George Jonas

A socialist by any other name

by George Jonas
National Post

The smell of war is in the air, mingling with the smell of presidential elections in America. With the economy in the doldrums, the national debt through the roof, and nuclear weapons proliferating along with unstable theocracies in volatile parts of the world, Western limousine-socialists are worried. No, no, not about nukes, bankrupt economies, or fast-spreading theocracies; what worries them is that the unsettled times may interfere with the re-election of Barack Obama.

Canada's limo-socialists don't have the vote in U.S. elections but they share the anxiety. Two well-meaning and left-leaning friends were so impressed with an op ed piece that appeared in The New York Times that they both cut it out and sent it to me. "I'm sure you'll agree with some of this," one wrote in a covering note.

"Obama the socialist? Not even close" is a guest-column by Milos Forman, one of the 20th century's master filmmakers. He directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, to mention only his Oscar-winning movies. His think-piece argues that the president of the United States is not a socialist.

Someone may ask why is this important? Obama makes no secret of his policies. At home they're to print, mint, and spend, and abroad they're to appease and assassinate, the first profusely, the second sparingly. That's pretty much what he has done for four years, whatever you call it.

Ah, but labels matter. Americans are funny that way. They may elect a socialist, but draw the line at one who calls himself a socialist. "Sticks and stones break bones that heal,/sticks and stones are no big deal/but names can really hurt me."

"I lived in Czechoslovakia from my birth in 1932 until 1968," Foreman begins, then gives a few examples of how Soviet-style socialism resembled the insane asylum from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "Now years later," he continues, "I hear the word 'socialist' being tossed around -- [Obama's critics] falsely equate Western European-style socialism, and its government provision of social insurance and health care, with Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism. It offends me, and cheapens the experience of millions who lived, and continue to live, under brutal forms of socialism."

I suppose Foreman realizes that by saying this all he does is defend Obama against a charge of being Klement Gottwald (Czechoslovakia's Stalin, until his death in 1953). But of course no one accuses Obama of being Gottwald; all they accuse him of is being Obama. That is enough.

In America "socialist" isn't parsed to see whether it's a tax-and-spend do-gooder gradually making everyone the ward of the state, or a fanatical thug throwing opponents out the window to prepare a coup d'état, as Stalin's mob threw out Jan Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's foreign minister before the communist takeover of 1948.

The difference between limousine socialists and defenestrating socialists may be life and death, but in American electoral politics the distinction is lost. The voters don't want to hear about socialism, not even with the adjective "democratic" stuck in front of it. Foreman is quite right when he remarks: "I'm not sure Americans today appreciate quite how predatory socialism was." That's true, they don't -- but they still don't want it. The stigma attaches to the word more than to the concept; Americans are willing enough to adopt socialist measures or policies if they come wrapped into benign words like "liberal" or "progressive" -- although "liberal" has become tainted because even outright communists used to wipe their mouths in it over the last 30 years. But while "liberal" may be tainted, "socialist" is the kiss of death.

Interestingly, in communist Eastern Europe the word to avoid was "communist." When in power, communists have always called themselves socialists. The Soviet Union's very acronym U.S.S.R. stood for Union of Soviet Socialist -- not Communist -- Republics. It was simply a euphemism; everybody knew that a Soviet "socialist" was a communist. Foreman reverts to this sense of the word when he writes in The New York Times: "Whatever his faults, I don't see much of a socialist in Mr. Obama . . ."

What's the relevance of all this? Well, General Douglas MacArthur's famous dictum "There's no substitute for victory" would have been more accurate if he had added "in the short run." In the long run, both defeat and victory have to be paid for. History bills losers for their defeats promptly, but often waits to present the bills for victories to the children and grandchildren of the victors.

By successfully repulsing America in the War of 1812, Canadians made sure that they wouldn't be able to vote in their most important elections, i.e., the U.S. presidential elections. Given the realities of size, power, population and proximity, the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue determines the social, economic, and political future of Canada at least as much as the occupant of 24 Sussex Drive. Ironically, had their forefathers lost, Canadians today would have more of a say in their future than they do as the descendants of victors.

Had Canada been defeated and annexed 200 years ago, the Republican nominee running against Barack Obama in November might well be one Stephen Harper. I would be out there, too, campaigning for him.