When Words Wear Out
Any little kid knows that if you keep repeating a word as fast as you can it turns to gibberish. That applies to our public discourse as much as to the four-year-old driving you crazy by endlessly intoning “poopie.” I’m thinking of three political words at or nearing gibberish status here in America. “Socialism,” “anti-Semitism” and “anti-American” have long since escaped their standard definitions and flown off to fantasyland.
Socialism, according to the online Free Dictionary, is “Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy." An online conservative dictionary says “socialism is a political term applied to an economic system in which property is held in common and not individually, and relationships are governed by a political hierarchy.”
For the sentient, what we nowadays call socialism refers to the mixed economies (part public but mostly private) around the world where socialists or social democrats either hold power or form the main opposition. Germany and Scandinavia are the most typical examples. These countries are free, democratic, prosperous and peaceful. Their people enjoy among the highest living standards and best civic and social services on earth. What’s not to like about Denmark?
Uniquely among first world countries, the U.S. has never had a strong socialist, or even pro-labor, movement. Quite the opposite: America is among the most capitalist and conservative of countries, with both political parties agreeing that prosperity and well-being are best gained by encouraging private business. Public solutions to public problems, such as health care, meet fierce opposition. Even the few broad benefits we've won, such as Social Security and Medicare, remain highly controversial and in danger of dilution and even disappearance.
In this kind of reactionary atmosphere, just about anything that corporate types don’t like, including proposals to keep their books honest, get demonized. And the handy all-purpose pejorative to accomplish this is the word socialism. No matter that in the rest of the world socialism equates to bullet trains taking workers on month-long seashore vacations with the money they saved on not having to pay out of pocket for hospital bills or college tuition. Here in America, it means the devilish schemes of Democrats and bureaucrats to commit Godless evil on the citizenry. Thus the word socialism is so soiled that it can’t be used in polite company, let alone to suggest a policy alternative. Meanwhile, its use as a pejorative is crazily inaccurate, antically applied and wearing out. In a word, it’s become gibberish.
My Merriam-Webster describes anti-Semitism as “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.” There’s a much longer historical explication at Wikipedia, not to mention your public library. When I was a lad just after WW II, there was quite of bit of anti-Semitism abroad in the land (Check out the 1947 Gregory Peck flick Gentleman’s Agreement to get a sense of it). Typically, businesses, schools, neighborhoods and clubs discreetly or blatantly turned away Jews. For more and deeper reasons than I can explain here, that kind of discrimination happily died out. Where once Jews were obliged to keep to themselves, they have become so interwoven into American life that they worry now about cultural diminution by intermarriage.
Not that anti-Semitism has disappeared. There’s still plenty of it amongst the ranks of Rapture-ready Christians, who believe that Jews, foremost among the unsaved, are deserving candidates for horrible death comes the looming End Time. Weirdly, their particular doctrine holds that until then they must venerate the state of Israel. So they ardently, if temporarily, champion Israel, especially its hard right and expansionist elements. Even more weirdly, Israel and its partisans welcome that support, playing political kissy-face with the bible-thumpers and ignoring their base anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, the word anti-Semitism has taken on a new definition and usage that you won’t find in the dictionary. Instead of denoting hostility towards Jews, it’s become a dirt ball to throw at anyone who makes even a tepid criticism of the policies of Israel. C’est bizarre because Israelis are free to fault America and both Americans and Israelis are free to second-guess their own countries. It’s only when Americans are less than perfectly indulgent of Israel that the noxious tar of anti-Semitism gets flung at them.
Meanwhile, Israel’s penchant for war, expansionism and apartheid have been losing it friends and adding to its adversaries at an ever increasing rate. Thus ever more critics are being labeled anti-Semites, not a few of them within the pro-Israel ranks. With each new, more ludicrous charge, the pejorative loses weight. What was once serious has become cynical on its way to gibberish.
No doubt that there is an excess of enmity for our empire in the world. And civilized bourgeois nations disdain our mindless avidity and trash culture. So there is some actual anti-Americanism around. Maybe even lots of it. But here at home the phrase as used by pols and the media has little or nothing to do with America or Americans. When directed at other countries, as in “Bolivia is anti-American,” it simply means disobedient. And when aimed by yahoos at other Americans it means “Shut up, you’re not allowed to talk!” "Anti-American" is not quite gibberish yet, but it has entered the express elevator in the tower of Babel.