Reagan’s Poisoned Apple

If you have any conservative friends on Facebook who like to post about their political beliefs, then there’s a good chance that, at some time, you have seen this quote from Ronald Reagan:

We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.

You’ve seen that right?  Conservatives love that quote from Saint Ronald.  It’s a good quote, as quotes go, but conservatives really love this quote.

Neat case, I guess, despite the use of white text on the white flag stripes.

This is one of those perfect conservative quotes because even though it doesn’t fit too well on a bumper sticker like most of the others, it embodies not just what conservatism is really about, but also what conservatives think that conservatism is about.

It ends with a statement that nobody argues with, or disagrees with, but does it in a combative way, as if there are many, many people out there (made of straw I imagine) arguing that individuals should not be accountable for their actions.  This a favorite accusation that conservatives make about non-conservatives, and it is completely untrue.

Conservatives love making this accusation and they seem to truly believe that accountability and personal responsibility are somehow exclusive to conservatives.  In fact, when many of my conservative friends argue with me, they will often express disbelief that I am truly a liberal because I have a wife, with two kids that we support and love, and I work hard, and I am a responsible person.  “You’re at most a moderate,” they will tell me, or, “deep down you’re a conservative.  I know.”

No, I’m not a conservative.  I’m a liberal.  I take responsibility for my actions because accountability is not a conservative or a liberal trait, it’s a responsible adult trait.

But the real reason that conservatives love this quote is the first part: “We must reject… that society is at fault.”  You see what this really does?  Not only does it argue that everyone is responsible for their own actions (which no one can, or wants to, argue with) but it absolves everyone else of any responsibility whatsoever.

It is ironic and kind of awesome that one of the sacred texts of modern conservatism which purports to be about accountability and personal responsibility is actually an abdication of personal responsibility for the society which we, as individuals and as a collection of individuals, help to create.  Conservatives love the idea of accountability.  They aren’t so crazy about its actual implications.

As a liberal I believe that I am 100% responsible for the actions I take.  I believe that you are 100% responsible for the actions you take.  I also believe that I am 100% responsible for the actions I take in helping to shape the society that we live in together.  That’s where conservatives and I start to diverge.

The next time you see this quote, ask your friend when Reagan made that statement, and see if she knows, or can guess.

If your friend is familiar with the history of his presidency, she might guess that Reagan made this statement sometime after he survived the assassination attempt by John Hinckley on March 30, 1981.  Hinckley was (in)famously found not guilty by reason of insanity because it was shown that his act was a misguided attempt to impress Jodie Foster.  (And this was long before Silence of the Lambs.  Insane!)

That would be a plausible guess, and would seem to fit.  After all, a man tried to murder the president and one could argue that society blamed itself instead of holding Hinckley responsible.  (It should be noted that Hinckley remains confined to a psychiatric facility 31 years later, a longer, though less harsh, sentence than attempted murder would normally engender.)

But that’s not when Reagan said it.  Nor did he say it in either of his inaugural addresses, although the first one did give us that other Reagan favorite, “government is the problem.”

No, Reagan made this statement twelve years before he became president, at a Republican platform meeting in 1968.  He said it in response to the urban rioting that was taking place in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King assassination.  He was arguing that the people who were breaking the law were responsible for their actions.  He was right.  He was also arguing that he and all of his like-minded conservatives had absolutely no responsibility for the societal conditions that existed at the time.  He was wrong.

In the book of Genesis, the Fall of Man is attributed to their consumption of a fruit (traditionally an apple) from the Tree of Knowledge.  The effects were immediate and tragic and eventually led to the murder of their second-born son, Abel, by their first-born son, Cain.

When Cain was questioned about his brother’s whereabouts, he asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  It is interesting that conservatives, many of whom consider their conservatism a moral byproduct of their faith, cling to a quote that seems to be answering that question with a firm no.

Author: Wiesman

Husband, father, video game developer, liberal, and perpetual Underdog.

41 thoughts on “Reagan’s Poisoned Apple”

  1. Jon, once again, your eloquence continues to impress me. However, I must defend the quote and those who believe in it. In our society today, we do have a problem with people accepting personal responsibility. For example, those people who build houses along the coast that get destroyed by hurricanes or on flood plains seem to think that it is the government’s responsibility to rebuild their homes. More recently, the housing “crisis” is another example. I have not yet heard anyone admit that they knowingly bought a home that they couldn’t afford. No, it was the crooked bankers and mortgage lenders who forced them into it. Now, I will admit that there are some who lacked the common sense to realize what was too good to be true and were fooled into believing they could somehow afford more house than their incomes allowed, but, in my humble opinion, many people knowingly did this with the expectation that someone would bail them out if they got into trouble. Many more examples can be cited. A look at our litigious society is another prime example. The case most often cited is the “little old lady” who spilled coffee in her lap as she was driving with the cup between her legs. She sued McDonald’s for serving coffee that was too hot and got a $135,000 judgement! Tens of thousands of cases like this occur and the personal injury attorneys are now in that infamous 1%. We have just become a society that says, “It isn’t my fault – someone else should pay.” much too often.

  2. George, like Reagan before you, you seem to be arguing against a point I’m not making. I agree that everyone needs to be responsible for their actions. Everyone agrees with this. Everyone shares your disgust with people who seek to avoid accountability for their actions. I am calling for MORE accountability, not less.

    Also, that case most often cited about the little old lady who spilled coffee is often cited by people who don’t know the entire story. There’s a great documentary about the whole case called Hot Coffee.

    You might be surprised by the facts in that case, including that McDonald’s knew they were violating the law, knew they were endangering their customers, and had been quietly settling cases for years because they had made a “cost of business” decision about the cost of complying with the law, and the cost of occasionally paying off an injured customer if the had to. In other words, they were seeking to avoid accountability for their actions.

    1. The problem with many on this quote is that they pay lip service to the idea that they want more personal accountability. However, the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. Blaming the gun and gun manufacturers for gun violence. Then adding folks like the NRA and pro-second amendment citizens as being part of the problem. Rather than blaming the Islamic terrorist(s) (who don’t represent, completely, the majority of the more progressive Muslims) or the disturbed or violent individuals who take to kill people either out of opportunity or as a planned action, they largely blame the firearm industry, or those who support the industry, as well as those critical of this mentality. That’s just one of the hot button discussions today. Yes, there is the “we must hold this person accountable for x action” but that lasts for a moment in the discussion before trumpeting this social justice about changing society and fear-mongering the publoc of these scary (non) assault weapons (a liberal coined term to add to the fear). This problem is endemic in liberal circles. To suggest your idea to be true would mean that there is a small cabal of folks like you in your circle of associates. But, then again, reading your article and your comments below, I remain skeptical of this possibility. The bottom line is that conservatives trumpet this quote from Reagan because this isn’t a new problem. For decades, the liberal movement has sought to punish society as a whole for miscreant individuals causing problems and committing harsh crimes. We’re using this quote to tell you to punish the man or woman, but not society.

  3. Jon, I didn’t see the movie trailer but this is the description of the incident:

    On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s restaurant located at 5001 Gibson Boulevard S.E. Liebeck was in the passenger’s seat of her grandsons Ford Probe, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap.[10] Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin.[11] Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent.[12] She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (9 kg, nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her down to 83 pounds (38 kg).[13] Two years of medical treatment followed.

    I fail to see McDonald’s negligence in this matter.

    1. Also from Wikipedia, regarding that incident:

      Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated expenses. Her past medical expenses were $10,500; her anticipated future medical expenses were approximately $2,500; and her daughter’s[12] loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000.[15] Instead, the company offered only $800. When McDonald’s refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald’s of “gross negligence” for selling coffee that was “unreasonably dangerous” and “defectively manufactured”. McDonald’s refused Morgan’s offer to settle for $90,000. Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald’s refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.

      Other documents obtained from McDonald’s showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald’s coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.[2] McDonald’s quality control manager, Christopher Appleton, testified that this number of injuries was insufficient to cause the company to evaluate its practices. He argued that all foods hotter than 130 °F (54 °C) constituted a burn hazard, and that restaurants had more pressing dangers to warn about. The plaintiffs argued that Appleton conceded that McDonald’s coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served.[17}

  4. Yes, liberals believe that people AND corporations should be held accountable for their actions, while conservatives think ONLY people should be held accountable, and actually, only poor people who can’t afford lobbyists or attorneys. I’m glad you agree! 🙂

    1. I did not see this as a rich vs. poor, or poor vs. corporate America debate. Reagan’s statement, following the violence and looting after King’s murder, was directed at those who vented their anger over the slaying by resorting to violence. While I fully understand their anger, harming others was not the way to express it. Per Reagan (bless his heart!), those people should be responsible for their actions. Period! It seems that the liberal campaign strategy this year is to attack corporate America and the rich. The majority, but certainly not all, corporations and rich folks are law abiding, tax paying citizens. They employ hundreds of millions, contribute greatly to the communities in which they are located, and pay many, many millions in taxes. It is unfair that all the rich and all corporations are being attacked by the left for the irresponsible actions of a few. Even your president is a big supporter of corporate America and vice-versa. Personally, I would have liked to see a couple of big banks and auto makers go into bankruptcy.

      1. That may be when Reagan said it but do you really think that this is why conservatives cling to it? They don’t care, they use the words out of context to mean what they want it to mean to project their idea.

    2. Excuse me? you state that only conservatives believe that only people should be held accountable and not corporations? What planet are you from? Of course you the Democratic Liberal are all poor. None of you profit from big corporations, or benefit from lobbyists. As for being able to afford an attorney? Simple quote for you. “If you can’t afford the time, don’t do the crime”.

      1. Simple thought, I will change was said, the GOP supports corporations mainly not the people, conservatives support what they believe but vote GOP all the while not being represented by those they vote for.

    3. This is years after your ridiculous, sarcastic comment. You will likely never see this, but I could not hold my tongue (or fingers on the keyboard; as is the case here). Your comment attacking conservatives is completely off topic here, and only an excuse to spew your liberal rhetoric. The trailer is exactly as George describes. It is sensationalist propaganda in the most blatant extreme. I speak only in the in the instance of Lieback as I’m not familiar with the other cases mentioned. What happened to this poor woman was horrible, but it was her own incorrect handling of the cup and lid that caused this unfortunate accident. There have been many more attempts to sue McDonalds for coffee burns. All unsuccessful. The executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America reported that the standard serving temperature is 160–185 °F (71–85 °C). And that retailers today sell coffee as hot or hotter than the coffee that burned Stella Liebeck. All this ‘coffee episode’ aside, Your attacking conservatives by stating “conservatives think ONLY people should be held accountable, and actually, only poor people who can’t afford lobbyists or attorneys.”, is so out of line that you should be embarrassed by your ignorance!

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  6. Thank you for this. I did a search to see when this was said and it’s pretext and I found this article. I appreciate you for writing it. Now I know even more so than before, why It never really sat well with me; as if the person saying it wasn’t enough of an excuse. 😉

    1. Thanks for your kind words. It almost makes me want to blog again! Sadly, this Reagan meme will probably never die. It’s very attractive to people who would like to pretend that they have no responsibility for the society we shape.

  7. Saint Ronald? Kinda like the Messiah Obama? We all know how his failed policies are working out. Oh, how about the the failed policies of the lib run city of Baltimore, I can cite many more lib run cities across the country run by Libs who never want to be judged by their actions, but by their intentions. Please keep the comedy site up, need a good laugh now and then, thank you!

  8. This can be cited as a conservative vs liberal idea but the truth is it is not. Conservatives want to blame liberals, liberals want to blame conservative and both groups are right and wrong. This quote fit the time and place but each group wants to isolate and pick it apart based upon political ideals. How about making everyone responsible for their actions, good or bad, liberal or conservative, right or wrong. This would include holding everyone from the current president who doesn’t support the Constitution all the way down to a homeless person who fell on hard times. The truth about the political patties neither group want to be accountable for their actions or ideas unless the actions and ideas have positive outcomes. We currently have a government that has become a career instead of what was intended, an opportunity to serve our country. All parties are guilty of no accountability and if we are honest about it all you have to do is turn on the evening news to confirm the guilt. Liberals, conservative’s and moderates all want to blame the other party and the truth is if you’re in leadership you are responsible, directly or indirectly.

  9. “He was arguing that the people who were breaking the law were responsible for their actions. He was right. He was also arguing that he and all of his like-minded conservatives had absolutely no responsibility for the societal conditions that existed at the time.” 80% of Republicans in both houses supported the equal rights act as opposed to 60% of democrats.

  10. Yeah… I disagree with the assessment here and think it is a real stretch to argue that pushing for individual accountability means not taking any responsibility from a societal standpoint. Your comment of ” Not only does it argue that everyone is responsible for their own actions (which no one can, or wants to, argue with) but it absolves everyone else of any responsibility whatsoever.” is reading WAY too far into it. Reagan saying “We must reject the idea that EVERY TIME a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker.” is not the same as “We must reject the idea that SOMETIMES WHEN a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker.”, but that is how your assessment is treating it.

    What Reagan said in context back then fits just fine right now… because we are in another phase where it is in and popular to be making excuses for poor decisions or behaviors and offering excuses that they are just reacting to something societal. Or they quote perceived societal laws or rights as if that excuses them to act like jerks. In many cases, if the people involved just remained calm and in control of their own actions things would have worked out different for them. Part of the side effect of acting like an ass is you might get others to act like an ass back at you and then those situations can escalate.

    The cop in the Sandra Bland scenario seemed to be prodding her (when analyzing his behaviors) with asking if she was irritated… however, he did it from the start… which makes me think, a… it is not the most effective statement to make if your goal is to indirectly irritate someone… and b… it is more likely that she was physically displaying signs of attitude (shaking her head, crossing her arms, etc) that prompted him to ask that question. In either case, she sure as heck did not control her actions because she, at least, went well over the top mouthy compared to what was actually going on… and the video does not show what was going on in the car… but if someone is mouthy like that, they probably are also at least someone physically active at the same time. If she just accepted the warning from the start, things would have gone easier. None of this is to say there is conclusive proof that the cop behaved appropriately and he certainly did things like (“I will light you up”)… he sure seemed to be escalating the situation… but think about all authority figures, it is generally what they do… as the individual, if you want to get through it easier, control the part that you can control… YOURSELF… THAT is the lesson… and that kind of thing is what I believe makes Reagan’s quote still useful. Quit trying to claim “the man” or society has created your problem. You switched lanes inappropriately, and even if it is a minor infraction, who has not gotten a ticket for some minor infraction? Plus she was heading for a warning. All she had to do was be reasonably respectful and the whole thing would have ended easily. BUT she had been operating from a position of society’s view of police relative to being a civil rights advocate. It was like she was bound and determined to make an issue. As other cops have pointed out, when someone is acting overly irrational or erratic over a WARNING… it is very reasonable to ask them out of the vehicle (which is always an officers’ right) to better assess them and the situation. Maybe she would have shown signs of being under the influence, maybe she had just committed a crime or was herself in danger. The danger here is the use of “society” in the case to explain why he was wrong nearly from the start in doing his societal job… with most tiptoeing not to give her blame in her over-the-top actions and reactions.

  11. To use some of your own words, you are also arguing that you and all of your like-minded liberals have absolutely no responsibility for the societal conditions that exist at this time. You are wrong.

    1. I guess you missed the paragraph where I wrote, “I also believe that I am 100% responsible for the actions I take in helping to shape the society that we live in together.”

      Standard reading comprehension fail.

  12. Reagan says we must reject the notion that “EVERYTIME a law’s broken society is guilty and not the law breaker”. Which would indicate that he thinks there ARE some instances where society is to blame.

    1. You’re the second person who has brought up this point, and it’s interesting. You seem to be implying that Reagan DID hold society accountable for SOME of the conditions that resulted in crimes by individuals. Could you elaborate on that? I’d be interested to know when Reagan believed that society should be held accountable.

      For example, at the time that Reagan made his famous comments, African-Americans were demonstrating following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Reagan felt that this assassination wasn’t a good enough reason for civil disobedience, so it’s hard to imagine what would qualify. Maybe if someone tried to tax some cows in Nevada or something.

    2. Wtf are you talking about? Do you even know? Of course there are many instances where a WHOLE society is to blame. Let’s say for example BLM. Then again George Soros is to blame for funding that ridiculous matter. Thanks George 🙄
      Stop reading into the statement made by RR. He was trying to spread the word to a whole nation to stop blaming all blacks when only one black rapes and shoots another human being. Blame that one black for they’re actions.
      I think it’s the perfect statement that this country needs to start practicing.

  13. It’s McDonald’s fault; it’s the NRA’s fault; it’s the gun manufacturer’s fault; it’s the fault of a deprived childhood; it’s the fault of white racism; it’s the fault of corporate greed; it’s the fault those who don’t agree that criminals are victims too.
    The concept of poor behavior being the fault of anyone except the perpetrator of the behavior is the point the quote is trying to make. It doesn’t single out liberals, but looking at the rhetoric of the DNC and the media — it does appear to point at a basic liberal creed. Coming from the same folks who defend their opinions with dismissive slanders against any non-liberal. Trying to make it sound as if those who disagree must be stupid, evil, cruel or creations of a lesser God.

  14. I am a liberal and I believe that this statement is to black and white in a metaphorical sense. St. Ronnie the Traitor was the king of rhetoric. Ronnie saying the is absolutely hilarious.

    There are many grey areas in this World and nothing is 100%. Republicans want to stay with one subject because when they are shown how many subjects link together their subject falls apart.

  15. You’re a freak show! Of course no matter who you are, a conservative or a liberal, everyone ageees with this statement make by Ronald Regan. However that is not how it works today. If you’re an officer who Is guilty of police brutality, then all cops suck. No “Not” all cops suck. Just “that” cop sucks! That’s what RR meant. The statement isn’t as simple or as stupid as you imply. That is unfortunately the way ignoramus’s want it to appear. Especially if you’re a liberal.

  16. If Liberals actually believed in this quote, then why are only Conservatives quoting it? The quote makes no indication about Liberal/Conservative thought. Some Liberals assume it represents Conservative thought because it makes sense. You assume Conservatives use the quote to convict Liberals – they do not. They use it to convict people of any demographic who feel overly unaccountable for their mistakes. If YOU feel convicted, it’s NOT because you’re a Liberal, it’s because you’re not making yourself accountable.

  17. This is well written and presents an intriguing argument. However, let’s turn the whole thing on it’s head and focus on the accountability for positive actions. As a liberal who takes 100% responsibility for your actions and also wants to take 100% responsibility in “helping to shape the society that we live in together”, are you also taking 100% responsibility for the actions of a policeman or fireman who risked his life to save another? Are you taking 100% responsibility for a soldier who earned a purple heart at war? That sounds a little boastful of you, doesn’t it? It’s almost as if that individual should receive credit for the positive impact they’ve had. Just as someone who disobeys the law should be punished for the negative impact he/she has had. Let’s alter the quote to fit this: “We must reject the idea that every time a heroic act is perfomed, society is responsible rather than the hero. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions”.

  18. There is a reason why liberals should refrain from quoting from the Bible, generally because they don’t know anything about it except what they read on the internet. Taking the Genesis issue out of context would be hilarious if it wasn’t used to impugn Conservatives, many of whom actually understand the story you brought up. Yes, you’re a liberal, and you really didn’t need to tell us. It was pretty obvious from the first moment. That said, if you really believe society and culture is culpable when violence ensues, why do you keep pushing your liberal agenda, which is absolutely commensurate with the breakdown of morals, ethic, personal responsibility, and certainly coincides with the increase in wrecked homes and even violence. Time for you to find some other job besides pontificating for your adoring fans who have no more idea of facts and truth than you do. No one else, I assure you, is ready to pat you on the back for this one.

  19. “Wiseman”, I think you miss the point. Conservatives and Reagan believe society plays a role and we all influence society, but regardless the fault lies personally with the individual who broke the law. There will always be influences in our society, but how an individual chooses to responds to that influence is THEIR responsibility. Hundreds, if not thousands of decisions, big and small, are made each day by each of us, but in the end each decision is our own and no one else’s. Ultimately it is the aggregate of all those decisions that make up “who” our society is and its faults or praises, but society pull a trigger or rape or steal, the individual does.

  20. The funny part. Reagan never said one party believes in personal responsibility while the other believes in blaming society.

    But gosh darn….he sure did take offense. I guess perhaps the someone knows that one party, more than the other, does like to blame society rather than the responsible party.


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