You say “Socialism” like it’s a bad thing: Epithets and critical thinking

Using speeches from Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, I show that the word “socialism” has long been used to shut down critical thought.

Words have power. You can use words to build an argument and make people feel good, or you can use them to stifle thought and denigrate others.

When I was a child, it was common way to bully and belittle a kid by calling him a “homo”. (I will state for the record that even as a child I always hated this.)

This wasn’t a conversation starter by the bully; there was no room in this engagement to say, “well actually, there’s nothing wrong with being a homosexual, and honestly, why are you 7 years old and saying this?”. If a precocious kid were to say that, the bully would instead just laugh and say, “ha ha, you really are a homo”, and run off cackling.

Now, keep that schoolyard taunt in mind as we think about today’s political discourse. What word shuts down thought, is used as a blanket attack, and is completely unknown of its real definition by the perpetrators?

Of course, the word is “socialism“.

Scary monsters

You probably have an emotional reaction to the word “socialism”, one way or the other. It’s hard to be neutral on a word that’s been used as such an attack for so long.

But what does “socialism” actually mean?

Socialism, as originally defined (and forgive me but I’m cribbing from Wikipedia here) was in contrast to the doctrine of individualism “that people act or should act as if they are in isolation from one another”:

The original … socialists condemned this doctrine of individualism for failing to address social concerns during the Industrial Revolution, including poverty, oppression and vast wealth inequality. They viewed their society as harming community life by basing society on competition. They presented socialism as an alternative to liberal individualism based on the shared ownership of resources.

Wikipedia, “Socialism”

Shared ownership of resources” is the key phrase here.

This doesn’t imply a Soviet-style centrally planned economy, does it? This certainly doesn’t spring to mind a Tiananmen Square-style authoritarianism.

To me, this means the public library, the public park, and the place in town where I can rent a garden trowel.

Now forgive me, but I’ve never seen anyone executed in the name of returning books late.

Though, now that I think of it…

With the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders, Obamacare, or of the recent popular centrist policies of Joe Biden, it might seen like the word “socialism” is getting used now more than ever.

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But its use as an epithet goes way back.

And I’d like to use the words of two past presidents as examples. First, a speech by Harry Truman, and second, a recording by Ronald Reagan.

Harry Truman, 1952

In 1952, Truman was campaigning for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate that year.

And on the campaign trail, he made a speech which highlighted the problem of using “socialism” as an epithet.

You can listen to the speech, which is actually quite interesting

But here’s the important excerpt:

Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.

Socialism is what they called public power. Socialism is what they called social security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.

When the Republican candidate inscribes the slogan “Down With Socialism” …[w]hat he really means is, “Down with Progress”.

Harry Truman

Doesn’t it sound like this speech could have been given yesterday?

Now, while some of these topics haven’t remained in the public consciousness (“public power” is just state-owned electric companies) it’s worth noting what is being talked about there.

  • Social Security: I don’t hear many people saying that this is something we should take away entirely. Do you?
  • Bank deposit insurance: Not having to worry about your savings vanishing in a puff of smoke sounds like a good thing to me, and pretty much anyone else.

What are people so afraid of? You see how crying “socialism” doesn’t begin a conversation; it shuts it down.

Anything that helps all the people.” “Shared ownership of resources.” And I can think of nothing that helps all the people like health insurance.

Ronald Reagan, 1961

In 1961, Ronald Reagan did not yet hold political office, but he was politically active. And funded by the American Medical Association, he created a record—a vinyl record!—called “Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine”.

I am not making this up.

It’s a great piece of rhetoric, with lots of scary-sounding “where does it end?” moments.

You can listen to the whole thing, but I recommend its ending, which piles on the schmaltz sky-high:

If you don’t [write to your congressperson], this program I promise you will pass…and behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country until one day….we will wake to find that we have socialism…[and] we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.

Ronald Reagan

“Grandpa, can you tell me about how your grandparents died because they didn’t have any health insurance in their old age?”

“Sure thing, kiddo. Back in the day, men and women were free. Free to die because they couldn’t afford the cost of care.”

“Gee, I sure wish wish we could go back to that.”

“Me too, kiddo.”

Now, raise your hand and tell me if you believe that this “creeping socialism” of Medicare is a stain on society and an infringement of your rights.

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While you’re at it, raise your hand if you believe that Social Security has sapped your work ethic and made you more idle and less inclined to work. Anyone? Bueller?

Seriously, the public benefits that we entrust our government to provide for us—collectively—make our ability to provide for ourselves and our families stronger, not weaker.

You can’t be a productive member of society when you’re sick or poor. The more people we help out of these situations, the better off we’ll all be.

And you should not feel guilty for leaning on the system in order to better thrive. Unemployment, SNAP benefits, Medicare, Medicaid. These are good things, even if some selfish people wish they didn’t have to pay in to help others.

The pandemic has exposed the individualist streak in America as the fraud it always was. No one is self-sufficient, no one is self-made, and that is not anything to be ashamed of.

Don’t be bullied

Calling out “socialism” is a scare tactic and a diversion from real issues, nothing more.

Shared ownership of resources” is an efficient use of resources. Isn’t that a good thing? Does everyone really need a lawn mower?

I’d be happy to discuss this over at the public library.

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