Oligarchy, civility, and delusional talk

Amidst the violence and all-around nuttiness of this year’s US presidential campaign, it seems almost cheating to zero in on just one episode, and not even the worst episode at that. But the Hillary Clinton/Nancy Reagan/”national conversation about AIDS” moment is just too good to pass up.

The story is, last Friday they buried Nancy Reagan, widow of right-winger icon/1980s President Ronald Reagan. Clinton attended the funeral and then gave a gracious TV interview, which included some praise for the deceased’s role in getting Americans to think about the AIDS crisis. Back during the Reagan presidency, Clinton explained, “no one would talk about it,” but “because of both President and Mrs. Reagan” “we started a national conversation” about the disease, “and people began to say ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.'”

I’ve quoted Clinton’s own words here because they’re so insanely inaccurate– not just wrong, but nearly the exact opposite of right. Back in those days, most everyone except the Reagans talked about AIDS. Mind, not all the talking was sane or well-informed, but there was plenty of it– except at the White House, where the first couple kept a tight-lipped silence that mainly conveyed homophobic disgust. Silence included rebuffing overtures from some erstwhile Hollywood friends who’d caught the disease, knew they were dying, and wanted to say farewell.

Of course it’s always disturbing to hear delusional talk from someone like Clinton, who’s held real power and has a good chance of holding lots more (the London bookies have her as the huge favorite to become our next president). And this wasn’t even casual chatting stealth-captured on a cell-phone. These were scripted delusions, delivered on national TV.

But the background contexts interest me more– because the Reagan funeral brought together in one handy package several things I’ve been exploring in these posts.

For one, the episode shows us our American oligarchy in action, and shows us something of what it’s doing to our public life. Clinton’s in the middle of a tough electoral campaign, and she’s fighting accusations that she’s just another neo-liberal, 1-percenter war-mongerer; she needs votes from gays, ethnic minorities, union members, and lots of others who weren’t too keen on the Reagan Revolution. So you could start by asking, what’s she even doing at an event honoring the archenemy? Not just standing quietly in the back row, either– along with her interview, Clinton shared a warm, cuddly moment with another ought-to-be archenemy, ex-president George W. Bush.

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Could anything better convey the chummy relations that prevail among our twenty-first-century power players? They may publicly disagree about some issues (say, those half-million folks who died because of the Iraq invasion, or the impact of homophobia on American society), but really they’re pals. It would be crude and gauche to stay away from a pal’s funderal, or even to refrain from saying nice things about them when you got there.

Some other things make more sense if you start from that “we’re all friends despite our differences” idea. Don’t we all have to bend the truth at family reunions and friends’ funerals? Don’t we all worry more about the people we see every day than the abstract millions we never meet, even if the millions are suffering way more than our friends? Shakespeare and Molière were already writing comedies about the misanthropic weirdos who can’t make themselves tell sociable lies. Their message was, tell the truth 24/7, and you’re not going to get invited to many birthday parties.

The problem is, some issues actually do matter, and too many polite untruths about them clog up our collective thinking, making it harder for us to see the real world and think seriously about it. Sooner or later, we do need to think about (for instance) how we as a society ended up causing a half-million or so Iraqi deaths, and we have to start feeling some revulsion toward the perps– smiles, hugs, and eulogies take us in the wrong direction.

About a year ago, I posted some thoughts on Hannah Arendt, with special attention to her belief that mushy thinking is an actual menace– she believed it played a real part in generating the Holocaust, by preventing the perpetrators from confronting what they were doing.

Arendt would have loved the Reagan funeral.