My Life as a Resident Alien: Reflections on Reagan and “Feeling” Good About America Again

Published as a ZNet Commentary,, 6/13/04

Despite being born in the United States and living here all of my life, I guess I’m still not really an American. For if I were, then surely I would have “felt good” when Ronald Reagan was President, since, I’m told, Reagan made Americans feel good again.

Lucky thing for Americans, because he made me feel like crap.

When he vetoed economic sanctions against South Africa — because after all, what’s a little apartheid between friends? — I distinctly recall feeling something other than good.

And when he bombed Libya in an attempt to assassinate Qadaffi — and in retaliation for a terrorist incident he knew had been the work of Syrians — I remember feeling something quite a bit different than the first time I had sex, which (for me at least) felt very good.

In fact, the day after the assault on Tripoli, in which we failed to kill Qadaffi but succeeded in obliterating his infant daughter, I remember going to work — I was 17, sacking groceries at the time — and being told by a smiling cashier, with big blonde hair and bangs reaching for Jesus, that it had been worth it, because, “She would have grown up to be a terrorist one day.” The daughter, that is, not the cashier.

Let’s just say — and I’m not proud of this by the way, just being honest — that the feeling that washed over me at that moment was less along the lines of “good,” and more along the lines of, “Would I lose my college scholarship if I jumped across the register and throttled this dumbshit where she’s standing?” Not good at all, terrible in fact, unconscionable, but I was 17, and she had just applauded murder, so I’ll have to beg forgiveness for what may have been one of the few moments in my life where I actually wanted to do violence to someone.

I do remember feeling good in 1981, that day in March when Reagan was shot. Now I know that’s terrible. But I was 12, and responding in the kind of immature fashion so typical for a pre-teen. Blame it on hormones, or whatever. I didn’t want him to die; in fact I remember feeling “good” that he had pulled through; but I was sorta hoping that maybe he’d have to step down, maybe he’d be incapacitated just long enough to be unable to finish out his Presidency. That maybe he’d have to go back to his ranch and live out his days as a private citizen.

Yes I felt very good about that; well, that is until I heard Al Haig say that he was in charge until Reagan returned, which suggested not only his megalomania but also his failure to grasp a little thing called “chain of succession,” which would not have put him in charge in any event.

And when Reagan said that what he wanted, “above all else, is that this country remains a country where someone can always be rich,” I remember having a reaction quite a bit removed from feeling good. Rather, I felt a little ill, because the ability of some to be rich, especially very rich, inevitably requires that others must be poor, in fact very poor. Truly rich people, after all, never work themselves. You can’t get rich — I mean really rich — by working. You can only get rich — I mean stinkin,’ filthy rich — by having enough resources to get others to work for you, at wages well below the value of what they produce. Nope, that didn’t make me feel good at all.

I know I wasn’t “feeling good” when Reagan’s Undersecretary of Defense — some deranged bottom-feeder named T.K. Jones — declared that we’d all survive a nuclear war if there were “enough shovels to go around,” since we could just throw dirt on our bomb shelters and wait out the radiation. As Jones explained, “It’s the dirt that does it.” Maybe this reassured Americans, wherever they lived, but to a 14-year old kid in Nashville, it was terrifying. “Americans” may feel differently, but it failed to make me feel good, knowing that my nation’s leaders were less intelligent than myself, in ninth grade no less.

When Reagan’s first budget director, David Stockman, told Senator Moynihan that the Administration had deliberately created a budget shortfall and deficit with huge tax cuts, so as to force reductions in social program spending, I don’t think my reaction was to feel good, though I guess Americans, whoever they are, thought that was pretty damned cool.

When Reagan declared, “All the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide have their answer in a single book–the Bible,” it was not good that I felt, whatever the hell Americans might have been thinking, but dizzy; dizzy as I realized that this cultural Neanderthal either really believed that nonsense (quick, what’s the Biblical answer to the complex and horrendous fact that my computer crashes at least twice a week?), or was so craven that he would spout inanities of this sort just to make a morally obtuse cretin like Jerry Falwell happy.

And I sure as hell didn’t feel good a few years later in college, sitting in the audience, watching Reagan’s Attorney General Ed Meese pontificate about how Arkansas’ Governor Faubus had been on solid constitutional ground when he tried to block black kids from attending school at Little Rock Central High. In fact, if Americans felt good about that, then Americans need to go and seriously screw themselves.

I dunno, maybe it’s just me. Maybe Americans need grandfather figures to make them feel good. Maybe Americans are a bunch of abused children, or the sons and daughters of an alcoholic, always seeking approval from some distant, cold patriarch. Or maybe Americans are all Libras, constantly trying to find the good in people, and trying to make peace, and negotiating without passing too much judgment.

But no, that can’t be it. I’m a Libra, and for that matter the child of an alcoholic, who, come to think of it drank a lot during the Reagan years, and that doesn’t count, because it wasn’t Reagan making him feel good, it was Smirnoff.

Maybe that’s what folks mean when they say Reagan made America feel good again. Maybe the ’81-’82 recession led to so much drug and alcohol abuse, or anti-depressant ‘scrips being written that folks felt better, even as their lives were going down the toilet. Prozac will do that for ya.

Or maybe Americans (once again, whoever they are) really do like to have a President who knows even less about the world than they do, and who can make them feel intelligent by comparison. If so, there’s no doubt why they would have loved Reagan, and no doubt at all as for whom they’ll be voting in November.

And please, spare me the “don’t speak ill of the dead” routine. While I normally agree with this maxim, it’s hard to apply such an ecumenical platitude to a guy who never felt the need to apply the same standard to the living, like the women on welfare who he ridiculed as freeloaders and criminals. And as I recall, he and his henchmen had no trouble speaking ill of the nuns murdered by his benefactors in El Salvador, claiming — let’s see, what was it? — oh yeah, that the nuns had probably run a roadblock, and so, presumably deserved to die, but only after being raped, which I guess they also deserved.

I for one refuse to believe that most Americans actually feel good about any of this. But what I also know is that what America really thinks rarely matters, as the media would prefer to present the shiny happy version of our nation’s past and present: a version in which there are no death squads funded by us, and where Saddam Hussein got all that poison gas from someone else, instead of us, and where the Mujahadeen really were freedom fighters, just like Reagan said, putting aside that pesky little bin Laden fella.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and maybe this is what America likes, in which case I think I prefer my life as a resident alien.

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