Socialism, capitalism, and racism: part three–the last seventy years.

The aftermath of the Second World War found the United States in a new position in the world. Unquestionably, the nation was a superpower, no longer able to isolate itself from events happening on other continents. A second superpower, the Soviet Union, presented a different perspective on world politics and economics. The United States and its allies preferred democracy and capitalism; the Soviet Union and its allies held to totalitarianism and socialism, with the illusionary promise of communism down the road. Following a post-war recession, the economy of the United States flourished. New technology provided faster travel, faster communication, more information, more comforts and more luxuries, and new opportunities to explore the universe. New theories about education were tried in the schools. The ancient ideas of Socrates and Confucius—that people are good at heart and need merely to be taught how things work in the world—were applied to children in the classroom. By the end of the 1960s, authority was being widely questioned, countercultures were forming, and many Americans were eager for change.

Conspiracy theories also grew more common, and the Civil Rights movement was not immune to these theories. Some Americans—including J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI—saw the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement as elements of a Communist anti-American conspiracy. Conversely, I’ve met people who consider the Civil Rights movement as part of a white conspiracy to destroy black communities just as they were beginning to achieve some measure of success after decades of struggle and growth.

The goals of the Civil Rights movement were and are appropriate: to provide equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of culture or ethnic origin or of other inherent differences between individuals. The slave trade created inequity in the United States, and laws passed during the century after the end of slavery perpetuated that inequity. Confiscating and redistributing wealth was never going to make people equal; offering equal opportunity through education, assistance to the poor, and laws against discrimination were always the better path. Quotas in school enrollment and in hiring practices were controversial but were in some cases helpful to reduce cultural inequity. Desegregating schools to the point that students were bused from their homes and neighborhoods to distant school buildings was more controversial and less effective. Wealthier white families invested in private schools or moved to the suburbs. Many government programs instituted to combat poverty had negative effects—pulling apart families by granting more help to single mothers than to married parents, promoting students to higher grades while ignoring their failures to learn material usually required for promotion, and allowing some individuals and families to become dependent upon government funding rather than earned income. Some people took advantage of the system and its negative effects, while many others succeeded in spite of the system and its negative effects. Rhetoric of racism and deliberate discrimination was made socially unacceptable, and positive role models for blacks and other minorities were promoted in athletics, entertainment, and other fields.

Many activities of the Civil Rights movement were appropriate and beneficial: peaceful marches and protests, public speeches, sit-ins, and participation in political life all changed American society for the better. At times, though, the Civil Rights movement was used as an excuse for violence and destruction. From race riots in Birmingham, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter riots of 2020, violent behavior has marred calls for justice and equality. The victims of that violence were often black business owners succeeding within the framework of capitalism rather than white capitalists deliberately continuing an unfair system. Indeed, at times it appeared that demonstrators were more interested in destroying the success of their fellow minority members than they were in building strong communities for themselves and for future generations in American cities.

It is not surprising that citizens protesting racial inequity and injustice would favor a new economic system to replace capitalism in the United States. But capitalism was never the cause of inequity and injustice. Socialism cannot keep its promises of better lives for all people or for most people. Socialism, as much as capitalism, would put power in the hands of decision-makers who might be honest and fair or who might be dishonest, prejudiced, and inclined to discriminate against minorities. Replacing capitalist investors with government bureaucrats cannot end injustice. Allowing the government to control prices, salaries, and decisions about production cannot make life fair for all people. Socialism consumes wealth, but capitalism creates wealth. Instead of redistributing wealth, socialism would distribute poverty; capitalism, on the other hand, offers a greater likelihood of increasing wealth for all citizens.

Historically, socialism has been tested and has failed. Over the years, people have fled socialist countries in search of freedom and opportunity. For the United States, winner of the Cold War, to strive thirty years later to adopt the failed policies of its defeated opponents would be laughable were the risks of such a change not so profound. For this reason, informed citizens need to continue defending and explaining capitalism, doing our best to keep what is working in America while continuing to improve whatever faults and mistakes we perceive in America. J.

Science fiction got it right

Last night I finished rereading a science fiction novel from the late 1960s, one that I first read when I was a boy, about twelve years old. The novel is oddly prophetic of some aspects of our current political situation.

I have always been a voracious reader. My mother used to say that she taught me how to read when I was four so she had time to do housework and other tasks instead of always reading to me. The public library was not far from our house; I could walk there and back without crossing any streets, which was a blessing, since I often read while walking home from the library. I regularly won the summer reading competitions sponsored by the library for children; some of my friends tried to keep up with me by checking out books and returning them unread, but my proximity to the library kept me ahead of their pace. By the time I was twelve, I had exhausted the children’s section of the library and was exploring the larger collection. My attention was drawn to a display of paperback science fiction novels. I met the great science fiction writers there: Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and others. I also read books that had no hope of becoming classics. Three books in particular were favorites; in the last five years, I have managed to acquire copies of all three—one because it is back in print, one that I found in a used book sale, and one that my daughter the librarian tracked down for me even though I could not remember the name of the author or the title of the book.

Bug Jack Barron, by Norman Spinrad, is the book I finished last night—the one that is back in print. Frankly, I’m surprised that I was allowed to read that book at that age—my parents must have trusted the library staff; either the library staff trusted my parents to oversee my reading, or they did not know what some of their novels contained. Bug Jack Barron has pages that would make Henry Miller blush. (When I, as an adult, read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I wondered at first what the fuss was about, since I had read dirtier work in my younger and more impressionable years.) Because of those selections, I cannot recommend the book to most readers. Still, the plot and characters remained vivid in my mind over all these years, so the book contains some literary value.

Bug Jack Barron is copyright 1969, but it clearly was written a year or two earlier. It is set in a near future—no year is specified. Telephone communication largely includes video as well as audio material. Marijuana has been legalized and is commercially available. A third political party, the Social Justice Coalition, has formed out the Civil Rights Movement. Although the SJC has elected some African Americans to state offices and into Congress, it has not resolved the larger racial inequalities in American society.

The title character, Jack Barron, is a television personality. He has a call-in show: viewers call to “bug” him with their problems, and he uses his prominence and celebrity to help solve those problems. At this time, the Democratic Party has a stranglehold on Congress and the White House. At one point, Barron comments on that fact that, over the course of many years, the Republicans had nominated only two men capable of claiming the presidency: Eisenhower and Reagan. But now a coalition of SJC and Republican leaders wants to nominate Jack Barron, knowing that his television personality is popular enough to defeat any likely Democratic candidate.

The bulk of the story revolves around a multi-billionaire whose medical researchers are unlocking the secrets of human immortality; much of his funding comes from people whose bodies are frozen at death and stored until their fatal conditions can be medically cured in the future. All of Spinrad’s characters have a deep fear, even revulsion, toward death; no mention of religious hope or comfort ever appears in the novel.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, though, is Barron’s realization that he can control his opponents through his television show, editing what they say to show them at their worst while enhancing his heroic stance. On his own, Barron has discovered what we now call “fake news,” and with that tool he plans to seize and hold power. I wonder how Mr. Spinard is reacting to our politics of 2020. J.

These are not your grandparents’ Sixties

I suppose you could call me a child of the 1960s. I was born in the early 60s, too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy or the start of Beatlemania, although I have studied both extensively. I remember watching on television as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. I remember classmates upset when they heard that the Beatles were breaking up. I also remember hearing something about a hippie concert in New York. (That summer I saw my first hippies. Several of them were in a car that drove down the road—long hair, colorful clothes, the car may have been a VW bug. One of them flashed a peace sign at me… a little short-haired boy standing in the front yard of his grandparents’ house.)

Last night I experienced two hours of that hippie concert in New York, thanks to a DVD player and a flat-screen stereo TV. Woodstock marks a high point for 60s nostalgia, combining peace, love, rock-and-roll, young people, drugs, sex, and politics. Plenty of timely idealism was on hand, as the organizers, musicians, and attendees showed that they could have a peaceful gathering to celebrate their culture (or counterculture, as the case may be). Yet the gathering also revealed contempt for authority (parents, police officers, and elected officials, among others), deliberate lawlessness (though it was nonviolent), poor management of the environment, and the arrogance of thinking that they were right and everyone else in the world was wrong. On the bright side, much of the music of Woodstock was epical and some was even profound; and the reaction to inconveniences of crowding, rain, and mud were largely hopeful and humane. On the dark side, much of the music of Woodstock was poorly performed due to poor planning and less than optimal conditions; and most of the investors lost money on the concert (except for those lucky enough to include recordings and the filmed documentary in their investment).

Some people older than me seem to want to bring back the 1960s in the summer of 2020. Many people younger than me seem to want to recreate the 1960s in the summer of 2020. Both groups are misguided. Donald Trump is neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon. Nothing happening this summer compares to the Vietnam War. Rioting and violence are as counterproductive now as they were back then. From Birmingham to Ferguson, American citizens have gathered to protest racial inequality and injustice. When these gatherings are hijacked by vandals, arsonists, and looters, the protestors’ message is distorted and justice does not prevail.

Street protests did not end the Vietnam War. If anything, they lengthened the war, as the communist government of North Vietnam stalled negotiations to end the conflict, hoping that America would lose the will to fight and would withdraw unitarily. President Nixon brought an end to the war, keeping his promise to provide peace with honor, but serious negotiations only happened after his prospects for reelection became obvious in the summer of 1972, and they were concluded only after his determination to prevail was tested following the election late that year. Tragically, the United States Congress handed victory back to North Vietnam in the 1970s by refusing to enforce the treaty agreements that ended fighting in January 1973.

Fighting in Vietnam was part of the Cold War, pitting capitalism and freedom in the West against communism (actually socialism) and totalitarianism in the East. Both sides fought militarily, economically, and intellectually for decades, trying to prove that their way was right and the other way was wrong. Socialism and communism received support from many people in the United States in the 1960s, principally those who were also rallying under the banners of civil rights, anti-war, and rock-and-roll. Only one side in the Cold War had to build walls and guard borders to prevent its citizens from escaping. Over a twenty-four month period in 1989 through 1991, the Cold War ended, due to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Ironically, in 2020 some prominent Americans are speaking in support of socialism and of stricter government controls over the population, even though the bankruptcy of those ideas was clearly demonstrated thirty years ago.

Many of my favorite songs were written and recorded in the 1960s. I regularly feed my nostalgia for that time, the years of my childhood. But the legend of the 1960s created by our entertainment industry exaggerates the peace and love and artistry of those times, minimizing the fear and hatred and violence that also characterized those same years. The same entertainment industry wants to topple our present government. Again and again it insists that capitalism is bad, that freedom belongs only to the oppressed (and those who can identify themselves as oppressed), and that free speech belongs only to people who say the right things. Their arrogance resembles that of the Woodstock generation. Their legacy will be equally ephemeral. J.