Saturday, November 19, 2016

Reagan speeches to explain conservatism?

Elesha Coffman, a history professor at the Baptist-affiliated Baylor University (where the legendary Deplorable, Ken Starr, was President until recently), tells an interesting story about she went searching for a different speech to use in a lecture about 1980s conservatism for her students, Which One Is "The Speech"? Religion in American History, accessed 11/19/2016. She had previously been using a speech of Ronald Reagan's from August 1980 to a group of evangelicals. She wanted to stick with a Reagan speech, I suppose because the image of St. Reagan has become so prominent in the US conservative "imaginary," as the academics say these days. And, more obviously, he was such a prominent conservative figure in the 1980s. She finally settled on one:

I ended up bringing before my class a different speech, the Neshoba County Fair "states' rights" speech of August 3, 1980. I found this speech (video and transcript here) useful less for its content--it's more folksy than forceful--than for the way it shows (1) how political dog whistles work, and (2) why interpretations of history matter. In 2007--27 years after the event!--David Brooks wrote for the New York Times that Reagan was falsely accused of racism on the basis of this speech. Four days later, Bob Herbert wrote for the same paper that the speech was absolutely evidence of racism, and to argue otherwise was "woefully wrong-headed." I read my students portions of both NYT columns and asked, how might both of these perspectives contain elements of truth, and why is an inability to agree on what constitutes racism a huge problem? (Incidentally, my favorite piece on that last question also comes from the NYT, "The Easiest Way to Get Rid of Racism? Just Redefine It.")

One landmark Reagan speech I didn't go over in class was 1987's "Tear Down This Wall." The irony was so thick, I choked on it.

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