Members Only | March 22, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

All they care about is defending traditional hierarchies

That's the rightwing complaint about everything, writes Rod Graham.

Guy Reschenthaler.
Guy Reschenthaler.

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Last month, the House Republicans pushed a resolution condemning socialism. During a committee hearing on the resolution, Pennsylvania Congressman Guy Reschenthaler tried mightily to get California Congresswoman Maxine Waters to condemn his idea of socialism. Water, however, repeatedly redirected the conversation to Donald Trump and authoritarian regimes. 

Reschenthaler: “You can’t condemn socialism? In your opening remarks, you were talking about Putin, Kim Jong Un and Xi. You know what they all have in common, right?”

Waters: “Trump.”

Reschenthaler: “Trump? North Korea, China and Russia?”

Waters: “Trump said Kim ‘wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters and we fell in love.’” 

This political theater continued with Reschenthaler asking if Waters denounced a series of authoritarian regimes:

  • “Do you denounce the genocide and starvation in communist China?”
  • “Stalin. Tens of millions died. Do you want to denounce that?”
  • “Do you denounce the killing fields of Cambodia or not?”

And so, for Reschenthaler and Waters, socialism is equated to genocide, mass starvation, nominally communist regimes, and authoritarian leaders. 

As the Cold War led to uncritical acceptance of capitalism, conservatives are trying to produce the same uncritical acceptance of the social order.

Elsewhere, Waters clarified her point. After Texas Congressman Chip Roy read past statements from Waters hinting at collectivizing industries, she said: “I am not a socialist. I am a capitalist. And I commit to you that I am here to save social security, to save medicare, to save seniors and veterans.”

So, it appears as if Waters agrees that genocide, communist regimes and authoritarian leaders are all socialism, but not social security and medicare – although Chip Roy thinks so, and at the end of the day, all three of them are not socialists but capitalists. 

The same month that Waters and company were calling everything under the sun socialism, then distancing themselves from it, actor Isaiah Washington decided to leave Hollywood before it became socialist. 

Washington became a household name after playing Dr. Preston Burke on “Grey’s Anatomy.” He left the show after using a homophobic slur on set. He continued working in television and film, albeit in lesser roles and claimed he was blacklisted for his comments. 

In 2020, Washington tweeted a picture of his former “Grey’s Anatomy” costar Katherine Heigl, saying, “This woman proclaimed that I should ‘never’ be allowed to speak publicly again.” I suspect Washington is complaining that Hollywood was too politically correct for him. 

Last month, a few weeks after the House debate condemning socialism, Washington tweeted that he was leaving Hollywood “before it falls into socialism and then communism.” 

Isaiah Washington left woke Hollywood before it fell into socialism. 

Whatever that is. 

From socialism to critical theory
As Americans, we have little understanding of what socialism is, and that’s by design. I quote here political economist – and socialist – Richard Wolff from his book Understanding Socialism:

“In the United States, a peculiarly skewed notion of socialism took hold, especially among those who disliked it, but also among the general public. Large segments of the population came to view the terms communist, socialist, anarchist, Marxist, and for many, also liberal, as synonyms. They were all anti-American and there was really little point or need to distinguish among them. This unusual perspective was partly the fruit of an admittedly poor education system, unbalanced by Cold War ideological imperatives. … The taboo on socialism imposed by anticommunism in the US after World War II had kept socialism from being taught in most schools. And when it was, teachers treated it dismissively and briefly.”

Several generations of Americans progressed through our nation’s K-12 institutions without ever developing a real understanding of socialism. It’s the devil in the religion of capitalism, an entity to which one attributes all the evils in the world – from genocide to starvation to political correctness. 

This has left many Americans unable to think critically about when and where our faith in capitalism is misplaced. 

This is why we do not have a robust universal healthcare system. 

Conservatives who do not like it can call it “socialized medicine,” knowing people will link socialism (whatever that is) to gulags or killing fields, and reject it out of hand. Former Education Secretary Betsy Devos used this same technique when calling student loan forgiveness a “socialist idea.”

As the Cold War led to uncritical acceptance of capitalism, conservatives are trying to produce the same uncritical acceptance of the social order.

Florida and its governor Ron DeSantis have gotten a lot of attention for his Stop WOKE Act (as of this writing, the act has been blocked by an appeals court) and his rejection of ideas within a proposed African American studies course. But other states run by conservative lawmakers have also passed bills banning or restricting certain ideas from being taught.

These bills are framed as if they are rooting out harmful ideas. You may hear that the bill is about banning this thing called critical race theory, whatever that is. We’re told critical race theory is a racist idea that reduces everyone to skin color and tells white people they’re inherently racist. 

But if we look past the framing, we will see there is a throughline connecting the knowledge being banned. The bans focus on knowledge that questions the unequal position of racial minorities, queers and women in the social order and the institutions, policies and practices that maintain their positions in that order. No matter what the concept, you can always bring it back to this – a challenging of traditional hierarchies. 

Critical race theory, like socialism, is a catch-all, and like socialism, is a devil in the religion of white male heterosexual supremacy. In Wisconsin, the ban on what is labeled in the press as a critical race theory ban has clauses that could ban words, including:  colorism, diversity training, hegemony, intersectionality, marginalized identities, microaggressions, normativity, patriarchy, racial justice, racial prejudice, race essentialism, restorative justice, structural bias, systemic bias, and white supremacy.

All of these words help people identify and explain inequalities in society. If you can’t teach about normativity and patriarchy, how can you talk about the sometimes unequal world queers and women navigate? If you can’t explore structural and systemic bias, how can you explore the myriad ways our criminal justice and educational systems mistreat Black people? 

Or consider the tip line Arizona has instituted to report “inappropriate” teaching in classrooms. Critical race theory, the modernday equivalent of socialism, is considered inappropriate. But so is social-emotional learning. 

Huh? Why is this bad? 

Social and emotional learning involves teaching students how thoughts, feelings and behaviors are interconnected, and how managing these thoughts can lead to more positive outcomes educationally and socially. 

Apparently, it works

I think I get now why social-emotional learning is a problem. Again, it always comes back to challenging traditional hierarchies. Consider this from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning: 

“[Social-emotional learning] facilitates critical examination of individual and contextual factors that contribute to inequities and collaborative solutions that lead to personal, community and societal well-being.”

Ah. It’s the critical examination of inequities bit. Can’t have that. 

If conservatives are going to lobotomize the American mind, making it impossible to critique social inequalities, they should be thorough. 

Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at Follow him @roderickgraham.

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