I did most of my growing up in the suburbs of the District of Columbia, during the Reagan administration. We took many of our school field trips into D.C., including a few to the White House, and of course, to the plethora of wonderful museums that can be found in the district. My great aunt worked for several Republican politicians and made an identity out of her political affiliation. She wore jewelry with elephants. Great beasts made small to fit on a chain around her neck. She collected bicentennial quarters for me in a bag. I think it was to remind me that the 200 year anniversary of the nation's birth was also the year I came into the world. I loved that she took me to the White House Easter Egg roll. My sister and I got our picture taken with Spider-Man. I came away one year with an anti-drug comic book about the Teen Titans. The image of Speedy, all strung out on smack, haunted me as a child. I like to think that's exactly what Nancy Reagan would have wanted. One time I got to actually go into the Oval Office and leave jelly beans on the desk for President Reagan (his favorite candy).
In the days of my youth, there were inviolate dichotomies. You were either a fan of the Washington football team, or the one in Texas. Hulk Hogan was a hero, and The Iron Sheik a dastardly villain. The Rebel Alliance was a noble cause and the Galactic Empire a repressive regime. Christians were honorable and Satanists were immoral (which made for suitable teenage rebellion). The United States were the good guys and the Soviet Union were the bad guys. Allegiances were simple to discern. It got a bit more complex for me in the sixth grade when we had an exchange student from the U.S.S.R. I always knew that the people in Russia weren't bad, but it was the government that was the malignancy. To prove it, there was Ilia, in no uncertain terms, as innocent of any wrongdoing as we were (or probably more so). I was determined to treat him well, so I gave him a gummy worm. It was the kind with segments of different colors. He bit off one of the segments and gave the rest of the sticky candy back to me. I was astounded, thinking, this kid doesn't even know how to eat a gummy worm but at least he seems nice. Ilia was a slight kid like me, but when presented with a pull-up bar, he could put Schwarzenegger to shame. The Russians were physical fitness fanatics and every kid was a potential Olympian (athlete, not god).
One Hundred and Eighty Degrees
The world started to get even more nebulous as I got older. Things always turn out to be more complex than they seem when you were a child. It wasn't until the ascendancy of Donald Trump, though, that the world in which I grew up seemed to have flipped upside down. Mike Pence came to North Carolina and compared his running mate to Reagan. Meanwhile, Trump expressed his open admiration for dictators like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-un (and still does to this day). Many Americans, apparently tired of being thought of as the good guys, elected Donald Trump as president. His campaign was aided in victory by a Russian dictator and his disinformation apparatus plus a chief advisor who openly worshipped Satan. It's probably putting it too mildly to say that the 80s worldview that shaped my childhood was irreparably broken.
I feel like those days of easy judgments are never coming back. Now everything takes so much discernment. Issues may have always been as complex as they are now, but they were simplified for our poor human brains. Low cognitive load used to be the social order of the day. Now we're inundated with news that we often don't know how to process. We still try to fit things in boxes, but they don't seem to settle as easily. Like a game of Tetris gone wrong, our pieces abut each other in strange angles with too many holes full of white space.
It wasn't until the Russian invasion of Ukraine that we as a global community (not just Americans, this time) came together and saw the same thing. We saw a bully and an aggressor inflicting needless harm on a populace numbering the millions that was just starting to see growth and some measure of normalcy. No prescription adjustment needed and our vision was aligned, across most of the world. With all the complexity that has been introduced by modernism, does this moment illustrate a moment where all of that falls away, if briefly, just to show us what is really right and wrong? Will we at least pause in calling each other Nazis for the what material we believe is appropriate for our children or whether we think vaccines are necessary? Will this be a clarifying moment that shakes us out of petty grievances and towards broader goals that benefit all of us?
David French has a vain hope, and perhaps so do I.