Some time back I managed to get a watch of Reagan by Eugene Jarecki. It’s an engaging and striking film, in part thanks to the excellent photography. Revisiting so many events that I clearly remember from my years growing up was fascinating – the assassination attempt on Reagan; the Iran-Contra scandal; the star wars SDI program; the talks with Gorbachov. This is even more striking since I was growing up in Britain, not the US. This in itself says a lot about Reagan’s effect on his country’s fortunes.
There’s one part of the film, near the end, that particularly grabbed my attention. At several points in the film there are excerpts from an interview with retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich. After contrasting Carter and Reagan (and giving his judgement that Carter was a failure as a president), he says this:
That said, there was a moment when he, however briefly, grasped a central truth about the American predicament… (the film cuts to an excerpt from a Jimmy Carter speech: ‘it’s clear that the true problems of our nation are deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession,’ then back to Bacevich) …the problems we face are not out there, the problems we face are in here. We have committed ourselves to the pursuit of freedom, where our definition of freedom is simply false. We have convinced ourselves that through the piling up of material goods, through indulging the appetites of a consumer society, that by going down that road we will best be able to find life, liberty and happiness. Carter argued that our dependence on oil was central to this and it would lead us down the path toward interventionism and conflict. What Ronald Reagan said is: you don’t have to sacrifice, you don’t have to make do, you don’t have to get by with less, there’s plenty of oil, there’s an infinite supply, trust me.
That one sentence, we have committed ourselves to the pursuit of freedom, where our definition of freedom is simply false, cuts profoundly to the heart of the emptiness at the very centre of western society. But to say so is hugely costly to the doyens of western culture, since it prompts another question that seems to open an abyss beneath their feet: what then is the point?