Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Reagan Library, or Why Public History in this Country is so Rotten

I grew up just minutes away from the Reagan Library and for much of my life I avoided setting foot there. I refused to go when the hero-worshipping of Reagan was at its peak after his death in June of 2004. I found no compelling reason to go and see this shrine to the "Great Communicator." Yesterday, however, a friend of mine from out of town was going for research purposes and I thought this was a good opportunity to cross something off of my Bucket List. (Let us be clear: this was not high on that checklist, at all.) And I thought to myself: "It can't be that bad." Oh, it is.

The Reagan Library is a shrine, resembling something out of the history of the Catholic Church. He is buried there and the rooms are lined with the saint's relics. His beatific smile is present on every wall and his quotes hang from the ceiling exhorting us all to follow his example. Saint Reagan calls forth for his followers to fall on their knees in prayer or maybe even develop a case of sympathetic stigmata.

The problem lies in the fact that this hagiographic approach is not history. What is offensive in this type of presentation is that anyone who leaves this site will have no sense of the politics and issues of the 1980's. Why this is doubly wrong is that Presidential Libraries are regulated under laws that require archivists working for the federal government to be present in the formation of these exhibits. If this is what a federal archivist considers history why are we surprised when we hear that one in four americans do not know from what country Americans declared their independence (from a recent ABC News poll)? Why should we be surprised when Michelle Bachmann says something idiotic about founding fathers "working tirelessly" to end slavery or that FDR passed the "Hoot-Smalley tariff" which led us into the Great Depression? (For the record: The "Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act" was passed in 1930 under Hoover; it did help propel the world into a global depression). When federally funded spaces such as Presidential Libraries provide such a skewed and ahistorical sense of the past, how can we blame our students for knowing nothing?

FDR began the practice of instituting presidential libraries and the first official such place was for Herbert Hoover in Iowa. FDR believed that presidential papers had to be made accessible to successive generations of historians and journalists and that early papers had been scattered throughout the country, decentralized and some papers were even sold for profit. Nixon provided a problematic example to how a library would be established. When Nixon resigned in 1973 rumors circulated in the Beltway that he was intending to destroy some of his papers (especially those related to the Watergate scandal). Congress passed a resolution that required Nixon's papers to remain in DC, thus when his library opened in Whittier, California there were no papers and thus no regulation from previous laws surrounding these sites. The skewed presentation featured little discussion of Watergate. In fact, the display made it seem as if Nixon woke up one day in 1973 and said to Pat: "Hey, honey, I've had a great run here, why don't we call it quits and go out on top?" The famous photograph of Nixon standing on the steps of the helicopter, peace signs waving becomes an image of triumph not tragedy. A rather sickening display of personal hubris.

Since Nixon's death in 1994, his papers have been placed in the library and archivists have now constructed a more balanced presentation with a room devoted the documents and events of Watergate and adding in the student viewpoint of the Kent State shootings. However, any balance is absent in the Reagan Library.

Presidential Libraries will always present the accomplishments of a President in the most positive light, but in Reagan's the approach to his time in the executive office resembles the philosophical perspective of the British nineteenth-century historian, Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle believed that history could be told as the acts and deeds of a handful of great men. Reagan's library presents his time in office as untouched by scandal or even protest. Reagan single-handedly won the Cold War and solved the economic crises of the 1970s. A person leaving this library would have no clue that it is Congress that passes laws because Congress isn't mentioned. A person also wouldn't know that AIDS erupted in the 1980s under Reagan because it is not mentioned (not once!). And Iran-Contra? Well, the one placard that addresses it gives the perception that Reagan made a calculation to do this in order "to stop communism in Latin America." This one placard manages to exonerate and justify Reagan's actions, although they were illegal and morally reprehensible. (Ollie North is not discussed.)

A presidential library should be teaching those who attend (and pay the exorbitant $12) on how politics work in this country. For instance, what the roles and limits of the executive are in relation to Congress and the judicial branch. But institutions are completely ignored in this presentation. And social politics? There is no discussion of the poor, there is no discussion of race and the only motion towards gender are the displays of Nancy's dresses and a placard (hidden in the back) devoted to Sandra Day O'Connor. There is no sense that major cutbacks to welfare in the 1980s resulted in the increase of homelessness, crime and the closing of veterans' facilities.

Of course, the most egregious bias in this historical representation involves "Reaganomics," a set of proposed theoretical positions that stated that the cutting back of taxes, regulation and government spending spurred on the growth of the economy. There are many people who believe in this "trickle-down theory" (a term of opprobrium developed by more liberal economists). I do not begrudge Reagan and his many acolytes to present this philosophy as a success of his regime, but the playing with numbers and the lack of any discussion of the vehement disapproval of this policy from many sectors of the American public is shameful. The library presents a vision of Reagan's tenure as bringing forth a new, changed America on the date of his inauguration in 1981. But unemployment actually increased in 1982-83 to over 10%, the highest since the Depression (and higher than 08-09). The 1981 emergency economic recovery bill that Reagan passed did not perform a miracle on the economy. In fact, there is the performance of the post hoc ergo propter hoc (latin for: it happened after it so it happened because of it) fallacy in this historical viewpoint. For people like Paul Krugman, the recovery of the economy was due in large part to the policies of Paul Volcker who chaired the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987, where he kept interest rates high in order to break a cycle of stagnant inflation (in the rather clunky neologism stagflation). Even most conservative commentators give Volcker a dose of credit for lowering inflation from 13.5% in 1981 to 3.2% in 1983.  But is Volcker mentioned? Not once.

Reagan did it all. On his own. By his little lonesome. He ended the Cold War, ended economic crises, and gave America faith again.

I slapped my forehead numerous times while walking through this shameless celebration that seemed more akin to a monument to Stalin than to an American president. But the old, white people that were in attendance (and that's all who were there, while I was there, save for the grandkids dragged along and a busload of Italian high school students [they must have rued the day, if I were them I would have preferred Disneyland]) probably saw their narrow worldview confirmed by the loving letters written from Ronnie to Nancy and the well edited clips of Reagan's speeches that demonstrated in their minds that Reagan is tantamount to a political god and Obama is Satan. And trust me, the policies of Obama (and in their mind his many failures) were not far from their thoughts.

And this type of historical amnesia that ignores all that doesn't fit into our convenient narratives of the past is not confined to American political history and their celebration of American exceptionalism.

An ongoing exhibition at the Getty Center entitled "Paris: Life and Luxury" takes the viewer through a tour of the life of the privileged in the eighteenth-century capital. Beautiful rooms filled with gorgeous pieces of French furniture, intricately carved fauteuils à la reine, inlaid harpsichords are put on magnanimous display next to paintings of Boucher and Greuze with mannequins displaying the fashionable dress of the time (robes à la francaise). Yet again, there is no history.

Karl Marx defined the fetishization of commodities thus: "A commodity is... a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. ... This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them." (Kapital, vol. 1, ch. 1). In other words, the products of human labor are seen as imbued with an almost supernatural power, seen as intrinsic to the object rather than made of human hands. 


This exhibit exemplifies this important piece of Marx's philosophy. The beautiful objects are displayed with no notion to how and by whom they were made. We care not how guilds were structured in eighteenth-century France, the grievances of journeymen within those labor structures or the markets that allowed such wealth to grow in a world of increasing imperial expansion. All of these social relations are effaced in order to appreciate how pretty the brocaded wallpaper is. 


Beyond this, the political history of France is completely ignored. The exhibit is structured as a nostalgic exercise mourning the loss of a past seen as glamorous and free of our own economic and social problems. The Revolution is not mentioned and this lack becomes a haunting presence, as if to say, "Look what the Revolution cost us!" 


One placard I found particularly galling paid a passing glance to the debates around "la luxe" (luxury) in the eighteenth century. The statement on the index card said that "luxe" had some negative connotations but that these connotations faded away by the end of the 1780s. Ummm... Wrong! Luxe became a keyword of the 1770s and 1780s, a symbol of the profligacy of a kingdom that could adorn its queen in the riches of the world but could not provide bread to its citizens. The competition for having the most glamorous apartment in Paris became crucial to social status and the enlarging gap between the rich and poor. 


When history is presented so painfully bad, it provides a disservice to not only the visitors of the exhibit but the institution of the museum itself. Schoolchildren leaving these exhibits will learn nothing, except that the French had pretty bedrooms and Reagan was great. Institutions, change and social relations are not even mentioned. The curators and archivists have erased what actually creates history: conflict, continuities and change. In this political climate, however, creating an exhibit that actually creates balanced and objective views of history seems impossible and plays into this new view of the victimization of white people (something Fox News mentions on a daily basis). Hopefully, we can fight this tendency towards replacing history with nostalgia.