Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Times on "Socialism," Terence Ball and Katrina vandenHeuvel


       My friend Peter Minowitz initially sent me the New York Times editorial which defended Obama intelligently against racist and anti- radical (I mean the ideology, parallel to racism) attacks for speaking to school children. It is because he is black that he was attacked in this way, nobody thought of keeping Bush from reading the no doubt dangerous “My Pet Goat” in a Florida classroom (perhaps the horns hadn't been clipped, the goat feisty...),  It is too bad Bush didn’t stick to doing such things in life; Laura as a teacher did comparatively little harm.  One should be careful of what one wishes for.  But to prove the Timesbona fides with those who are further to the Right, the editors then went on to take a vicious and thoughtless swipe at socialism as if all socialism were totalitarian regimentation.  Recalling sanity, the Times did subsequently print a letter referring to decent, that is public medical care in Sweden and Britain.

      Peter is the author of Straussophobia and has worried about how there is an ideology (a craziness or visceral distaste at reaction) which surrounds Strauss and anyone who thinks of herself as a  Straussian (though a radical and defender of basic liberties, I have had colleagues who like my work worry about whether I should get grants or invitations because I am now doing some work on Strauss).  Nathan Tarcov amusingly and generously said to me when I visited Regenstein and told him a story about not getting an American Council of Learned Societies Grant on Platonisms and Toleration that I am now a Straussian.  The project is about how Ibn-Rusd  took up Plato on women guardians in the Republic as I mentioned here, and novelly saw treating woman as plants as the cause of poverty in Cordoba and elsewhere in the califate, but somehow missed the political centerpiece of the First Renaissance, Arab toleration of Jews and Catholics which led to a vast flourishing of cultures in Cordoba - the “Ornament of the World” in the title of Maria Rosa Menocal’s lovely book.  Farabi and Ibn-Rusd missed toleration because Plato didn’t get it; they innovated as Platonists in Islam, but not beyond.  Whitehead’s beautiful statement that all Western philosophy is implied in Plato is here revealed as, in one important way, false: that distinctive feature of modern liberalism, including well stated conservative and radical views, religious toleration, is not in Plato.  Even though Athens murdered Socrates on the grounds of religion, the issue was not posed in the same way; the solution – the separation of church and state - is once again not in these writers.

       Peter worries that Straussophobia resembles racism or sexism or homophobia as an ideology which licenses emotional aversion.  He goes too far; no one burns Straussians at the stake or lynches them or takes out Matthew Sheppard and beats him death (the white men led by Congressmen Wilson who vented on Obama stand in an uglier tradition); in addition, the remarks of some Straussians about others – Harvey Mansfield once gave a paper on Rawls called “Cool as a Cucumber Liberalism” or on Karl Marx’s Capital (that exchange value is the good society for Marx)  reveal similar prejudices.  I am amused myself by being a conservative on habeas corpus or in arguing for Strauss’s merits as a scholar  even though I think the so-called neo-conservatives – authoritarians who often further fanaticism and racism in the U.S. and on the Israeli Right – are a great danger and Strauss's role in creating this dark reaction needs to be talked about.  Recognizing, as Peter thinks, and going beyond ideology and emotional aversion in politics as in philosophy (Strauss admired Arabs and was no ideologue about philosophy) marks someone who does not repeat the prevailing thoughts of the time (Cheney breathed and a thousand pundits spoke) or as a slight variant on a known pattern, but can, as Heidegger liked to say, think.

       Peter suggested I write to the Times.  But I thought others would write very well and have a better chance of getting published (as I suggested in a previous post, I have been unable to get into the Times even in writing about "how Condi Rice  [my student] and the President have lost their way" - eventually published on Common Dreams),  And for reasons that will become clear below, I doubt that the Times would be willing to print what I think is central about anti-radical ideology.  But lots of people wrote well to the Times.  On its online opinion page yesterday, the Times published responses (they also included some mediocre letters by reactionaries, even a political scientist from Regent University – guess we have to hear from a reactionary teacher of the school that gave us Monica Goodling;  a Regent alum and “Christian” and the law be damned, she chose as "Justice" Department lawyers those who would swear loyalty to W.  "Evenhandedness" here makes, by comparison, thoughtlessness look good.

     My friend Terry Ball, a democratic theorist and Professor at Arizona State sent me his lucid and clever comment:  

Socialists as Patriots

Terence Ball is professor of political science at Arizona State University. He is co-author (with Richard Dagger) of “Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal” and co-editor (with Richard Bellamy) of “The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought,” among other books.

Why are some — mostly older, overwhelmingly white — Americans so afraid of “socialism” and, by extension, “socialized medicine”? One explanation is that they don’t actually know what socialism is, namely the public ownership and/or control of the major means of production (mines, mills, factories, etc.) for the benefit of the public at large. Another is that many older Americans have vivid memories of the cold war and the dreaded U.S.S.R. (the second S standing for “socialist”).

      In hindsight it seems strange and almost miraculous that at the height of the cold war a limited form of socialized medicine —  Medicare — got through the Congress over the objections of the American Medical Association and the insurance industry, and made it to President Johnson’s desk. (These special interests won’t make that mistake again: they now have a veritable army of lobbyists assaulting Capitol Hill and every congressman there.)  But now the cold war is over. For those in their 20s and 30s, the cold war might as well be ancient history.

       To many Americans “socialism” may sound vaguely “foreign” and “un-American.” Those at rallies protesting health reform now may be surprised to know that “socialism” and “socialist” have a long history in American political thought and that those terms weren’t always terms of censure.

        For the anti-socialism protesters, here’s a quick quiz:

The author of the Pledge of Allegiance (1892), was A) a conservative, B) a liberal, C) a socialist.

The answer is C. Francis Bellamy was a socialist and a Baptist minister. (Yes, there actually were  Christian socialists, then as now.)

        The 'Pledge to the Flag,' as it was originally called, was not descriptive of then current conditions, but it was aspirational: 'One nation, indivisible' invoked a nation undivided by differences of race, class and gender. And 'with liberty and justice for all' it envisioned a nation in which women could vote and African Americans need not fear rope-wielding 'night riders' of the KKK.

         Contemporary 'patriots,' I hope, agree with such aspirations, despite their distinctly socialist provenance. It is historically false that the only 'real' Americans are conservatives and that people of other ideological persuasions are not or cannot be 'real' Americans. After all, what’s more American than the 'socialist' Pledge of Allegiance?”

         Terry makes the excellent point that lobbyists and the racists they are paying for are trying to stoke hostility to the Medicare that many of these same people desparately want to hold on to (they accuse commies of “duping” people, but what should one say of these people?   Terry perhaps underestimates some of the force of the Cold War in compelling decent measures within the U.S.  Fighting the Soviets – where medical care was a public good – Presidents were less willing to listen to the AMA or insurance companies; similarly, the cases against racism in schools as Mary Dudziak has shown in Cold War Civil Rights , particularly the Brown v. Board of Education decision (see the post on it here).  The US did not make much headway in the Cold War among nonwhite peoples while Bull Connor sicced dogs on children in Birmingham.  These are cases of what I call the democratic feedback of global power-politics (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?); this is, nonetheless, a different form, one that I did not identify in the book.  In fact, the decline of the Cold War has brought an orgy of capitalism and Reaction on the Supreme Court (there are four votes for tearing up the Constitution in the war on terror; liberty in America, even in the Obama era, hangs in the fresh sunlight by a spider’s single glistening thread). 

    Terry uses a central feature of anti-radical ideology to mock those who unselfconsciously babble it.  That ideology is the idea that foreigners, outside agitators, Islamic as Hussain (Barack Hussain Obama they mouth) – Arabs are now the quintiesssential “commies” even if they want an allegedly pure Islam, the burka, and a 13th century califate. Communists, this ideology continues, speak a funny, ideological language, duping ordinary, otherwise content Americans. Barack of course speaks beautifully even when he is abandoning, under immense pressure, the public option – the socialist element - in decent and affordable medical care.  But that anti-radical ideas make no sense internally will not stop their proponents – and the capitalists who fund and benefit from them – from killing people. 

        Remembering the 70s in San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi teared up yesterday.  She is a tough woman, often a wooden public speaker; to see her recall the mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk was moving.  America has murdered the Kennedys, Martin King, and Milk, all leaders who to some extent - in King's case and perhaps even Bobby Kennedy's at the end to a very great extent - moved beyond partisan identification to reach out to others.  What she said and did, in this era of a multiracial President is true enough; what the words of the Right incite is frightening.

        Reversing the medal, Terry might  also have said,  the police or the fire department are the socialism of conservatives.  Liberals or social democrats (or even Karl Marx) just like a few more government services on behalf of a public good.  Thus, such a conservative might note: Bush and Cheney with the aid of leading Democrats have sold the soul of decent government.  Against the fires in San Diego, you could get your house protected if you paid a private company to do it.  Our occupying ambassadors in Iraq are protected by Ze Corporation (used to be Blackwater) whose mercenaries are paid 10 times what our soldiers are paid to serve in the same theater, and among many crimes, in Nissour Square murdered 17 civilians  – read Jeremy Scahill’s excellent book on Blackwater) - because we no longer have citizen soldiers, drafted at least ostensibly to serve a common good. to do such things. Some conservatives are rightly outraged.   Conservatives (aside from libertarians who believe anything is for sale) are sometimes among the leaders in calling a halt to decadence.  The Democrats often prune Bush-Cheney excesses (give these policies a “nudge” in the phrase of Cass Sunstein), but without much more public debate, mercenaries may soon be the only “public” servants….

       In speaking of the health care debate, Bill Moyers brought up bread and circuses; the privatization of functions, of the army, the fire department, of health and perhaps even of souls – what is not for sale in this bazaar? - is perhaps a way of understanding this decadence (see my posts on  commodity fetishism, academic promotion and food here and here ).

     One of the wonders of Barack Obama is that to the extent possible within mainstream politics, he is what he seems to be (see Dreams from my Father).  In the waste land of America, he is authentic.  It is why one often feels good listening to his words – I am very critical of Obama and think he may well founder on Afghanistan, state secrecy and big money, but I am often moved listening to him and  am  amazed, every day, that the Cheney-Bush darkness has abated to some extent.  But of course, Obama will only be Obama if he is pushed hard by a mass militant nonviolent movement from below (I suggested the slogan during the campaign: to make Obama be Obama, but I am afraid it or something better has yet to catch on sufficiently).

     Terry  brilliantly invokes Francis Bellamy, the composer of the Pledge of Allegiance.  Commies as we all know, if not from outer space (some may recall the film the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” – see Michael Rogin’s Ronald Reagan the Movie and other Studies in American Political Demonology), are in any case not American.  But what is more American than the Pledge of Allegiance given to us by a socialist and a Baptist minister to boot?  Terry outpatriots the pseudo-patriots.

      The problem with this view is of course that it celebrates socialists for being more American than flagwaving, Christian witchburners, lynchers and brutalizers of gay people.  In this sense, Martin Luther King in Birmingham was not a socialist (only one white person in the city leadership, “lawyer Vann” would even speak to him).  The communists who led the organization of the CIO were not socialists (80 union organizers, mostly radicals, were murdered by the police and the Klan in Birmingham in the 1930s).  The Chinese Communists who defeated Japanese imperialism (the Japanese authorities murdered some 20 million peasants in three provinces in North China in the winter of 1941 to “drain the water” in which the fish – the guerillas – swim) were not socialists (see Chalmers Johnson, Peasant Nationalism in China).  There is much to admire in democratic socialism and in capitalism – consider the internet – but there are atrocies, sometimes as bad as those of communists.  Terry’s is a very good piece, but the truths that are fit to print in the New York Times, particularly in 300 words,  are not so many.

         Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the Nation,  spoke directly and very well to the ideology, though again without naming it.

Stoking Irrational Fears

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation, which published a forum in March called “Reimagining Socialism” with Barbara Ehrenreich and others.

When any American reform leader takes on the status quo, he or she confronts a ferocious, well-organized and reactionary opposition. Is it any surprise that right-wing groups now compare President Obama to Hitler and liken his pragmatic health care reform to socialism?

It’s offensive and troubling. But it’s worth invoking history and remembering that Franklin Roosevelt confronted the American Liberty League, which called him a socialist and a Communist. And he faced down Father Coughlin, the demagogic priest who was a cross between Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh in a Roman collar.

Social democracy is about government having a role in improving people’s lives — as it does with Medicare.

History again: the rabid protesters calling President Obama a socialist are representatives of a long national tradition which features an irrational and well-stoked fear of a strong central government. (Mr. Obama has found it more difficult to turn away from the fanatical right than his reform predecessors partly because conservative ideology has been in the saddle for three decades and the recession began too late in the Bush administration to sufficiently discredit its free-market fundamentalism and those who still speak on its behalf.)”

           Katrina makes very good points, especially about how hard it is for the Democrats to move toward decency.  Talking about the “left” or the “center” when the bottom has fallen out historically - when the conveyor of history has moved America, until Obama, steadily, steadily to the Right - is pretty hard.  As an extreme example, some people refer to Rohm, head of the Storm Troopers murdered by Hitler in 1934, as some type of “socialist.”   In American terms, President Clinton was probably to the right of Eisenhower in social policy and even on civil liberties; what is “liberal” today in America, the New York Times’ editorial page for example, is often decent, but it is the decency of something far to the right, just barely within the realm of democracy and the rule of law, compared to the large and dark part of the American media which lives on a planet of fantasized authoritarianism).

       After atrocities and great pain, we Americans have learned a little about racism and sexism and even homophobia, and can sometimes name the moves, how they are connected emotionally by a general pattern of ideas that bigots are possessed by,  have not thought out, are not, except in those horrific moments, who they are, are often against their interests.  But few, even on the liberal or radical side of things, even those who identify rich historical parallels and satirize patriotism very well  can name the idea in general or see all its consequences (perhaps of course this is just the Times' word limit on these very good pieces).  What cannot yet be named may possess us.  In political matters, all of us are sometimes  flooded with feelings which we do not understand.  We start with the prejudices of our parents – sometimes good thoughts and feelings but, as Socrates says, opinions, not something deeper – and our country and time.  Learning to transcend this is the beginning of wisdom.  Naming anti-radical ideology may help each of us move beyond it.

     These brief letters wonderfully answer the Times’ benighted attack.  But intellectually, morally, and politically what this controversy uncovers is the tip, jutting whitely out of ever widening waters,  of an iceberg.

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