Goldwater's sin was naivety...In that sense, Goldwater is the more appropriate hero for today's generation of blissfully ignorant ("How did that 'White slavery' sign get there?") non-racist Republican. It's not so much that they hate you, it's they are shocked--shocked--to discover that some of their fellow travelers hate you. When discussing them, all bloggers are required to begin their missives by quickly dispensing with with the "Are they racist?" strawman. Answering in the affirmative has been outlawed in polite company, where there are no actual racists. And so we are left, as I've said, with imbecility as an explanation, and a much more troubling query--"Are they stupid?" ("Are you so stupid that you would allow racist newsletters to be published in your name?" "Are you so stupid that you would have a campaign manager with "Happy Nigger day" on his Myspace page?")TNC is brilliant as usual. Even better, all of this gives me an excuse, actually a pretty good excuse, to go through at least some of the bits of my very favorite classroom lecture that I give, since it's very much to the point here. Plus it can count as a Monday Movies Post, sort of.
Here's the thing: Ronald Reagan's great gift, as Garry Wills told it, was exactly that naivete. I've posted before Lou Cannon's story about Reagan's ability to continue touting Hollywood morality and how it led to great marriages even in the weeks after his own divorce. That's just the beginnings of it. Wills talks at length about Reagan's ability to believe what he wanted to believe, to believe things that fit the story he wanted to be living. The best illustration of this, to me, was that Reagan even managed to ignore the obvious subtexts of Production Code era movies. This brings us to Reagan's favorite movie role, the one that made him a star: Drake McHugh in King's Row. For Reagan, King's Row -- a gothic story about the evils lurking below the surface of a seemingly idyllic American town -- was mostly a story about overcoming adversity in an idyllic American town. Moreover, part of the strength of the American gothic genre...think, for example, David Lynch's Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"...is that it undermines one's ability to retain an idyllic image of American small-town life. See also the political theorist John Seery's wonderful analysis of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" (alas, I can't find an ungated version of the paper, but he discusses it briefly here).
As Wills describes it in his Reagan book, Code-era audiences learned to understand the ever-expanding symbolism that Hollywood deployed to evade the censors (think of how in Top Secret! the camera cuts from Val Kilmer and Lucy Gutteridge embracing while parachuting to safety...to a fireplace, parachuting right along side them). Here's Wills:
Once it was realized that movies were sending messages over and around the Code, a kind of snide knowingness was required in the intelligent viewer. The question became not is this storm really the Code's code for intercourse, but can there be any storm in the movies that is not a sexual spasm?...There was a perpetual oscillation, a forever wavering balance, between the naive and the knowing, between sappy innocence and winking lubriciousness. One falsehood fed the other. As Ben Hecht wrote: "The have learned how to hint at fornication in a hundred masterful ways and so much that I, for one, watching a movie, am ready to believe that all its males and females fall to futtering one another as soon as the scene dissolves."Mind if I go off on a bit more of a tangent? If the Production Code protects us from King's Row, from American gothic themes of incest, sadism, and other depravity lurking below the surface of small-town America, then when the Code goes away, the movies in that genre get awfully hard to watch. After all, even David Lynch needs a stylized opening to his own imaginings of depravity (granted, Lynch is no slouch at imagining depravity). Much easier to take are two Reagan-era films. Back to the Future is an inverted comic American gothic. In it, the perverted, corrupt city is on the surface, while the pure idyllic American small town is, perversely, lurking underneath. The film retains the themes of incest (Marty and his mom) and sadism (the town bully), but they're now comic, not depraved. Even more oddly inverted, albeit far more obscure, is The Experts, from one of John Travolta's career lulls. Like Back to the Future, this one also features an idyllic American 1950s small town. However, the rot underneath this one is quite literally Communism; the small town is actually a KGB version of an American small town in which agents live out their lives in order to raise "real" Americans who can grow up to be the perfect agents. Insidious -- but it's the 1980s, and in order to bring the town up to date, the KGB tricks Travolta and Arye Gross to move there to bring them 1980s hair or something like that. Not only are Travolta and Gross too foolish to figure out that they're not in Nebraska, but as two city-dwelling, club-hopping, losers, they don't have the true American values that the KGB...wait for it...finds to its horror that they've inadvertently bred into their faux "Americans," who naturally have to teach Travolta the true meaning of America. (Arye Gross is a sidekick; sidekicks don't have to learn things). It's not quite as clean an inverted American gothic as is Back to the Future, but I do love the way that it subverts American gothic themes by replacing personal and societal corruption with communism.
By the way, the KGB agent who lures Travolta and Gross to the USSR is Toad, from American Graffiti (a movie irrelevant to this, despite its small-town setting, but one I like to mention since I love it). Toad...er, Charles Martin Smith, also directed the first half of the pilot of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which certainly is relevant. In American gothic, things lurk underneath...in American gothic monster-style, things really do lurk underneath, and they're trying to get out and kill you, and in fact they take half the high school kids in town hostage by the end of the second half of the pilot. After Buffy stops them (uh, spoiler -- the world doesn't actually end in the pilot), her new friend Xander says that nothing will ever be the same again/quick cut to the next day, at school, where everything is the same after all, and Giles has to explain to Willow and Xander that people are capable of blocking out all sorts of horrible things that they don't want to know.
Which leads us back to Ronald Reagan, and his great gift of naivete. I'll quote Wills again:
Each performer had to strike her or her private bargain with make-believe. It is clear, from early on, what Reagan's device would be: he pretended there was no pretense. When he had to, he could will his own innocence.Reagan, as it were, is the people of Sunnydale. He's able to believe that idyllic American small towns are nothing but idyllic American small towns even after watching the vamps kill his friends. Reagan famously said that "I am eternally optimistic, and I happen to believe that we've made great progress from the days when I was young and when this country didn't even know it had a racial problem." One can read all sorts of terrible motives into that, but I think it's better to see it as of a piece with the Reagan who never was divorced, the Reagan who makes himself believe that a fireplace is just a fireplace. The Reagan who just couldn't force himself to believe that he had traded arms for hostages, because it didn't fit with the rest of the story he thought he was in.
Sometimes, with Reagan, the belief in the pretense got him into trouble. Sometimes, as in his recovery from divorce, as Wills writes, it was a source of great strength (and of course he had other strengths, too -- Reagan was a very successful pol for plenty of reasons). I think it was this quality of Reagan's, however, and not his Hollywood background that fooled liberals into thinking that he was "just" an actor and over his head in national politics. But at the same time, Reagan's ability to believe things that weren't so was no help to him in the White House, and in my view it seriously endangered the nation more than once, most precariously at Reykjavik (although see this argument that Reagan's belief in pretense was in some ways essential to the demise of communism).
That's the basic story I feel confident in telling about Reagan. Now, if I wanted to stretch, I would launch into a discussion of how Ronald Reagan taught conservatives to believe that the things they want to believe are true. Perhaps that's true, but it's pretty squishy stuff. I guess what I'd say is that Reagan's belief-in-pretense solved solved for himself at least one difficult problem in post-civil rights America, and it's not unreasonable to speculate that those who have sought to emulate him have learned what he taught. And here I would return to TNC and the willed naivite among some of today's conservatives.
The problem for conservatives in post-civil rights America -- at least for well-intentioned conservatives -- is the one that Rand Paul ran into last week, or the one that Trent Lott ran into a few years ago. Like or it not, the problem goes (and this is what Matt Yglesias was talking about), the contemporary conservative movement was very much born in opposition to the civil rights movement. That's a whopping big original sin. Conservatives have dealt with this in any number of ways...pretending that MLK's basic message was opposition to affirmative action, or Michael Steele's favorite, pretending that the Republicans who fought the Civil War and supported civil rights are the same people as today's conservatives. Reagan's is one of the best: simply pretending that it never happened, that there was a time when no one knew about the bigotry...and then things got better. Of course, the past and race isn't just a problem for conservatives; it's a problem for Democrats, for liberals, and for the nation as a whole. But liberals can look back with justifiable pride of at least some of their actions at one critical point, and that perhaps makes it easier to deal with the truth of other times when they showed less courage. Democrats can look back with pride (perhaps less justifiable, but at least plausible) at the record of their party in risking electoral loss over historic legislation, and that perhaps makes it easier to deal with the truth of the party's long and disgraceful record up until that point. It's not surprising, then, that believing the pretense that there never were any racists is appealing to some conservatives, even if it means pretending that there are not now, and never have been, any conservative interest in winning the Jimmy Rebel vote.
(I don't, by the way, mean just white liberals and white Democrats -- I mean liberals-as-liberals, regardless of ethnicity).
If I really wanted to dive into speculation, I could talk about what Jonathan Chait recently referred to as "magical thinking" among conservatives, generally, and think about the connection between that sort of thinking and Reagan's ability to believe the pretense. I think that's probably a step too far for me, and I'll leave it to others to think about.
Which leaves me just with one important paragraph of caveats. I am certainly not saying that conservative thought is somehow illegitimate or tainted because of its history, any more than America itself is somehow illegitimate because of its history. What I am saying is that one does have to deal with these things in some way, and the Reagan method involved simply not believing things that didn't fit what he wanted to believe, true or not. And, again, I'm not saying that this means that Reagan was a moron or anything like that, or that this particular trait of Reagan's delegitimatizes conservative ideas. That's not the point. The idea here is to understand how he went about his life in order to see his strengths and weaknesses, not to assess conservative thought based on how one conservative pol lived his life.
And, endnotes...here's Adam Serwer and David Weigel, and here's Conor Friedersdorf's follow-up.
I mentioned a lot of movies and TV shows above. I give my highest recommendations to Top Secret! (much funnier than Airplane!); to Buffy (stick with it, the first season is inconsistent, but it's worth it); and to American Graffiti. I'm not sure what kind of recommendation to give The Boondocks. It's wildly inconsistent; at its best, one of the most terrific shows I've ever seen, but I'm not sure that it's really worth sticking with it past season one, although there are still funny bits that pop up when you least expect it. I have some thoughts about Huey in the current season, but this is long enough already. If you haven't seen Back to the Future for some reason I suppose I can solidly recommend that, as well. And, of course, I continue to highly recommend Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home.