A question which has been plaguing me lately is whether it is possible to have a legitimate debate over socialism without sounding like a rabid, hysterical, over-the-top, far-right conspiracy theorist.
It would be nice to have time for an essay-length discussion, but I don’t.
The problem is, for some time I’ve been convinced that socialism is upon us, and I mean really upon us. Now, I might be wrong, but that is why these things should be discussed. And I don’t mean discussed the way people who agree with each other rant and rave. I mean a national discussion along the lines of where we want to go.
Do we want socialism?
Unfortunately (as I have pointed out in several posts), the “s” word is so fraught with problems that it might be too contaminated to use. I worry that “socialist” within five words of “Barack Obama” has become code language for belief in various popular far-right conspiracy theories. The “Obama is a secret Muslim sleeper agent born in Kenya” stuff. After all, who but a secret Muslim sleeper agent born in Kenya would want to impose socialism on the United States?
In theory, “socialism” is still a perfectly legitimate word, but I worry that it is becoming delegitimized. As it is, the responsible critics of Barack Obama’s economic programs are very, very careful not to use the word “socialist,” and if they do, it is only to distance themselves from those who call Barack Obama a socialist.
Even as it excoriated his policies, The Economist recently defended Barack Obama against the charge that he’s a socialist, because

No true leftist would be as allergic as he has been to nationalising tottering banks, nor as coldly calculating in letting Chrysler, and probably General Motors, end up in bankruptcy court.

Sorry, but this avoids an important issue. At what point can nationalization be said to have taken place? By what standard is government ownership of 72% of a company less than “true” socialism?
What is happening is serious and unprecedented, so this is by no means a case of the boy who cried wolf. (But I worry that the “s” word has been used for so long that way that it might be permanently associated with those who do cry wolf constantly.)
In one of the most fervent defenses of capitalism I’ve seen in a mainstream newspaper, Carl Schramm describes what is happening as a “frightening economic drama”:

We continue to be in the middle of a frightening economic drama, one that is putting the core tenets of modern capitalism at the center of the global debate. That is an important debate to have, considering that the fundamental assumptions of modern economics — that governments have appropriately designed counter-cyclical tools, that central banks are omnipotent, that the business cycle has been tamed and that our securities markets have finally rationalized risk — have been shattered.

The piece is titled “Schumpeter’s Moment” and it’s a must-read. The fact that Schramm goes out of his way to avoid any mention of socialism — in a piece using the word “capitalism” 19 times — is very telling.
This is by no means a criticism of the Economist or Schramm; they are probably well advised to avoid using such a contaminated and inflammatory word.
I’m just worried. Again, Upton Sinclair:

“The American People will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label.”

Socialism is hard to take, but the label is harder to take. What about honesty in labeling?
I think there’s a well-oiled machine (fueled by hopeless collusion between the left and right) which wants the word “socialism” to be forever relegated to being a right wing conspiracy machine smear, and thus conveniently perceived as within the exclusive territory of kooks.
It’s easy to complain, and I know that I will sound as if I am simply bashing the far right. (Hard leftists, of course, would say I’m engaged in red baiting, but that does not matter, as so few of them read this blog.)
But here’s my problem: I am sick to death of this creepy feeling that I can’t talk about socialism without sounding like a kook.
Any ideas?
AFTERTHOUGHT: Yes, I should have titled this post “I AM NOT A KOOK!”
Too late for that.
MORE: In a great piece linked by Glenn Reynolds, Lawrence Kudlow looks at the permanent government takeover of GM, and poses devastating questions:

What does Government Motors say about the direction of the United States?
Historically, we don’t own car companies — or banks or insurance firms. But we do now. Tick them off on your fingers: GM, Citi, AIG. Oh, and let’s not forget Fannie and Freddie, those big, quasi-government, taxpayer-owned housing agencies. California is broke and likely headed to bankruptcy. Will we the taxpayers own that, too?
Altogether, we’re talking about hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars that will never be repaid. This is the stuff the Italians used to do, and the Brits before Margaret Thatcher, and the Soviets a long time ago. But it’s something very new and very different for America.

Call me paranoid, but I can’t but notice the absence of the word “socialism” there. (And what economic system were the places he cites known for?)
Again, the s-word appears nowhere in the entire piece, although Kudlow does not hesitate to call what’s happening an attack on capitalism:

Is this onslaught of government ownership an attack on free-market capitalism? Yes, it is. Call it Bailout Nation or Ownership Nation, it’s an unprecedented degree of government command, control and planning, all in the name of a tough economic downturn.
I don’t pretend to know all the answers to GM’s problems. Neither do I know all the miscues of the banks and insurance companies. But I do know this: The present level of government control over the economy does not bode well for this great country.

I couldn’t agree more.
I realize I’m beating a dead horse, but I think it does not bode well for this great country that only right wing cranks get to use the word “socialism.”
Maybe over time, that will change.
(What? I should be so crazy as to hope for such a thing?)
MORE: My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, and a warm welcome to all!
Your comments are appreciated, agree or disagree.