“Fact is merely what enough people believe, and truth lies only in how fervently they believe it.”
--Charles P. Pierce, Idiot America.
In The Man Who Sold the World, William Kleinknecht writes, “In public policy, as in science, there are truths and there are untruths, and the wrong actions can have dire consequences. It has proven untrue that deeply slashing income taxes promotes investment and creates an increase in tax revenues; it has proven disastrously untrue that deregulation in the financial sector benefits the consumer; it has proven tragically untrue that abandoning social-welfare spending and locking up millions of young black men solve the problems of the inner city. The fervency with which Reagan believed these things, and the riches they brought to certain Americans, did not make them true.”
In a way, the entire history of our country is seen through these untruths, deliberately spun into myths to hide their brutal reality, to ease a public conscience, and to self-delude.
In Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter, Emmy Award-winning reporter Rick Shenkman observes that “we may not truly desire the truth… the record of our history suggests that, given a choice between harsh truth and a comforting myth, we have been inclined to embrace the latter.”
Let’s look at some of our biggest American myths.
MYTH: The Confederate states seceded during the Civil War because of states rights.
TRUTH: States rights were always coded racial language for slavery.
Referring to states rights rather than slavery is the South’s way of whitewashing the blood on our hands. It removes us from accepting full responsibility for the institutionalized racism of the antebellum period, the remnants of which are still with us today.
When Gone with the Wind romanticized the single worst event to ever happen in this country, it provided a safe mythical retreat for those resentful of the new South.
Not unlike the genocide of the Native Americans. Which brings us to…
MYTH: The Wild West
TRUTH: Justification for imperialist expansion and genocide
Like the antebellum south, the myth of the Wild West permeates our culture. When Columbus first discovered the Americas, he praised the Indians for their “quick intelligence,” “good customs,” and wrote that “the king maintains a very marvelous state, of a style so orderly that it is a pleasure to see it.”
However, by the time we answered the call of colonial expansion, American Indians become “cruel” and “stupid” savages. Our imperialist conquest, our manifest destiny, required that we vilify the indigenous people whom we murdered in order to claim their land as our own.
In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James W. Loewen states, “It is always useful to think badly about people one has exploited or plans to exploit. Modifying one’s opinions to bring them into line with one’s actions or planned actions is the most common outcome of a process known as “cognitive dissonance,” according to social psychologist Leon Festinger. No one likes to think of himself or herself as a bad person. To treat badly another person whom we consider a reasonable human being creates a tension between act and attitude that demands resolution. We can’t erase what we have done, and to alter our future behavior may not be in our best interest. To change our attitude is easier.”
But Columbus himself is another myth celebrating the discovery of America. When the brutal reality is he’s almost singlehandedly responsible for transforming the modern world by creating a racial underclass through the transatlantic slave trade and nearly exterminating indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere by taking their land, wealth and labor.
But hey, potato, potahto, right?
Let’s try another one.
American Exceptionalism is...
A) The idea that we as a nation are superior to other nations.
B) Hubris - the presumption of pride, arrogantly used to justify questionable actions
As human beings, we are capable of great achievements, and colossal errors. The idea of exceptionalism is little more than basic hubris – blind arrogance that asserts itself like a God-given right.
In reality it is merely a rallying cry to deflect introspection and curb critical analysis.
As a nation, we’ve lost our critical thinking skills. We are all victims of the marketing machine – the myths sold to us by Madison Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, Wall Street, and Hollywood.
We’ve all forgotten how to critically think.
This is never clearer than in the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
In But What If We’re Wrong?, journalist Chuck Klosterman explains that our hero worship of Ronald Reagan is at odds with his presidential record, “He was factually a bad president…obsessed with only one truth: if people feel optimistic about where they live, details don’t matter. But here’s the thing, you need to have an active living memory of Reagan for any of this to seem plausible. You need to personally remember that the 1980s felt prosperous, even when they weren’t. Every extension of mainstream popular culture expressed this. The 1980s felt prosperous, even if you were poor…historians will look back at the 1980s and presume the US populous must have suffered some mass delusion, prompting them to self-destructively lionize a president who factually made the country worse…[but] was so emotionally persuasive that 25 years after he left office, his most ardent disciples sincerely suggested his face be carved in a South Dakota mountain.”
Our nation’s so-called greatest president has a reputation for his strength of character and his undying faith in American exceptionalism. However, like so many of the myths we cling to, history tells a different story.
Reagan conveyed an all-American sense of loyalty and solidarity, all the while selling off our national parks, ending nutrition programs for children, cutting development grants to struggling rural communities, gutting food stamps, and rolling back regulations necessary for the betterment of society.
Why does Reagan’s mythology continue to thrive? We don’t remember that he tried to cut budgets for our disabled. We can only recall the strategically chosen backdrop of Reagan at the handicapped Olympics.
We don’t remember that he tried to cut federal funding for subsidized housing for the elderly. We recall the strategically-planned photo-op at the opening of an old-folks home.
According to William Kleinknecht in The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America, Reagan “laid the foundation for a new global economic order in which nationhood would gradually become meaningless. He enacted policies that helped wipe out the high-paying jobs for the working class that were the real backbone of this country. This supposed guardian of traditional values was the architect of wrenching social change that swept across the country in the 1980s, the emergence of an eerie, over-commercialized, postmodern America that has left so much of the populace psychically adrift. Reagan propelled the transition to hyper-capitalism, an epoch in which the forces of self-interest and profit seek to make a final rout of traditional human values. His legacy – mergers, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization, globalization – helped weaken the family and eradicate small-town life and the sense of community… Because of deregulation, trucking concerns, bus companies, and airlines have eliminated much of their service to small rural communities, leaving them isolated and economically depressed in a society ever more dominated by the great population centers on either coast. Because of corporate consolidation, businesses are no longer owned locally and Main Street is gone. Companies made over many times by mergers and forced to tailor every decision to stock market prices have little loyalty to communities or people. Commerce becomes alien, unreliable, globalized. Plants are closed and companies are downsized, families uprooted, communities left without anchors. Reagan blithely ushered in an age of impermanence… Without his tax, regulatory, and antitrust policies, there would have been no savings-and-loan bailout, no frenzy of mergers in the 1980s and 1990s, no unseemly scramble for overnight fortunes by arbitrageurs and raiders, no destructive obsession with quarterly earnings at the expense of long-term investment, no wholesale abandonment of ethics on the part of corporate executives. Nor would there have been an Enron or a subprime mortgage crisis… The contagion of free-market purism has infected almost every sector of American life.”
Kleinknecht continues, “Reagan’s first round of proposed budget cuts for social programs amounted to more than $128 billion. Charities themselves stood to lose $45 billion in federal funding over a three-year period…In 1980 the entirety of corporate philanthropy totaled only $2.5 billion…[but] corporations did fork over more money, the amount growing…to $3 billion in 1983, but little of it ended up going to the poor… What can a homeless hungry person do for a corporation? He doesn’t work at the company, he doesn’t buy its products, and his good will won’t do the corporation much good. That’s the real reason why most corporate money doesn’t go to poor people.”
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget was slashed by 57%, from $33.4 billion in 1981 to $14.2 billion in 1987.
$1 billion was cut from Medicaid.
The Women, Infants, and Children food Program was cut by 1/3.
Child nutrition programs were cut by 42%, with the administration changing the classification of ketchup to a vegetable.
Funding for legal services for the poor was eliminated entirely.
Unemployment insurance was cut from 39 to 26 weeks.
Public funding for job training was cut from $13.2 billion to $5.6 billion.
I guess Reagan never read For Whom the Bell Tolls. If his so-called character was king according to Peggy Noonan, clearly cognitive dissonance was queen.
Such ethical ignorance can most clearly be seen in a phone call Reagan made to a Los Angeles Times drama critic to give more exposure to a friend’s lackluster theatre review, abusing the power of the presidency in the process, while asking the very writer for a favor who was currently criticizing the administration’s proposed arts defunding.
In fact, Reagan’s hypocrisy was no secret.
“After a campaign in which he pledged to reduce the size of government and stop wasting taxpayers’ money, one of the first things Reagan did on taking office was approve a $44.6-million renovation of the White House, the biggest such expenditure since the Truman Administration,” writes Kleinknecht. After Reagan decontrolled oil prices, which yielded billions of dollars to the oil industry, oil executives donated even more money to redecorate the Reagans’ living quarters.
The Reagan presidency was filled with deregulation and defunding that has led to our demise. By all accounts, it was a bust. But in our collective consciousness, it was a boom.
And this is no accident.
Reagan perfected the art of the pseudoevent, what Daniel J. Boorstin coined in his book The Image. A pseudoevent refers to an event such as a press conference, presidential debate, and any variety of photo ops, manufactured solely in order to be captured and reported.
Boorstin’s prophetic vision of a country lost in its own illusions is an accurate assessment of America today. We are no longer able to tell corporate interests from our own, deceptive politicians from authentic, and reality from myth.
Reagan was a living, breathing pseudoevent – a P.R.-scripted, publicity-directed, strategically-honed product, sold to the American public by big business to distract us from the corporate takeover of our government.
And with every flash of the camera and shine of the Gipper’s smile, we applauded, we gushed, and now, we perish. As he said in his own words, “The best minds are not in government.”
And he lived up to that promise.
Our leaders have sold us out, and like cows being led to the slaughter, we believed what we were sold. And we foolishly still believe. We’ve become expert statesmen in worshiping at the foot of our most treasured cultural myths.
Myths are hard to shake. Their destruction threatens our security and our sense of self. Many of us hide behind these narratives in order to view ourselves as good people, despite the uncomfortable and often inconvenient truth.
“Genuine intellectual inquiry is always subversive. It challenges cultural and political assumptions. It critiques structures. It is relentlessly self-critical. It explodes the self-indulgent myths and stereotypes we use to elevate ourselves and ignore our complicity in acts of violence and oppression. And it makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable,” writes Chris Hedges in The World as It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.
“News and truth are not the same things. News, at least as it’s configured in the faux objectivity of American Journalism can be used quite effectively to mask and obscure the truth,” warns Hedges.
“In an image-based culture, one dominated by junk politics, communicates through narrative pictures and carefully orchestrated spectacle and manufactured pseudo-drama,” writes Hedges. “In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we do not seek reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable of handling or unwilling to handle its confusion. We ask to be indulged and comforted by clichés, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on Earth, that we’re endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, because of our own abilities, our national character, or because we are blessed by God. Reality is not accepted as an impediment to our desires. Reality does not make us feel good.”
Which is why we turned our back on Jimmy Carter in the late 70s as he warned of environmental catastrophe, social responsibility, and self-sacrifice.
It was all too easy to get swept up in the charismatic reassurance of Ronald Reagan, promising that things were fine, and to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
To quote historian Daniel J. Boorstin, "What ails us most is not what we have done with America, but what we have substituted for America. We suffer primarily, not from our vices, or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality."
Well, it’s time to find our way out of this maze of myths and confront the truth, starting with: