“Socialism” as a Political Epithet


One would think, this many years since the end of the Cold War, the fall of Soviet communism, the Chinese turn from Maoism to something more resembling capitalism, and the sequestering of a primitive form of Communism in North Korea and Cuba, that Americans would no longer fear or even think about any kind of threat from Communism.  But such is not the case, particularly if we note that, Communism in fact not perceived as a threat, the threat itself has been renamed or downgraded to Socialism.  But one would also think that Socialism as an epithet would not, as they say, “resonate” with the American voter, given the evident triumph of capitalism both here and abroad.  Nonetheless, “Socialism” has found new service in the current climate of political name calling, otherwise known as the Republican primary process.  Anything which the candidate hopefuls do not like is labeled as socialism, and they do not tire of comparing their bold capitalism to the tired old socialism of, for example, Europe, which they all seem to agree is in dire straits because of its socialist social programs.  The antidote to the threat of creeping, pervasive Socialism is more capitalism, that is to say, more privatization of those government programs that provide health care, old age financial security, environmental protections, and education, particularly “elitist” higher education.

One might therefore conclude that the Republican Party is the party of economic reality, as opposed to the debt-ridden, coddling, wasteful, identity policies of the Democratic Party, and that the general election will be about economics and nothing else.  One would be woefully wrong.  Many voters will be deceived into thinking they are voting their pocketbooks, but in fact they will be voting something much more important.  They will be voting in yet another round of the culture wars.

Although it can be hard to pin down the frontrunner Mitt Romney because he is so desperate to win that he will say anything, regardless of whether or not he actually believes it, his closest competitors and willful spoilers, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, are much easier to parse.  As a recent New York Times article shows in remarkably nonpartisan terms, Santorum has been consistent about his beliefs for many years; what he says today he has always said, including his noteworthy statement that higher education is elitist.  The inconsistent and self-contradictory Newt Gingrich has been most consistent in calling the Democrats socialists and referring to President Obama as a socialist and as the most dangerous president of modern times.

Why has socialism been revived as a political epithet in 2012?  A brief look at the history of the use of this term, and its correlate communism, in American social and political life will turn up that old skeleton, racism.  It is no secret, no matter how strenuously it is denied, that the election of a biracial president who identifies as black rankles the souls of many white closet racists; much as they try to camouflage their racism behind rational-seeming rhetoric, anyone who has an ear to hear and an eye to see can hear and see the real message.  One of the favorite old duck blinds of the racist right is to accuse their opponents of being communists and socialists.  Edgar Ray Killen, convicted in 2005 of masterminding the killings of James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964 (“Mississippi Burning”) and as unapologetic and articulate a racist as one could ask for, repeatedly justified his hostility towards civil rights activists by asserting they were communist agitators from outside.  They were also rich Jews in the media.  There can be no one more “Other” than Jewish communist outsider agitators.

It was the Nazis, of course, who first made effective use of conflating communism with Jewishness, which makes it additionally ironic that many Republican agitators have not hesitated to call Obama a Nazi; but as a biracial man, Obama is to the racist mind emblematic of Otherness violated.  I say “otherness violated” because to the racist mind, each race must keep to its own boundaries (they often quote, quite out of context, Acts 17:26 in this regard), and a biracial man, a mulatto, violates these boundaries in the worse possible way, by miscegenation, which is understandable given the racist’s preoccupations with matters of sex; hence also the racist’s hostility to homosexuality and gay marriage, as well as to women’s reproductive rights.  Racism is a much larger mindset than merely disliking or hating a particular race—it is a neuroparasite that infects the entire moral psyche of the racist individual, distorting both behavior and thought.

Because racism is no longer socially respectable, racists can no longer speak their beliefs openly in public, so they resort to a coded language understood by the like minded but which is often opaque to others.  Hence the resort to labeling anyone who opines that our society and politics could do a better, even a more truly Christian, job of providing for the poor and unemployed, a socialist.  Occasionally, however, the racism behind the screen leaks out, as in the bizarre belief that Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate is fake (imagine the conspiracy required to achieve that!), or Huckabee’s comment that he grew up in Kenya and has Mau Mau sympathies.  And because racists are so adept at turning the rhetorical tables on their critics (by for example calling them Nazis), it has become impolite to accuse someone of the obvious, and apologies, insincere as they might be, are implicitly accepted.  To deny the racism behind so much that passes for political talk today, to deny that the United States still has a problem with widespread racism, is to give the racists undeserved cover, and worse—dangerous political power.

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