|A GIANT JONESTOWN||123|
was discovered to have sent a death threat to Reagan,(31) somehow it seemed appropriate to our group-fantasy that Reagan-and America-was being poisoned.
By the end of 1982, there were so many poison alerts that it seemed as though America had become a giant Jonestown. More poison Tylenol was discovered in Illinois; cyanide was found in Anacin tablets in California; in Colorado, someone put mercuric chloride into Excedrin tablets and rat poison into Anacin capsules; in Wyoming, hydrochloric acid was found in Visene eye drops; in Minneapolis, sodium hydroxide was put into chocolate milk; in Louisiana, one town found cyanide in its water supply; in Florida, someone put insecticide into an orange juice container.(32)
By Halloween, literally hundreds of people were swept up into acting out the group-fantasy, this time on children begging for candy in "trick or treat" visits. Stimulated by newspaper headlines such as "TRICK OR TERROR-Nationwide Poison Candy Alert: Keep Kids At Home,"(33) impulse-ridden individuals put hundreds of different poisons into candy, Demerol into cookies, pins into apples and razor blades into frankfurters in order to make our internal fears concrete. Russell Baker captured the feeling of The Great Reagan Poison Alert in his New York Times col-umn:
For five weeks I traveled across beautiful autumnal America. It was like a booby hatch of the criminally insane.
In Detroit they were finding razor blades in hot dogs sold at the grocery. In California somebody had laced eyewash with corrosive chemicals. In Chicago, capsules sold as headache remedies came packed with cyanide. In New York and its suburbs, not to be outdone, people spent the weekend inserting needles and pins into candy they planned to give children on Halloween.
I was struck by the sense of encroaching madness . . .(35)
Like Frosch's paranoid patient, descending into the depths of his psychosis, Reagan's America felt surrounded by poisoners - only in our group-fantasy we delegated concrete poisoning episodes to impulsive individuals within the nation to make our feelings seem more "real."
For the next three months, the news media were dominated by poison alert stories. As the poison pill and food stories subsided, they were replaced by headlines and cartoons of environmental poisoning. As one cartoonist saw it, we felt as if we were in Noah's ark. The flood was subsiding (the recession was ending) and we wanted to step out on dry, safe
We felt our world was full of poison.
|land . . . but found that instead of the flood having
cleansed the world, it had left it full of poison!
In actuality, America was much less polluted in the 1980s than in the 1960s and early 1970s, due to the dramatic effects of hundreds of recent environmental programs. Yet the press now suddenly discovered that our environment was being polluted beyond anything we had yet experienced, and a full media blitz, complete with scare headlines and TV specials, focused on the remaining problem areas. All of America seemed like a "HOUSE THAT DIED OF POISON," as the Daily News phrased it, as hundreds of reporters were sent out to find any "poison" story which might allow them to reflect our internal emotions.
"The House That Died of Poison"
|In only one sense did these stories have some relation to reality. It was true that the Reagan administration - hoping to make the environment match their own feelings of sinful pollutionhad attempted to reverse many of the government's recent environmental programs. As Ralph Nader put it, "They want to kill everything off. They want to destroy the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], auto safety, environmental health . . . within two years, they'll be known as the Cancer Party."(36) Even so, most of Reagan's "deregulation" efforts were only partly effective, the environment as a whole remained far less polluted than before, and such continuing problems as dioxin, nuclear waste and acid rain were all that remained to convey our paranoid feelings of being poisoned from within. Headlines reading "THE ENEMY BELOW"(37) and "NEW|
|A WITCH HUNT||125|
|DIOXIN 'HOT SPOT' IS DISCOVERED"(38) were merged
in our minds with others showing global maps of "THE
WORLD'S HOT SPOTS" (places of armed conflict), until
we hardly knew from one page. to the next if the
dangerous "hot spots" (sexuality) were inside
us (THE ENEMY BELOW), around us (DIOXIN HOT SPOT) or
overseas (WORLD'S HOT SPOTS). The American Medical
Associa-tion, reacting to such scare headlines as
"TOXIC CHEMICAL ALL AROUND US, SCIENTISTS SAY,"
finally issued a statement saying that "experts have
yet to document a single death" from dioxin,
pointing out that "the news media has made dioxin
the focus of a witch hunt by disseminating rumors,
hearsay and unconfirmed, unscientific reports" which
generated "unjustified public fright and
"Hysteria" it indeed was. But mere scientific statements could not change our deepest feelings. We needed something to dramatize our conviction that we were being poisoned by too much pleasure. Something like herpes, but far more deadly.
James Watt was felt to be poisoning us.
The government was seen awash in poison.
For a time, we played with the hope that we could objectify these feel-ings by running stories of the "chemical castration" of rapists, where judges for the first time tried giving rapists the choice between long jail terms and injections of Depo-Provera, which supposedly lowered their sexual desires.(42) Yet even though this news story linked the "poisonous" injections to punishment for sex, it was too limited in scope to make a really powerful group-fantasy. What we needed was something felt to be all around us, something we all could get, something that could be direct-ly seen as a punishment for sexual excess. What we needed was an anti-sexual epidemic.
We felt we had a poison blood epidemic.
|The epidemic we found was AIDS, the usually fatal Acquired Immune Deficien-cy Syndrome. Not only was AIDS mysterious, without a known cause, but it mainly affected "promiscuous homosex-uals," which the New Right had been warning since Reagan's election would be the cause of terrible disasters for America. The problem was, explained the National Review, that homosexuals had recently broken their pact with all of us to stay out of sight and not stir up our homosexual feelings. "Homosexuals committed to fighting openly for their civil liberties are asking for it," they said.(43) Homosexuals who dared to demonstrate for more help for AIDS victims soon found themselves faced with anti-homosexual counter-demonstrations, with frightened, angry people carrying signs saying "DON'T DESTROY AMERICA WITH YOUR LUST." Soon the fantasy that AIDS was contracted from "contaminated blood" spread around the country,(44) reaching the deepest fear anyone can have, a fear which goes all the way back to the time in the womb when each of us was actually poisoned from time to time by the inability of our own placenta to cleanse the waste in our bloodstream .(45)|
The "poison blood" group-fantasy was so frightening that hospital workers refused to touch the "poisonous" blood of AIDS victims, medical technicians began us-ing gloves when touching anyone who was bleeding, equipment touched by homosexuals was thrown away, morticians refused to bury AIDS vic-tims, and blood donations dropped off dangerously due to fears of "in-fected needles."(46) In local meetings all across the country, homosexuals were denounced publicly as "rapists . . sinners and liars," people who held orgies in sex clubs," people who "because of AIDS" endangered everyone in the community.(47) "A lot of people feel that gays have gotten what they deserve," one worker told a New York Times reporter. "On a bulletin board next to him was a cartoon of a middle-aged woman airing her view on AIDS: 'Good Christian people have nothing to fear as long as we stay a million miles away from the slimy creatures who may have it.' "(49)
In fact, what "a lot of people" really felt was that gays had gotten what we deserved: an anti-sexual epidemic, a plague sent by God to punish us all for such things as the sexually explicit cable TV programs watched in millions of American homes.(49) "AIDS may mean the party
is over," mused Newsweek, expressing our feelings by citing an anonymous homosexual as saying, "Maybe we are wrong-maybe this is a punishment."(50)
By February 1983, the Great Reagan Poison Alert reached its climax. Carter's "collapse" phase had peaked during the summer of 1979, with images of disintegration, strangulation and death. Reagan's "collapse" phase peaked six months earlier in his term, with images of disintegration, disease and poisoned blood. Carter had responded to our distress by arranging for hostages to be taken in Teheran, giving us an external enemy" to blame for our malaise. Reagan, however, seemed to be dragging his feet. When would he find us an enemy? We couldn't take all those free-floating poisoning fears indefinitely without having someone to blame them on.
Reagan's "collapse" phase was dominated by
images of disintegration and death.
|The first to call Reagan to account on his broken promise to find us an enemy was the Right. William Safire, in a column headed "REAGAN'S WHITE FLAG," told his New York Times readers that the President had surrendered his principles, "had admitted failure and abandoned 'ideology.' "(51) The Times itself echoed Safire and editorialized that "The stench of failure hangs over Ronald Reagan's White House."(52) Some columnists tried to reassure their readers that "Reagan is not another Carter. He is tough. He is a leader."(53) Yet polls showed Reagan's popularity had dropped to 10 points lower than even Carter's at midterm, lower than any president in American history at this point. John Lofton, in The Washington Times, felt Reagan was so impotent that he was not a man at all, but a dreaded woman, a "political 'Tootsie'. . . wearing clothes quite frankly . . . I was unaware||
Reagan was taunted with being a woman for not giving us an enemy to fight.
were in his wardrobe. . . he is now decked out. . . in a big floppy hat, a skirt, high heels, wearing bright red lipstick and carrying a purse."(54) It was time to show Reagan that the American people were more belligerent than he was.
Public opinion pollsters had earlier interviewed people on how willing they were to go to war. Under headlines such as "AMERICANS WILL-ING TO FIGHT, PROUD OF U.S.," they reported: "In case of war, 71 percent of the Americans said they would fight for their country," ap-parently regardless of where the war was fought, since that was not part of the question.(55) The message to Reagan was obvious. Even women reporters told Reagan they were more ready to go to war than he was. In Reagan's January 5th press conference, one woman reporter stood up and asked him a question about whether women might "go to war with the troops." Reagan was taken aback, and, confused, replied, "Sarah, I have to say that there's only one criteria, and that is if we're going to ask an American young man or woman - but I don't think we'll put the young women in those combat front ranks." Sarah shouted back at him: "WE'RE READY!" The whole press room roared with relief as she voiced our national plea.
By February, with Reagan still negligent in designating an enemy for us, the American press produced the greatest outpouring of "go to war" imagery that had been seen since just before Vietnam. Since most of the world was at peace, the words "DECLARE WAR" had to be hidden in whatever guise was at hand, producing such headlines as these:
A DECLARATION OF WAR (Common Cause ad)
REAGAN SHOULD COME OUT SHOOTING (Patrick Buchanan column)
IT'S WAR! ARMY VS. ROACH (Daily News)
FARMERS DECLARE WAR (New York Post)
RON TO CHURCH: DECLARE WAR ON NUKE FOES (New York Post)
DISTRICT DECLARES WAR ON RABIES (Washington Post)
IS WORLD ON BRINK OF TRADE WAR? (U.S. News)
THE WAR FOR CHINATOWN (New York)
IT LOOKS LIKE WAR AT THE PEACE CORPS (Jack Anderson column)
THE WAR OF WORDS ON EUROMISSILES (Dady News)
PREZ GOES TO WAR FOR DEFENSE BUDGET (New York Post)
ARMY BEEFS UP WAR ON FATTIES (New York Post)
THE WAR ON KIDNEY STONES (Daily News)
OIL PRICE WAR (Daily News)
THE COMING TAX WAR (Joseph Kraft column)
GAYS AT WAR (Mother Jones)
STRAP ON THE GUNS, DUTCH! (Patrick Buchanan column)
BANK WAR ON INTEREST WITHHOLDING (Maxwell Newton column)
TUNING IN ON 'THE WINDS OF WAR' (New York Post)
WAR INSIDE CITY COUNCIL (Atlantic City)
REAGAN DECLARES WAR ON THE MOB (New York Post)
THE WINDS OF WAR (People)
PREZ PLANS TV BLITZ IN FEDERAL WAGE WAR (New York Post)
DRUNK-DRIVER WAR SHIFTING INTO HIGH (Daily News)
WAR OF SECRETS (Wflliam Safire column)
YES, UNCLE SAM MUST LEAD THE WAR ON DRUGS (Letter to the Editor)
BLOODLESS BUT BITTER NEW WAR BETWEEN THE STATES (Des Moines Sunday Register)
POLS GO TO WAR IN SCHOOL BOARD ELECTIONS (New York Post)
PREVENTION BATTLE CRY OF MDs IN WAR AGAINST ALCOHOLISM (Clinical Psychiatry News)
MUGGERS DECLARE WAR ON ANGELS (New York Post)
THE RISING TIDES OF WAR (Time)
ALL-OUT WAR DECLARED ON MIDTOWN PARKERS (New York Post)
Reagan could no longer mistake the urgency of our demand. He would have to find us an enemy and prepare for war so we could shift the poison abroad.
Not that he liked being pushed into it, At his February 16th press con-ference, one of the reporters asked him what his reaction was to the recent rumor that "his aides" were pushing him into decisions lately. "Well, I'll tell you," he replied, angrily, "I read those things, too, and I get pretty frustrated, because - - maybe I'm going to have to have an exhibition up here in which we get some of those unnamed aides up and see if they can push me off the platform! I'm not being pushed around . . . there's no one pushing me . . . "
Our pushing, nevertheless, worked. Reagan gave three dramatic speeches in March to announce  why we had to go to war (the March 8th "Evil Empire" speech),  whom we would have to invade (the March 11th "Central America" speech) and  how we would handle the guilt for our invasion (the March 23rd "Star Wars" speech.)
|THE EVIL EMPIRE||131|
The "Evil Empire" speech was purely religious, labeled "Reagan in the Pulpit" by The New York Times. 56 In it, he told us that "there is sin and evil in the world, and we are enjoined by Scripture and our Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might." After confusing the voice of the press with the voice of Jesus Christ, he then went on to confuse himself with the enemy. He cited C. S. Lewis:
It was C. S. Lewis who, in his unforgettable Screwtape Letters wrote:
"The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint . . . it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.
Because these "quiet men" do not "raise their voices," because they sometimes speak in soothing tones of brotherhood and peace, [we are tempted to] ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire .
What Reagan was here describing was what he felt himself, sitting in his own "carpeted, warmed and well-lighted office," with his "white collar and cut fingernails," having to announce "without raising his voice" that we had to go to waror, as he put it, had to "oppose evil with all our might." He had known all during his life-long crusade that this terrible moment must come. Though the world seemed quiet, it was all deception. It was time to act out "the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil," he said. It was time to fight the Evil Empire.
Reagan's second speech, on Central America, began by describing how the Soviets were now using Grenada, Cuba and Nicaragua as bases. This was the cause of the trouble in Central America and the Caribbean, he said, and now we were forced to step in and stop their growing threat. Having set up the immediacy of the danger, he then announced to the American people that we would eventually have to send combat troops to the area . . . announced it, that is, in the time-honored code Presidents use in announcing such things to the American people:
Are we going to send American soldiers into combat? The answer is a flat no.. . Are we going to Americanize the war with a lot of U.S. combat advisors? Again the answer is no.
The effect was the same as when Lyndon Johnson stood before us and repeated over and over again that "no American combat troops would be sent to Vietnam." We knew the real meaning of the message, as clearly as the child knows what's really going on when daddy brings his pistol
up from the basement, loads it and tells him he is nor going to use it to shoot mommy. Shortly later, when asked about sending American troops, Reagan would change the "flat no" to "the President should never say never." Nevertheless, even then, on March 11th, we knew what he meant.
The March 23rd "Star Wars" speech was Reagan's masterpiece. It would be cited by the media hundreds of times in the coming months as the turning point in his foreign policy. The speech had two aims. It had to show that the Evil Empire was very close and was growing more dangerous by the minute, and it had to make us feel that if we got into war once again we would be safe from nuclear retribution.
The speech opened with Reagan's dramatic announcement that "I have reached a decision . . . a very important decision . . . to make America strong again. . ." While we had been neglecting our military, he explained, the Soviets had been producing twice as many combat aircraft, three times as many attack submarines, five times as many tanks, fourteen times as many artillery, and so on. Where had the Soviets put all these dangerous new weapons? Reagan brought out a series of giant, in-distinct photographs. Look, the poisonous weapons were right there. . . he pointed to the photos . . . "in Western Cuba, we see this military air-field" . . . another photo showed "Soviet military hardware that has made its way to Central America'' . . . a third showed "on the small island of Grenada . . . an airfield with a 10,000-foot runway. Grenada doesn't even have an air force. Who is it intended for?"
Reagan paused dramatically. It seemed obvious that the airport was dangerous to us. Overlooked for the moment was the fact that, according to Aviation Weekly and the British firm which designed it, it was only good for tourist planes, lacking the "facilities that would be needed for it to operate as a military base including such military requisites as underground fuel facilities, navigational and surveillance radar, underground weapons storage, parallel taxiways or dispersal sites and workshop and storage facilities for anything other than light twin-engine aircraft."(57) It must be dangerous, we felt, as we squinted at the dark photo flickering on our TV screen, like an inkblot into which we could project our fears. The poison seemed very close to us (even though Grenada was 1,500 miles from the tip of Florida.) Some of us had even vacationed at one of those "pleasure islands" in the Caribbean. We would have to keep a careful eye on Grenada. Small as it was, it was one of the "hot spots" - rather like dioxin, seemingly innocent, but working silently to poison us.
The second purpose of the "Star Wars" speech-promising an impregnable defense against a nuclear holocaust-appears at first glance to have little connection with Grenada and Central America, since these areas did not have nuclear weapons even if we should invade them. Yet, in the unconscious, Reagan's "Star Wars" fantasy of a screen around
|the U.S. which could stop all missiles made sense to us. We were, after all, planning to kill our persecutors. Like a paranoid individual who decides to attack his persecutors, we needed a fantasy that would pro-tect us from retribution. Paranoid individuals sometimes hallucinate a "magic bubble" or a "plastic shield" which they think able to sur-round them, protect-mg them from their im-agined enemies. Reagan promised us that "we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reach our own soil [and] give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and ob-solete." Imagine, being able to render the Soviets impotent. "Isn't it worth every investment," he asked excitedly. "We know it is!"||
Reagan announced a Star Wars plan for fighting the enemy.
The "Star Wars" defense bubble idea, with its lasers and space sta-tions and millisecond response time, had been kicking around the Pen-tagon for years without finding a backer. Carter's space weapons chief, Col. Robert M. Bowman, called it "the ultimate military lunacy, easily overwhelmed and vulnerable," which would give the nuclear holocaust "a hair-trigger of milliseconds."(58) Although Reagan said in his speech that his "very big decision" had been made "after careful consultation with my advisors, including the Joint Chiefs of staff," his own military hated the plan, and leaked a story the next day to The Washington Post which reported that the idea was Reagan's alone, and that he had "per-sonally overruled objections from top Pentagon officials when he an-nounced [it.]"59 Yet in the end it was the emotional function of the defense shield that mattered, not the scientific facts. We were feeling so crazy by then we had to have an invulnerable shield. Let the scientists call it "insane," which they did.(60) Let experts say, like MIT's George Rath-jens, that "the president - I hate to say this - on this issue is out of touch with reality."(61) Let people point out it would be destabilizing to the ex-treme, and that before long "the earth itself will have been turned into a gigantic orbiting bomb."(62) By now, most Americans were as out of touch with reality as Reagan. We needed this "space bubble" fantasy if we were to go to war. Reagan had, after all, made his "very big decision" to announce the "space shield" plan at the same moment he
made his decision to oppose the Evil Empire. Both the defensive and the aggressive fantasies were inexorably linked together.
The emotional effects of these three speeches were electric. Reagan's sagging polls soared. Re proudly proclaimed two days later that "a dark cloud had been lifted" from America.(63) The Great Reagan Poison Alert ended. Any further poison episodes-such as the 10 people killed by the sedative Zomax, which was made by the same firm as Tylenol-were now relegated to the back pages of newspapers.(64) Cartoonists stopped portraying the government as a poisoner. The "poison in our bloodstream" had all been dumped into Central America. Whereas in February, magazines showed a poisonous serpent in the womb of the earth, beneath our cities, in March they showed the same poisonous serpents in Central America. Reagan had finally given us our enemy.
In February, the poisonous serpent was beneath us, but in March, after Reagan's speech, it was shown in Central America.
Soon the State Department began referring to the Nicaragua desk as the "Get Nicaragua Desk." A major new group-fantasy began to be elaborated that "a brown horde" of Latins were about to flood into the U.S. Reagan called it "a tidal wave of refugees," a fantasy identical to that of Roosevelt when he feared the "undiluted poison" which might pour into America from European refugees.(65) The images of poison in Central America took varied forms. Nicaragua was called "the tip of the tentacles of the poisonous Soviet octopus" or "a poison spider crawling up our leg," and Central America was seen to be "hemorrhaging people into the United States,"(66) Even though refugee immigration was only one-third what it had been before Reagan was president. The "poison
|DUMPED THE POISON ABROAD||135|
|in our bloodstream" wasn't coming from
homosexuals after all, but from countries below us.
For a while, we actually felt much better for having dumped the poison abroad. We were like Frosch's patient, who felt better for a while after his "discovery" that his vague internal poisoning fears were due to a worldwide poisoning conspiracy. Our paranoid fears, however, would soon return. Delusional solutions usually break down when supposed "enemies" become so threatening in our im-agination that they have to be annihilated.
We felt we had dumped our poison into Nicaragua, Cuba and the USSR, making them bloated and threatening.
It would not be long before we would have to take action against the Evil Empire of our waking dreams.