Some Raking over Socialism

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2009. “Some raking over socialism.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (April 15): 18A.

I raked today and now I am tired. Perhaps it’s just the Zen in me, but I am always pleased to discover how rewarding such simple physical work can be. The task is clear, the goal is reasonable, and the right tool is readily at hand. Leaning into my tiredness, I’m now letting Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” reward my efforts. Not bad.

I was raking not simply because I wanted to clear away winter’s detritus from my small Linn Street yard but also because it’s the kind of thing I do when I don’t know what to think or when something is troubling me.

Like what to write in this month’s column. A friend passed by as I was raking. She would like to see me write in support of the proposed Northside Historic Preservation District. I do support it, although I am very skeptical of trying to preserve any particular moment in time. In my ideal world the proposed district would enable the neighborhood to change over time while retaining its long-term sense of character and identity.

Instead of writing about historic preservation, I’m more inclined to write a scathing indictment of conservative radio and cable television commentators who condemn President Barack Obama for trying to impose European-style socialism on an unwilling American public. As they talk about it, socialism equals totalitarian communism. And, horror of horrors, this dreaded socialism (sneer) exists throughout Europe.

I’m tempted to become angry at those commentators. And why not, for anger seems to be all the rage these days. Like the lead character in the 1970s film Network, Fox News’ Glenn Beck says he wants to shout out a window, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Demonstrators set fire to a building in Strasbourg, France, as part of a protest against global capitalism. Anticipating socialist oppression from the Obama administration, increasing numbers of right-wing nuts are buying private weapons. And everybody is furious at Wall Street financiers for giving themselves huge bonuses as reward for wiping out our jobs and savings.

There are good reasons to be angry at the people who got us into this mess. But, come to think of it, haven’t we ordinary people played at least some small part in creating it? My stock portfolio went up quite nicely over the past four or more years, but I now see that much of it was fictitious gain. Many of us bought houses that we clearly could not afford. And we have let ourselves become a consumer society that no longer produces much of value. My shoes were made in China. How about yours?

So if I am going to get angry, I had better be prepared to direct a bit of that anger toward myself. Hmmmm, maybe it’s time for me to pick up that rake.

But before I return to my yard I want to say a word about Wil Zonneveld. Wil is a professor of spatial planning at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands. He has been visiting our University this week and making presentations about the long-term evolution of the national planning system in Holland and the role of spatial planners in strengthening territorial cohesion in the European Union.

This morning over breakfast at Lou Henri’s I asked Wil how he would respond to one of those conservative commentators if they were interviewing him about (sneer) totalitarian European socialism.

Wil’s cheeks lit up and he gave me a smile that I have come to enjoy. “I would just tell them there are many different systems there,” Wil said. He would describe a Europe in which democratic practices are very much alive and planning systems vary dramatically from country to country.

Can it possibly be that these conservative commentators do not know what they are talking about? No, I think they know exactly what they are saying. By repeatedly telling their listeners that socialism is totalitarian and that European socialism is a scary world in which no right thinking person would want to live, these commentators are either consciously trying to enhance their listeners stupidity or else are pandering to their audience in order to profit from ignorance.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined a phrase that captures this situation perfectly: “Macht macht dumm” (power makes stupid).

Where’s my rake?

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