreman, I think I'd have to run outside screaming. I may still. It's appropriate to feel grief, to mourn the passing of an influential leader, but it's just as appropriate and more important, to reflect on the FULL legacy of such a leader. Thank God for the blogosphere!