(English majors and teachers: yes, I know that at first blush, the "What" in the title seems as if it should be "Who." Bear with me for a moment).
Once again, I have a pocketful of rants (not to be confused with a boxful of letters, which belongs to Jeff Tweedy). I've been spending an inordinate (some may say frighteningly obsessive) amount of time over on Facebook, managing friend and group requests and invitations, juggling chats, updating status/gig dates/new songs, and too often stumbling down into the rabbit hole of very long political discussion threads. Today I found myself in such a thread; what made it different was that I was the only person posting to that thread who wasn't several steps to the right of Newt Gingrich. In fact, one poster lists himself on his profile page as "right-wing extremist;" honesty and accuracy is particularly refreshing these days.
The thread started off with the usual black-helicopter/tinfoil-hat stuff about FEMA concentration camps. (Back during the Bush administration, some on the left were sure they were being built to round up dissidents, immigrants, and ethnic minorities; as soon as Obama was inaugurated, the right-wing hinted that the "camps" were going to be used against anyone who opposed the "liberal agenda"). Both ends of the continuum were certain that they were in danger of being interned therein by whichever opposition party was running FEMA at the time; actually, the installations were for the contingency that a natural or man-made catastrophe might render thousands otherwise homeless and not relocatable to existing housing or trailers away from the affected area. Period. Neither internment camps nor gulags. Sorry to disappoint conspiracy theorists on both sides.
I posited the above response and was immediately guided to "the truth" expressed in a YouTube video by--ahem--Ollie North. Was it a dry, unedited Q&A on the subject, contemporaneously with all the paranoia, between a Congressman & Col. North? It's YouTube--what the heck do you think? (Edited to a fare-thee-well, and clumsily at that). Apparently, though, when I pointed out that YouTube is no more reliable a source than a supermarket check-writing card is a valid ID (nor a driver's license proof of citizenship), and jokingly remarked that they probably wouldn't check out the video's veracity on Snopes.com because they believe Snopes is run by communists, guess what? In all seriousness, I was told, "Snopes IS run by communists--it's owned by a flaming left-winger who is in the tank for Obama." (Have you ever heard a liberal utter the phrase "in the tank" to refer to anything but gasoline or tropical fish)? Another poster challenged my own ideological self-description as a "pragmatic liberal" as an oxymoron; yet another was polite and open-minded enough to ask "WTF is a pragmatic liberal?"
Oh, my, where do I begin? I've been asked by younger friends who weren't around (or who were too young to remember) when the Iron Curtain was up what "communism" and "socialism" are and whether we have "socialism" in America today. In all earnestness, I was told that they'd "heard" and "read" that the current administration is "socialist" because "Democrats hate capitalism." When I asked where they were getting this (mis)information, I was told variously, "FOX," "people on TV" and "in the papers." Oh, boy, where do I begin INDEED?
Time for a little poli sci and Econ 101 lesson:
1. "Republican" was not always synonymous with "Conservative." A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away Democrats had among their ranks centrists and moderates in addition to liberals and radicals; and Republicans were sometimes moderate or even proudly self-described liberals. A "conservative" was defined as someone who was skeptical of but not utterly opposed to change or progress, and wanted to move as slowly and carefully as possible. The role of government in this, and the desired "size" of government, was irrelevant--and actually a modern conceit. Today, the best example of that pure conservative would be columnist David Brooks, whom modern "conservatives" vilify as "moderate." (His further-right colleague, Ross Douthat, would pass the GOP litmus test today; Douthat's predecessor Bill Kristol was eased out after idolizing Sarah Palin to an embarrassingly creepy personal degree). Back then Eisenhower was a moderate and Barry Goldwater was a conservative (though he was further to the right than most conservatives and was considered an extreme reactionary by many). Richard Nixon was a conservative. Ronald Reagan called himself a conservative but was to the right of Goldwater. Today, they'd all be considered "moderates" by those in charge of the GOP--even Reagan, their iconic hero, would fail the official party's litmus test. Let's clear something up: someone who wants to move back right-ward to the way things used to be is not a "conservative:" (s)he is a reactionary. Or even, as that candid Facebook poster described himself, a "right-wing extremist." Sarah Palin is not a conservative, nor are the likes of Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul, Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck: they are reactionary-to-extremist.
Then there are (or, let's hope, only "were") Fascists and Nazis. These are two terms I hear bandied about distressingly often (and highly inaccurately at that) by both ends of the political continuum. "Fascist" was a favorite epithet mis-wielded by left-wingers of my generation in our youth (guilty as charged) to refer to anyone who was in favor of the Vietnam War (for any reason) or to the right of center. Fascism is, in fact, a relationship between government and business/industry so symbiotic that business pretty much runs government, as it did in Mussolini's Italy. (Ironically, Eisenhower's warning against a military-industrial complex was a Republican emphatically going on the record against Fascism. Cheney-era Haliburton, on the other hand......).
Nazis were the monstrous National Socialist ("Socialist" being wildly inaccurately usurped and misused) Party of Adolf Hitler--somewhere to the right of "right-wing extremist" and utterly indefensible. That the radically right-wing Tea Party movement (and lately, even former conservative and now reactionary Newt Gingrich) have conflated Obama and the grassroots liberal movement with the rise of Naziism (and portraying Obama as Hitler) i is not only reprehensible but wildly, willfully and proudly ignorant. (If anything, it's the anti-black, anti-anything-but-Christian faction of the Tea Party movement that fits that unenviable description, bearing a frightening resemblance to the Germans of the 1920s and 1930s who were eager to find a scapegoat for their economic powerlessness and thus embraced Hitler. Note to Tea Partiers: if you don't own any history books or know how to look AN ACTUAL encyclopedia up on your computers, there's doubtless a library within five miles of you: use it).
2. Moving on (pun intended), let's address the left half of the continuum. Back in those days when dinosaurs ruled the earth, there were no (well-known) conservative Democrats. Conservatives voted almost exclusively Republican. But the Democratic Party otherwise resembled today's version in that it contained middle-of-the-road moderates as well as liberals. Radicals and left-wing extremists of that era wouldn't have been caught dead wearing a Democratic campaign button--they had their own splinter parties (Socialist, Communist) or (for the most ideologically pure) were at least "independent" (and then there were anarchists, who by definition found affiliation to be anathema). Democrats then and now included and include within their rank and file many capitalists.
a) Capitalists were and are those who believe we ought to have a private sector (regardless of how much power or responsibility they think government should have). If you have a small business, you're a capitalist (unless you're running it purely as a collective or co-op). There's benign capitalism and then there's robber-baron-era-aspirant purely laissez-faire "crony capitalism," as decried by Michael Moore and embodied by the financial sector run amok circa the last half of the Bush presidency--to paraphrase Jerry Della Femina's wonderful book about advertising--"those wonderful folks who brought you (economic) Pearl Harbor."
b) Socialists believe that there should be no private enterprise and that the government should run all industry and provide all necessary services. Communism is a more radical form of socialism that favors not only government-run industry but discourages (if not outrightly bans) the concept of private property. In its heyday, it was so draconian in its austerity that it took a totalitarian government to make it work--which totalitarianism was its eventual undoing when its citizens got fed up with it. (That and the fact that, to quote A. Whitney Brown, "there's no money in it"). China is communist. Cuba is communist. Since the Iron Curtain fell, that's pretty much the extent of any official government-sponsored communism today. Note to reactionaries and right-wing extremists: "liberal" is not synonymous with "communist" nor even "socialist." If Snopes is even "owned by a flaming left-winger 'totally in the tank' for Obama," and I know of nothing that proves that, it is not "run by Communists," as that would be an oxymoron--nothing owned by a private entity could, by definition, be run by communists.
c) "Liberal" is a bit tougher to define, because there used to be Republicans (as in the party of Lincoln) who proudly described themselves as liberals, back before it became a one-way ticket to oblivion for a Republican to even be a moderate or centrist. (New York State has a Liberal party--and in 1969 Mayor John Lindsay, a Republican who lost his primary challenge to a conservative, ran in the general election as a Liberal and won reelection. After leaving office, he became a Democrat). "Liberals" can be defined more easily these days by what we are not: neither radicals nor centrists but somewhere in between on the left side of the fence. We believe in civil liberties and civil rights, are skeptical of war as a solution except as a last resort, believe in conservation of our environment for future generations (a position first championed by Republican Teddy Roosevelt), do not view taxes as instruments of the Devil; and though we believe that individuals should ideally look after each other, recognize that the private sector is not necessarily always effective in meeting basic human needs and that the government can and should provide these services for those who can't afford similar adequate private services.
A "pragmatic liberal" is my own term. It means that while I am a liberal, I am not an automatic knee-jerk supporter of all liberal leaders or ideas if I feel that doing so would lead to stalemate (or worse, a distasteful reactionary victory); I believe in meaningful and fair compromise. I have often warned unreasonably doctrinaire liberals (cough--Kucinich supporters--cough--Naderites) that holding out for Mr. Right always gets you Mr. Right-Wing; and I've been distressingly accurate in that prediction.
3. What is a Libertarian? If you listened to Bill Maher last week, you heard him say he was accused of being a Libertarian just because he favored legalizing pot. A week earlier, for the "Overtime" online Q&A session after "Real Time," I sent in a question positing that a Libertarian was really just a Republican who wants to smoke weed while driving 100 mph in as big a car as he wants anywhere he wants. Not sayin', but I'm just sayin'...
There. It's 3 a.m., and instead of spending the last two hours obsessively on Facebook, I've spent it obsessively blogging. I may be salvageable yet......