So, given the last week’s worth of utterly unpredictable news…something that expresses my feelings about the future.
So, given the last week’s worth of utterly unpredictable news…something that expresses my feelings about the future.
I bought the lens. The weather subsequently turned crappy and I’ve only gotten a chance to shoot with it once. So, I’ll use what I have till the elements decide to let it be nicer.
(Hey, I’m older, I don’t need to put up with rain, sleet, snow, and freezing cold for art if I don’t want to.)
I feel Complete once more. I bought my digital SLR back in 2011, a Canon 60D. I have had no complaints with it. But I have been limited to one lens (18 to 135 mm), which hasn’t been a tremendous hardship, but I’ve been wanting to get a second lens for a while. I finally did, a Canon 70 to 300mm. So I have a good range now.
Naturally, as soon as I could I did some test shots. A sample:
I enjoyed a brief conversation yesterday on the subject of writing. The act of it, the discipline, the challenge. The prompt was “writing every day.” Somewhere along the way, we who do this as—well, as more than a hobby, but often less than a profession (even if we have pretensions in that direction)—receive that bit of advice: write every day. Even if it’s only a sentence.
Partly, this is a matter of discipline. Partly exercise, like working out. Mainly, though, it’s a combination of establishing a habit, so it becomes automatic, and creating a space in one’s psyche where this thing happens.
I know, that’s imprecise. Everyone has such a space, though. It’s where we store all the processes and associated tools for a task we do all the time but is in some ways apart from who we consciously are. We label it the Creative Process, among other things, but have no real handle on what exactly it is.
Where it comes from, though, is less ethereal. It comes from engagement. It comes from doing. It comes from repeatedly demanding of ourselves that something cool be produced and put into the world. As a kid hunched over a blank piece of paper, pencils and crayons at hand, trying to draw, maybe even make a comic, scrawling sometimes because there’s a shape you want to make but it just won’t appear. You don’t have the skills, not yet, just the urge (and the urgency) and some time. (Time, that intangible we have so much of at five that when we’re thirty-five has become naggingly scarce and at sixty-five is more precious than anything but love.) Some, maybe most, give up when it proves too difficult. They can’t control the pencil, they haven’t got a “knack” for it (which is a way of saying it may be a skill requiring far more time and attention than they’re willing to commit), or they can’t quite visualize what exactly they want to create. Others yield to distractions—games, media, friends who want to monopolize even that bit of time, chores, or the mine field of living a less than nurturing life—and some never feel the urge in the first place. Other things attract their obsessive attention.
When we’re children, we don’t recognize “practice” as an intentional effort to improve. We practice walking, but it doesn’t feel like that. We practice talking. We practice social intercourse. We practice reading. If we’re enjoying it, having fun, or simply doing something that seems like the thing to do, it doesn’t register as practice. Not until we consciously acknowledge that we’re trying to achieve a specific goal. Once walking and running become either sport or turn into dancing and we realize there are skill levels we need to achieve, then we understand the idea of practice.
It’s odd, then, to realize that so many people assume that when it comes to writing, expectations are different. The idea of practice comes as a shock. After all, they’ve been reading since they can remember and they’ve had to write papers through school (presumably) and all this, if done at all diligently, no longer seems like work. (Reading, especially. We don’t usually think about practice when it comes to reading, it’s something we just do, like breathing. At least some of us. And for those for whom it does not come easily, it seems never to occur to many of them that they could practice it and get better. It’s something we either do or get by without.) You see this surprise in people who attempt to write—a novel, a memoir, a history—without ever having undergone any of the preparatory work to learn how, and are then told “You don’t know to write.”
There is a point when all of us who want to be writers suffer this realization. Some less than others—there really does seem to be a “natural” facility in place for certain people, but it’s an illusion; dig deep enough you will likely find long periods when writing as practice was going on, either in journals and diaries or personal essays—but no one is born with a “gift” that allows us to produce masterful work at first attempt. We have to learn. We have to practice.
And carving out a regular space in which to do that is essential. Hence the “write every day” dictum. You do it till it becomes a habit. You get to a point where you don’t feel quite right if you don’t.
But then, once established, you practice.
When I announced my desire to become a photographer (at about age 15 or 16) my father bought me a lab, I acquired a decent camera, and then took it everywhere. What dad then did suggests he understood this concept of practice even as it applied to art: he bought me a case of film (about 250 rolls of film at that time) and told me to blaze away. When I worked my way through all that film, I knew something about photography beyond the mechanics.
Almost none of those pictures was worth a damn as art.
Ansel Adams once allowed that an artist is good in direct proportion to how much he or she has thrown away.
Learning to write is a long process where, having carved out the time and space to do so, you write. A million, two million words, which you then pretty much discard.
You can be taught grammar. You can be taught formatting (though, from some examples I’ve seen, this seems to be one of the hardest lessons to learn). You can learn many things having to do with craft (limiting adjectives, using an active voice, eliminating said-bookisms, point of view).
You cannot be taught the art, that is finding what it is you want to say and honing it to where it actually emerges from the words. This is the thing you bring to the endeavor that is yours. It cannot come from outside.
But you have to practice until it emerges.
A million, two million, three million words. The muscles ache but build, the synapses interconnect, the hidden pathways become clearer.
It can’t be taught because what I’m talking about is personal. You can be guided. It can’t become something other people might want to read in complete isolation. You write, someone reads, hands it back puzzled. Questions. Try this. Better? No, that’s not what I’m trying to say.
A million, two million…
Observation. Most visual art is observation. Look closer. Stop being overwhelmed by the distractions, the colors, the shifting shapes, the preconceptions. We see what we expect to see most of the time. Learn to filter. The artist extracts from the expected what it actually there to be seen. (I often heard from people looking at my photographs “Damn, I would never have thought to take a picture of that.” Which usually meant they would never have seen that. And even then, it was not so much the thing but the way it is presented, so that it reveals. “But what are we revealing in writing that requires that much attention?” Everything that is important. “But how can I tell?” Look closer. Write more.)
Start by making that space.
I do not write every day. Not anymore. I try, I intend to, and when I don’t I feel uneasy. But I used to, sometimes necessitating being something of an ass to the people around me. (You can tell when people don’t understand the idea of practice when it comes to writing by how many will interrupt a writer with the assumption that they aren’t actually doing anything.) Over years, the words took on heft, weight, concrete meanings. The configurations did things to readers. The descriptions became windows or doorways rather than blueprints. It happens gradually, sometimes glacially, and before you get there it can be profoundly frustrating.
“I read this and that and tried to write that way and it still doesn’t come out the way I want it to.”
The other benefit of that million or two of discarded and buried wordage is that obscure goal of Finding Your Own Voice. Like most aphorisms about writing, it’s a tantalizing idea that says too much and too little. Those dispensing it know what it means, but those needing wisdom might not get it.
Your Own Voice, on the page, is not the voice with which you speak in everyday exchanges. Like everything else on the page, it is entirely artificial. That does not mean fake, which too often is what we hear when discussing art. We place a premium on “honesty” and “sincerity” as if that’s all we require, unconsciously (and sometimes ostentatiously) rejecting artifice as somehow impure, when in reality learning the craft and honing our art—becoming good artificers—is the only way to reach the levels of truth we seek to convey. Finding your own voice is a consequence of learning how to say what we feel and observe, and that requires skills which are learned, practiced, and built over time.
Frank Lloyd Wright joked once, when he was in his eighties, that he had designed so many buildings that he could just “shake them out of my sleeve.” He meant, of course, that he had acquired a level of craft and skill which channeled his visions as a matter of course. He had become, over decades of work, so adept that when he imagined something he could just sit down and do the technical end almost by second-nature.
The first step in reaching that level is making that space wherein the practice occurs.
We practice all the time. (John Lennon said, speaking of their early years playing clubs, “We played so regularly we never needed to practice, we were practicing on stage.”)
Writing is one of those endeavors that we seem to require inspiration to do it. The thing is, when we teach our subconscious that it can have its own time and space in which to do this, eventually it will sync up, and when our Writing Time rolls around, our muse shows up. This is also a result of practice. We train our imagination and our subconscious to cooperate with our discipline.
Not always. We have wordless days. But over time, with diligence, those days become the exception.
One last thing before I conclude. Don’t believe that everything you write, even when you reach the point of reliably putting words down every day, is supposed to be epic. Editing is the other part of this process and that is a different process and a different set of expectations. And sometimes you throw out even good sentences, because they will not serve. The surest way to block yourself is to have unreasonable expectations. If you think after that million or two million words you should be producing Great Work every time you sit down to write, you will cripple yourself.
The visuals speak for themselves. We wandered around the section of Beverly Hills where we stayed, less than half a mile from the Writers Guild Theater where the memorial was held. So, to more or less complete the “report,” I give you…
I promised to do something about our L.A. trip in September.
Over the last decade or so I realized that, unexpectedly, Harlan Ellison had become a friend. One of those with whom, despite only occasional contact, you connect with on some level which eludes description. I’ve puzzled over this from time to time, but was told by people I trust finally to just go with it.
Harlan trusted me enough to come to St. Louis for a local convention and put in an appearance despite considerable obstacles. He had suffered a stroke which left him physically diminished, he had undergone a number of blows healthwise, and, frankly, he had run himself at the edge of endurance for all his life.
I’ve written elsewhere about Harlan’s influences, on me and others, and what I thought of him as a writer. To encapsulate, I think he was remarkable and unclassifiable. He loved tilting at windmills. He tried to use his stories to expand the reader’s awareness, mostly of our own limitations, and give us an experience that might alter our perspective, emotionally, ethically, politically, and personally. To grapple with an Ellison story in its best example was to, whether we knew it or not, grapple with our own inner landscapes. In my opinion, Harlan Ellison was Up There, along with the Borges and the Vidals and the Capotes, the Lessings and the MacLeans and the Le Guins and the Munros. He managed to impact science fiction so significantly that it is difficult to talk about it without a nod to the seminal Dangerous Visions anthologies.
He did not live curtained behind his literary output. He was as voluble and controversial in his public self as he was dynamic and influential in his work and this, naturally, has led to, at best, a mixed legacy. I defy anyone to be so personally consistent and engaged at that level and make no enemies, leave behind undisturbed waters, and stir no antipathy even among those sympathetic.
Be that as it may, my acquaintance with him was surprising, enlightening, and altogether positive. He credited me with being a good writer and that is something, because he did not bullshit about that.
After his visit to St. Louis, I spoke to him a couple of times. He suggested we needed to come out there, to see him, to see the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars, to talk privately. Once more. He made me wish I’d met him ten years before I had.
For a variety of reasons, we delayed. Then I saw that the 2019 Nebula Awards were to be held in Los Angeles, so I asked Donna, what would you say to that and while we’re there we can go see Harlan and Sue? Of course, yes, call him.
I didn’t. I wanted to get a couple of things settled, line up a few more ducks, so to speak. I was going to call. I was going to call that weekend.
And at work I saw the notice of his passing.
To say that 2018 was a cruel year is too imprecise. A lot of people, friends and casual acquaintances, people we knew, were fond of, had good memories of, died last year. Harlan’s passing stung in a different way than Ursula’s, which was distinct from Vic’s. But it did sting, not least because of that intended phone call and the possible visit.
When we were called to be invited to the private memorial, there was no question of not going. We arrived on Friday, checked into our hotel, and then reached out to see what was happening. “Some of us are getting together with Sue at Mel’s Diner.” We called a cab and, because it was Friday and that time of day, we inched our way over the hill to Ventura Boulevard to join Sue and close friends.
Yes, that Mel’s Diner.
Here we are:
We were just sent this picture, which Donna shot with Marty’s phone. Marty is the one sitting opposite me. We’re the only ones with hats.
It’s a moment. I don’t know everyone in the picture. Next to Marty is Jon Manzo and next to him is Sue. The huddle to the right in the corner are more friends, in particular Tim and Andrea. Greg Ketter from Dreamhaven Books is further down on the right side of the table.
We met a lot more people the next evening at the memorial. George Takei and Walter Koenig were there, Melinda Snodgrass, George R.R. Martin, Tim and Serena Powers, L. Q. Jones, David Gerrold. A lot of stories were passed around, a lot of memories. They, however, are private.
There is a whole massive piece of my personal history entangled with Harlan Ellison from before I had any possibility of calling him on the phone. It is, for some of us, awkward to make that transition from One Who Is Influenced By to a friend. I doubtless made a bit of a fool of myself tripping over my tongue. It took a while to get over the hero worship. He made it easier than it might have been, because he had no patience with it.
You can sometimes gauge the size of someone’s soul by seeing those who will remember him fondly. Harlan’s soul was pretty damn big. And by “soul” I do not mean some ethereal afterlife wisp of religiously defined phlogiston. No, I mean the very real imprint left behind on the people who knew him, either through the work or personally.
He was here and for a while he mattered. For many of us, he still matters. And for the rest, pick up one of his books and read—he’s still here.
I suppose I should do this. What a year. What a miserable year.
Not entirely. But it’s amazing how a couple of truly unpleasant events can color an entire period, mixed bag though it is. There were good things, there were pleasant things, there was ample to lift the spirits.
It’s just that they had to be lifted so far.
As year-in-review posts go, I should probably keep this one short.
At some point back in the spring I finished my last novel. (Or was that the year before? I’d have to check, I don’t remember. No, that was April of 2017, so among other things my sense of time is fraying.) So a year and a half (or more) ago I turned in a novel to my agent and I am still waiting. I should be good at this.
I say “my last novel” because I have a drawer-full unsold. (I know what it was. I set aside the third volume of the alternate history trilogy I’d been working on to do Voyage of the Only Child and went back to it that fall and finished a draft this year. Okay, not as frayed as I thought.) I decided to go back to short fiction. The trouble is, I haven’t been writing short stories on a regular basis for so long that somewhere along the way I sort of forgot how.
Not completely. I’ve got a half dozen in rough draft now. I just have to find the time and patience to do them up and get them out, but that’s on track, and I actually submitted two stories last month.
All of that to say, basically, that this year has caused me to reassess my so-called career.
I don’t really have one. There are many factors at work—lack of time, too many things vying for my attention, being 64 and tired—many I’m probably not even aware of. My output, which used to be respectable, has slowed to a crawl.
I’m working on it. That fact alone is a positive. I am working on it. I’ve got new stories in process, ideas, and I find I cannot just say I’m done. I have officially given up on quitting. It never works and I start to sound like a broken record.
It helps to be working with several of the brightest people it has ever been my privilege to know.
It seems surreal that I’ve been working for Left Bank Books now six, almost seven years (is that right?) and I’m looking at the fourth year just ending running the Great Novels of the 22nd Century reading group there. The SF component of the store has grown and as of this past year we have a regular author track for events, the SF: STL series. Working with Archon has been a plus and it seems on track to become a Real Thing.
It seems often that all the peripheral things to The Career work out fine while the central thing—publishing books and stories—lags. I had something of a revelation this past year in a conversation with a coworker who claimed she wanted to be as successful as I. When I demurred, stating that I am not particularly successful, she cut me off and talked about how many books I’ve published.
Well, it did cause me to reassess, and it helped. Metrics vary, standards are different.
In the end, though, it comes down to how you see yourself. For now, I’ll keep that to myself.
2018 has been a mixed bag, to say the least. I’m not sure where it will end up, but right now it’s hard to get past the fact that too many friends have left the scene. It just wouldn’t stop, leaving the stage with one more loss that seemed almost insulting. But to who?
What I am looking forward to is a year of getting our feet back under us and accomplishing what we managed not to accomplish yet.
I read 76 books cover to cover (up from 51 the previous year) many of them read aloud to Donna in a newfound pastime we both enjoy. I’ll go over them on the Proximal Eye later.
As I said, I started submitting stories to magazines again. There aren’t that many of the old magazines left, but there are bunch of new ones.
I get up every day with curiosity, even though I feel wearier than ever before. I have no doubt the state of the world around me is a big contributing factor. It’s hard to be hopeful in the face of so much crap.
Philosophy has its benefits in this case, but I find the fact that we don’t have much choice but to do better pretty serviceable right now.
I plan to play a little chess, read several of the really Big Books on my to-be-read pile, and travel.
And write. Again, not a lot of choice there.
But I can endeavor to be less boring.
On that note, welcome to 2019, and I hope all who read this will find health, reason, joy, and hope in the coming months. Be safe, be alive, be well.
Trying to understand our present circumstances can easily take one into a kind of archaeology. How did we get here from…where?
I see a lot of people putting up old videos of Ronald Reagan making statements which the present Republican Party would not support on a bet. The argument over Social Security being one of them.
Listening to Reagan today feels odd, like he was some kind of kindly old uncle who patted the air and told us all to calm down and eat our vegetables and play nice. He is, however, held in such high esteem by people who wouldn’t tolerate his old school moderation for a minute, and you have to wonder why.
That he’s dead and no longer around to criticize helps. But it doesn’t explain the heart-felt gratitude of those who are so far to the right of him that it’s surprising they’re still on the map.
To a younger generation, it must seem strange. What was it about Reagan that has turned him into an icon for people who seem bent on dismantling everything he seemed to have stood for?
Knowing what he stood for, though, is a problem.
He was elected as a reaction to the public perception of his predecessor as a weak president. Reagan was the modern era’s first MAGA president.
To be fair, he was elected at the end of a decade of lows in American history. A president left office in disgrace, we ended a war in ignominious defeat (though many believed otherwise), the economy was reeling from the combination of major cuts in spending for war materiel, the demobilization of millions of servicemen, expanding job opportunities for women and minorities, and a general malaise. The Seventies were split between those who wanted to party and those who wanted the kind of presumed clarity of the WWII era. Jimmy Carter was a genuinely good man in an impossible position, although in hindsight he was dealing with things, and given another term might very well have solved many of these problems without the consequence of fueling a rising cronyism and the beginnings of the deep divisiveness we’re living with now. The debacle in Iran did him in and we elected The Great Communicator.
He had another nickname—the Teflon President. His administration resulted in 138 indictments and/or convictions for scandals, the largest of any president. Scandals from grant rigging to the savings & loan crisis (a test run for 2008) to the Iran-Contra Affair. Somehow, none of this managed to tar his image and no hint of any wrongdoing was ever successfully laid at his feet.
In my opinion, we are living through the consequences of Reagan and what I feel to be the greatest disservice he did to this country. Done, I have no doubt, from the best intentions. He saw himself as a savior, willing to do just about anything to rescue America from its own self.
A few years ago I was in attendance at an event with James Rosebush. He served as Nancy Reagan’s chief of staff. He had published a book, called True Reagan, and he was touring. The book is about Reagan’s religiosity. Apparently, Rosebush had had many conversations with Reagan and as the two of them shared deep religious convictions, many of these conversations revolved around that. Rosebush contended that Reagan was a Biblical scholar. During the presentation, there was even a hymn sung, Reagan’s favorite (no, I do not recall which it was).
Rosebush said something that night that sent a chill down my backside but which almost immediately put the last 30 years in a clear context. He claimed that one of Reagan’s core beliefs was that government, especially large government, was an obstacle to people knowing Jesus. That it was one of his missions to do something about that.
Hence the whole shrinking the size of the federal government thing he kicked off.
But it also makes one of Reagan’s most famous statements make a completely different kind of sense. “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Mileage varies, of course, and individually people will have different experiences, but when you consider the size and complexity of this country and all the services our governments, state, local, and federal, have performed, the United States has had possibly the most successful government in history. Never mind the mean-spirited detractors who spin it with hearsay and lie and chafe under regulations. Now that we have someone who actually is tearing things apart, as these institutions begin to fail we may come to see how well they worked before because we never noticed them till they no longer functioned.
But to the point that Reagan saw government as a barrier to god, that statement takes on a wholly different meaning.
The problem, of course, is that we did not know he believed that. Rosebush said Reagan knew he could never say so in public, because he knew he could never get elected.
I’m sorry, but that’s fraud. I believe we had a right to know that’s how he felt. Because most people who voted for him did so no doubt under the mistaken belief that he intended to make government work better. I can say that because throughout our history, that has been a basic assumption in ever election—vote for this guy because he’ll make things run better.
Not tear them apart.
Reagan’s antipathy toward the Soviet Union clarifies with this as well. Granted, most Americans thought of the Soviet Union as an enemy, but there was certain fervor Reagan brought to it that went a bit beyond. He raised the deficit and the national debt to field a war machine the sole purpose of which was to spend the Soviet Union into penury. But the fact remains that he was Republican, running in a party that traditionally viewed itself as the more fiscally responsible of the two major parties, and he began a decades-long cycle of mounting debt incurred under Republican administrations. Along with this was the rise of the Grover Norquist arm of conservatism which sought actively to suffocate the federal government.
This is the legacy of this unstated and unrevealed philosophy. The reversal of the parties in terms of spending and fiscal responsibility can be put on Reagan.
Two other things he did which, combined with the above, put him the running for one of our most destructive presidents. He opened the door to a politicized religious movement that has vexed us ever since and he initiated the Second Gilded Age with the absurdity of trickle-down economics.
Neither of those two had the kind of apparent impact they later manifested, but he started it, and, I believe, in support of his unstated belief that government must be reduced to a size where it can do almost nothing for people.
Because, after all, government gets in the way of people knowing god.
At this point, it would be useful to point out what may be, for some, a distinction without a difference. We are often challenged by charges of anti-religiosity when a programmatic measure is resisted or struck down as unConstitutional. School prayer, for instance. What seems obvious to those with less ideological intentions is that the idea of banning school prayer is absurd. No one can do that. Prayer is personal. How can it even be monitored? No one can stop a child from praying in school—silently, at any time. What is demanded, however, is not prayer but recitation in support of attempted conformism. Those who insist on such demonstrations, whether they realize or admit it, are not seeking a freedom to pray—which is private and personal and unrestricted—but the permission to force adherence by public observance. The difficulty should be obvious in any example of divergent religious beliefs.
This, among other things, becomes a rallying point for the belief that government interferes with religion. The day the government sends agents into a church and orders the congregation to cease worship is the day you will have that.
I point this out to make it clear that what has resulted from Reagan’s unstated beliefs is not in support of religion as a personal expression but an ongoing debate over the texture, tone, and tenor of our public identity. And before it is taken that I mean something akin to a fashion statement, it is important to remember that when you insert these changes into public discourse, you are making a statement about what is acceptable, which eventually can become matters of law. This is not benign. The simple answer to school prayer has always been: let each child pray silently according to his or her own creed, which has never been acceptable to the vocal advocates of formalized school prayer.
Because Reagan also allowed the intense politicization of the Religious Right in the form of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. As an example, he could not have been more obvious in his preferred form. Falwell was strident, divisive, arrogant, and something of a charlatan. His was a programmatic christianity that sought, in contrast to all past fundamentalist movements, political influence if not direct political control. Apologists will say Reagan only used them to stir up a base of voters with no real intention of ceding anything to them. If so, then that, too, would have been a species of fraud, but one we have become accustomed to, at least in a naively cynical way. By the end of his presidency, however, the lines had been clearly drawn and we see the battlefield in stark terms today.
At the same time, this movement, such as it was at the time, was gifted with an issue that allowed it to shift debate from the tractable to the unanswerable: abortion. What this did for those who have fueled the divisiveness is allow for transfer of concern from systems to identity in a way that had not been done since christianity overwhelmed pagan traditions.
Most problems in human relations can be addressed if not solved through practical methodologies—systems. Most of the 20th Century in the United States and, arguably, throughout the world has been a period of aggressively creating institutions and systems for dealing with what at one time or another have been profound problems, from food distribution to health care to legal equity for citizens. We were actually getting pretty good at it, so much so that it seemed possible that we might solve all the major problems and establish the kind of continental if not global future once considered the pipe dreams of science fiction. (We’re still on track in many areas, present calamity-politics notwithstanding.)
Granted, no system is perfect, and granted something always go awry. People get overlooked, ignored, sometimes trampled. (But if you want to look at an example of how successful our system-building has been, as a rough measure, look at how much free time and access so many people have today to complain about how bad they have it. Not that many people don’t have it bad, but compared to 60 or 70 years ago, more of us are enjoying the benefits of effective problem-solving to the point that too many people have no idea what it is they’re trying to dismantle or how bad things would become if the dismantling is successful.) But we can look back and see a clear progress. We’ve been getting there.
But systems are complex and understanding them, especially in terms of why something hasn’t been fixed yet, requires the kind of time and attention most of us do not have. When election time rolls around, many of the issues are abstract, heavy on detail, and necessitate a grasp of nuance in causal relationships that, frankly, we pay our representatives to understand so we can get on with our lives.
Along comes Reagan and, more importantly, the iconoclasts riding in on his coattails. In order to sell their program—and in order for the Religious Right to gain and maintain traction in the political sphere—the attention of the voter has to be moved from the mind-numbing tangle of systems to the clear-cut, heroic lines of indentitarianism. Namely, the struggle of Good versus Evil.
Abortion was tailor-made for that.
Reagan was less concerned about that, though, than about the Soviet Union, and given his apparent belief that government interfered with people knowing god, the Soviet Union for him could be nothing but an exemplar of Government As Satan. For him, this was not a struggle over competing economic systems and their concomitant expressions of colonialism—this was about Right versus Wrong, Virtue versus Sin, God versus godlessness.
So he began the tradition of sapping our national wealth to fund a crusade against evil in the world in the form of the Soviet Union.
There was, frankly, never much enthusiasm for trying to find common ground with them or, given victory in the struggle, providing aid to see them through into a workable polity. Because that would have meant building exactly what Reagan thought was wrong in the world—a viable and rather extensive government.
This also undid him in the Iran-Contra Affair. His convictions about communism being irreconcilable with godliness led him to fund brutish men who used those arms to destroy schools and clinics. He could not see past his preconceptions to understand that, while he might disagree philosophically with the Sandanistas, they had been duly elected by their people, and the targest of the right-wing Contras were sick people and children along with federal troops. It was a shameful abuse of his office.
Reagan exhibited a deep and largely innocent faith in people being basically able to do anything they needed to do, without state assistance of any kind. He must have felt that without the tremendous burden of soviet state apparatus, the Russian people would just naturally have developed into a benign community of self-sufficient American clones. If he felt that way, he did not understand the nature of his own people, either.
Consider another action he took that has resulted in a massive problem today: according the Rosebush in the same lecture, Reagan “did not believe in psychiatry or mental health problems.” He gutted HHS, if you recall, and shut down the mental health institutions that had been caring for the disabled. They ended up on the street and many remain there because there is nowhere for them to go. PTSD does not exist, bipolar disorder is a myth, and I suppose schizophrenia is possession by devils and the sufferers only need to find god. However far down the line he actually thought this through, the result has been a chronic homeless problem that had the added “virtue” of demonstrating the insufficiency of government of solve problems.
As for his economic policies, that was clarified as well. He based his program—supply-side or, popularly, Reaganomics—on something know as the Laffer Curve. I wrote about it at the link. It has been obvious for a long time that he did not understand economics well enough, if at all, to see this for the nonsense it was. (His vice president understood, hence his smoke and mirrors comment, but by the time George H.W. Bush was in office we were wedded to it.) I don’t believe it would have mattered. It looked like a way to get the government out of economic regulation, which by extension would have ultimately crippled the government, which would be consistent with his unstated beliefs. For what it’s worth, I also do not believe he expected it to really hurt anyone. I think he naively accepted reassurances from business that if he “took the chains off” of course they would do right by the country.
(A side note here: Reagan oversaw the pillage of our high-tech industrial base. Not many people are aware that during his two terms over 280 companies fell prey to the corporate raiding of the day and were purchased by foreign owners, primarily British and Japanese. These were not companies that just made lightbulbs and tv remotes, but many companies doing classified work for our government and had developed very sophisticated methods for building very complex things that gave us a considerable edge globally. Upon purchase, though, those methods if not necessarily the products became foreign property and we lost vital edges. Many of these companies petitioned Washington for protection because of the highly-sensitive nature of what they did, but Reagan grandly declared that we “have no industrial policy” and allowed them to be sold out of the country. To my mind, this shows no Machiavellian long-game, but a fundamental disconnect and a lack of understanding about the nature of what was happening and what we were losing. But it is consistent with his opinion, apparently, that government should stay out of everything. See: Anthony Campagna, The Economy In The Reagan Years)
They did right by themselves, which has resulted in the morass of stagnant wages and endless arguments over cost-of-living, and the obscene imbalance in wealth.
Once begun, the diminution of our public faith in our institutions proceeded apace, to the point where we collectively mistrust everything and grope for tangible meaning that might once have simply been there had we known at the time what it was this man, who remains for many one of the greatest presidents we ever had, truly believed. Now we are faced with these pocket movements of denying everything from the Holocaust (a perennial favorite) to the Anti-vaxxers and climate change denial. These are all aspects of systemic knowledge and in the case of vaccination of systemic problem-solving (successfully, I might add) but which have been tied to big government and somehow in opposition to a moralistic self-image that rejects codification.
So, based on these things—supply-side economics, the decoupling of institutions from public faith, and the shift in public discourse from problem-solving to indentitarian posturing—I put in my bid for Reagan being placed near the bottom. And the irony is, he probably had no idea it could get so bad. He was basing his iconoclasm on a firm faith in the very institutions he had launched his supporters to destroy. He had a deep, quaint faith in American Goodness that was unsupportable then and seems badly mauled now. The average American probably is, by most measures, a good person, certainly not malevolent, but once you rise through the layers to where power politics and money mix poisonously, Goodness is only something talked about at the bottom of a ledger or the tally of a poll.
Government interferes with people knowing god.
There are two major things wrong with that idea. The first comes out of a twisted notion that people only go to church when things are bad. So if we solve problems and fix our institutions and secure the common wealthfare as we can, this belief says we will lose faith in god. Why worship god when we can do this all for ourselves?
Well, that’s a rather punitive and stunted view of religious faith. Not uncommon. But even if it were true, for the adherents to justify wrecking the well-being of people they don’t know in the cause of pushing them out of necessity into a set of beliefs that may not be free and genuine is vile. (Of course, there is a corollary belief that successful states are automatically decadent and this is ungodly. Well.)
The other thing wrong with this, is a simple misapprehension of that old saying about deities working in mysterious ways. What if those successful institutions are the natural expression of a faithful community?
Either way, to hold such a conviction and then run for high office and allow people to believe you will do the right thing by them—well, you may, regardless, but to withhold that information means you don’t trust your own message or the people you’re delivering it to. We had a right to know the man we were electing as well as possible.
Now we have another of these Make America Great Again people in office, only there is no good-natured, naive uncle in that suit but a venal, corrupt narcissist who likely would never have gotten close to this had the stage not been set by a man still worshiped and longed-for who could not now, as he was then, get elected to a state legislature for the party he once led.
Government interferes with people knowing god.
And we wonder why there is a separation of church and state built into our constitution.