Hasn’t the epithet “Socialist!” run out of steam yet? I am so bored of hearing it used to describe anyone left of hard right.
I ask my question rhetorically, of course, because we all know that it isn’t going anywhere. If someone would like to submit to me a history of its use in American political discourse, I’d sure appreciate it.
I believe that we, that is, all of us who are ever tarred with the Socialist! brush, allow it to be an effective weapon against us. It can be used effectively against anything: bank regulation, anti-pollution efforts, public housing, bailouts, universal health care, labor organizing, and now, apparently, being gay. And why? Because as soon as anyone even slightly liberal hears it, and especially if that person identifies as a Democrat, they recoil in horror and emphatically deny the defamatory “accusation”. We try and think of ways to explain beliefs, positions, or policies to avoid accusations of that term. Our reaction to deployment of this term has not gone unnoticed by the opposition. Now that we have invested their weapon with power, they will continue to use it until we take that power away again.
What does the insult “Socialist!” even mean to the person who hurls it? The same people who use it will often simultaneously and without a hint of hesitation add accusations of Communist!, Nazi!, Maoist! and Fascist! to the mix. Apparently many are unaware of the separate meanings of each of them, or the actual definition of socialism. There has been definition creep. Now all these terms seem to mean “any person who advocates government action not approved of by conservatives.”
Included in Socialism! are:
- bailouts to industry in an attempt to keep the American economy from collapsing
- providing health care to the poor
- progressive income tax
- providing housing to the poor
- listening to the concerns of laborers
- using diplomacy in foreign relations
- treating immigrants as equal human beings
- regulating business to protect consumers
- reducing pollution and green house gases
- support for human rights and the UN
- separation between church & state
- marriage equality
Included in Red-Blooded, God-Blessed True American Exceptionalist-Capitalism are:
- no government oversight of business
- no government support to escape economic collapse
- no health care for those who can’t afford it
- choosing war over diplomacy
- ignoring global warming and environmental destruction
- jingoistic xenophobia
- a strong attraction to lethal weaponry
- homelessness for those who cannot afford a house
- withdrawal from the UN and ignoring human rights treaties
- reducing public schooling, incentives to choose private schools
- integration of a certain form of Christianity with the government
- constitution-sanctioned homophobia
- no minimum labor standards to protect workers
Um, anyway, at the bottom, a Socialist! is anyone who disagrees with conservatives, as the instances when Socialist! is deployed correspond closely with liberal political positions, and True American! clearly hues closely to conservative belief sets.
Socialist! as it is used in current political discourse is an othering tool. A Socialist! is a traitor, a foreigner (maybe even an agent of a foreign government out to destroy our way of life!), a potential terrorist, an outsider, a crypto-Islamo-atheist, and the direct opposite of a True American!. A Socialist! manipulates, infiltrates, subverts and debauches. Sneaky and treacherous by nature, True Americans! everywhere must be always on the alert. The term has become loaded with racial and religious undertones that are very troubling.
Socialist! is meant to declare the defamee as essentially non-American, maybe even anti-American. Suspicious at least. When it comes down to it, a Socialist! may even be slightly less human than a True American! Not to be trusted in any decision-making, power-wielding capacity, because they must serve some other master than Red-Blooded, God-Blessed True American Exceptionalist-Capitalism. Who knows who this other master is. Ideas?
Every time we bother to defend ourselves against this intended-insult, to distance ourselves from it and to reassert our True American!-ness, we are playing their game. We are participating in our own marginalization.
Not because we actually are socialists. Some of us are. Some of us are not. Some of us are a hybrid thereof. But as we know, the actual definition of socialism isn’t what the defamers are working off of, so our real-world relationship to that term is immaterial.
Our work to distance ourselves from Socialist! is work by our own hands to create a potent anti-human rights weapon. It stirs up the conservative base, it rallies the conservative activists and media, it riles up the conservative politicians, and the press pounces on it, all while causing liberals to beat a hasty retreat, tail between legs, from any number of polices that may actually have been quite beneficial to average people.
We need to respond to this simplistic attack in a more sophisticated way than “Nuh-uh!” But how? Here are some options that I see:
1. Ignore it completely. Like no one ever said it. Just keep moving without paying a moment’s notice.
2. Paint the defamer as childish. Berate them for their unimaginative, simplistic name-calling. “That’s your argument? You think you can call me a Socialist! and that I’m just going to run away scared? Can you actually debate the issue, or was that the extent of your position?”
3. Reclaim the word. When can we just reclaim the word? When can we just redefine it to mean a person who advocates for a caring government that protects its most vulnerable citizens, is an international role model, and respects human rights at home and abroad? Can we just start insisting that it means an ethical, moral, equitable person?
Arguing over the real world definition of the word with a defamer is pointless. If yelling “Socialist!” doesn’t make you run away crying, the next best thing for a conservative is to draw you into a distracting, murky debate over the real meaning of the term. Even if you know the real world definition by heart, you will still lose in the end because that’s not the definition they really mean. It’s kind of like a bait-and-switch.
The moment we stop denying it, regardless of whether it is factually true or not, it is robbed of 90% of its power. All three of my options above do that. Where I see us grabbing the weapon and taking it back is #3. Reclaiming is powerful and empowering. Since the definition has crept so far from what is in the dictionary, there is no reason why we can’t define this term for ourselves and own it. It will no longer be the land mine in every campaign and debate. We could walk into any political interaction with no fear of that weapon. Without our fear, it is nothing. If we don’t fear it, it can’t marginalize us.
Conservatives aren’t the only ones who can mold concepts, or capture the emotions of everyday Americans. We can too. We just choose not to. Why don’t we choose differently?
BTW, please add to this discussion. The usual comment policy applies. Keep in mind that I am not arguing for or against socialism as defined in a dictionary or encyclopedia- any comments should avoid doing that as well. Also, this is not a discussion about whether or not Obama is a socialist. Any such comments are off topic and will get a warning!