San Ronald: The Trouble With Heroes

Omayra Zaragoza Cruz

Designating someone a "hero" involves an underlying claim about what is good in this world and for whom it is good... The question when it comes to Reagan is quite simple. Who was he good for?

"They can grieve. They can do the creepy Lenin thing, displaying the body at the Capitol for a few days. But we're not going to let them make shit up." — Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, Daily Kos
"Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamp." — Chuck D

My grandmother called people saints when she thought them especially noble: "Ese es un santo!" Unlike my grandmother, elected officials cannot consecrate their electoral brethren as "saints" given the revered separation of church and state that structures US politics. Our secular state has devised a worthy alternative: the hero. When heroes are singled out for political adoration there is all too often a moral element with which to contend. This applies to Ronald Reagan, whose recent death has generated a storm of hero talk.

One example that is especially sweeping and somewhat comical in its praise comes from MSNBC's Chris Matthews, host of Hardball (17 June 2004): "The actor who had spent decades playing heroes transcended the back lot and its illusions." This Reagan as hero trajectory was already in motion when conservative cultural critic William F. Buckley published Ronald Reagan: An American Hero (DK Publishing, 2001) and is set to gain momentum as remembrances of the 40th president make their way onto postage stamps, monuments, electronic memorials, documentaries, and various other shrines.

As usual, it appears that public mourning is to be couched in the most predictable and, I would argue, insidious terms possible. It is insidious for two reasons: Reagan as hero discourse whitewashes the past and it signals a dangerous overlap between religion and the state that is passed off as areligious. Simply stated, the heroes of today fulfill the moral public function that saints did for past generations. One may as well just start calling him San Ronald.

Unlike the loss I felt at the deaths of Edward Said, Celia Cruz, and Joe Strummer, I felt relatively little at the death of Reagan. I nevertheless sympathize with his family and regret that he suffered. After all, he was a person as much as a "Gipper" (whatever that is), "communicator", and "optimist". But was he an American hero?

Consider his decision to veto Congressional sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa and his refusal to endorse the freeing of Nelson Mandela. Add to this Reagan's secret financial support for militaries in El Salvador and Guatemala and contra rebels in Nicaragua despite a Congressional ban on such activity. At home the depth of Reagan's hostility against unions was illustrated when he fired PATCO air-traffic controllers who were on strike for better pay and working conditions while prejudice against gays and drug-users led to a lethal delay in response to the AIDS crisis. His administration's notorious "trickle-down" economics involved deep tax cuts and outrageous military spending, both of which contributed to an enormous deficit. This deficit was used to validate the reduction of social programs that, along with the effects of deindustrialization, had devastating effects on urban centers across the nation. Some hero!

Not only do I disagree with the claim that Reagan was a hero, I am anti-hero altogether. My opposition to hero dogma felt like a personal issue at first — the kind of idiosyncratic pet peeve that makes no sense. I thank cultural historian and political activist George Lipsitz of UC Santa Cruz for teaching me that when it comes to the proliferation of heroes that sugar US culture, much more than personal taste is involved. We once had a conversation over coffee when I lamented that it felt wrong to criticize the desire and affection for heroes.

It is commonly accepted that people need their heroes, much like they need their SUVs. This knowledge is imparted at an early age and is reinforced regularly. Children write moving essays about their very own personal hero for school assignments, while Hollywood films, comic books, and the nightly news offer an additional array of heroes for the edification and pleasure of all ages. Who was I to disparage either the inspiration or enjoyment that people draw from their heroes? Lipsitz pointed out that my misgivings about heroes were rooted in their connection to the myth of individualism; one man, or sometimes a woman, who draws on inner strength to overcome the odds. This image of achievement belies the need for collective struggle and obscures the complexity of social or political change, which always involves the efforts of many people. It may be easy to turn leaders into heroes, but that does not mean that we should.

The hero umbrella covers anything from the Silver Surfer to sports stars, from firefighters lost during 9/11 to the nation's troops of underpaid schoolteachers, from Civil Rights activists to war veterans. Heroes are the good guys. That, precisely, is my point. In addition to obscuring the role of community in achievement, designating someone a "hero" involves an underlying claim about what is good in this world and for whom it is good. Therein lies the moral function of heroes and its religious connotations. The question when it comes to Reagan is quite simple. Who was he good for?

In contrast to the support for Reagan expressed by many Cuban exiles in the US, Radio Reloj of Cuba issued callous statements on 7 June 2004 that leave no uncertainty over whether his staunch anti-Communist agenda was good for Cuba. (Incidentally, the New Democrat Network's latest polls indicate that Cubans born in Cuba overwhelmingly support Bush while Cubans born in the US favor Kerry.) The government station went so far as to cruelly invoke Reagan's illness: "As forgetful and irresponsible as he was, he forgot to take his worst works to the grave." Pressing further Radio Reloj decreed: "He, who never should have been born, has died." This remark is as excessive and damaging as the hero claptrap attributed to Reagan.

In fact, the position of Radio Reloj takes the hero as its point of reference: what gives the concept of the hero such force is its strong contrast to that other moral exaggeration, the villain. The Bush administration has latched onto Reagan's hero currency and its ability to highlight the administration's villains. According to Village Voice columnist James Ridgeway in "Bush Takes a Ride in Reagan's Wake" (10 June 2004), "the Reagan funeral is just a plus for the Bush re-election campaign. Wednesday was a day of patriotism with marching military units and screeching jets and the repeated singing of "God Bless America" — the anthem of the Reagan era. Wednesday's ceremonies were not only face-saving for the current administration, but also perhaps a mask for the American military debacle in Iraq. Not to mention a gesture of America's might in the 'war on terror.' Snipers lined the rooftops and Black Hawk choppers protected from above. Above all else, this was free campaign advertising (though costing taxpayers millions of dollars), and it's dominating every TV network."

Publicity in the US, and public mourning in particular, regularly assumes the form of worship. It is true that this tendency is not unique to the US. Yet the US is held to be a symbol of the separation of church and state. Its sly canonization of heroes therefore bears careful examination, especially since public mourning is also an exercise in the production of memory. Remembering the past in terms of "heroes" and "villains" severely limits how we interpret history and current events. We are left with either terribly good or terribly evil individuals. They take the blame and get the glory, but the world and our collective responsibility for it is more complicated than the black and white of villains versus heroes. So, too, is Reagan's political legacy.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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