Political Mythology and Other Illusions
The American political landscape is littered with illusions. For example, take the misconceptions surrounding the word socialism. Many Americans think the label is the coup de grace, a self-evident condemnation, a foreign import with no place in our history. They regard it as a system encouraging a nation of layabouts hanging on to the state which grabs the goodies of industrious self-reliant citizens and distributes their money to the lazy.
As a recent letter to the editor of the New York Times pointed out, the word in the U.S. has picked up connotations from the Cold War, merging socialism with totalitarian communism. To some extent that happened because eastern regimes tended to describe themselves as socialist republics. This is also the case because enthusiasts for capitalism have found it useful to use the Cold War as a way of emptying compliant minds of further thought. Particularly when the audience is not strong on history, not even American history.
Socialism as a political factor in this country dates back to the Workingmen’s party of 1874. When the New Deal came in with FDR, a brand of Keynesian economics followed which carefully avoided the term socialist, though much of the socialist parties’ support shifted to the New Deal. Even so, from 1928 on, the Socialist Party ran Norman Thomas as its presidential candidate six times. I can remember my father, a pretty conservative Wall Street lawyer, speaking in surprisingly respectful terms about Norman Thomas. After all, Thomas had graduated from Princeton Universeity magna cum laude in 1905 and became a Presbyterian minister.
The penchant for ignoring history has been coupled with the effectual demonizing of the word socialist, much like the more recent scornful treatment of the term liberal. This toxic mixture of ignorance and prejudice has been peppered with American exceptionalism which views anything outside the U.S.A. with suspicion. Educated people can be completely unaware of the intellectual history of socialism. These days, ardent Christians have been hoodwinked into thinking that unrestrained capitalism is the divine pattern despite the long history of Christian Socialism which emerged in nineteenth-century Europe. Such a limited understanding emboldens intolerance.
For instance, the U.S. did not feel any discrepancy in banning the Communist Party. We never noticed the inconsistency between boasting of our democracy while denying voters the chance of rejecting Communism in voting booths, unlike Canada which believed strongly enough in democracy to allow the Communist Party to operate legally.
The power of labels dominating is easy to detect. When Mitt Romney recently visited Israel, he extolled the Israeli health service, a thoroughly socialist scheme, unlike the Massachusetts and “Obamacare” systems which show a mixture of capitalism and socialism. Of course his tribute was possible because he avoided the dreaded term with which his hosts, presumably, would have been quite happy.
Do the glib advocates of unrestrained capitalism suppose that the long-drawn-out progress of western civilization has been powered by employers who always had their way in handling workers, that the centuries-long growth of individual and communal liberty and justice can be reduced to nothing more than the offspring of entrepreneurs? In their rush to “starve the beast” of government, do they really expect the public to believe that government had no vital hand in staying the often greedy and cruel hand of financial moguls? It is no accident that Teddy Roosevelt is never mentioned in such circles, what with his reforming zeal and trust-busting. Rather, we might expect to hear the cry “back to McKinley”. If capitalism was faultless and worked to perfection, what accounts for labor unions or the vigorous activity directed against “the bosses”? If capitalism works perfectly, why are we thrown periodically into depressions or recessions?
In the hot debate over healthcare, are we expected to swallow the suggestion that private provision of medical care can cope with everybody’s needs? If so, why all the fuss now? Is it a glory of the sratus quo that millions of our people cannot afford medical coverage? Common sense knows that no human system is perfect. They all need corrections. But caricaturing political alternatives makes no more sense in American politics than it does elsewhere.
That criticism of capitalism is un-American is only credible to those who obliterate all historical awareness of the continuous interplay of forces from left and right which has resulted in the sort of compromise which does not allow either system to dominate. In 2008, we saw how the self-serving gimmickry of financiers and unscrupulous mortgage lenders brought us to the brink of collapse. They were bailed out by public money, which they would normally have dubbed socialism had not their plight demanded that they accept whatever help was available. In what has been called private profit and social debt, a socialist intervention was accepted, enabling those responsible for the mess to retire with enormous golden handshakes. Perhaps that could be called a mixed economy?
Take the role of government in the relief of poverty, for instance. In 1847 the British parliament responded to a petition from a small town by pulling together the provisions of local poor laws into a nation-wide arrangement. This was one of the first instances of a welfare state. The parliament which did so was not composed of socialists; they would probably not have understood the term anyway. But they were astute enough to see that if the state did not act, nobody else would do so. We remember the time when a conservative British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, remarked on “the ugly face of capitalism” that needed to be addressed.
A long history of humane intervention lay behind one of the cardinal tenets of the later “evolutionary socialism” espoused by Thomas – that government should have a big role in mitigating the cruder and crueler aspects of capitalism. In addition, this country has always had a number of institutions with general support which observe socialist principles even if the label is not used. These institutions do not fit any capitalist model.
For example, New York City had mandatory public education from 1832, but public schooling in this country goes back at least to Massachusetts in 1647. Such education has always been overseen by government and supported by taxes paid even by those who do not use the schools. It has not been attacked as socialist., yet the principles it enshrines are hardly those of classical capitalism.
Fire departments are not private ventures but are managed by government. Their personnel are paid and pensioned by the public. Nor do they cater only to successful money-earners. If your house catches fire, the firefighters will be quick to arrive because it is recognized that the whole community is interdependent and vulnerable. You are not asked to show you have paid up before being rescued.
This country employs large numbers of police under government auspices. We do not rely on feudal private protectors to safeguard ourselves. True, some of our prison systems have been privatized, with scandalous results emerging continually. Attacks have been made on the cost of retirement provisions in the public sector, yet many of the retirees held dangerous jobs like police and firefighting. Sitting behind a desk in Wall Street does not carry the risks of battling a fire.
The Post Office, while no longer a monopoly nor a department of government, is still overseen by government which, not so happily, requires it to carry magazines and junk mail at uneconomic costs, as a public service. The postal service has a long history going back, in America, to colonial times. There are private services but we do not rely on them for the bulk of our mail deliveries.
Until recently, it was taken for granted that the armed forces were a national responsibility answerable to government. The military looks rather like the more advanced types of socialism in providing housing, free medical care, clothing, equipment and pensions. No one calls it socialist yet it operates on socialist principles including hierarchical arrangements familiar to aggressive socialist regimes. That there were more contractors under arms in Iraq than soldiers seems to have escaped the eyes of the public. The result of employing large numbers of such people without much accountability for high rates of pay puts them down as mercenaries. This adventure in privatizing warfare for profit has not been a happy story. It seems that the military, working on socialist lines, is more accountable and reputable.
We take for granted a whole raft of institutions that resemble socialist ones in that they are government-controlled, funded by taxation and are meant to be answerable to government departments. We do not call them socialist because we are used to them and because they are products of a social conscience and common sense predating the term socialism. A society having only private for-profit institutions would collapse.
These facts do not seem to impress politicians who, willy-nilly, decry “socialized medicine” Yet their disdain for public healthcare does not extend to their own enjoyment of a remarkable program of health insurance for themselves, at the taxpayer’s expense. To be energized by these myths, we have to be distracted from turning our gaze on Bismarck who, a century and a half ago, realized that the health of his entire citizenry was essential to the well-being of his nation. We can see why those who strive to keep the provision of healthcare in the hands of insurance companies and drug firms want us to agree with Henry Ford, that “history is bunk”.
Another persistent myth in America is that we value equality. Nothing so enrages some political enthusiasts as the phrase “the one percent”, perhaps because it is a catchy term which hits the mark. Considerable mental contortions have to be used to maintain allegiance to the notion that “all men are created equal” (in the words of the prominent slave-holder Jefferson) while simultaneously being unconcerned with growing inequality. The bald facts are that the top 400 persons in the U.S. make as much as the bottom 150 million, and that in the last few decades the top earners have seen their money grow at 40 times the average national rate. Equality is being continually eroded.
One talk-radio pundit recently fumed because it had been suggested that “self-made” men had not made it on their own. Yet the financially successful have usually had the support of successful parents who have enabled them to receive an education and exploit useful contacts. They have naturally been boosted by the climate in which they grew up. The playing field is hardly level. But the violent diatribe against what common sense indicates shows the power of illusion.
The question that emerges is – why does the public docilely acquiesce in such illusions? The question drives us to consider some other illusions which touch on how we think of ourselves. Do we not think of our society and ourselves as more individualistic than others, as less conformist that others? But individualism is not the same as non-conformity. Many people abroad see Americans as highly conformist. They see us conforming to the search for greater wealth, as reflecting the orthodoxy of our near neighbors, as scoffing at eccentricity, as conforming to the general urge to be “with it”, jumping on each passing bandwagon. We conform to “expert opinion”; the influence of the man in the white coat giving medical advice on TV has long been remarked as typically American.
Language can be revealing. Scanning movie reviews in the local press reveals that Hollywood conforms to the norm of bad language as a necessity for the modern film. A president invented the word “normalcy” because he could not think of the proper word “normality”. The public hastened to conform to his illiteracy. Conformity writ large?
Yet no one can deny that individualism rates highly as an ideal. In the espousal of individualism we are ultra-conformist. That such a paradox is real can be seen if we try to define what individuals, disconnected from ideas of communal membership, would be like. Isolated from the sense of social responsibility, we might expect them to be lawless, thinking of law as merely a tool to get what I want from others threatening my progress. We would expect them to be self-centered, insensitive to the effect of one’s behavior on others. I am reminded of a cartoon advising, “So conduct yourself that you can look any damn man in the eye and tell him to go to hell!” This would seem to be a fair description of individualism not balanced by any other ideas.
Now take a walk down Nassau Street in Princeton, New Jersey with me. The first event is when the traffic light turns green to allow cars to enter the main road. But two pedestrians disobey the red hand of their crossing signal and cause three cars to miss the light. Then a car drives by, its driver breaking the law not only by exceeding the speed limit but with a cellphone clamped to her ear. On arriving at Vandeventer Street, only one of five pedestrians waits for a green crossing signal to appear. On the left side, we see a biker, not walking his bike on the zebra crossing, but riding his bike across, narrowly missing a car which has not bothered to stop for the pedestrians on the crossing. An elderly woman is narrowly missed by a cyclist who ignores the signs on that particular sidewalk forbidding bike riding. Recently I saw a healthy woman park in a handicapped slot and get out of her care with a telephone clamped to her ear in clear violation of the law – a common sight.
We could go on. One point to notice is that no one seems put out by such selfishness; it is expected. Behind such lawlessness lurks a consciousness of “my rights”. That may explain why, in the eastern states, few pedestrians crossing the road acknowledge the car that does halt. Courtesy is not shown because it might imply the driver is doing a favor, rather than bowing to “my rights”. It is not hard to see the mentality behind such behavior. A kind of individualism has gone beserk, devoid of a sense of social responsibility.
What can we make of violence by individuals sprouting guns which they use to murder people in public places? The failure to provide medical supervision throughout life for those who do not buy private insurance means that warning signs are not picked up. The virtues of our supposed individualism seem to be absent.
It all has to do with an essential mix of rights and responsibilities. Rights divorced from responsibilities will fail. It is ironic that this country which talks so much about freedom does not have the necessary balance of rights and responsibilities built into its self-awareness. Should we be surprised at that? In the Revolutionary period, we made a lot of noise about the tyranny of George III. And the colonists aimed to protect their rights. What rights were those? They talked of their rights as Englishmen. They had inherited the results of centuries of slow and costly development in England. They took the results for granted. One could say these ideas were handed to them on a silver platter. They did not have to evolve them throughout their own history, so the deeply planted historical awareness of what that struggle entailed, and the personal need for the balance between rights and responsibilities was not something that had evolved with their very identity. That may help account for a cultural unawareness to an essential ingredient for our survival as a society where real freedom and justice flourish.
An adolescent culture is one where adults follow their children in dress, food , speech and mannerisms, and in the tendency to see things in black and white. Like the video games so beloved of the young, our politicians seem to view their sacred trust of governing all the people as a gigantic video game where the aim is to win. Attitudes typical of adolescence dominate political behavior on the grand scale.
Our political and cultural illusions are unable to deal with life as it really is. Nor can the illusions about who we are enable us to cope with the fragmentation of society, where the disconnection between members of society reaches serious proportions. Maybe a bit of socialism would be a good thing?
John Frederick writes from a varied and unusual eclectic background of experience. A native of Manhattan, he attended Deerfield Academy and graduated A.B.in economics and sociology from Princeton. His thesis was on the employment of black manpower in America’s armed forces. After attending the General Theological Seminary for his master’s degree in church history, he was ordained deacon in the (Episcopal) Diocese of Connecticut, then a priest, serving two years as curate of St Peter’s, Cheshire, Connecticut and as a master and chaplain at the Cheshire Academy.
Most of his professional life has been spent in England, to which he was introduced as a fifth man on the four-man U.S. Pistol Team in the 1948 Olympics in London. He returned to England in 1952 with the Winant Volunteers, working in the East End Borough of Poplar. He returned to London in 1956 for a two-year stint as assistant priest at All Hallows by the Tower, living next to the Tower (not in it, he hastens to point out) in a house built by William Penn’s father. After two years at SS Philip and James’, Oxford, he returned with his English wife Jean and step-daughter Susan to become rector of St John’s, New Haven for ten years.
Wanting to hit the books again, he earned a Ph.D. at Birmingham University in the English midlands, doing his dissertation on a critique of the twentieth-century liturgical movement in the Rpman Catholic and Anglican churches, also serving as priest-in-charge of a slum parish in Birmingham. Emmanuel College, Cambridge then appointed him as rector of Bletchingley in the Diocese of Southwark (Church of England) where he served for twenty years, ending his time in England as a Surrogate to the Bishop and Rural Dean of Godstone. During his time there, he wrote The Future of Liturgical Reform , published on both sides of the Atlantic.
He has always resisted being stuffed into an intellectual envelope. Having served as a non-commissioned officer in the New Jersey National Guard’s artillery and infantry while an undergraduate, and having an interest in history, he authored two books on British military history, the latter of which, a two-volume Lineage Book of British Land Forces 1660-1978, is held to be an authoritative tome on the subject of British military history.
His literary activity includes a novel, A Royal American: a New Jersey Officer in the King’s Service During the Revolution, based loosely on a forbear of his from Elizabeth, New Jersey, who held the King’s commission throughout the Revolutionary War, but settled back happily afterwards at Elizabeth Town. From his writings, it can easily be seen that John Frederick has a particular interest in favoring genuine history over the hagiography and winners’ rewrites of history which turn out popular mythology. Interest in the American colonial period led him into the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of New Jersey, of which he served a term as Governor. His posts in England, including one as chaplain to the High Sheriff of Surrey, have given him a wide perspective for viewing the strength and weaknesses of his native country, something which appears in the series of essays he is now writing for The Wild River Review
As an undergraduate, he enjoyed newscasting on a radio station. Interest in current events tied up with a growing interest in international affairs as he delved into the now little known writings of his grandfather, the onetime Columbia University professor of international law and arbitration, judge on the World Court at The Hague, and Counsellor to the State Department, John Bassett Moore, whose work on “current illusions” seemed to John to parallel his own ideas on international affairs.
His and Jean’s family also include two daughters – Alexandra a jazz singer and musician, and Sarah, an insurance communications director, and two grandsons. Practically all members of his family have two passports reflecting their Anglo-American ties.