Happy Birthday to the Gipper

Three days ago, much of the nation celebrated what would have been President Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday (if he were still alive). I did not celebrate the occasion.

Ronald Reagan is a significant president in my life because he was the first politician than I voted against. I can’t honestly say that I was very excited about Mondale back in circa 1985, but Reagan had been elected to his first term when I was still in High School and had already been around long enough for me to figure out that I did not think he represented the aspirations for my culture or my nation. When Reagan was up for re-election I was finally old enough to vote and I voted against him. Perhaps I owe Reagan a measure of thanks because he did help me form my own opinions; mostly by embodying everything I hated, from his condescending avuncular platitudes (“There he goes again!”) to his cabinet’s Orwellian talent for spin — i.e.: call a ‘death squad’ in Salvador a group of heroic freedom fighters and the majority of the slack jawed public and self interested politicians who don’t have the stomach to fight you on it will acquiesce and agree to re-categorize your illegal sponsorship of terrorism in another country as ‘doubleplus good.’

Watching his spectacle funeral a few years ago, complete with the coffin laid on a gun caisson and boots inserted backwards in the stirrups of a horse without a rider (a bizarre bit of political showboating that seems more at home in some part of a titless PG-rated a Mardis Gras parade than anywhere else) and hearing so many lining up to suck the dead man’s cock (or at least stroke his balls) was a truly strange experience. Ronald Reagan was an American war hero who, unlike actual soldiers, never got his hands dirty or made any reference to the fact that when you go to war, a lot of suffering and death takes place. Eisenhower was well before my time, and, in the lens of history, he seems to be regarded as a ‘merely average’ president, but since Eisenhower had been an actual general you would think the pomp and circumstance of dead generals would be reserved for him, but Ronald Reagan warmed the cockles of our American hearts and never expressed doubt or regret over anything he did. Never mind that his war service consisted of making training films. There is no doubt about it; even in death, Ronald Reagan is and always was a winner who could piss on the public and then get thanked for it.

The current trend of whitewashing Reagan’s legacy reminds me of the overwhelmingly positive obituaries that came from every corner after Senator Jesse Helms died. Journalists in the supposedly ‘liberal media’ mentioned Helm’s blatant racism at the time of his death only as a personal peculiarity, like a preference for seersucker suits or bow ties, rather than calling Helms what he was: an evil old man who rode racism to power. They talked about his long “service” to the nation but did not delve too deeply into what his “service” entailed. Similarly, on Reagan’s birthday the old platitudes came out and got polished up.

I think Reagan’s true gift to America was his cheerful but ruthless demeanor that insisted everything he did was ‘ok,’ and, by extension, everything WE did was OK. Jimmy Carter was a downer — faced with an energy crisis, Carter wore sweaters and turned down the thermostat. Reagan, on the other hand, denied the problem. If America had suffered a famine, rather than telling people to ‘eat less and don’t waste food’ like Carter might have done, Reagan would have thrown a banquet for the beautiful and powerful and then blamed the poor for starving themselves to death. In a master act of denial-of-facts equals victory, Reagan’s administration lowered the Federal poverty threshold and then announced that their policies had resulted in a reduction of people living below the poverty line. Moving the goalposts equals progress. Faced with a choice, Reagan would just damn the facts and pick the answer he wanted. He didn’t sweat the details or the shades of grey because he knew the public wouldn’t either. He was the Lone Ranger (not the troubled “Shane” or the angry Sheriff of “High Noon”). He was NEVER guilty of doubt or hesitation and never needed to think things over. He wasn’t really a warrior, but he looked and acted like one from the movies. He told us pretty platitudes that we found more comfortable than uncertain and difficult decisions. He was a jolly Gordon Gecko who gave jelly beans to visitors, made us feel like greed and intentional stupidity were virtues and he looked good in a cowboy hat. And when we looked at him: the eternal, sunny optimist, we believed that our shit did not stink. And that was what we wanted.


One of the heroes of my misspent youth was Guy Debord (picture at right) who was born right before WW2 and killed himself in 1994. Debord was a French film maker, artist, philosopher, sometimes poet, dreamer and social agitator whom most people would describe as a ‘Marxist’ but from what I know of him, he was more playful and irreverent than most Marxists I have met (perhaps more of a Groucho Marxist than a Karl Marxist).

I first heard of him years ago when I happened to read an excerpt of Greil Marcus’ book, “Lipstick Traces” in a magazine, got hooked and had to run out and buy the book so I could read the rest. In Lipstick Traces, Marcus interweaves history, philosophy and art criticism, going through the Surrealists and Dadaists and post war European malaise to discover the roots of punk rock, because something in his mind made him realize the world could or might be different when he heard the Sex Pistols sing “Anarchy in the UK.” When he started digging, he discovered other revolutionaries, including religious heretics, artists, madmen, ranters and predictors of the apocalypse and I discovered much of this fascinating history through Marcus’ book, which I devoured. Marcus is a music critic who has written for magazines like Rolling Stone, and he can pull this off because he is much smarter than I could ever hope to be and endlessly curious — unafraid to draw parallels between Johnny Rotten and medieval heretics and thereby trace the current in the cultural river, trying to divine where it came from and where it might go, rather than just saying, “So and so’s new record is cool so why don’t you buy it…”

Through Marcus, I discovered Debord, whom I considered a kind of artistic and philosophical kindred spirit at the time. Debord grew up in post war France, with rampant Western consumerism battling inflexible Socialist ideaology from the East — and he found both to be empty charades at best, death in life at worst. The west offered the ‘freedom’ to have whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it, but intruded in our lives with constant demands that we embrace it’s consumerist ideology. Debord found Soviet Europe similarly oppressive — both East and West offered a life of drudgery and although the bars of the social “prison” were more nicely gilded in France than in Soviet East Germany, Debord didn’t want to live in either of those places.

He wrote a book called, “Society of the Spectacle,” in which he claimed that in the west we lived in a culture of constantly created desires and projected images and messages that replaced our own dreams and imagination. I don’t know if he ever got the chance to read Pahulniak’s ‘Fight Club,‘ (I think it was published after Debord’s death), but Debord was Tyler Durden long before Pahulniak was even born. “Society of the Spectacle” was bound in sand paper — so when you put it in a shelf with other books, it would slowly destroy the other books whenever you pulled it out or put it back. Debord also made films in which he intentionally fucked with and frustrated the viewer. He wanted to shake people out of what he thought was a sleepwalker’s existence. He and his friends collaborated on projects and created an artists collective they called The Situationalist International (or S.I. for short). You can still read their stuff online. They would collaborate on poems, collages, ‘zines and activities. Debord proclaimed that the ultimate Situationist activity was just wandering the world. He said, “We drift.” Maybe that sums up what they did — the artistic freedom to do nothing. Modern day Lollards. I can relate to that.

Years have passed and I’m afraid I mellowed a bit. Unlike the Johnny Rotten of “Anarchy in the UK,’ I no longer “want to destroy the passer by…”

Right! NOW! ha ha ha ha ha

I am an anti-christ
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want but
I know how to get it
I wanna destroy the passer by cos I…

I wanna BE anarchy! (u.s.w.)

These days, I’d be reluctant to join a fight club because I’d be afraid of getting my teeth knocked out (funny how that specific fear scares me the most). Have I given up? Gotten lazy? Sold out? Or was it all just an affectation of youthful bravado on my part? I suspect all of the above.

Debord’s own story does not seem to have ended happily. Years of heavy drinking and drug use took their toll on his health. His critical stance became more and more exacting as the years passed and collaborators became enemies for having violated the groups increasingly stringent ideological standards. Once you were out of the S.I., the existing members were forbiodden to even mention your name. The society founded on creative collaboration eventually became an ideological cult with Debord at the center. I think eventually The S.I. consisted of just Debord alone. Sick, old and probably bored and lonely, he killed himself. Honestly, as much as I admire the man’s brilliant ideas, I suspect he followed them all the way to their natural conclusions…. and I don’t want to end up like that.