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Cure for Decades of Cable News
, April 17, 2011
This review is from: The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism (Paperback)
On Friday on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, congress members spoke in defense of Medicare, Social Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other programs that by almost anyone's definition are socialist, programs that were denounced as socialist by opponents of their passage in decades past, programs that would not have been created without the efforts of socialists and the Socialist Party.
The debate screeched to a halt, however, because an opponent of the Congressional Progressive Caucus's "People's Budget" then under discussion suggested that its supporters might be socialists. Congressman Keith Ellison, co-chair of that caucus, protested the vicious accusation and demanded that the words of his accuser be transcribed for the record (and possible legal action?). The Republican congress member guilty of the horrible slander announced that he was retracting it. Rep. Raul Grijalva, the other co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, thanked him sincerely for the retraction. Although polls show socialism to be far more popular than Congress, neither Ellison nor Grijalva insisted on being cleared of the label "congress member."
"Socialism," remarked Frank Zeidler, former socialist mayor of Milwaukee, "believes that people working together for a common good can produce a greater benefit, both for society and for the individual, than can a society in which everyone is shrewdly seeking their own self-interest." Missing from Washington, D.C., is not just a single individual who would hurl the term "capitalist" with the strength to have a retraction demanded. Missing also is any sense of working for a cooperative society based on the above truth -- a truth apparent to any child who has neither read Ayn Rand nor viewed cable news, but a truth that sounds insane in our nation's capital.
And one more thing is missing: awareness of the debt our nation owes to its rich socialist history. That's where the best book yet by John Nichols -- and that's saying something! -- comes in. The author of "The Genius of Impeachment," among other brilliant books, has just published "The 'S' Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism."
The book is marred by a militaristic cover depicting the flag-raising pose on Iwo Jima, and its focus on the U.S. national tradition is not without problems. Nichols' goal is to depict socialism as American, as rooted in the tradition of Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, the founding of the Republican Party, the rise of competent public planning in 20th century cities, the New Deal, the struggle for free speech and freedom of the press, and the civil rights movement. In this he is very successful. But a strain of thought related to much socialism and admirable in its own right holds that an idea need not be American to be the best for America. You'd think we'd learn that in KINDERGARTEN.
Nichols does not argue with such internationalism; it just fails to harmonize with the theme of his book. Yet, while other authors have sought to bring out the rich leftist tradition of the United States as something predating and independent of, and better off without, Marxism, Nichols goes out of his way to highlight Marx's employment by a New York newspaper and communications with President Lincoln. Doing so certainly cannot hurt and makes for fascinating reading. Of course, the fascination is in large part based on the reader's imagining of the explosive cognitive dissonance a contemporary Republican might face in discovering his or her party's founding father's appreciation of Marx. This imagination may give too much credit to contemporary Republicans for cognitive processes of whatever sort.
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