The Reagan Con: Noam Chomsky on Reagan’s Distorted Legacy, Wisconsin Protests, & Union Busting

We did not — repeat, did not — trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.— Ronald Reagan to a televised national audience

Hopefully, you have read some good posts (here and here) separating the man from the myth. What follows is my own documentation of the failures and most egregious crimes of Reagan. But before that, I want to contextualize the so-called “Reagan Era.” I was a young man when Reagan and the “new” right ascended into power, forever changing America for the worst. Some of the consequences of Reagan’s policies (such as the Savings and Loan debacle) still haunt us. Most of all, Reagan was the ultimate inheritor of the “southern strategy,” the strategy to bring together disaffected (mostly southern) whites who wanted to blame minorities and civil rights gains for what they perceived as their losses.

Reagan was good at using the newer, coded, but no less racist language that attracted whites in large numbers. For example, Reagan never mentioned race overtly, but his discredited bullshit story of the “Welfare Queen” who drove a Cadillac didn’t have to mention skin color — his base filled in the blanks. Similarly, when Reagan was asked to speak at the site of murdered civil rights workers, he invoked the right-wing meme of “states rights.” Many saw this as support for segregationist sentiments (who to this day still use the same “states rights” racial code). In fact, Reagan is on record as describing the Voting Rights Act as, “humiliating to the South.”

Ultimately, the greatest harm committed by Reagan, was his validation of the redefinition of “freedom” as corporate freedom. Government was the enemy and Reagan and his henchmen wanted to shrink it enough to drown it in a bathtub. Our current economic fractures have their root in Reagan’s misguided policies. But as fucked and cruel and vacuous as he was (his mind was most likely corroded by disease for at least one third of his two-term administration), he’s soft compared to his current day descendants — all of whom are now trying to rewrite Reagan’s legacy…

As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan informed on fellow actors to the FBI.

As with all chickenhawks, Reagan was essentially a scared bully. For example, Reagan conducted one of the most absurd invasions of American history, targeting the tiny island of Grenada.

The Reagan administration was one of the most corrupt in American history, including by one estimate 31 Reagan era convictions, including 14 because of Iran-Contra and 16 in the Department of Housing & Urban Development scandal. By comparison, 40 government officials were indicted or convicted in the wake of Watergate. 47 individuals and businesses associated with the Clinton machine were convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes with 33 of these occurring during the Clinton administration itself.

Using a looser standard that included resignations, David R. Simon and D. Stanley Eitzen in Elite Deviance (click here for sources), say that 138 appointees of the Reagan administration either resigned under an ethical cloud or were criminally indicted.

Four members of the Reagan cabinet came under criminal investigation, as compared with five in the Clinton cabinet.

During the Reagan administration the number of families living below the poverty line increased by one-third.

Reagan’s policies led to the greatest financial scandal in American history: the Savings & Loan debacle which cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Julian Bond, president of the NAACP: “He was a polarizing figure in black America. He was hostile to the generally accepted remedies for discrimination. His appointments were of people as equally hostile. I can’t think of any Reagan policy that African Americans would embrace.” That was, however, before Barack Obama (who claims to admire the man and whose policies mirror Reagan’s) came along.

Reagan made major cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, aid to families with dependent children, and school lunch programs.

Reagan fired 13,000 air traffic controllers in a devastating blow to government union members from which the labor movement never recovered. While union jobs were slashed dramatically during Reagan’s terms, manufacturing was outsourced overseas, leading to large sectors of unemployed Americans.

The Washington Post (yes, that Washington Post) wrote: “Reagan, during his 1980 campaign, blamed trees for emitting 93 percent of the nation’s nitrogen oxide pollution — giving rise to jokes about ‘killer trees.’”

The national debt tripled under Reagan.

The AIDS crisis exploded (with 20,000 deaths) before Reagan could even bring himself to address the issue six years later. In his authorized biography, he is quoted as saying, “maybe the Lord brought down this plague,” because “illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”

Washington Post: “The administration in 1984 secretly sold arms to Iran — which the United States considered a supporter of terrorism — to raise cash for Nicaraguan contra rebels, despite a congressional ban on support for the Latin American insurgency. An independent investigation concluded that the arms sales to Iran operations “were carried out with the knowledge of, among others, President Ronald Reagan [and] Vice President George Bush,” and that “large volumes of highly relevant, contemporaneously created documents were systematically and willfully withheld from investigators by several Reagan Administration officials.” . . . Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel who ran the inquiry, said there was “no credible evidence” that Reagan broke the law, but he set the stage for the illegal activities of others. Impeachment, Walsh said, “certainly should have been considered.”

On April 17, 1986, the Reagan Administration released a three page report acknowledging that there were some Contra-cocaine connections in 1984 and 1985, arguing that these connections occurred at a time when the rebels were “particularly hard pressed for financial support” because U.S. aid had been cut off. The report admitted that “We have evidence of a limited number of incidents in which known drug traffickers have tried to establish connections with Nicaraguan resistance groups.” The report tried to downplay the drug activity, claiming that it took place “without the authorization of resistance leaders.”(click here)

(U.S. Concedes Contras Linked to Drugs, But Denies Leadership Involved”, Associated Press, 17 April 1986)

His administration was responsible for numerous brutal actions in Latin America, including massacres in El Salvador and the war against Nicaragua. In fact, Reagan had a major hard-on for Latin America and supported some of the most vicious groups of the era, accounting for tens of thousands of “disappeared” Latin@s brave enough to resist.

The claim that Reagan won the Cold War is pure rightwing propaganda. The Soviet Union had long been far weaker than many American leaders knew, or wished to acknowledge, thanks to CIA gross overestimates of its economy. The Soviet Union was brought down by a number of factors including the inherent weaknesses of dictatorship, the costly war in Afghanistan, and ethnic divides that eventually forced its breakup. Also, almost no due is given to the left-wing activists in the Eastern bloc for their role in setting themselves free from the USSR.

After a major tax cut, there was a long recession and unemployment that hit ten percent.

It was Reagan who first proposed a missile defense system — immediately dubbed “Star Wars” by skeptical reporters — in a March 23, 1983 speech from the Oval Office. However, as Frances Fitzgerald reveals in her brilliant history “Way Out There in the Blue,” Reagan didn’t get his plan from the scientists or the generals. The Pentagon wasn’t even notified of his speech ahead of time. Reagan stole Star Wars directly from — yup, you guessed it — the movies!

Finally, I came upon this revealing nugget of information: In 1966, Alfred Hitchcock released a Reagan favorite, “Torn Curtain,” in which an American agent played by Paul Newman works on developing an anti-missile missile. In words that must have made Ronnie tingle, Newman’s character says: “We will produce a defensive weapon that will make all nuclear weapons obsolete, and thereby abolish the terror of nuclear warfare.” Sound familiar? Reagan used almost the exact words in selling missile defense from the office, 17 years later.

As a young man during the ascendancy of the right, I saw the Reagan years not as Morning, but Winter in America…

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Part II