The Buddha Diaries tries to stay true to its mission: to get to the heart of the matter. "The matter" is normally in some significant way related to meditation practice or the teaching of the dharma, or simply on the predicament of being human. and I happen to believe that this perspective is valuable in these dire political times. In the past couple of days, I have been thinking about how certain beneficial aspects of socialism have been ignored or purposely distorted in America, and how the word itself has been used as a weapon to discredit the political philosophy. Compassionate at its heart and in its intention, socialism has at times and in various places been poorly represented in its practice. But--especially with the human populations of the world exploding--it does suggest ways of living together peaceably on this planet Earth, and sharing our human potential as well as our limited resources.
This short essay seeks to encapsulate some of my thoughts...
SOCIALISM: THE POWER OF THE WORD
I’m no historian, but I do have a layman’s take on how we arrived at our current national nightmare. It’s just one, personal approach, and it’s conditioned in part by my having grown up in England since before World War II, and during the war and the post-war period, and particularly by what I know of my earliest years. I was born in the northern coal-mining town of Newcastle-on-Tyne, where my father was the incumbent priest of a slum parish. Poverty and hunger were the norm, and my father, unsurprisingly, was an ardent socialist—and I inherited his political beliefs.
You can imagine, then, how surprised I was, with this background, to discover when I first arrived on this side of the pond, that “socialism” was a word so vile that it could not be uttered in polite society. I exaggerate only a little. I did not know much of American history, but was vaguely aware of the social achievements of FDR and the subsequent Communist scare of the 1950s. When I become a citizen in 1972, I was still required to swear, under oath, that I was not then and had never been “a member of the Communist Party.” I thought the exercise a little absurd, but went ahead and dutifully swore, thankful that at least I had not been asked if I was a socialist. (To be quite honest, I still have difficulty with the notion of swearing allegiance to a country or its flag, but that’s another essay.)
As I was growing up, then, the words “conservative” and “socialist” had rather different connotations than they do here in the US. In broad terms, the Conservative Party represented the interests of wealth and social privilege; the Socialist, or Labour Party stood for the working class, the poor, and the underprivileged. I had never questioned my allegiance to the latter.
Since my arrival in the United States, even the (formerly) less charged term “liberal” has come to share in the disrepute of socialism. By those on the right, it is most often uttered with angry contempt for those leaning more to the left. And, in a curious and—to my mind—unfortunate reversal, those with the most at stake in the social contract have been co-opted, no matter their own interest, into the conservative camp. Political ideology failed, in the form of McCarthyism; but corporate interests have proved successful in deluding the working classes and the poor into the belief that socialism—or liberalism—is anathema. The word itself summons nothing but fear and loathing. The means to achieve this end has been a continuous stream of simplistic slogans fed out by those in power in the form of barely disguised propaganda—facile platitudes about such things as “individual freedom”, “big government” and the tiresome familiarity of anti-tax rhetoric, repeated so often and in so many ways that they have come to be accepted as irrefutable truth.
So it is that here, in this wealthiest nation in the history of the world, we have sacrificed all sense of social responsibility on the altar of delusory individual rights. We have been persuaded to submit to the axiom that government is the great Satan, and that we can dispense with its services—most notably those that provide for others than ourselves. The rabid opposition to universal health care, readily disparaged as “socialized medicine,” is a case in point. Every other country at our stage of economic development has found a way, at considerably less expense than ours, to assure the protection of its citizens from the personal, financial and emotional ravages of sickness, injury and old age. Only here in America, it seems, do people clamor angrily against even the relatively meager coverage (for themselves!) achieved under Obamacare. Only here in America do the insurance companies and drug manufacturers wield sufficient power to prevail against all common sense and human compassion in their advancement of a for-profit system that functions not for the health of citizens but exclusively for corporate benefit.
It’s not only health care, of course. The fear of socialism prevails in every aspect of our lives. It’s rooted deeply in our system of justice, which benefits wealth and privilege to the detriment of the poor and powerless. It is a malignant force in the perpetuation of racial prejudice. It disempowers our government from sensible regulation—whether of financial markets, banks, air and water pollution, even guns… It is particularly pernicious in delaying the increasingly urgent need to manage and protect our threatened resources and our natural environment. And so on.
Some form of socialism is the accepted norm these days in European nations, where it partners in various ways with free-market capitalism without apparent detriment to the economic well-being of actual people—even the very wealthy. It thrives, indeed, in our own country, in multiple unacknowledged ways. The so-called entitlements that constitute our indispensible social safety net go unrecognized as socialist programs by many who depend on them: “Get your government hands off my Medicare!” Yet even these are now under attack by the right-wing, supposedly conservative politicians who are in ascendancy—those same politicians who have been elected, and are passionately supported by those who deplore big government and rail against taxation.
The great question remains unanswered: if the primary and avowed purpose of the current administration is the “deconstruction” of the underpinnings of a civilized society, and if they are successful in this attack, what will happen to those who were duped into unwittingly supporting them in this endeavor? When will our new would-be emperor be exposed as a man of unmitigated ignorance and greed? What innocent child is going to point to his parade and say: “But, Ma, he has no clothes.”
It seems to me that first we’re going to have to recognize some rights beyond our own, to accept a common responsibility for our fellow human beings. We need to educate our young people in a serious way about the history and the true meaning of socialism; and to become, in our personal and political lives, just a little bit more socialist ourselves. In the real sense of that much-maligned, much-despised, much-mistrusted word.