Sunday, April 01, 2012

Why let the truth get in the way of a good slogan.

There is something more than perverse in the way some American Republicans view both the word “Europe” and the term “socialism”.

Once upon a time, there was a loony left which dubbed the mildest conservative or even liberal as “Fascist” advertising their ignorance of what the word means together with their intolerance. Today, serious candidates for the US presidency and representatives of the party which controls one of the houses of the US Congress show the same crazy disregard for reality. This is dangerous not just for Americans but for us in Europe too as widening the Atlantic helps neither side.

Last week, I was asked to try and understand what what going on How GOP candidates get Europe wrong which forced me to think about the issue.

Almost four years ago, during the Thanksgiving weekend after the US elections, I visited the Budapest House of Terror, a museum which seeks to describe the city under the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross movement during the war and the subsequent Communist regime. The museum’s intention is to evoke unmitigated disgust for the two regimes and paint a picture of bleak, grey and painful city and it succeeds. So it was with some surprise that I came across these two entries in the museum’s visitors’ book:
Thank you for this fantastic exhibition. With the new Obama nation in the United States, soon [underlined] we will be a Communist nation. Please try and help us.
A New Yorker
dated 25 November 2008
same date but in the other book and in a different handwriting
It is shocking and scary how similar the earlier days of the Nazis and the Communists look to the promises and plans of the Obama administration in the United States. All Americans should learn about what really happens under Communism and Socialism

Republicans are only more circumspect in the way they talk about “European socialism” but the substance is the same. The intention is muddle any differences between Stalin’s gulags and Danish social democracy, between Greek debt and Spain’s high unemployment and Germany’s growth and low unemployment, between the European Union, the euro zone and geographical Europe. But all these distinctions don’t fit in 15 second sound bite.

Of course caricatures must have a grain of truth to have any currency. The way the euro crisis was allowed to deepen is hardly a positive lesson in financial management (but Romney and Santorum should explain how bailing out banks is “socialist”). Most European countries do indeed have socialised medicine, rarely free, but the candidates should explain why in Europe (by any definition) we spend a smaller proportion of our GDPs on health and it mostly gives us care which is as good or better than the US (according to the WHO, for 2008, social democratic Norway spends 8.5%, the UK and Italy 8.7%, Netherlands 9.9 and Germany 10.5%… while the US spent 15.2%). There are plenty of Americans who would love to have those figures and that sort of health care – it’s true that top American health is the best in the world but it requires insurance that the majority cannot afford. It is also true that not all Americans consider European health care as pre-Florence Nightingale Crimea. This week’s New Yorker has David Sedaris writing lyrically on dentists in France… but New Yorker readers are unlikely to vote for Rick Santorum. How Obamacare can be perceived as “socialist” in any way defies the lexicon and political definition. Even if it allows some wry humour about eating broccoli.

But the “socialist” ploy is not new “We are all socialists now” Jon Meacham in Newsweek thought so in 2009. Actually William Harcourt made the remark in 1887 when a bill was passed in the House of Commons allowing local authorities to acquire land compulsorily on behalf of the community. For him, the revolution had already arrived and he could almost hear the tumbrils coming down Whitehall. A lot of rhetoric has flowed under the bridges of both Thames and Potomac since then and the word has taken on many different nuances since then.

In most of western Europe at least, both the word and the substance of community responsibility have positive connotations. Conservative parties have to reassure voters that their neo-liberal, free market rhetoric will not mean high prices for education, health, pensions and support for the unemployed. In eastern Europe, the word does have negative connotations for some but the substance is if anything more ingrained than on other side of the old Iron Curtain.

But for all the (necessary) pedantry about what “Europe” and “socialism” really mean, the most disturbing conclusion is that the Republicans who rant against “socialism” are merely covering up a vitriolic racism against a black president.

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