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.