Ignorance is not bliss
NEW YORK CITY — The Cold War may be over but its effects linger on.
The Soviet Union is long gone while the People’s Republic of China has morphed into a capitalist state with the world’s second-largest economy, albeit with one-party rule. Yet the dreaded specter of Communism is revived periodically, especially when it serves to fuel public anxiety—a specter used to scare people away from Socialism.
Those who do so do not care for distinctions. To them, Communism is Socialism. Demagogues avoid subtlety when they wish to fire up a crowd, turn them into a lynch mob, and make it bend to his or her urgings. Fear and trembling are ever-reliable triggers of mindless action. Donald Trump is Exhibit A in this regard.
With elections in the Philippines in May and November in the United States, it’s easy to see how in the history of both countries the Red Scare is trotted out periodically, to undermine the campaigns of democratic left-wing candidates with progressive social policies. Already U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and former Philippine Congressman Walden Bello, aiming for a Senate seat, are being portrayed, in tones soon to be glaringly loud as the electoral fighting heats up, as proponents of totalitarianism. You see, both are avowed Socialists. Never mind that they are democratic Socialists.
The electorates in both countries have very real, well-grounded fears, make no mistake. The economic uncertainty not just in the two countries but globally, arising out of the increasingly dominant share of growth claimed by the elites, and the sense of disenfranchisement that results—this is a potent combination that can be a catalyst for action. But what sort of action? That is the question.
One would think advocating for reversing a highly inequitable social order would find a broad and receptive audience. But if the advocacy is couched in Socialist terms, then it becomes that much harder to find people who will lend their ears, as Mark Anthony once asked of his fellow Romans. Why is that? The right wing reduces it to a simplistic equation: Socialism equals left-wing policy equals more government equals, gasp, Communism!
Once that C button is pushed, rational thought is thrown out the window, a Pavlovian hysteria sets in, and otherwise reasonable folk bring out their guns to face the Commies coming over the hills. And yet folks conveniently forget that programs that benefit them and that they would fight tooth and nail to preserve are socialist. In the U.S., two of the biggest are Social Security and Medicare, the former created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the latter by Lyndon B. Johnson, both by the way Democrats. And there is Obamacare, a flawed mixture of capitalist and socialist principles.
Nor do they wish to hear that Western European nations are largely socialist in their public programs and are at the same time liberal and democratic. Universal health care and tuition-free colleges are, for example, old hat there and workers get an average of five weeks vacation annually. Not in the U.S. That is not to say right-wing elements hardly exist in these societies. They do, but their very existence is proof of a democratic society.
In this context, then, to be a Socialist is a good thing. A Very Good Thing. To understand that, however, requires a bit of thinking, not much, but it is required. But to ask that of an audience baying for blood is to expect a ravening wolf not to tear into the lamb.
In the U.S., the case of Senator Joseph McCarthy is instructive. In the early 1950s, the then little-known senator claimed that Communists had infiltrated all levels of government and most famously in Hollywood but was unable to back up his allegations. He was censured by the Senate in 1954. Donald Trump resurrects McCarthyism when he declares that Sanders is a Communist, which the latter says is a lie. Of course, like most if not all of Trump’s assertions, the man with the big golden hair provides no proof, unless it is proof of his proclivity for falsehood.
In the Philippines, it’s more dangerous: to be labeled a Communist especially in rural areas could get you killed. Being an activist for peasant rights is to be a Communist. Organizing laborers for better working conditions and wages is to be a Communist. To be a student protesting government policy is to be a Communist. Socialism for all intents and purposes doesn’t exist. Ignorance in this case is not bliss, and has too often proven to be fatal
My fear is that right wing vigilantes who see him as a Communist may target Bello, a former party-list congressman for Akbayan. (By the way, he and Bernie Sanders know each other.) Too many have died who were seen as such. In 1987, for instance, Lean Alejandro, a young, charismatic UP graduate and activist, campaigned for a congressional seat in his hometown of Navotas, against Tess Aquino-Oreta, the sister-in-law of then President Corazon Aquino. He lost the election, but nevertheless was assassinated in September of the same year.
I queried Bello in an email about the potential for violence. (I have known Bello since our university days at the Ateneo de Manila.) He responded: “I think that it is always there but my sense is that, at least in my case, it’s not a threat that looms large. My protection from all sorts of threats is provided by the organizations that invite me.” My hope is that Bello gains a Senate seat and that the homophobe Pacquiao loses. Bello represents one of the few genuinely progressive voices so desperately needed in the madhouse of Philippine politics.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2016
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