Writing in The New York Times, the Czech film director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt, etc.) makes some salient points about politics:
I hear the word "socialist" being tossed around by the likes of Rick Perry,Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others. President Obama, they warn, is a socialist. The critics cry, "Obamacare is socialism!" They falsely equate Western European-style socialism, and its government provision of social insurance and health care, with Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism. It offends me, and cheapens the experience of millions who lived, and continue to live, under brutal forms of socialism….
Marx believed that we could wipe out social inequities and Lenin tested those ideas on the Soviet Union. It was his dream to create a classless society. But reality set in, as it always does. And the results were devastating. Blood flowed through Russia's streets. The Soviet elite usurped all privileges; sycophants were allowed some and the plebes none. The entire Eastern bloc, including Czechoslovakia, followed miserably.
I'm not sure Americans today appreciate quite how predatory socialism was. It was not — as Mr. Obama's detractors suggest — merely a government so centralized and bloated that it hobbled private enterprise: it was a spoils system that killed off everything, all in the name of "social justice."
Forman's parents were killed at Auschwitz, that crucible of national socialism, so he knows right-wing and left-wing forms of socialism with a terrifying intimacy. I think he's right to draw a distinction between Soviet-style communism (still around in some parts of the world) and social-democratic governments that prevail in many parts of old and new Europe and elsewhere. And I think he's empirically right that "perfect social justice" can never be attained and that "social harmony" is the best we should hope for. Social harmony—I assume he means peaceful coexistence, the sort of tolerance and pluralism that we hold up as an ideal at Reason—is not simply a more attainable goal, it's a better one precisely because it allows for differences of opinion and lifestyle.
And I suspect that many of Forman's liberal and progressive readers will simply gloss over this point he makes:
It's fair to question whether the federal government should have expanded powers: America, to its credit, has debated this since its birth.
Or put another way: Obama (or Nixon or Bush or whomever) doesn't have to be the worst ruler in the history of the world in order for you to take issue with their vision of the good society.
I'm less taken by Forman's orchestra metaphor:
In an orchestra, the different players and instruments perform together, in support of an overall melody.
Today, our democracy, a miraculous gathering of diverse players, desperately needs such unity. If all participants play fair and strive for the common good, we can achieve a harmony that eluded the doctrinaire socialist projects. But if just one section, or even one player, is out of tune, the music will disintegrate into cacophony.
It seems to me that's what's always been relatively remarkable about the United States, especially since the end of World War II and the Cold War, is that we don't feel a need to be part of an orchestra. Walt Whitman memorably heard America singing "varied carols"; there's simply no need to be reading the same sheet of music. For all the rancor and worries about gridlock and the lack of ability to get shit done, the 21st century has seen massive undertakings such as the creation of two new major health-care entitlements, two decades-long wars, the passage of terribly transformative legislation such as The Patriot Act, and on.
Like culture in general—which has benefited from a technological and attitudinal deregulation—political battles and elections are more hard-fought because more not fewer people can get in the game now. In this sense, the passion of contemporary politics (remarkably non-violent, too, despite all those phoney-baloney warnings about tea party mobs and all that) is a sign that Americans are still making glorious, discordant, woefully off-key music.