News-Record & Sentinel, 8/2020

Back in April, one of the signs at an anti-lockdown protest read:  “Social Distancing Is Communism.” 

To get what the sign means, it helps to understand how words are used as weapons.

This Opinion page carried a letter recently that used the word “Socialist” eight times; for example: “Where is the voice crying in the wilderness to lead us from evil-doing Socialists?”  All eight warn of bad things happening today, and Socialism gets some blame.

Here I want to introduce a man who died in 1862, a Presbyterian preacher named James Henry Thornwell – a powerful advocate for slavery and the Confederacy.  He wrote:

“The parties in the [Civil War] are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders.  They are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.…The world is the battleground – Christianity and Atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity at stake.”

Both our letter-writer and Thornwell used “Socialists” to denounce their enemies.  In Thornwell’s time, Socialism was a social change movement, in favor of working men.  They were radical (similar to Red Republicans and Jacobins in France).  And Socialism did have an atheistic twist.  But Thornwell’s enemy, the United States, was neither radical nor atheist.   Socialism was for him just a handy weapon.    

Today, many people still think of Socialism as the Marxist atheism of the Cold War.  But in fact, Socialism has evolved so that almost all western countries have Socialist governments or active Socialist political parties.  Socialism now is more like “government involved in capitalism.” 

It seems remarkable that Thornwell and our letter-writer, 160 years apart, both used the same attack word – until, that is, you examine what the two men have in common.

I’m going to take a leap here and say that both men wrote in reaction to unwanted change.  In other words, they’re conservatives.  The Confederacy’s whole purpose was to keep the status quo.  And our letter-writer warns us about specific changes happening among us today. 

Southerners, Thornwell argues, are “friends of order.”  The North was chaotic with its immigrants, railroad-building and factories.  Conservatives like what’s always been.

To me, the one place where weaponizing Socialism actually does harm is “Socialized medicine.”  It keeps people from supporting universal healthcare.  Just like Social Security changed our lives for the better, Healthcare Security would do the same.  Stigmatizing it as Socialist is cruel.