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To find hope for 2019, travel back to 1989

04 January 2019

Paul Vallely finds vision and breadth in a speech by Ronald Reagan


Ronald Reagan in 1989

Ronald Reagan in 1989

THE Roman god Janus had two heads: one to look forward, and one back. He comes to mind in this month of January, as we reflect on the old year and look forward to the new one. I lost count of how many Christmas cards this year contained some variation on the hope that 2019 will be better than its predecessor. As Brexit beckons, that may be a classic manifestation of the difference between optimism and hope.

A similar ambivalence applies in the United States, where the federal government is currently paralysed by a partial financial shutdown because President Trump and the Democrats cannot agree over the budget — and the whopping $5 billion that President Trump is demanding to build the wall between the US and Mexico which he promised (although he seems happy enough to break the promise that it will be paid for by the Mexicans).

So let us, like Janus, look to the past to find a solution for the future. In his very last speech as US President, in 1989, Ronald Reagan became surprisingly philosophical. “America’s freedom does not belong to just one nation. We’re custodians of freedom for the world,” he said. America must be “a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world”, in a way that no other country on earth could match.

“This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation. While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams. . .”.

How? “Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier,” he said. “This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

How far not just the US but all the world has fallen. The generosity and wisdom of that vision is a far cry from the impoverished debate in which the US is currently mired: President Trump is insisting on a wall that has been condemned as medieval and ineffective, while the Democrats somehow think themselves more high-minded because, instead of a wall, they want technological barriers featuring drones, satellites, sensors, and cell-phone towers.

Reagan, of course, was a true Republican, whereas President Trump is merely an opportunistic one. Looking back, Reagan was also a man who manifested a breadth of vision sadly lacking from contemporary politics.

It is a lesson we should learn here, too. Those British people who hope for a second referendum on Brexit tend to focus on the economic Armageddon that will follow a cliff-edge Brexit. Perhaps we should be speaking about the visionary solidarity of an association that has kept peace on this once war-torn continent for more than half a century. Happy New Year.

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