>> Thursday, September 26, 2013
Not long ago I was walking toward an airport departure gate when a man approached me.
"Are you Robert Reich?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"You’re a Commie dirtbag." (He actually used a variant of that noun, one that can’t be printed here.)
"I’m sorry?" I thought I had misunderstood him.
“You’re a Commie dirtbag.”
My mind raced through several possibilities. Was I in danger? That seemed doubtful. He was well-dressed and had a briefcase in one hand. He couldn’t have gotten through the checkpoint with a knife or gun. Should I just walk away? Probably. But what if he followed me? Regardless, why should I let him get away with insulting me?
I decided to respond, as civilly as I could: "You’re wrong. Where did you get your information?"
"Fox News. Bill O’Reilly says you’re a Communist."
A year or so ago Bill O’Reilly did say on his Fox News show that I was a Communist. I couldn’t imagine what I’d done to provoke his ire except to appear on several TV shows arguing for higher taxes on the wealthy, which hardly qualified me as a Communist. Nor am I exactly a revolutionary. I served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet. My first full-time job in Washington was in the Ford administration, working for Robert H. Bork at the Justice Department.
"Don’t believe everything you hear on Fox News," I said. The man walked away, still irritated.-Robert Reich, "'Are you Robert Reich? You’re a Commie dirtbag!'";
Salon, September 26th, 2013.
This one always gets me. Apparently the former Secretary Of Labor for the Clinton Administration, Robert Reich, doesn't dispute being called "a variant of that noun [dirtbag]", but don't you dare call him a "communist". It's like the Whitey Bulger defense, or something: "I may be a murderous psychopathic criminal who kills, mutilates, extorts, and steals, but don't you dare call me a stool pigeon and I don't hit women." Sure, I'm scum, but I'm scum on my own terms.
Somehow, I don't think that's what Robert Reich meant to say.
But it's one of these things that baffles me though I understand it pretty comprehensively: in America, you can say just about anything you want about a political figure except that he's a communist. Even if he is one, which Robert Reich isn't. In fact, that's why I, considering myself a Euro-style Democratic Socialist (despite the fact I'd probably end up being a bit right-wing, relatively speaking, if I ever expatriated myself), kind of takes it as an affront that somebody like Reich is (a) called a "communist" despite being Secretary Of Labor during the high-water mark of the conservative New Democrats and (b) oi! what's wrong with being a communist if you were one?
I'd be much more upset at being called... whatever else Reich was called.
Probably, I mean. I doubt I'm about to get accosted in an airport by a Giant Midgets reader, seeing as how I fly even less than I update this blog anymore; but if someone called me, a "communist", I dunno, "asshole", let's say, I think I'd have to concede being an asshole but waffle on the "communist" only to the extent that "socialism" is commonly regarded as a softer subset of "communism" (so in that case, sure, I'm a commie) but to the extent "communism" is now commonly regarded as being a one-party, completely centralized and planned state system then not really, and to the extent "communism" still holds any semblance of its original meaning as a form of common ownership without private property, I think some forms of communism might be possible on a very small scale--from a family to a very small village (or, well, you know, a commune) but that kind of system seems to scale very badly and I don't see how it would possibly work on a nation-scale (or even the scale of a city-state, say).
To the extent "communism" is synonymous with the bastardized, highly-corrupt post-revolutionary regimes of the late Soviet Union or postwar China, no thanks. But I think what you're talking about in these kinds of states is a kind of communism-in-name-only, not because of some kind of "No True Scotsman" thing, but because these states have (or had) economic and ownership regimes that emerged from complicated histories wherein revolutionary parties--and specifically their elites--never completed an actual Marxist transition to a popular, proletarian state. (I.e. the revolutionary parties just seized everything and held onto it, allegedly in the name of a workers population that had no actual say in the disposition of the property; the pigs became just like the farmers and "it was impossible to say which was which".)
Of course, in America we have a history of hating socialists that goes back to the 19th Century, when socialism was probably had its widest appeal in this country. The plutocrats did plenty to marginalize American socialists even then, lumping them in with the anarchists and other radicals, and lumping in the labor unionists as well (regardless of whether the unionist in question was actually a socialist or anarchist, or merely a guy who wanted a living wage working on a machine that wasn't going to cut his fingers off in a building that wasn't going to burn to the ground with him trapped inside of it). I think things got truly ugly, though, when Eugene Debs, probably America's best-known socialist politician, came out against the Great War, because gods know, pacifism isn't patriotic. Unless you were an early 20th Century Republic isolationist, that is, because that mostly just meant you didn't want to send the Army to Europe, preferring to send them into Latin America and perhaps the Pacific.
This is all before we get to WWII, and post-WWII into McCarthyism, which are well-trodden boards and I'm not going to recapitulate the whole sordid thing (there's a Wikipedia link, there, if you still have any confusion). Except to observe that the worst thing about Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunt wasn't the false accusations of witchcraft, but rather the fact that some of the people he (and fellow witch-finders like Richard Nixon and Roy Cohn) condemned and destroyed really were witches, which shouldn't matter in a so-called free country.1
Which gets us back to the original point, which is the correct response to being called a communist in an airport ought to be something along the lines of, "So what if I was you fuckin' dink? You got a problem with a man having a right to his opinion, numbnuts?" Not, "Oh noes, that Bill O'Reilly man is telling lies, please don't believe him!" It's a sign of how dumb and shallow the discourse in this country is (and really has been for a long time, to be honest) that "communist" is the pseudo-intellectual-wannabe-pundit's version of "fag" instead of an entryway into an actual conversation about what kinds of property, labor and economic policies, free market or otherwise, would bring about the greatest degree of common weal for the most people and the longest time, and with the best respect possible for whatever individual and civic values we might be able to agree upon.2
I'm really more offended by Reich than by his verbal assailant. He's a smart guy. Assuming he wasn't late for his flight, he could have spent five minutes educating the O'Reilly fan, or at least making him feel stupid ("When you say 'communist', sir, do you mean to say I'm a Marxist-Leninist, or would you be referring to French Situationalism or some other socio-economic paradigm... just to clarify, if you'd be so kind."). And if he was afraid of missing his flight (although a TSA line probably offers one enough time, these days, to not only pursue the various flavors of communist theory but to also have a most excellent conversation about pre-Marxist communism during the French Revolution), he certainly doesn't have that excuse when it comes time to write something up for Salon. Instead of taking an opportunity to talk about the various flavors of leftism, Reich wants to write Yet Another Article About How Divided Americans Are. (At least Reich goes on to blame the economy, instead of some kind of Cosmic Cloud. Still, it's pointless: has this country ever been united on anything without the hostile intervention of foreigners sinking or collapsing something of ours, first?3)
Oh well. Reich has his centrist reputation to keep, I guess, if he wants to be taken seriously by the Beltway. Still, I know it's l'esprit d'escalier and all that, but maybe what you should have said, Mr. Reich: "Well, you're half right." And walk away.
1The caveat being, so long as you weren't doing anything else illegal, like selling bomb secrets to the Soviets. But that kind of thing's a problem regardless of your politics: the Rosenbergs shouldn't have been in trouble for being Reds, they should have been in trouble for espionage, just like Aldrich Ames was several decades later, and Ames was a good capitalist whose small business enterprise just happened to be selling CIA secrets to the Russians for the going fair market price.
2Just as "fag" is a stupid insult first because it ascribes some kind of negativity to a status that, in and of itself, isn't anything, and then second because that negativity not only demeans something that isn't demeaning, but by doing so it ends any further thought about its own subject. That is: "fag" isn't just an insult to those who are GLBTW(hatever), but its an insult to intelligence, cutting off any further discussion of how varied and remarkable human sexuality can be. The Kinsey Reports, whatever their methodological flaws, are interesting because they open the door to a frank discussion about what it means to be a sexually mature human being; "fag" is just boring, saying all it means to and all it can in three letters, and even if the target of the comment happened to be gay and even if there was something wrong with that, somehow... so what? A door is closed, instead of opened. Yawn.
3Lessee: American passengers on the Lusitania, the portion of the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, the World Trade Center... am I missing anything? And how odd is it that something these share in common are things dropping in one way or another?