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You Call It Freedom
Talking Back to a Corporate, Big City Columnist
by Paul Street
June 29, 2004

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I recently had the misfortune of belatedly happening upon a Ronald Reagan commemoration penned by the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass, who holds down the page-2 column space formerly claimed by legendary Chicago journalist Mike Royko. Like Royko, Kass does an often-good job of criticizing the reigning local Richard Daley administration (Richard J. in Royko’s day and Richard M. in Kass’s day). When he’s not usefully pricking Daley II, however, Kass often goes off the reactionary deep-end.

In past articles, I have shown him slandering the global justice movement and idiotically embracing the senseless waste of American lives in Iraq (for the most recent piece, see “Big City Columnist Rejects Chance to Tell Truth on U.S. Policy,” ZNet, May 1, 2004).

Kass’s right-wing crap was really flying in a June 11th column he titled “Reagan Taught Us To Stand Tall as Americans.” Below I present the entire column, but I have broken it up with rudely interjected anti-authoritarian commentary. Reading Kass’s column closely, I was taken aback at its practically fascist implications and its relentless stupidity. I know many people who can think and write circles around the certainly well-paid John Kass and who struggle to make ends meet. But there’s no amount of money that could get them to produce the sort of atrocious nonsense that Kass gets away with on a fairly regular basis.

“Reagan Taught Us To Stand Tall as Americans”
Chicago Tribune, June 11, 2004
John Kass 

KASS: The evolution from Kennedy Democrats to Reagan Republicans at our house wasn't that inconceivable. The same kind of changeover happened in millions of other families.

And today, the late President Ronald Reagan will be buried. So today is a day of reckoning about such things.

COMMENT: Mr. KASS, the “changeover” was easy in part because of sick continuities between JFK and Reagan, particularly in foreign policy, where both were strong committed militarists and arch-Cold Warriors. Both found it extremely important to use U.S. tax dollars to covertly and bloodily repress Latin American movements for social justice and national self-determination in the name of “anti-communism.” To cover that oppression, both JFK and Reagan disseminated great big lies about Soviet military and expansionist capacity and intent. They used these lies to significantly expand the “military industrial complex” that JFK’s predecessor Dwight Eisenhower warned about as he left the White House. Here’s a couple of well-researched books to consult: Bruce Miroff, Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy and Noam Chomsky, Re-thinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture.

KASS: Both Reagan and Kennedy were appealing. Each cut taxes and fought the communists, and each had his Hollywood connections.

COMMENT: What’s so damn “appealing,” Mr. Kass, about “cutting taxes?” Taxes are what make a vibrant public sector possible, and without that democracy dies. Taxes are one of the prices we pay for enjoying the American standard of living. Taxes pay for government action, including I suppose the commie-fighting you loved so much, though some serious research would reveal that Kennedy and Reagan killed far more ordinary Third World peasants and workers than communists. Those two presidents said they were fighting the international communist conspiracy but they were really fighting struggles for social justice and national self-determination in the Third World. They needed their big Cold War lies to justify the alliances they made with essentially fascist Third World forces, including killers like Reagan’s beloved terrorists the Contras and brutally repressive and reactionary regimes in places like South Vietnam, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, South A! frican, the Philippines, and more places like -- get this -- Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. You forgot to mention that their tax cuts (Reagan’s especially) were especially for the well heeled and Ronny’s came at no small cost to social programs for the economically disadvantaged.

KASS: At our house, we liked Kennedy, especially my dad. Kennedy couldn't stand communists, and my dad couldn't stand communists and, as often happens in families, we couldn't either.

COMMENT: Gee, Kennedy was really unique, wasn’t he, in claiming to hate communists, since all those other politicians like Nixon and Johnson used to talk about how much they loved communists. Great, we base our politics on what our household patriarch believes. Dad “couldn’t stand Jews” and so “we couldn’t either.”

KASS: This wasn't a theoretical argument. It was personal, since the communists didn't try to convince my dad with fine arguments about the brotherhood of man.

Instead, they repeatedly tried to kill him in the old country. They shot up the village and stole food from starving people at gunpoint and killed those who disagreed with them, including teachers, and used their politics as cover to settle disputes by gutting those they stole from.

COMMENT: Actually, the people trying to kill your father were as far from being communists as you are. They were Stalinist thugs. “Communist” was just their label, kind of like Pat Robertson calling himself a “Christian” or George W. Bush calling himself a “conservative.” Some of us have met real-life communists, including some lovely people who have done quite a bit to actually “convince” us “with fine arguments about the brotherhood” (and sisterhood) of humanity.

KASS: But that was over there, and my brothers and I were born here, desperate to become real Americans. So we ducked and covered with the best of them at school and waited for nuclear annihilation.

COMMENT: By surrounding the Soviet Union with nuclear missiles and bombs, placing especially provocative missiles in Turkey, repeatedly attacking Cuba, and going public with a big game of nuclear chicken with the Soviets, your “communist”-hating hero JFK did a Hell of a lot to bring you incredibly close to annihilation.

KASS: It seems quaint now, like episodes of "Bewitched" you might flip past while scanning for something to watch on TV. We've forgotten. In this country we forget everything. We're trained to forget, so we can buy the new stuff somebody's selling.

The idea that the Soviet Union was intent on world domination seems quaint now too. But it wasn't quaint then.

COMMENT: No it wasn’t quaint, Mr. KASS, but it was total unadulterated bullshit, pretty much on par with Elizabeth Montgomery’s powers in “Bewitched.” The Soviets had no serious designs or capacity for world domination. The U.S., on the other hand, was and remains intent on world domination, something that is clear from a documentary and scholarly record you would never take the time to investigate.

KASS: We lived every day with it. We tried to ignore it, but it wormed away at us, working on the insides of everyone in this country. The missiles were never fired, but I figure they killed just the same. Haven't you ever wondered how many people died too soon, worn down over time by anxieties about nuclear war?

COMMENT: Nobody did more than Kennedy and Reagan to push the world closer to nuclear war.

KASS: After Kennedy was assassinated, we supported Johnson, but only because he was president. Supporting the president was what you did in times of war.

COMMENT: Great. Fuhrer launches imperialist attacks on other nations and we support Fuhrer. How noble. Yes, Mr. KASS, it was Hell, wasn’t it, those daily North Vietnamese bombing campaigns on American cities? Yes, life is rough “in times of war.”

KASS: I was just a kid, but LBJ lost me when he picked up his dogs by the ears until they howled.

COMMENT: Great, Mr. KASS. Have you subsequently learned about the countless women and children he napalmed and the hundreds of thousands he slaughtered while you cringed at the discomfort of the presidential pooch? They were killed in the name of the anti-communism that you love so well.

KASS: By the late '60s, with the race riots and the protests and the Vietnam War going badly, order was required and Nixon was the one at our house. But then Daley was the one at our house too.

COMMENT: Yes, Mr, KASS, the “colored” got unruly and those long hairs were freaking out you Chicago white ethnics. Who did they think they were? Their dads must have been pointy-headed, weak-kneed liberals. Yes, it was time for a new Fatherland Figure: the power-mad Richard Nixon. Bet you and dad loved it when the Chicago cops beat the shit out of those protestors in 1968. That’s one part of the Daley legacy you can embrace. “Order was required.” Sieg Heil!

KASS: At our home, we respected Nixon, though baseball was more important to us then than politics. Nixon had this pinched look on his face. It was the look of a person who decided early on that he would never be loved, so he decided to be feared.

COMMENT: Gee, such devastating emotional insight. You must have been watching Oprah…doesn’t sound like the tough big city columnist we’ve come to know. Whatever, your original hero JFK was widely loved, in more ways than one, and that didn’t stop him from trying to rule Latin Americans, Vietnamese, and others through, well, fear. Same for the creep to whom you dedicated this column.

KASS: That kind of man can order people around. But he can't lead. He can't inspire people to do great things. He was feared, and finally hated.

COMMENT: unlike the great Ronald Reagan, America’s most transparently shit-for-brains president prior to Dumbya.

KASS: Then came Watergate and revulsion with Nixon, and the Democrats beckoned again with Carter.

We adopted Carter at our house. The consensus around the kitchen table was that Carter was a decent man. But we confused decency with strength.

The Soviets weren't confused. Carter was a hand-wringer.

Hand-wringers make fantastic equivocators and can rationalize bad behavior, explain subtle nuances, encourage other hand-wringers to increase the size of their bureaucracies. And hand-wringers can discuss all those shades of gray that the East Coast establishment keeps reminding us about in certain editorials.

But there's one problem. Hand-wringers know many things but don't believe in much. They're moral relativists. There is no right and wrong in them. Only those shades of gray.

COMMENT: How did you come up with this stuff? You most listen to talk radio and watch FOX News. Damn that hand-wringing-moral-relativist equivocating rationalizing big bureaucratic East Coast establishment anyway!

KASS: And shades of gray can't lead human beings.

COMMENT: Spoken like a true fascist …or Stalinist. There’s no room for anything but black and white when it comes to leading the fatherland. No ambiguity. It’s all or nothing. You’re either with us or against us. Sound familiar? Listen to yourself, Mr. KASS.

KASS: The Soviets figured Carter for a weakling and us for weaklings for electing him, and in a sense we were weaklings then. They moved in Central and South America, Asia and Africa and kept hold of Europe. And we didn't have the leadership to confront them or stop them.

COMMENT: Right, the nefarious, global Red Army and its minions were on the march, devilishly causing nationalist and populist rebellions in Central America and terrorizing the people of Switzerland. Those rebellions didn’t have anything to do with internal social and political conditions in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and South Africa, where U.S.-backed fascist regimes terrorized their populations, standing atop horribly impoverished and unequal societies. Mr. KASS, please read something serious about the period and the regions you mention and about Soviet history and policy. Get a clue.

KASS: But then came Reagan. He didn't care about satisfying the establishment by waxing on about shades of gray. He understood that there was good and evil in the world and that we weren't evil.

COMMENT: Yes, thank God for Reagan. He hated the establishment so much he gave it the biggest plutocratic tax cut since the 1920s. And here is some evidence of the good that he represented:

* tens of thousands lost their lives to Central American state-terrorist repression funded, protected, and directed by his administration

* his administration waged a bloody, terrorist campaign against attempted social democracy and national self-determination in Nicaragua

* his administration's offered revolting support to South Africa's racist apartheid state and numerous other authoritarian, Third World fascist forces like the neo-Nazi military junta in Argentina, Duvalier in Haiti, Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu in Zaire, Pinochet in Chile, and, curiously enough, Saddam Hussein in Iraq

* his administration sponsored deadly extremist Islam in Afghanistan and beyond

* his administration enabled the massacre of thousands of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982

* his administration was deeply corrupt, as seen in the Iran-Contra scandal (for which Reagan never apologized) and the hugely expensive (for taxpayers) Saving and Loans debacle

* his administration undertook a brutal, racist, and corporate-plutocratic homeland assault on the domestic social safety and social contract, an attack that targeted and significantly rolled back labor, welfare, economic and environmental regulation, and civil rights.

No shades of gray there, Mr. KASS.

KASS: The Soviets were evil because they squashed the individual in the name of the collective. Big central governments everywhere are determined to maintain themselves at the cost of the individual. This is the nature, the danger, of bureaucracies.

COMMENT: Kind of like your employer the gigantic, super-bureaucratic Tribune corporation or other massive super-bloated US multinational corporations – the chief entities that Reagan served in the name of the “little guy.”

KASS: Reagan understood this. He rebuilt the military, confronted the communists and broke them. He cut taxes and unleashed the vitality of the U.S. economy. He did it all by sticking to conservative principles and was respected by Americans.

COMMENT: No big central government or unaccountable bureaucracy over at the Pentagon, right? Actually, Reagan was a fairly unpopular president, partly because “the economy” was pretty poor during most of his two terms (thanks in part to his regressive policies) and because he was such a transparent boob and obvious tool of the militarists and super-rich. The Soviet Union, which wasn’t actually communist (whatever you and dad thought), fell for a number of reasons, the most significant of which were internal. If you are looking for a hero in that process, I suggest Gorbachev. Reaganite domestic policies were not conservative, Mr. KASS, they were radical, radically regressive. Reagan (well, the Reagan White House) pursued and achieved a dramatic upward distribution of wealth and power, all contrary to the principles of leading founders like Thomas Jefferson.

KASS: This outraged the hand-wringers and the shades-of-gray crowd. It enrages them still, which is why they're so eager to diminish him, to peel him, even in death.

COMMENT: Yes, we’re so gray-shaded we want to peel Reagan’s corpse. You are quite a wordsmith. Mr. KASS.

KASS: And what happened in the world?

They call it freedom. They call it the American Century. They don't call it the Soviet Century.

Thank you, President Reagan.

COMMENT: You call it freedom. Masses of people around the world consider this a dangerous time of arrogant, unbridled U.S. imperial domination and massive, U.S.-supported global inequality. They have reasons to feel nostalgia for the Cold War era, when there was at least one other superpower to deter the global ambitions and power of the rogue United States. Freedom is a devil’s gift when it is not accompanied by material security and opportunity and the U.S. is an agent of military and socioeconomic insecurity and political oppression around the world. The American Century means death, destruction, inequity and poverty for billions. Here at home, especially in big cities, we are still trying to dig out of the radically impoverishing, racist, and wealth-and power-concentrating holes your great hero dug for us. Good riddance, Ronald Reagan.

Paul Street is a writer and researcher in Chicago, Illinois.  He can be reached at

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