San Ronald: The Trouble With Heroes

“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.