My husband and I moved to Washington, DC in 1979 to head a national organization of community artists. At that time, the federal government was allocating about $200 million a year to public service jobs for artists: painting murals, designing community gardens, running neighborhood circuses, offering music classes, and so on. One of Don’s and my jobs was to monitor such public programs, the ones that helped to support community cultural life.
Less than a year later, Ronald Reagan was elected president. At the first post-election meeting of a coalition of nonprofit organizations interested in community development, a guest speaker framed his topic this way: “How can we take advantage of the new Reagan rhetoric?” In other words, how can we parrot and spin the right’s rhetoric of volunteerism and self-reliance into new forms of support for our constituencies?
We were appalled at such crass opportunism, all the more so because we were sure it was pointless. We had good reason to believe it would lead to compromise without compensation. When Reagan was elected, the right-wing Heritage Foundation acted as surrogate for the policies he espoused. Within days, Heritage announced it would release a report called “Mandate for Leadership,” describing exactly what the new administration should do in every particular. Don and I spent a day at Heritage, closely supervised, hand-copying the sections on the arts and culture (photocopies were embargoed). So we knew that public service employment would be eliminated, as would most of the small programs that meant a great deal to artists in those days.
Twenty-four years ago, many of the seemingly progressive organizations headquartered in DC rolled over and wiggled their legs in the air in the hope that the Reagan gang would rub their tummies. I hope they were embarrassed to learn the hard way that their jockeying for position had left them marooned, ridiculous as upturned turtles.
I suppose it’s too much to hope we won’t see some Democrats follow their example — a lot of the current “values voters” conversation has already suggested human rights ought to go on the back burner to appease those who are anti-choice, anti-gay, and so on. But if you hear anyone suggest that rolling over is the way to go, please remind them there’s something to be learned from recent history. No one can point to real gains for those progressive groups in the 80s that adjusted their attitudes to fit the “new Reagan rhetoric.” And anyone who doesn’t know or who has forgotten what was lost is free to get in touch — but be prepared for a very long list.
Surrendering to language — to values — we abhor is voluntary slavery. I agree with Jean-Paul Sartre: “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”