Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Strike While the Iron is Hot

I would choose heartlessness over brainlessness any day of the week. So it is impossible for me, in remembering Margaret Thatcher, to forget the appalling era - 1979-1990 - over which she presided. When Robert Graves tried to characterize English poetry from Dryden to Pope, he called it "The Age of Obsequiousness," - servile competence substituting for inspired originality. Such were the Reagan/Thatcher years. Heaven only knows how two people from such humble beginnings (Reagan was born in an Illinois apartment to a salesman father, Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer) could have become the saviors of wealth and privilege. Of course, the big difference between Reagan and Thatcher was that Maggie had convictions, however misguided. When I looked into their eyes (on television, of course), it was apparent that neither was capable of the slightest self-doubt. It's no coincidence that nearly everyone who spoke out on Thatcher's behalf had the word "Lord" or "Sir" in front of their names.

But the amount of invective directed against Thatcher in England was unmatched by any Prime Minister in history. If nothing else, she was definitive proof against the notion that electing a woman - any woman - to high office would be an improvement over what men have been doing for centuries. Feminists, who argued for decades for a female world leader, got more than they bargained for with Maggie. The reckless force with which she dispatched the Royal Task Force to the Falklands in 1982 (it was called Operation Corporate, of course, with a fleet of 127 ships [43 Royal Navy, 22 auxiliary, 62 merchant]), was much less "risky" than foolhardy. The task force took more than a week to arrive (I'll never forget the slow-motion suspense) and accomplished the messy but effective feat of killing a fly with a cannon. It was a case, for Britain, of too much, too late. The subsequent rejoicings in Britain reminded me of the scene from Monty Python's Meaning of Life, in which a headmaster reminds the boys of his school "to commemorate Empire Day, when we try to remember the names of all those from the Sudbury area who so gallantly gave their lives to keep China British."

Thatcher's contribution to history was to undo just about everything that progressive governments had been trying to do in England since the war. (Reagan did virtually the same thing in the U.S.) She slashed the taxes on the wealthy by more than half (98% to 40%), privatized infrastructure industries (British Petroleum, British Airways) and broke the power of the labor unions. (Ronald Reagan cut the wealth tax in America from 70% to 30% and killed regulation of industry.) The direct result, less than twenty years later, was a worldwide economic catastrophe that did nothing more than accelerate the widening of the gulf between the rich and the poor, which is the singlemost serious threat - economic inequality - to democracy.

Reagan wasn't nearly as hated by the Left as Thatcher. It continues to astonish me whenever Republicans intone his name like a mantra, and it should send chills down people's spines when they realize that Reagan is The One for American Conservatives. But reading some of the comments made about him at the time of his death provide a measure of the depth of the Left's antipathy toward him. Philip Roth said in an interview:

"Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness, when, in fact, he would have succeeded, as prophetic sentry, just where Orwell failed; he would have seen that the grotesquerie to be visited upon the English-speaking world would not be an extension of the repressive Eastern totalitarian nightmare but a proliferation of the Western farce of media stupidity and cynical commercialism—American-style philistinism run amok. It wasn’t Big Brother who’d be watching us from the screen, but we who’d be watching a terrifyingly powerful world leader with the soul of an amiable, soap-opera grandmother, the values of a civic-minded Beverly Hills Cadillac dealer, and the historical background and intellectual equipment of a high-school senior in a June Allyson musical."

Robert Brustein wrote in The New Republic:

"That our countrymen could have elected this good-natured, engaging, but utterly inconsequential B-movie actor to two presidential terms is commentary enough on the weakness of the democratic electoral process. But to hear pundits and pollsters claiming that Reagan should now be considered one of the great presidents of history, below only Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (FDR apparently having dropped down a memory hole), is to enter the realm of the preposterous, if not the occult. Yes, his genial smile and crinkly quips made everyone feel good about themselves, except those afflicted with such un-American disorders as homelessness, minority status, and AIDS. Yes, he presided over the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the "evil empire." But didn't Gorbachev, glasnost, and perestroika have a bit to do with that development as well? The real legacies of the Reagan years are harebrained technological stunts such as Star Wars, clandestine adventures such as the Iran-Contra affair, tax cuts for the rich masquerading as economic restoratives, and pre-emptive strikes against such menaces to democracy and world peace as Grenada. Sound familiar?"

But the greatest dismantling of Reagan's overblown reputation came at the hands of the late Christopher Hitchens. In his essay for Slate, "Not Even a Hedgehog," Hitchens wrote:

"The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn't like him all that much. He met his second wife—the one that you remember—because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon."

The thing I disliked the most about the recent Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady (aside from it being such a poorly-made movie), was that Meryl Streep was such a great actress that she made Thatcher more sympathetic - by making her seem human. And nobody noticed the irony of the casting of Jim Broadbent as Dennis Thatcher, Maggie's long-suffering (and apparently befuddled) husband, when he had also played the long-suffering husband of Iris Murdoch, John Bayley, in the much better movie, Iris. Murdoch had also contracted Alzheimer's, to tragic, rather than simply sad, effect.

It may not be the most eloquent diatribe against the Iron Lady, but Elvis Costello's song, "Tramp the Dirt Down" is certainly the most emphatic:

"Well I hope I don't die too soon
I pray the Lord my soul to save
Oh I'll be a good boy, I'm trying so hard to behave
Because there's one thing I know, I'd like to live
long enough to savour
That's when they finally put you in the ground
I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down."

I can't say I hated her. I simply hated everything she so proudly stood for.

[While working on a post-in-progress, I stumbled on the resemblance, plummy accent and bad teeth, between Margaret Thatcher and Sir Kenneth Clark!]

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