Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

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How Do We Assess Our Past?

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               Frieze in the U.S. Capitol 

How do we acknowledge the past without making unearned judgments about the moral failures of our ancestors?

At the recent meeting of the American Historical Association in Philadelphia, members predictably debated how academics should evaluate historical figures who acted within the framework of their generation’s social norms. We know that Thomas Jefferson and many of America’s founders owned slaves. At the time of the founding of the country cultural leaders were content to exclude women, African Americans and others to wealth and access to real power.  We can’t ignore such serious offenses.  Yet, sometimes lives need to be assessed with an eye on coping with complex binaries that exist within the same person.

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It is now a social science given that key institutions—the church, education, government and most of the working world—carried built-in biases against citizens who were clearly entitled to equal protections and opportunities.  Any number of politicians would like to challenge what now vilified as ‘critical race theory.’ But there is no question that earlier narratives and practices across the culture perpetuated embedded racial and gender biases. Think of Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan or James Webb. Each carried prejudices that explain serious leadership deficits. Reagan, for example, was slow to act on the AIDS crisis that tore through the gay community. I’ll add another: growing up in Colorado, I don’t remember any schooling that covered the displacement or massacre of the indigenous people who originally inhabited the region. It’s possible my earlier distracted person missed something, but the sad story of the Sand Creek Massacre was definitely not a preferred narrative.

To our credit, most of us feel a degree of cognitive dissonance on discovering that beloved institutions or figures were carriers of poisonous prejudices. When we apply our newer sensibilities to what we see in history’s rear-view mirror, we can’t help but cringe at mainstream attitudes that were once accepted, mostly without dissent.

The challenge of “presentism”

How do we acknowledge the details of the past without making unearned judgments about the moral failures of our ancestors? To do so is sometimes labeled as “presentism,” an urge to render assessments of individuals, bypassing the necessary work of accurately placing their lives within the context of their own world.

At the conference James Sweet, a black studies historian at the University of Wisconsin, noted that “repairing historical wrongs” is important, but the job of a historian is to offer context, giving “as full a render of the past as our sources allow.”  But his view was doubted by many, who believe it is wrong to separate description from necessary judgment—especially in an era when many leaders on the right would like to prohibit classroom discussions of racial or sexual discrimination.

Like most others, I’m incensed by this kind of misguided legislating. But if we believe we are now ahead of the curve in moving toward moral justice, we should probably think again. As George Scialabba recently noted recently in Commonweal, “it is pretty certain that the average educated human of the twenty-third century will look back at the average educated human of the twenty-first century and ask incredulously about a considerable number of our most cherished moral and political axioms, “How could they have believed that?” His complaint is centered on everyday social inequalities that we rarely notice: for example, the fact that an American CEO can make 300 times what their employees take home. We only notice it when someone reminds us to look. The point is that moral certainty that allows definitive judgments about short-sighted ancestors is perpetually reflexive. There is no finite geography of moral certitude we can claim as our own. There is always another higher peak beyond the one we thought we just topped.

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Those Many Trips Around the Sun

For starters, age brings freedom. At a certain point you get to set your own standards, like substituting donuts for protein.

January is the month for birthdays in my family.  Everyone seems to have one. And all have followed convention by becoming just a bit older. Yearly trips around the sun carry the price of some wear and tear on the body, with the compensation of expanding in to a little more compassion and empathy for others. No guarantees, of course. We’ve all known people who wear their accumulating years with little grace. We have the bite marks on our lips to prove it.

But aging still has clear advantages; those of us who are old enough to remember the telephone as a complete nuisance are likely to see added years more clearly. For starters, age brings freedom. At a certain point you get to set your own standards, like substituting donuts for protein, or including wine and ketchup in the food hierarchy of fruits and vegetables. In that improved guide, a Mediterranean diet of pizza and pasta go to the very top.

Men who have been freed from the strictures of a daily job also get to revert to the kinds of outfits they liked when they were eight years old. And retirement brings more freedom to chase after balls of various sizes around courts and weeds. Women have the tougher road to aging; they must suffer through a shameless juggernaut of media content pushing clothes, diet and skin products that promise too much. With these changes, most of us who have circumnavigated the sun more times than some asteroids have lost interest in mirrors and selfies. After every house remodel my bathroom mirror grows smaller. It’s turns out to be better all around to finally look outward.

Another advantage of passing into older age is the fact that most people assume that you can’t hear very well. That’s true for some. But this stereotype is an opportunity to finally have a reason to ignore unpleasant comments from fools who deserve to be unnoticed. There are few things I liked about the Reagan Presidency. But Reagan mastered the blank smile of a person who hasn’t a clue of what you are saying. I like to think that his bad hearing might have even saved lives.

Age also takes away some of the endless concerns shared by most of the young that they are meeting the standards of others. In most cases parents counterbalanced their love with expectations that outstripped the numerous jeremiads of the Puritans. Many of us have spent years trying to fulfill what was anticipated for us. We were usually not neglected, but also not allowed to forget the well-intended but incessant reminders related to schooling, possible careers, romantic partners, saving money, and finding useful interests. Many of us became temporary Reagans, learning to nod in agreement while keeping our own counsel. For everyone else, adulthood and a real income makes psychotherapy an option for putting frayed egos back together.