So Ronald Wilson Reagan turned 100 recently. He has been enshrined of late by many of us conservatives, as everything right and good about America, or the Moses of our day to lead us to our promised land. His record is, of course, more practical and moderate than that. But other, more qualified (and more liberal), editorialists have beaten that horse to death already.
Dutch was a great president who helped do amazing and laudable things during his eight years of responsibility. The mythology and “story” that is being built up around him is only natural. Myth is human. But let’s not get carried away.
Liberals and some historians have balked at the genuflecting, mocking conservatives and generally being jerks. They are jerks because what they criticize is so ingrained in humanity: the hero-worship, person-centered meaning and subjective connotations of Reagan denote a habit we’ve had for millennia, and the stories run from Beowulf to Robin Hood to George Washington’s cherry tree.
Modern and Post-Modern thought has left us better on the whole, but we still like our symbolism, it’s part of who we are. And liberals do the same damn thing, only with policy. One only has to take a step back from Global warming (most conservatives did that a long time ago), or the idea of a ‘balance’ between capitalism and socialism being pushed to see that, while mental and moral arguments are made all the time, the underlying story is mythology of the highest order.
This is not to say these arguments right or wrong; many arguments are made with rigorous and scientific thought. But those on the political left should excuse the churchgoer who rightly identifies and categorizes the Greenpeace activist and the tree-hugger as a theologian, not a scientist.
Post-modernism is applying the rational demands of modern thought to itself, in a sense it’s a philosophical snake eating its tail. Those who use it, wittingly or unwittingly, have a problem: They often cease to be able to logically address their own cultural biases and subjective beliefs, believing that by identifying the “person-centered meanings” they have eradicated it from their thought processes. More people on the left have this problem, I would argue, because conservatives are less likely to disavow their subjectivity. I have beliefs, for example, and you can go to hell before you sway me from the really important ones.
In holding the reins to our own symbolism, we conservatives also hold the country’s culture in our collective hands. More Americans identify themselves as “conservative” than ID themselves as “liberal” or even “moderate.” In some sense, when you like America, you are expressing a conservative thought. In more thoroughly accepting our inconsistent, illogical souls we have freed ourselves to critique our inconsistencies using logic.
But the benefits of early modernism are the greatest leaps of humankind in recorded history: systematic theology, the Reformation, the Magna Carta, the scientific method, the abolishment of god-kings and other ideas that led to our own American constitution and way of government. We should not throw out or lightly dismiss modern thought. Only, use it with the knowledge of our own subjectivity and tendency to use symbols. Like Our Reagan, the symbol of everything right in this world.
Ronald Reagan was concerned with the way forward, and we should be as well. We need to let go of Reagan, in some sense, so that we can go forward with pragmatic conservative policy. Putting Reagan on the pedestal has put us inside a box. We shouldn’t dismiss the symbolism of Reagan the hero who told Gorbachev to tear down the wall, but let’s also not forget the pragmatic logic of Reagan the politician, who raised taxes when needed and didn’t retaliate against terrorists. Ideological purity is not synonymous with Reaganism. Some, including this author, hold some of his actions as true conservatism against today’s conservatism, like when he signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which stated that torture could be used under “no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever.”
Reagan existed in an unprecedented world, and we do again today. The issues we face require new applications of abiding principles, both at home and abroad.
Reagan, the touchstone, the culture, the one who brought it all together for many of us, is rightly at home with his maker. We remember the legacy, and hope to forge our own as we navigate the shoals of a new century. This is our reality, a balance of our nature and our logic, and with God’s help we will remain.