I remember when Nixon died. My girlfriend at the time’s mother danced around her house singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”. I don’t remember the day, or where I was when I found out about either the dancing/singing or Nixon’s death. But I do remember that happening.
Last night on CNN, Aaron Brown was taking his usual role of trying to historicize things as soon as they happen. He told us that we will all remember this day and where we were and just like- well not quite just like, but you know what I mean- pretty much just like the Kennedy assassination. It’s that big.
I could write a lot about what I think about Reagan (no big fan, me, because I like it when people don’t have AIDS, when our arms race isn’t out of control, when our parties stand by their principles, when we don’t prop up and support dictators when they repress their people or gas the Kurds etc. and Reagan was apparently against all of these things) but I wanted to write instead about historicization and our immediate quest for meaning.
We like to behave as if meaning is an inherent property of events, people, places, objects, actions etc. We do this collectively to things in both a quantity (how much meaning X has) and quality (what it actually means) sense all the time. Aaron Brown last night was instructing us that the well-expected and oft-fortold death of a man who had been slowly dying for over a decade in his home well beyond the point where he could say or do anything of any import has a similar quantity of meaning to a beloved (if not particularly good) President being shot and killed on television in the midst of a parade.
Of course, Brown has to do this. It’s his job, after all, to continue to get ratings for his network. The more meaning you believe Reagan’s death has the more you’ll want to watch CNN’s constant coverage of all things Reagan over the next few days.
I’m not arguing that the story isn’t newsworthy. It is clearly newsworthy- a President has died. It is newsworthy in a way many other mega-stories aren’t—Laci Peterson, for example, or Gary Condit, or our numerous “trials of the century”. But there is a real difference between reporting the news and instructing your audience exactly how and in what ways they are to react. The latter is vaguely totalitarian, and definitely pernicious.
The truth is, I don’t know what Reagan’s death means. In terms of world events, it is prima facie totally meaningless, because he had no control or impact on world events any more. The only thing left for him to do was die, and via death become a world event. In terms of Reagan’s family it is almost certainly intensely meaningful (and painful) and I don’t wish that kind of experience on anyone. In terms of the Republican Party and the Conservative agenda its meaningful because nostalgia is the ultimate conservative mindset (a love of the past will certainly keep you trying to recreate it) and with their beloved leader gone they can call forth all the nostalgia there is to muster.
This is unfortunate in terms of public discourse. When a public figure dies, it should be a time to reckon honestly with what they did in their life and public actions. It shouldn’t be a time to piss on their grave, but nor should it be a time for deification. By constantly telling us how much everyone loved Reagan, and by constantly instructing us to find meaning in his death, our news organizations are ensuring that that complex conversation about Reagan, his legacy, and the social forces swirling around his life in politics can almost certainly never happen. We will be divided into ding-dongers and deifiers, and I don’t know if we can really learn anything about the modern Presidency or American politics from doing that.