THERE IS A GAME we used to play as kids where you asked someone whether for a million dollars he would push a button and kill a person in China. This game reflected the fact that China once seemed a long way away, that a million bucks once seemed like a lot of money and that Americans, like most peoples, are willing to do certain things to certain people as long as they don't have to see what they have done. This helps account for Ronald Reagan's phenomenal sucess.
It has made possible the incredible procession by which Ronald Reagan has marched from Pacific Palisades to Washington and then, like the proverbial hot knife through butter, through Congress and the once-mighty Democratic Party. He has, like some Lyndon Johnson in reverse, sent up proposal after proposal to dismantle or gut or reduce or trim just about every program dear to heart of the New Dealer, Fair Dealer, New Frontiersman, Great Society advocate or, if you will recall, the New Foundation of the late and hardly missed Jimmy Carter.
Partly this success is due to Reagan's uncommon skills as a politician.
And partly this is due to forces that have been building in the society. There's no doubt that on many issues, he's got the people behind him and that any other president espousing similar programs would have similar success. Reagan, after all, is merely implementing some of what Jimmy Carter preached and much of what Richard Nixon himself said he wanted to do.
But some of Reagan's success has to do with the old China game -- the lack of visible victims. So far, there have been only proposals and programs -- budget actions and budget proposals and budget this and thats that bring sleep to the eyes and stupor to the brain. Few people are being hurt because few people are yet affected. It is as if the whole thing is taking place only in Washington and will be limited to it: Reagan proposes and Stockman goes on "Meet the Press." Tip O'Neill says one thing and then another and then the Democrats come up with an alternative. It fails and the proposal is enacted. On television, all this is followed by sports.
There is no follow-through. There are yet no people telling what it is like to live on less or cities cutting mass transit or workers being over for lack of regulations or consumers getting the old caveat emptor right between the eyes. There is no flesh to any of the initiatives, no voices, no screams or complaints. No babies cry and no mothers grow despondent and no one wonders what ever happened to a federal government that was once going to make life better.
In a sense, this is like the early days of Vietnam -- maybe event the late days as well. Then you could read about "massive B-52 raids" day after day and imagine that the bombs really hit the Vietcong and not civilians. You could imagine anything you wanted because the reports lacked bodies. They lacked blood and limbs and burned people and the question all of that would raise. Eventually, of course, the bodies came home and they were ours. And then the questions began. Up to then it seemed that the war was taking place only on television or in the newspapers.
Somewhat the same thing is happening now. Once again the victims seem either so far away or so alien (either because of race or class) that they might as well not exist and the question being asked are all about money and not about victims. No one asks whether you would allow someone to suffer so you could live a little bit better. Would you let the public schools suffer so it's a bit cheaper to send a child to private schools? Would you take the chance of innocent people suffering so you could rid the welfare rolls of cheaters, assuming that could be done?
You have to wonder why we always have to wait until we see the victims to appreciate the pain -- to understand that programs serve people and when they get cut, people suffer. Our memories are short and we seem to have to learn over and over again that out of sight may be out of mind, but it does not change the reality of the situation. In fact, the game we're playing now is not even as honest as the one we used to play as kids -- the one about China. At least then we were asked to think of the victim. Now we're thinking only of the money.