Lately, I’ve been thinking about the enduring prevalence of classic rock in our cultural landscape as the Rolling Stones launches yet another tour this year.
I’ve been considering the impact of the music on our collective consciousness. As the songs of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, the Stones and Buffalo Springfield runs through my mind, I think back to the times in which these lyrics of protest and unrest were born.
In the early 1960s, there was a cultural uprising that was meant to be more than fashion and attitude, but a conversation for real political change. Civil rights, women’s lib, free speech and sexual liberation were cultural banners flying along side of the anti-Vietnam War marches. In the end, I think the generation of “baby-boomers,” as we are sometimes known — the generation of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement — won the cultural revolution, but lost the political and economic war. Let me explain.
The legacy of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, goes back to before he ever ran for governor of California. In the 1950s he was president of the Screen Actor’s Guild. Reagan was one of those Hollywood conservatives who caved into the McCarthy “Red Scare” and turned against many of his own guild members who refused to answer the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a communist?”
Reagan helped destroy the lives and careers of many an actor and writer whose only crime was taking the Fifth Amendment defense in front of House of Un-American Activities Committee. This was only the start down the long road that would lead him to the presidency and a transformative shift in how we think of our government and how the political propaganda reframed the culture.
However, it was as governor of California, from 1967 to 1975, that his true anti-New Deal politics were revealed. The march toward law and order and building more prisons, the underfunding of the state college system under Proposition 13, his use of the National Guard on college campuses and his hallmark quote on the environment: “If you’ve seen one redwood tree you’ve seen the all” that speaks loudly of his reactionary values. Yet, Reagan was not solely responsible. As we learned later, he did have collaborators. In fact, he was just the “front-man” — the hired face— for his corporate and conservative sponsors.
Only when he was inaugurated, in 1981, did we clearly understand his true faith when he announced, “that government is not the solution to our problems. It is the problem.” We are just now beginning to understand the social costs of this philosophy with the underfunding of education and expansion of prison construction, while super-charging the War on Drugs that began under Richard Nixon. If you build ’em you got to fill ’em. And now, we are understanding the deficit we’ve inherited with this investment. Of course, schools are failing. That was kind of the idea behind not having too many well-educated people demonstrating on campuses.
Remember Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign? There was this very likable, yet simplistic, attitude that both Ron and Nancy had towards almost everything they promoted, which was so completely out-of-touch. The “Just Say No to Drugs”campaign failed ultimately because of the huge influx of cheap cocaine that flooded America’s streets — a phenomenon that was significantly due to President Reagan’s own support for the Contra counter-revolution in Central America. Those drugs helped fund that war–along with arms sales to terrorist supporters in Iran. The “Just Say No” public relations campaign was a mask that was used to deflect any culpability in what later was revealed as the Iran-Contra scandal. That should have toppled his presidency and indicted his cabinet. Yet he survived. Now he’s remembered as a fearless champion that stood up to the Soviet Union and made Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall.
But Reagan is given far too much credit for the end of the Cold War. As I have said several times before, the fall of the Soviet Union had more to do with their centrally controlled economy and their lack of access to outside capital because of their fundamental opposition to capitalism. The USSR for all intents, fell apart because of the weight of its own internal inefficiencies and corruptions. It reminds me of Wall Street’s sub-prime mortgage.
Ironically, the Soviet Union’s fall was something that even our own intelligence agencies completely missed–even as rightwing critics were attacking the CIA for supposedly underestimating the Soviet threat! Out intelligence agencies were dumbstruck at the collapse of the communist system. If anything, Reagan’s expansion of the American deficit and the threat to build a trillion dollar Star Wars defense system, that never worked, probably only convinced Gorbachev that the Soviets would go bankrupt competing in the Cold War arms race–but only after that buildup first strengthened the hand of Soviet hardliners, opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms. And for this, Reagan is considered a political genius?
Some readers will object to this reading of Reagan’s record as it runs counter to the popular myth regarding his presidency. What we are now having to deal with is the indisputable results of the trends and policies that he initiated both as governor and then as president. What we have inherited is a prison population that has increased 500 percent from 1982 until 2000 and that is overcrowded beyond its design capacity by 200 percent, causing federal courts to intervene.
The federal war on drugs implemented in 1986 and signed into law by Reagan increased incarceration rates predominantly on minorities. The crime of drug addiction has subsequently spread like a cancer from the streets of South Central to every community in North America as cocaine transformed into even more affordable and addictive crack with devastating social and health effects. The correlation between crime and dropout rates of students and increase drug addiction couldn’t be more clear.
The drug war has promoted not stopped the biggest black market enterprise since Prohibition creating dozens of drug cartels that, as we have pushed free-trade into Mexico, they have in turn pushed back millions of tons of illicit drugs back across our borders. This drug-related trade has corrupted not only Mexico and other Latin American countries, while killing over 50,000 Mexican citizens, it has also corrupted our own system.
Meanwhile, the underfunding of both public education and public health systems has only driven the costs of both skyrocketing up not unlike the budget for Reagan’s Star Wars anti-missile system. The modus operandi behind it all is the Ayn Rand anti-government philosophy that idealizes the singular individual’s existence and not the collective good, remember government is the problem? It is really sad that so many of my generation who benefited from the investment in the public good of the generation before have confused the “my generation do-your-own-thing” with the clandestine cooptation of drugs-sex and rock ’n’ roll for corporate profits, and ended up thinking that this has liberated them.
Sure, I too have opposed “The Man” and railed against the system at nearly every step of my life, from zealous high school vice-principals abridging students’ free speech, to war mongering presidents of both parties, unruly cops wanting to thump a hippie or a black man driving in Torrance. But my own protests of individual rights have always been couched in the concept of the greater good for all. The “injury to one is an injury to all” motto of the ILWU is and should be understood to stetch far beyond the waterfront–as, indeed, Harry Bridges repeatedly stressed that it did. It is the “no man is an island” concept of John Donne, poetry that at one time was taught in public schools but which is now thrown overboard on the life raft of back to basics, in which every man for himself excels.
This is the end equation of the Reaganomics counter-revolutio, the dumbing down of the general public, imprisoning those who fail and commodifying the public sphere. It is the selling off of public assets to the point that there is no longer any conception of the “we” as in “We the people.” And the damnable thing is that with all of this con-job of trickle-down economics and the exploding of the deficits of the public purse, we are now being held hostage to both a war policy and a monetary policy that restricts our collective freedom and saddles us with needless debt. All the while convincing us that we are free!
Right now I’m thinking of that line in a Dylan song, “ I don’t want to work on Maggie’s farm no more.”
I’m wondering if culture can ever triumph over the failed economics of empire before the whole ship of state implodes? Capt. Reagan has already jumped ship off the shores of Navarone and the rats are heading for the lifeboats before the storm — the beauty parlor is full of sailors and the circus is in town.