In light of concerns about President Obama’s budget — in particular, that it will lead us down a slippery slope toward European-style, nanny-state socialism — I considered the ways in which American citizens of a certain age were systematically trained to hate Soviet-style communism, as well as socialism and most ideas that lie toward the left end of the political spectrum.
My eighth-grade government text was a thin volume entitled "What You Should Know about Communism and Why." The cover portrays a parade of self-propelled missile launchers moving ominously through Red Square while faceless masses look on.
In some respects the book was a reasonable depiction of the history of communism and of life in Soviet Russia. But it was also classic Cold War propaganda, intended to indoctrinate, as well as inform. Subtle digs abound: "…Marx seldom earned any money of his own."
By the time I reached high school, the Cuban Missile Crisis had come and gone, and the U.S.S.R. and China were firmly established as the enemy.
In some ways, the threat was real. But it was also more mutual than we generally acknowledge and much more complicated than portrayed in civics textbooks and on television.
Nevertheless, the communist threat drove our foreign policy through the Cold War of the 1960s and served as a backdrop for the Vietnam War and for an immense arms buildup that retains its momentum today. In some neighborhoods you can still find old fallout shelters, monuments to the hope of surviving a nuclear exchange.
As it turned out, communism wasn’t such a great idea, after all, but it served as a solid fulcrum for some of the leverage that Reagan-era conservatives used to shove our political center so far to the right that the modern social democracies of Western Europe look almost as suspicious to us as old-style Bolshevism.
In fact, the term "socialism" is so tainted that it might be useful to commend the word itself to the so-called ash heap of history and find a new one to describe a communitarian approach to resolving some of the modern problems that can be treated only with collective action. We hear a lot of lip service for "working together," but in the end we often fall for appeals to our individualism and self-reliance and to the idea that there’s something inherently un-American about depending on the government to "take care of us."
Putting the matter in those terms doesn’t sound very attractive, which is why defenders of the status quo are so fond of using them. But consider, for example, health care: for many Americans it represents the most precarious element of their lives. The uninsured have to depend on the hope of never getting very sick, and even many of the nominally insured are threatened with high premiums and huge deductibles.
Many Americans — including many who already have decent health insurance — would like to reform the way we view health care, to consider it less a commodity than an essential of a good American life that should be available to everyone. Americans who are committed to keeping things the way they are have a long history of left-bashing to depend on, and they overstate the perceived shortcomings of the public health care systems of the rest of the Western world.
Of course, this type of column usually attracts a lot of e-mail inviting me to move to France. But government in our country has functioned far more effectively than the naysayers would have us believe. If we desire a health care system better than France’s, American ingenuity is likely to rise to the occasion, and the same can be said for many other modern problems that can never be solved by individuals alone.
In America, more than anywhere else, having confidence in the government is identical to having confidence in ourselves. A little movement toward the left — without using the "S-word" — could be healthy for everyone.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)