Blogs > Cliopatria > Icons

Feb 8, 2011 8:44 pm


It's interesting to note the way in which historical figures get trimmed and whittled into new shapes. Martin Luther King has become a figure of national memory, celebrated with an official holiday and, among other things, lots of streets. But in that process, much of King's more radical thoughts have been effectively sidelined. He has become a historical voice for justice, but justice of a particular kind. King's calls for economic justice have essentially disappeared, leaving behind his thoughts on civil rights. The de-radicalization allows King to be used by a broad range of people for a broad range of purposes, people who will not be made uncomfortable by the part of King's ideas that remain controversial.

Ronald Reagan, by contrast, is becoming somewhat re-radicalized."Ronaldus Magnus" has come to be an avatar to the American right.

This has led to the eliding of some of Reagan's actions, actions which do not fit well with current conservative orthodoxy. Thus, for example, Rush Limbaugh, confronted by a caller pointing out that Reagan raised taxes, could essentially refuse to believe him. The Reagan of today could not be seen to raise taxes, give amnesty to illegal immigrants, compromise with the Democrats, or negotiate with the Soviets. Thus, those aspects of his Presidency get written out. What is left is a saint for the right wing, updated for current positions. One who got a fair number of streets, also.

The point is to note the process in both cases. Historical figures get buffed and polished when they become part of the public memory, rough or uncomfortable edges sanded off. In a sense, those public memories begin to bear the same relationship to the actual person that war memorials bear to the actual wars. They stand for what the nation needs them to stand.

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More Comments:

Ralph M. Hitchens - 2/9/2011

Thanks for reminding readers that President Ronald Reagan was a far cry from what the contemporary GOP prefers to remember. Hey, there are plenty of things about liberal icons that I would prefer to see swept under the rug, but I believe, based on what is heard & seen on Fox, that most of us progressives have a higher hypocrisy threshold than most conservatives.

Martha Bridegam - 2/9/2011

At least Fred Korematsu is moving up there alongside MLK and Cesar Chavez. California observed the first Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution this past January 30.

Less Reagan would be nice, of course, but some things do change.

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