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[politics] Communism and steak - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-07-25 03:46
Subject: [politics] Communism and steak
Security: Public
Tags:family, food, funny, language, politics
I am about ready to turn my sails back into the wind on political topics, after taking a break. I owe Bryan Thomas Schmidt a response on a joint post we want to do, and I have a few things to say to Brad Torgersen as well. Separately from those two discussions, I'm also preparing some commentary on people using religious doctrine to excuse themselves from emotional and moral responsibility for their racism and homophobia — the modern conservative's defense of "Hey, you can't call me a bigot! I'm a nice guy, I'm just following orders."

All that being said, I want to talk now about framing language, Communism and steak.

One of the things I find baffling about contemporary conservative political rhetoric is the degree to which political and media figures on the right use labeling in wildly inappropriate ways. That's framing language, of course, a largely successful attempt to influence the terms of public discourse in ways favorable to their cause.

People have always done this in politics, all the way back to the hunter-gatherer days, I am sure. The classic of modern politics is of course Newt Gingrich's infamous GOPAC memo from 1994. A cursory review of political history since the Clinton era makes it pretty clear that the GOPAC memo succeeded beyond even Gingrich's wildest dreams.

One outcome of that is that certain conservative scare words have taken on significance in American political rhetoric that barely aligns at all with their generally understood meanings. Eugene V. Debs would have been quite surprised to hear someone with Obama's governing style and policies described as a "Socialist", for example. There's not an actual Socialist on the planet who would recognize the current Democratic administration as a fellow traveler. Yet you almost literally cannot go a day without hearing Republican figures all the way up to the top referring to the president as a Socialist.

Which is objectively ridiculous, but does a terrific job of keeping the Republican voting base scared and angry. Everyone knows Socialism is bad, right? Never mind Medicare and Social Security and public schools and all the rest — the Right has decades of investment in that boogeyman, and they're not going to let it go to waste.

Likewise the label "Communist". When Florida Representative Allen West (GOP, of course) recently proclaimed in a very literally McCarthyite fashion that he had evidence that there were 80 Communists among the Democrats in Congress, he was speaking to the Republican base. There isn't a single Democratic politician in the United States that Fidel Castro or Vladimir Lenin would recognize as a Communist. West wasn't using that word with any relationship to its objective meaning. He was saying to conservatives that Democrats are despicable traitors who want to overthrow the United States government and take away people's money and guns. That's not the least bit true either in any rational or objective sense, but the modern conservative narrative demonstrably requires paranoia and victimization to sustain itself. West was merely throwing another turtle on the fire.

Which leads me to something I wondered about years ago: what is Communism, really?

I asked my dad (a now-retired U.S. diplomat, hailing from the Kennedy best-and-brightest era of liberal hawks) that question when I was about eight years old.

Dad very patiently explained some basics about Marxism, collectivism, and the workers' state in age appropriate vocabulary. He quoted, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."1 I processed this for a while, then asked the following question, now paraphrased somewhat through four decades of memory.

"So if everybody gets what they need, how do they decide who gets to eat a steak? If everyone just went to the store and took a steak, wouldn't they run out of meat pretty soon?"

Which, as Dad said, is precisely the problem with Communism. Who gets to eat the steak?

Which is how I've thought of Communism ever since: as a flawed system for deciding where the steak goes.

Really, that's what it's all about at some level. Who gets to eat the steak. That's what conservatives mean when they shriek that right-of-center Democrats are Socialists and Communists. They're afraid that the steak rations will change in ways they don't like. That's what the Occupy movement was about, what drives the mounting resentment against the 1% and the alarming growth of the class divide in American society. That fewer and fewer people are getting all the steak.

Who gets to eat the steak?

What did you have for dinner?




1. Amusingly, polling data on Karl Marx's phrase "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" shows that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that the phrase was or could have been written by authors of the Constitution, and can be found in the Constitution. Source: Columbia Law School. Mmm, Communism pace Thomas Jefferson.

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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2012-07-25 11:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The question is, I think, do you *need* the steak? Want and need are different. Communism as envisaged by Marx rests on a belief that in a state of true equality, people will act out of altruism not selfishness, and thus they will willingly and gracefully ensure that the steak is available for those who need it ahead of those who merely want it. And not bear grudges about this.
It's probably an impossible ideal -- humans don't seem to settle down to altruism like that. I think Marx or Rousseau might argue that this is because our long history of expropriative cultures, hierarchical governments and the exultation of power and money and that if all this can be removed and people 'cured' of its effects, we might achieve this kind of altruistic perfect society. I'm not sure I believe that, as the science -- and the history, even allowing for the warping factors they'd point to -- don't seem to make it likely.
However, there is also the utilitarian argument -- the greatest happiness of the greatness number -- which would suggest we educate ourselves and others to accept 'good enough' most of the time, with steak for special days. This can work and is what I tend to think of as part of the socialist aim. Communities can and do become caring and supportive of each other, in certain ways.
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houseboatonstyx: smaller-healing-buddha
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2012-07-25 17:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:smaller-healing-buddha
Or you could grind the whole cow, steak and all, into high quality hamburger.
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2012-07-25 18:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That would suit the utilitarianisms, certainly.
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Erik Amundsen
User: cucumberseed
Date: 2012-07-25 14:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I like this way of looking at things.
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Tom
User: voidampersand
Date: 2012-07-25 15:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you are actually describing cowmunism, a political form that developed in simpler times when the main assets were cattle. I believe the participants were known as "steakholders".
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ericjamesstone
User: ericjamesstone
Date: 2012-07-25 15:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Where's a Like button when you need one?
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ericjamesstone
User: ericjamesstone
Date: 2012-07-25 15:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
OK, let's talk framing language. Here's some that you use:

"Homophobia" -- Extremely successful bit of framing language meant to imply that anyone who does not agree 100% with the political agenda of gay-rights groups has a mental illness.

"Climate change deniers" -- Not-quite-so-successful bit of framing language meant to lump together everyone who is skeptical that human-caused climate change is going to be disastrous unless immediate drastic governmental action is taken, and imply they are like Holocaust deniers.
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Dave O'Neill
User: daveon
Date: 2012-07-25 15:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Based on what I've read on this blog I'll go out on a limb here and say that neither of these statements is true.

With regard to the homophobia jibe, I don't recall seeing a reference to mental illness just pointing out, correctly, that homophobes are being bigoted. That should be about as shocking as news that the sun rises in the East or that the Pope is, in fact, a Catholic.

Second, you have a scenario in mind where climate change, of the kind we're seeing now, isn't going to be pretty disastrous?
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2012-07-25 15:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
re: Homophobia -- thanks for pointing out the right wing doesn't always win the framing wars!

Although, come to think of it, I never interpreted "homophobia" to imply an actual mental illness any more than "arachnophobia" or "claustrophobia" do. It just means you have an irrational -- that is, not based on any reasonable fear of material harm -- dislike of whatever it is. And that seems quite accurate regarding typical anti-gay sentiment. There is no argument against gay civil rights that doesn't, at some point, come down to "gays are inherently icky."

On the other hand, I have known people who have that visceral "gays are icky" response who eventually come around to accepting gay civil rights on principle. So there's not a perfect correspondence to homophobia (the emotional response) and anti-gay bigotry in action.
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joycemocha
User: joycemocha
Date: 2012-07-25 16:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Eh, I think you're exaggerating the use of the word "phobia." One can have phobias without being classified as being mentally ill. Phobic behaviors only cross the line when they interfere with daily functioning, and usually operate in the areas of anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, or as part of a syndrome such as autism or Tourette's.

While it would be amusing to consider anti-gay rights activists as suffering from a form of Tourette's, in reality, cynical manipulation of phobic tropes doesn't count as actual mental illness (and in the world of US public special education, in fact, sociopathic/psychopathic behaviors do not make one eligible for a label of emotional disturbance, at least not in my state--and I cite this because I am a special ed expert).
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Dave O'Neill
User: daveon
Date: 2012-07-25 15:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I like this one.

I was watching the news last night where they were covering some of the insanity of the upcoming tax/fiscal situation, most importantly that, in a nutshell, the GOP were going to hold out so that poor families would get a $1500 tax increase so that rich people wouldn't have their TAX CUT reduced from $100,000 to $10,000 a year.

I had a sickening feeling in my stomach that we're living in a country at the moment where a chunk of the population and a major political party have lost all sense of decency.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2012-07-25 15:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Even though I am old enough to have grown up under the shadow of the cold war -- that is, old enough to remember when "the communists" actually were our political enemies -- I noticed there was something off and weirdly old-fashioned about the way the right wing viewed communism in the 70s and 80s.

They didn't seem to make any distinction between communism *as a political philosophy* and the USSR *as a hostile foreign political entity.* There was this knee-jerk idea that any domestic communist was necessarily a traitor, that is, necessarily on the side of the USSR, and I didn't see the connection.

Further, the Reagan administration seemed to operate under the theory that (at least where Central and South America were concerned) any right wing government was good, any left wing government was bad. But they didn't actually seem to care about whether said government engaged in human rights abuses. So they would say "freedom!" and that meant "not communist!" but again I didn't see the connection.

Then, when I learned what communism actually was, it seemed pretty reasonable. Obviously it didn't work out in practice, so I have never favored it politically. But its reputation had led me to believe that it was somehow fundamentally evil in its very conception. Yet there was nothing in Marx's original writing that seemed to dictate "have a country that isn't free and invade other countries in order to make them part of your empire." Whatever evils the USSR was up to, there was nothing in Marx's philosophies that necessitated them. So why did we have to vilify "communism" so broadly?

Historically speaking, communism was demonized in 50s propaganda as a deliberate strategy as part of the cold war. It wasn't so much "we hate communism, therefore we hate the USSR." It was "we hate the USSR, therefore we hate communism."

And conservatives are nothing if not prone to getting stuck in the past.
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joycemocha
User: joycemocha
Date: 2012-07-25 16:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hope you don't mind but I am doing the linky to Facebook with this. I think the "who gets to eat the steak" question is extremely apt and I may steal it for my own political action this fall (if you don't mind).
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houseboatonstyx: smaller-healing-buddha
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2012-07-25 17:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:smaller-healing-buddha
"Amusingly, polling data on Karl Marx's phrase "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" shows that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that the phrase was or could have been written by authors of the Constitution, and can be found in the Constitution. Source: Columbia Law School."

I've heard that fact before, and I absolutely love it! Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, anyone?
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