How we have changed.
A friend told me this story: “When my father was a student at the University of Michigan in the 1930s he lived in a cooperative house known as 'Socialism House.' 25 years later when I lived in the same house at the University of Michigan its name had been changed to `Michigan house'.” In the 1930s the word “socialism” was associated with persons who defended working people earning low wages and suffering grievously during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Socialists were in favor of greater equality and a decent standard of living for everyone. Today Republicans are making the Democrats look bad by accusing them of being socialists. “Socialist” has become a term of abuse.
This story reminded me of what has happened to the word “liberal.” Around 1990, Liberals were still the people who were defending freedom and equality for all. They were good guys. I remember my shock when the elder Bush during his campaign for the presidency started calling Democrats “liberals.” All of a sudden, the word “liberal” had become a serious insult.
Often words change their meaning by accident in the course of being used over and over. But what happened to both of these words is instructive. From being the name for people who were defending the most traditional of American values – equality, fairness, liberty – they are now being used for people who support an expansion of government activity. Why are liberals and socialists considered such a threat to us? The power of government, we are being told again and again, is an impediment to private enterprise, to the expansion of American business which will make all of us richer and richer.
Government actions most likely have been threats to some businesses for a long time. But where government stepped in to defend and expand equality and freedom, Americans have, in the past, been willing to pay a price for that.
In the past, socialism and liberalism, the defense of equality and freedom, may have has some undesirable side effects, but they were thought to be legitimate political projects because the pursuit of equality and freedom was thought to be extremely important. Today the dominant political perspective cares only about the health of our corporations, about their profitability. As soon as there is a hint that wage and hour legislation, worker protection, trade union organization, campaign finance reform, and other efforts to safeguard equality and liberty, large groups are up in arms because the defense of liberty and equality might have a negative effect on corporate profits. Equality and freedom count for very little; profits for a a great deal.
What I find truly alarming is the evidence that so many Americans are more seriously concerned about unfettered growth of business and very little concerned about equality, fairness and liberty. Who are the heroes today? Steve Job, Bill Gates – both people who have made huge sums of money and have been known to be unpleasant persons. What matters to Americans is making money. Their heroes are persons who make obscene amounts of money. There are no heroes today comparable to Rosa Parks or Dr. King.
Socialism and liberalism are seen only as threats to some businesses making a enormous amounts of money. Equality is of no interest. Neither is freedom. The public at large watches passively while our democracy is sold to the highest bidder.
The big businesses with their huge profits are selling us down the river and I'm afraid that we deserve every little bit of it. People who care more for money than for freedom and equality deserve what they get.