I Am Bored With “Socialist!”

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.

Socialism: Throttling the CountryI 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

Vote ConservativeUm, 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!


7 thoughts on “I Am Bored With “Socialist!”

  1. I love how we aren’t just socialists but we’re fascists too! Makes me wonder if they have a clue what the words actually mean. Personally, I’m proud to be a socialist.

  2. “Socialist” is no more a term of insult than Conservative. We ARE heading toward a Socialist government. They exist in large numbers world wide and a top intellectual the other day opined that “we think the best form of government would be a socialist democracy.”

    Some do use Socialist as demeaning and I myself to so at times.

    I am “bored” with people such as yourself who take those who decry people as Nazi, etc. That is such a small group.

    I think we are all bored with all that we are living through right now but I try to be one who disagrees without being disagreeable. I blog with people who range from far right to far left but I tell you it is wonderful to be in the conversation of people with whom you disagree. It not only sharpens your own debating skills, it does add to your knowledge – makes it more rounded and extensive.

    Cheer up. Things may get more active than you could have wished sooner rather than later.

  3. PS my sister-in-law is of Czech grandparents. Her whole family live in the Czech capital of the US, Cedar Rapids, IA. I love that place and them. You have a wonderful heritage.

  4. As something of a democratic socialist, I can confirm that the term “socialist” is applied in a fashion meant to be insulting fairly often. Any political term (“democrat”, “republican”, “anarchist”, etc.) can be used with an insulting tone, but I have the impression that socialism has a particularly bad rep in current conversation and it is used particularly strongly against people, regardless of whether or not they are a socialist, as a means to tell them that they are wrong and or worse (as in, anti-American, etc.).

    Personally, I always try to reclaim the term. Socialism describes my beliefs better than most other words, and I’m proud of my beliefs, thus the term is important for me.

  5. Reclaiming the word is a nice idea, but it could backfire, no? If we embrace the term, regardless of how we define it, the people who are already scared of that word will just see us embracing our ‘true selves’, or that’s how Faux News would spin it to them.

    I’m more inclined to ignore it and ridicule it. It’s a patently over-the-top tactic, hearkening straight back to Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater. McCarthy is popular only among the hard core of the right, so I’m inclined to meet being called a Socialist by treating it as amusing, and reminding the user of the infamous witch hunts of the 1950’s.

    On the other hand, ‘samhenry’ was right on about not being ashamed of the real connotations of the word Socialist. I am probably more a Socialist Democrat than anything, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I do believe in the government’s ability to help it’s citizens and to ensure a level playing field. I believe in universal health care, strong labor and environmental standards, and the grandest sin of all, I believe in WEALTH REDISTRIBUTION. So yeah, fuck it, bring the Socialism charges.

    So uhh, what names can we call them back in return? We’ll take it right back to the schoolyard…

  6. I was born in Czechloslovakia, my parents and I escaped the Soviet occupied country as political refugees. We risked our lives fleeing Communism. Its unfortunate, like many native Czechs in the US, my parents have bought into the Cold War understanding of socialism. Somehow this term, manipulated to persuade the American people to support US military actions against communist countries is now being used to describe its own internal function. Absurd.

    @ samhenry: True democracy is fundamentally socialist. Lets not mix economic ideas and forms of government. For example, in a pure democracy, if an individual wanted to open a business, the people in the community would vote to allow it. Economically, this is socialism. Our country plays a balancing act between democracy and capitalism. This is intentional because the systems work against each other!!! Yeah, checks and balances. Look at the historical data- the wealth distribution between poor and rich. You can see as certain leaders gave more power to the markets, the gap between rich/poor became larger. You can also see after the great depression, social programs (socialist by todays standards) allowed for a wealthier middle class, and a wealthier America. Yeah, lets look back to the good ol days. Wait, does that make me a conservative or a socialist?

  7. @samhenry
    Oops, I forgot to mention that I would specifically like this conversation NOT to be about whether Obama is Socialist! or not. That’s not the topic of this post. I will revise my commenting instructions above to reflect this.

    It’s rather pointless to argue that the use of the word socialist I discuss above is not intended as an insult. Do you have any counter evidence? Because I provided several links above, and could find pages more, of the term being used in townhalls, and Value Voter’s summits, and political speeches and in conservative media that would reinforce my claim.

    “If we embrace the term, regardless of how we define it, the people who are already scared of that word will just see us embracing our ‘true selves’, or that’s how Faux News would spin it to them.”

    I posit that those who are honest-to-goodness afraid of the term are “4s”, i.e. people we’re never gonna get. I’m over walking on egg shells because moonbats freak out at the sound of certain syllables in a certain order.

    Do you think that some of them can actually be won over so long as we don’t use the scary term? I am not so sure. Fox News is going to do whatever they like anyway, so there’s no point in pandering to them.

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