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Jim DeMint and Me
I’m destroying freedom. Jim DeMint says so–in his appropriately titled book Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America’s Slide into Socialism.
I’m not destroying freedom alone. I have help. For example, from a majority of the U.S. population–DeMint calls them "drug addicts" (page 44) who can’t stop using the government. Also in on the plot is "almost all of the organized political power in America today, [which] is on the side of a larger, more centralized, more socialist government" (page 50).
So…that’s me, 150 million-plus people, "almost all" of the U.S. political establishment–we’re all of us driving the country into the abyss, according to the Republican senator from South Carolina and toast of the Tea Partiers.
Still, I come in for a larger share of the blame than most. In Saving Freedom, DeMint has decided to illustrate what’s wrong with socialism by quoting from an old edition of my book The Case for Socialism.
Early on (page 10), he focuses on an especially sinister statement by me:
Socialism is based on the idea that we should use the vast resources of society to meet people’s needs. It seems so obvious–that if people are hungry, they should be fed; that if people are homeless, we should build homes for them; that if people are sick, all the advances in medical technology should be available to them. A socialist society would take the immense wealth of the rich and use it to meet the basic needs of all society. The money wasted on weapons could be used to end poverty, homelessness, and all other forms of scarcity.
To the untrained eye, that might not sound so bad. It might even sound like a good idea. Perhaps feeding people who are hungry could even advance the cause of freedom–by liberating them from, you know, starvation and death.
Not so. The vision of a society without hunger and homelessness, based on the principles equality and solidarity–this, DeMint insists, is a perversion of freedom, a distortion of "this elusive treasure [that] has thrived in the United States" and made America "the envy of the world." (pages 57, 31). We socialists–in spite of our "good intentions" (page 11)–have twisted the meaning of freedom:
Socialists are now marching under the banner of a new secular-progressive style of freedom: the freedom from responsibility, the freedom to behave destructively without moral judgment, the freedom from risk and failure, the freedom from want, the freedom from religion, and the freedom to have material equality with those who work harder and accomplish more. (page 8)
WHEN I first read about this banner of bad-freedom that I’ve apparently been marching around with, I wondered if maybe DeMint had me confused with someone else. Like maybe a Wall Street executive, or the head of the coal mining company Massey Energy.
Because the bad-freedoms that we socialists supposedly champion seem like pretty apt descriptions for how those in charge of a capitalist society operate every day.
"Freedom from responsibility"? Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spends millions of dollars on politicians, judges and lawyers to make sure he doesn’t bear much, if any, responsibility for the fate of the people who mine coal for him. Or the fate of a planet suffering from the climate change that Blankenship thinks is an environmentalist hoax.
"Freedom to behave destructively without moral judgment"? That’s exactly what the Securities and Exchange Commission accuses Goldman Sachs of doing when it created mega-investments that were designed to fail–for the benefit of some hedge fund managers and, oh yes, the bankers who collected huge fees from everybody involved.
"Freedom from risk and failure"? The big banks that were pulled back from the brink when the U.S. government bailed out Wall Street are up to their old tricks again by all accounts, because anybody who’s paid attention for the past two years knows they’re "too big to fail." And if Republicans like Jim DeMint get their way, the bankers won’t even have to abide by the Democrats’ way-too-tame financial reform proposals.
"Freedom to have material equality with those who work harder and accomplish more"? The ranks of the super-rich are filled with people who never had to do an honest day’s work in their lives and whose only "accomplishment" worth speaking of was getting born to super-rich parents. They don’t have "material equality" with the rest of us–they’re much, much better off than the vast majority of people who have to scramble to get by.
That’s the problem with freedom in the world according to Jim DeMint. Some people have a lot of it–but for the rest of us, not so much.
The bankers, the CEOs, the trust-fund children, the political elite that shuttle back and forth between Washington and the corporate boardrooms–they have the freedom to do most anything they choose, to live where they want and how they want, to satisfy any whim.
For the majority of people who don’t live in this world of wealth and power, our freedoms are much more limited.
We’re free not to work for a particular company, but we’re not free not to work. We’re free to spend or save what we earn from working, but we’re not free to expect that either will necessarily meet all our needs, even after a lifetime of work. We’re free to buy environmentally sustainable products, but we’re not free to change the wider economic system to make it sustainable.
In short, most people in society aren’t free to determine their destiny in any number of ways. They’re subject to conditions of life that they have little say about–conditions that are mostly shaped by that little group of people who have a lot of freedom, and keep it to themselves.
* * *
THE PROBLEMS with Jim DeMint’s freedom double standards become more obvious when he presents his view of American history (a questionable view, but a concise one–he gets from 1776 to the Reagan years in under nine pages). To him, the first germs of the coming socialist contagion took hold "soon after the thirteen states ceded ‘limited’ power to the federal government in 1787." (page 30)
In fact, according to DeMint, America was only really free before it was the United States:
Before the American Revolution, freedom was second nature to Americans. It was bred into our DNA long before the Declaration of Independence and the signing of our Constitution. Established as trading colonies, America was built on capitalism and free trade. Americans were people of good character and strong faith who came to the New World seeking freedom of religion. (page 30)
Personally, I’m not sure I’d vouch for the good character of every person who "came to the New World."
But more significantly, you’ve probably noticed a few omissions in that passage. Such as: If Americans were the people "who came to the New World," what about the people who lived in the "New World" before it was the "New World"? What about the Native Americans? In the name of capitalism and free trade, they were driven from their homes, killed outright in horrific numbers, and forced into penal colonies with the innocuous-sounding name of "reservations." Their freedom appears to have been expendable.
And another question: What about the slaves? They didn’t come to the "New World "seeking freedom of religion," did they? They were kidnapped from Africa by the millions, forced to endure the unspeakable brutality of the Middle Passage and, if they survived, perform backbreaking labor, without freedoms of any kind, nor the prospect of attaining any.
Unsurprisingly, slavery doesn’t figure in DeMint’s version of U.S. history. The topic comes up exactly once, in a half-sentence a page later: "After the Civil War, which was the result of America’s failure to apply our principles of freedom to slave labor…" (page 31)
There’s more to the rest of that sentence–something about expanding government bureaucracies, blah, blah. But I’m sure you’ll agree that the first part raises a few questions.
"Failure to apply our principles of freedom to slave labor…" Does it give DeMint any pause to consider that half of the America where "freedom was second nature"–the more prosperous and politically powerful half–had "failed to apply the principles of freedom"? What about the fact that the author of the document he swipes as a preface for his book–Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, of course–"failed to apply the principles of freedom"?
And what exactly does it mean to "apply our principles of freedom to slave labor" anyway? Could that be done in any other way except by abolishing slavery? If not, then does DeMint think the Civil War was a good thing? A bad thing?
There’s actually a lesson here–though you won’t find it in DeMint’s book. In the case of the abolition of slavery, the expansion of freedom required a vast struggle against a political system in the South that claimed to stand for freedom.
That struggle didn’t just happen. It took the actions of millions of people–slaves themselves, the abolitionists who opposed slavery, Northerners in the Union Army–to achieve freedom. The same has been true throughout the history of the U.S. or any other country–from the abolition of slavery, to women winning the right to vote, to workers gaining the right to organize unions, and on and on.
To quote Frederick Douglass–whose expertise on the subject of freedom is much superior to Jim DeMint’s: "The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle…If there is no struggle, there is no progress."
Jim DeMint’s freedom fraud becomes clear when you see whose freedom he cares about, and whose he doesn’t. He cares about "saving freedom" for the few–especially the freedom of the few to own and control the biggest economic institutions in a capitalist society, and therefore to subject much larger numbers of people to having less freedom in every aspect of their lives.
* * *
THAT’S NOT the only problem I have with the world according to Jim DeMint. There are so, so many others. Maybe I should start a blog.
For example, DeMint seems to be under the impression that I’m a member of the Democratic Party. He quotes my book again–on the importance of socialists organizing at the grassroots (page 49)–in the midst of a section about the alleged crimes of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.
But Obama is quite insistent that he isn’t a socialist, and I think he has a point. If you go through the list of the senior officials in his Treasury Department, for example, very few would call themselves socialists. Many, on the other hand, would call themselves former executives of Goldman Sachs.
The reason that DeMint throws my case for socialism into a chapter about the Democrats is because he identifies socialism with "big government," and the Democrats, he insists, are the party of "big government."
This is where the real purpose of Saving Freedom becomes clearer–as a calculated contribution to the right wing’s current political strategy. DeMint and the Republicans want to smear the policies they oppose with the lingering taint of 1950s McCarthyism.
Thus, DeMint gives a highly misleading definition of socialism as "a socioeconomic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to control by the government." (page 28)
It’s true that socialism is associated with state control of the economy. But that doesn’t mean that all state control is socialist. The first question to ask whenever the government has a role in the economy or society is: Who owns the state?
If the state is shaped by business interests that exert their influence through campaign contributions and lobbying–or if the state is run by a small class of party bosses, using the name of socialism, but presiding over a system of repression and exploitation, as in the ex-USSR–then that isn’t socialism. Any more than this society deserves to be called a democracy because most, but not all, the people who live in it get to vote every few years.
There isn’t a serious discussion about socialism in Saving Freedom–not in a book where every fact is twisted to serve DeMint’s agenda, and every political question is jammed into the confines of his narrow world.
It’s telling that the chapter on how DeMint got involved in national politics starts with a solemn retelling of an episode of the old Andy Griffith Show–one that ends with Andy’s son Opie learning a lesson about standing up to bullies, which DeMint claims has guided his political career.
Now, it’s weird enough when a grown man claims to have learned life lessons from a fictional child on a sit-com made half a century ago. But when those lessons have political overtones, things get really creepy.
As you may remember, the Andy Griffith Show is about life in a fictional small town in North Carolina. It broadcast its first show in October 1960.
Something else happened in North Carolina in 1960. On February 1, four Black students sat in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. They set off a tide of sit-in protests that swept across the state and then the South in a few months, kicking the civil rights movement into high gear.
The years during which the Andy Griffith Show was broadcast (1960 to 1968) were years when history was made–when one of the most significant grassroots struggles in the world triumphed over the system of American apartheid. But you’d never know it from the Andy Griffith Show. It was set in the South during the high point of the civil rights struggle, and never portrayed a Black character in any prominent role.
That gives you a sense of the world according to Jim DeMint. It’s not one that necessarily welcomes Black people, for one thing–and it’s certainly not one that values dissent or struggle.
But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Senator Jim can explain to me why the Andy Griffith Show is inclusive, like his vision for America. Maybe he can convince me why it’s a dire threat to freedom to look forward to a socialist society that ends hunger and homelessness and poverty forever.
I invite him to respond. I have some pull at SocialistWorker.org–we’d happily publish a debate on our Web site. I’ll meet for a public forum in Washington, or maybe on neutral turf somewhere between South Carolina and Chicago.
Let’s thrash this out. He thinks that socialism is destroying freedom. I think that capitalism makes a mockery of any possibility of genuine freedom or democracy. Bring it on.