Saturday, November 15, 2008

This just in: The Bogeyman doesn’t exist ... Saturday's column.

Hi everyone,

Saturday's column.

[I'll be posting these online now that I finally (!) figured out proper citation. For those of you without a West Bend Daily News subscription, you won't be able to access the electronic version... but then, you don't need to if you read it here.]

I remember hiding under the covers, worried about the bogeyman under my bed. My mom would come in and turn on the lights. I’d push back the covers, lean over the edge and, terrified, peek underneath. Nothing but dust bunnies. Whew.

There was enough loose talk about Karl Marx and socialism over the last few weeks, two of America’s biggest bogeymen, to make me put on my mean-old-professor glasses and work up a little pop quiz to test our political understanding. See how you do.

Identify the source of the following:

“Owners sell off their land and houses and bring the proceeds to their leaders who then redistribute the wealth to each according to their need.”

Does this idea first appear in

a) Karl Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program,”
b) Vladimir Lenin’s pamphlet, “What Is To Be Done,” or
c) the Bible?

Did everyone get the Bible?

It’s a paraphrase from Acts 4:34-35. A little earlier, in Acts 2:44-45, we even find “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

Scary stuff, but that’s where Marx got it.

Does it strike anyone as ironic that this quotation – Western culture’s most compelling description of a community that cares about its members – was misconstrued over the last few weeks to suggest that the President-elect poses a “socialist” threat to America’s future?

So, let me be blunt: this fear-laden notion of socialism is a bogeyman. It keeps us scared and hiding under the blankets. Let’s turn on the lights and check out the dust bunnies.

For starters, if by “socialism” we mean a totalitarian state that controls every aspect of human life… well, you’d have to explain where that shows up in the President-elect’s agenda. No, another look under the bed confirms it’s all dust bunnies. Even the famous examples of oppressive totalitarianism – Nazi Germany, the USSR, and China under Mao – have all been vacuumed up by history. The lights came on and they turned to dust. Besides, think of all the fully functional, and fully free, “socialist” countries like Sweden, Norway or even France. Denmark hardly looks like Orwell’s “1984” and they’re currently the happiest people on the planet.

On the other hand if, by “socialism,” we mean “a government that does stuff for its citizens,” then nearly every heartbeat of America’s political and economic life runs on a “socialist” infrastructure. The interstate highway system, our sewer and water facilities, the electric grid, Social Security, Medicare, the Internet, our fire and police departments, and the armed services are all, technically, “socialist” programs. So was the public health service in Milwaukee during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918-1919 – a public health service that kept Milwaukee at the bottom of the mortality rate nation wide.

Anyone want to privatize the fire department or the interstates?

In fact, over the past few decades no segment of the economy has benefited more from socialistic government spending than the largest corporations – and, let’s not forget, their Boards of Directors. Liberals haven’t been able to afford regular lattes for years. Wall Street CEOs? That’s a different matter entirely. Our schools may be underfunded, but President Bush’s corporate welfare queens are crowding into the Treasury Department’s waiting room this week, palms outstretched for government-issue golden parachutes. They whine that these bailouts will help “the employees,” but our tax dollars, apparently, will also help “the executives” pay for hunting trips to shoot French Red-legged partridges in rural England, as AIG officials did last month.

Turn on the lights and you can see what's happening under the bed: socialism for the rich and capitalism for everybody else.

Let’s get back to why the “socialism” bogeyman appeared so much over the last few weeks in the local paper. Washington County is one of the places in Wisconsin where bogeymen are still being kept alive. Here they’re fed by local radio talk-show hosts and state representatives who depend on sloganeering, promulgating irrational fear, and wedge-issue politics to keep their jobs.

But the lights are on now. It’s only a matter of time until everyone’s had a good look under the bed.

You go first.

I dare you.



Anonymous said...

Remember the days when self-righteous Republicans demanded that "government should be run like a business"? Bet we won't be hearing that anymore.

jon said...

Good read MP. Keep posting these as long as you can

Anonymous said...

Well said Mark this should keep the letters to the editor going for a couple of days.

Anonymous said...

Professor of philosophy Mark Peterson, professor of theology you are not.

You try to legitimize socialism with the Bible. Do you give equal creditbility to a seven day creation and Genesis 1 and 2? You skipped over Acts 4:32, "All believers were one in heart and mind."

Four key points: 1) these early Christians shared by their own free will, not by the mandate of Rome or the apostles, 2) they did so because of their faith in Jesus Christ, a commonality lacking in our pluralistic society, 3) nowhere does the Bible prescribe this type of economy, though it does urge sharing with the needy, 4) God-pleasing sharing is only that which is done by faith, not by force.

You claim talk of socialism is bogeyman fear-mongering. You use a strawman argument to deflect attention from the facts. You should know better. You absurdly equate many things with socialism, like police and fire protection, military and Internet. Come on. You do get a bit closer with Social Security and Medicare.

Socialism isn't just government that does things for its citizens. Nice try. It's government that takes from some to give to others for greed or fairness--exactly what Obama promised with his tax cut (and checks) for 95% of Americans (and tax increase for the rest).

When a majority of the peope can vote themselves favors from the rest, this is socialism. This is dangerous.

Monte Schmiege

Mpeterson said...

Thanks for your comment Mr. Schmiege,

A couple of things:

1) There was nothing in anything I wrote that attempted to legitimize socialism by using the Bible. I simply pointed out that those who were throwing Marx around like they'd actually read him didn't realize there was a provenance to Marx's comments in the New Testament.

In fact, as shocking as it may seem, I did study for the ministry and my grasp of Christian theology is relatively sound. You just don't like my interpretation. :^)


2) Furthermore, as someone who has actually lived in the former Soviet Union and seen the catastrophic damage done to the souls of its victims, I have every reason to spend my every waking breath seeing to it that such a thing can never happen here.

But to your comment:

You summed up my entire point quite eloquently when you wrote:

"When a majority of the people can vote themselves favors from the rest, this is socialism. This is dangerous."

In fact, the proper name for a society in which a majority of the voters govern themselves is 'democracy.'

My suspicion sir, is that what you're really afraid of is democracy.

You need to think about whether power in the United States should flow from the ballot box or from the wallet. From what you've said, it sounds like you think it belongs in the wallet.

Please tell me I'm wrong. I cannot imagine that any American could believe such a thing.

There is something even more dangerous, however, than your definition of 'socialism.' What's even more dangerous is when a minority "of the people can vote themselves favors from the rest."

That is called an oligarchy -- and that's what we have now.

Frankly, if you'd rather be ruled by the few who then single-mindedly strip America of its economic well-being, that's just fine. Keep voting for neoconservative supply-siders.

That is your right.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting my remarks, sir and for your response.

You claim you did not try to support socialism with the Bible, but you did a pretty good job by claiming Marx got it from the Bible and your lengthy dissertation on the subject.

You disagree with my four points, but you do not say why. I don't know if your disagreement is genuine.

Yes, I recognize that democracy can go wrong. It is not sacred. The founding fathers made allowances for this with the manner of electing senators, which has been turned on its head.

Democratic socialism is socialism by another means. Chains on liberty and freedom.

There is no perfect form of government this side of heaven. Ideally, the government would not be in the business of choosing winners and losers and stifling freedom.

Monte Schmiege

Mpeterson said...

Mr. Schmiege,

Nope, I always write with complete honesty -- I'm just not smart enough to be clever -- so my disagreement was honest.

Saying that Marx found the concept of each according to his ability in the Bible is not supposition -- he really did. I always thought that was damned interesting.

In fact, if you look at the original quote where Marx says this, you'll see that it maps rather precisely into the very set of complaints you raised -- that the early Christians shared because each understood their brotherhood to each other. "Charity" (originally 'caritas') is precisely the recognition that those around you are as imperfect as you are and bound in the same spiritual circumstance. That was, as you note, the ground of the Apostle's sharing all things with each other.

Now, if you go back and look at Marx's quote, and read through the philosophical technical vocabulary, you'll find that Marx was saying essentially the same thing.

My guess is that what's bugging you is that Marx, traditionally, has been associated with the Soviets and Maoists. The Soviets were not good Marxists... not any more than the Inquisition represents Christianity at its best.

What does happen is that ideas are appropriated by politicians to scare people into voting for them. That's what Marxism came to represent and so too socialism.

Which was my original point.

But do you believe that even our democratic republic is, even with direct election of senators is, by its constitution, an inhibition on liberty and freedom?


Dan said...

You mentioned something about the "intellectual elite" yesterday when we were talking... it's funny, because I remember posting a blog about this very thing when Obama was castigated as an elitist, as if this was somehow a bad thing. I was seriously worried that our country was fast slipping into an Idocracy if Palin got into office... which is a great movie by the way.