Josna Rege

345. Reaganomics 101

In Stories, India, United States, 1980s, Music, Work, Books, Politics on October 10, 2015 at 1:40 am
Poor People's March, 1968 (

Poor People’s March, 1968 (

When I started my graduate studies in the late 1980s I taught freshman composition to entering undergraduates. As an undergraduate myself in the early 1970s and as a child of the 1960s (not just the 1960s in general, but the 1960s of post-Independence India in particular), I had had my core values instilled in me much earlier. At first it shocked and unnerved me to see how dramatically different their basic assumptions were from mine, until it dawned on me that, as children of the 1980s, these 18 year-olds had come to consciousness during the Reagan era.


My realization of this difference in perspective came when we were discussing an essay on poverty in the United States. In my childhood, the poor were the products of structural inequities in society, their children having grown up without proper housing, healthcare, or nutrition and without the educational and employment opportunities of the more privileged classes. The poor were to be given a helping hand: not charity, but a fair shake. And the rich owed a debt to the poor, since it was the hard labor of the poor that afforded the wealthy their lives of ease. That’s more-or-less how we saw it. We further believed that acquisitiveness was not a virtue: the wealthy at least ought to invest their surplus wealth in the national economy, rather than squandering it in conspicuous consumption.

WelfareMy students, however, thought that the rich deserved their wealth and had every right to the most lavish of lifestyles. Their disapproval was reserved for the undeserving poor, whose condition they ascribed to laziness and lack of ambition. If they wanted money, then they ought to work for it like the rest of us. This was the prevailing attitude among my students: if these people were poor, it was their own fault.This was the legacy that Reaganomics bequeathed to them and to subsequent generations.

I ought not to have been surprised. This attitude was set forth as common sense in the marketing of Reagan’s domestic policy and has taken root so successfully as the national ethos that all subsequent U.S. administrations have adopted it to some degree. While Ronald Reagan was fond of repeating a story of a “welfare queen” who drove a Cadillac (a myth that maligned black people as well as justifying the slashing of social programs for the poor) it was Bill Clinton on whose watch “welfare reform” cut off single mothers’ welfare payments after a certain period of time and forced them to return to work on sub-poverty salaries, often having to leave their children unsupervised. Blame the Poor was again the watchword: if these immoral and irresponsible women had gotten themselves pregnant out of wedlock, what right did they have to expect society to pay for raising their children while they lay abed all day taking drugs and living lives of gay abandon?

baby-20with-20headphonesJust as hypnopaedia imprinted the babies of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with the ideology of their society, so Reaganism 101 was imbibed by the children of the 1980s all unawares.

There’s plenty of work; they just don’t want to do it.
They just want a government handout.
Why should we subsidize their sloth?
I’m so glad I’m an investment banker. 

I guess I was out of step with the times; as Reagan was taking the oath of office, pledging to get Big Government off the backs of hardworking Americans, our newly-formed letterpress print shop joined the IWW (the Wobblies), whose Little Red Songbook featured Dump the Bosses off Your Back.

DumpTheBosses_thumbAlthough the Wobblies shamelessly secularized the beloved Christian hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, I’d dare bet that the IWW’s declaration, in the Preamble to their constitution that “there can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life”, is closer to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 19:24 than is Reaganomics 101, a doctrine that taught my innocent students to honor the rich and to blame, rather than bless, the poor.


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344. Tropical Botanicals

In 1970s, Nature, places, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases on September 25, 2015 at 9:36 am
Rhizophora mangle, or Red Mangrove (

Rhizophora mangle, or red mangrove (

Forty years ago, in April 1975, a group of us in the co-op house at university decided to go down to Key West, Florida for our Spring Break. We drove non-stop, getting from Boston to the northern border of the state in just 24 hours, and headed first to Miami. Unusually for college students on Spring Break, our first destination was not the beach, but, because we had a budding botanist among us, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Once there, we made a beeline for the area where the Garden maintains a small simulated tropical rainforest; visiting that hot, moisture-drenched paradise alone made our entire trip worthwhile.

Erythoxylum coca

Erythoxylum coca (

Peter, our resident botanist, had inside knowledge about the Garden; he knew the exact location of plants that were not labeled for fear that they would be stripped and stolen. The plant he took us to visit was Erythroxylum coca (var. coca), or, in common parlance, coca, notorious because it is the basis for the production of HCl, or cocaine, a dangerous, illegal substance, highly lucrative for black-market drug traffickers. However, coca is not illegal in South America, where its leaves have been used medicinally for centuries, and workers chew them for energy and stamina during their long hours of hard manual labor. Being a conservationist, not a Yahoo, Peter carefully, reverently, pinched off a few sprigs, which we slipped into a bag as we slipped away unnoticed, leaving the little bush all the healthier for its expert pruning.

Next on our botanical tour of Florida was the Everglades National Park, when we headed straight for the mangrove swamps along the coastline. The term mangrove refers not to one particular plant, but to a number of species of trees that grow along the coast and are tolerant to salt. Mangroves thrive in the tidal waters of the Everglades, where saltwater and freshwater mix, and the national park protects the largest contiguous stand of protected mangrove forest in the hemisphere.

Rhizophora mangle, or the red mangrove, is a strong and adaptable plant, the most common mangrove on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in both tropical and subtropical zones. Its Latin name, Rhizophora, which means rootbearer, refers to its aerial prop roots, which also give it the common name (one among many) walking tree, because it looks as if it is walking on water. Its propagule (what a terrific word!), or unit of propagation, drops live off the parent plant, and is immediately capable of rooting and creating a new tree.

Propagules growing before dropping from the parent plant (wikipedia, uploaded by Hlucha)

Propagules growing before dropping from the parent plant (wikipedia, uploaded by Hlucha)

The red mangrove is in no danger of being over-picked—in fact, it has become an invasive menace in Hawai ‘i, where the climate in ideal for it. Still, Peter oversaw the careful removal of a small red mangrove plant to try propagating back home in New England (where it is in no danger of becoming an invasive species).

The rest of our trip, as we continued down through the Florida Keys to Key West and back, though memorable, was probably not very different from the typical Spring Break experience: beach by day, bars by night, camping, companionship, and in my case a chance to relax before the last big exam period of my senior year in college. On the trip home, when it came to my nighttime driving shift, I chewed some of the Erythroxylum coca leaf we had brought back with us. Like a Peruvian worker from the Andes, I was able to drive steadily through the night without a trace of fatigue, my only other symptom being a mild numbing sensation in my mouth and throat.

When we got home, we put our little mangrove in one of the bathtubs of the Co-op House, and tried to make it a home away from home, complete with salty water and simulated tides twice a day. It lived and even thrived until sometime later that summer, when one of us went away and others forgot to refresh its water, as students are wont to do. But that one short trip so many years ago helped to instill in me a lifelong respect for plants, miraculous living beings like ourselves, that share our planet and make our own lives possible.

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343. European Border Crossings

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, travel on September 16, 2015 at 11:12 pm


In August of 1963 my father and mother, three-year-old sister Sally, and I traveled by train from Greece to Belgium and then by ferry across to England. The journey took three or four days and is all a pleasurable blur in my mind now, from the long bus trip from Athens to Thessaloniki (the first trip by automobile when I did not get car-sick) to the lurching ferry ride across the Channel to Dover, and finally on to London. It was a student train which my thirty-something parents had somehow managed to get on, and the noisy, polyglot young people adopted the nine-year-old me as their mascot, taking me into their compartments as they talked, sang, and laughed all the way across Europe.

Old train station, Skopje (Jeff Rozwadowski)

Old train station, Skopje (Jeff Rozwadowski)

I was in a kind of dream throughout, as we rocked our way through the days and nights in the self-contained world of the train. I was aware, though, that we were passing through Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Skopje, Macedonia. From there we crossed into Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and finally, England and the bosom of our mother’s family. I remember riding through long stretches of countryside with the train running parallel to a wide, slow-flowing river (I felt sure that it was the Rhine, but never really knew), and remember pulling into a grand train station at Frankfort. But besides the spectre of Skopje that hovered dimly at the edges of my consciousness, there were the grim, grey overcoated border guards who boarded the train periodically in the night—in what must have been Yugoslavia and again in Hungary. I knew nothing then of the Eastern Bloc or the Cold War, and thankfully there was no need for me to have any dealings with them nor they with me, but I felt the chill of their presence in contrast to the carefree merriment of the students returning from their summer holidays.

Refugees on a train in Macedonia (by Lindsey Hilsum in Granta Magazine)

Refugees on a train in Macedonia (“She will always remember this journey”: Lindsey Hilsum in Granta Magazine)

That long-ago journey has returned to my mind again and again over the past few weeks, as thousands of displaced families have braved perilous Mediterranean crossings from Turkey to Greece and on foot to Hungary, where they have waited day after day for a train to take them across Europe. The memories of the children in these families will be so different from my sunny recollections of the Sixties youth culture, as I rode through the days and nights in the students’ boisterous embrace, moving from country to country with only the slightly jarring awareness of the border guards to remind me that we were crossing a national border.

In 1963 the European Union (then the European Economic Community (EEC)) included only six countries; Britain was still hemming and hawing over whether or not to join and wouldn’t do so until 1973, ten years later; Greece, not for eight years more, in 1981; Austria, not until 1995; and Hungary still later, in 2004, when the Eurozone swelled to include ten more countries. Yugoslavia was to go through a protracted and bloody breakup in the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by economic restructuring, crusading Serbian nationalism (remember Slobodan Milošević?), and violence against ethnic minorities. But back in 1963 Yugoslavia had just been renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Marshal Tito was firmly in power, holding it all together—for a time.

Refugees tear-gassed at Hungarian border (Gultuysuz on Twitter)

Refugees tear-gassed at Hungarian border (Gultuysuz on Twitter)

The European Union sought to unite Europe as a regional economic community, doing away with separate passports and working to develop a culture of inclusion. But with politicians and anti-immigrant groups whipping up panic over ‘barbarians at the gates,’ Europe has developed a siege mentality and is shutting down its borders again, fearful of the ‘swarms’, ‘floods’,  tide’ of refugees, most of them non-Christians. As writer after writer reminds us in Granta Magazine’s timely special issue, The Refugee Crisis, Europe itself was torn apart by war not so very long ago, thrusting out thousands upon thousands of refugees seeking asylum elsewhere, many of them non-Christians as well.

Solidarity with Refugees in London (Photo: Randi. Sokoloff/Demotix/Corbis)

Solidarity with Refugees in London (Photo: Randi. Sokoloff/Demotix/Corbis)

When I see the heartbreaking images of the child victims of this conflict, I am reminded of how fortunate I was to have been given a warm welcome into Europe. My family was taken up into that train full of returning European holidaymakers and transported readily across its rolling green countryside; many of these families were driven from their homes, herded into camps, fleeced by unscrupulous smugglers, and then denied entry as they arrived sick and bedraggled at the fences of Fortress Europe. Europe and the United States are deeply embroiled in that war in Syria. The more than four million people displaced by it are the responsibility of us all, as the solidarity demonstrations across Europe have affirmed, as ordinary people march under banners urging, “Open the Borders,” shaming their governments, welcoming the refugees. As one homemade placard declared: We are One: there is no “Other.”



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