Ronnie And Me

Ronald Reagan made me into an unabashed leftist.


Ronald Reagan left us a decade ago, when he wrote his letter to the American people that announced his entry into Alzheimer’s disease. “I now begin the journey,” he wrote, “that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”
When he died last month, I almost forgot that he was still alive.

The media reacted with frenzy: They treated Reagan as both a hero and an icon, as someone to admire and someone to worship. He earned a state funeral and funereal commentaries from the pundits. Republicans swarmed around his legacy, as Democrats silenced themselves from criticism. Reagan got a free pass to the by and by.

I owe Reagan an enormous debt. He was no ordinary president for me. Reagan made an entire generation of people like me into straight-forward Leftists – we are the generation that fought against his policies in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, South Africa·

We organized for sanctions on South Africa when apartheid reigned there: Reagan vetoed every effort, and he made scurrilous remarks about the good faith of the white supremacist leaders.


During his speech in opposition to sanctions in 1986, Reagan referred to South Africa continually as South America. South African Bishop Tutu reacted to the speech with this, “Your President is the pits as far as blacks are concerned. I found the speech nauseating.” Reagan financed the illegal war in Nicaragua through arms sales to Iran, and while hearings convulsed Washington they did not touch Reagan.
In 1987, he called the Iran-Contra deal a “mistake,” and yet Congress did not move to impeach him for the illegal actions on his watch. Nor did it much affect those around him: Oliver North is now a well-paid media commentator and John Negroponte (famous cover-man for the Honduran death squads) will be the first US Ambassador in “Liberated” Iraq.

When the Lebanese fighters humiliated the U.S. marines in Beirut, Reagan scripted a “wag the dog” scenario: to divert attention, he quickly invaded Grenada. The excuse: he had to save some American medical students, but the bursar of the school in Grenada Gary Solin told the press on the day of the invasion, “Our safety was never in danger. We were used by this government as an excuse to invade Grenada.”

Reagan made me who I am, an unabashed leftist: for that thanks.But that’s not my only debt. I owe him more.

I, like many desis, am grateful to him for his 1986 immigration act that allowed many of us to gain green cards through the amnesty provision.

But, his gift came at a costly price. That same legislation had an innocuous section called “employer verification” that allowed the state to prosecute any employer who had an “illegal immigrant” on the payroll. In 1990 the General Accounting Office released a study that showed us what this section had produced.

Many Latinos and Asians, including desis, began to have a hard time finding employment in the waged work sector because employers were chary of hiring those without papers. It is not that these Latinos and Asians had no papers, just that run of the mill racism meant that those of us who looked like forever immigrants also looked like illegal ones, so many employers chose not to hire us for fear of being fined or shut-down.

In addition, Reagan’s immigrant act was designed cleverly to undercut the labor movement. In the first few months of his presidency, Reagan went after the air traffic controllers’ union, PATCO, the only one incidentally that had supported him during the presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter. The salvo against labor was part of Reagan’s general policy on behalf of the upward distribution of wealth: he worked for the rich, to benefit them and to screw the working people. The immigrant act brought in people who worked in a sector of the economy that was once heavily unionized: construction work, hotel work, small manufacturing work, etc. Now with this enlarged labor pool and with weak rules for unionization, employers who did overcome their racism and hire these new immigrants could forgo the power of unions, pay low wages with few benefits and make enormous profits.

Reagan’s policy pitted immigrants against other workers, and created the framework for the massive anti-Asian backlash of the 1980s: the 1987 Dotbusters formed in New Jersey to harass and attack desis are part of a nation-wide anti-immigrant wave.
By the way, it is rather sick that the Organization of Chinese Americans decided to commemorate the death of Reagan with a sickly tribute press release – what about Vincent Chin, killed in 1982 as part of the early wave of anti-immigrant hysteria set off by Reagan’s “war” on Japanese products, and the many others who suffered mightily from the anti-immigrant sentiment exacerbated by the 1986 act.

My television only plays PBS and Bollywood videos. It refuses to participate in the pabulum that passes for “news.” I’d rather get that from the web, from newspapers and magazines or else from the telephone updates that my mother in Kolkata gives me.
I only read about what an old friend called the “sycophantic homage” to Reagan. Even in the Reagan years I found television hard to watch, partly because Reagan’s myth machine had already made “news” unbearable. During the Reagan years, the news media began to slavishly follow the dictates of the White House and write more about the “feeling” of the president than his policies.

Reagan’s legacy is not only the toxic world that we live in, or the lefties that he helped produce, but the noxious myth-culture that he has given us. Our current president thrives on it. For Bush, like Reagan, image is everything, and truth is overrated. No wonder the Bush camp wanted to celebrate Reagan so: he allowed them to relive the image and to obscure the truth, which is that these are murderers and plutocrats whose “morning in America” is our mourning for America.  

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