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Why I call myself a socialist
February 4, 2011 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Why I call myself a socialist, by Wallace Shawn.
posted by serazin (103 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting read, and he sounds a lot like Kurt Vonnegut.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:56 PM on February 4, 2011


Hey, yeah, I just saw him speak a couple weeks ago, bought his book, got it signed, and read it, including this essay.

I was amazed at just how much his speaking presence mirrors the person that's reflected in what he writes. And how much both of those things seem like the person portrayed in My Dinner With Andre, toned down a bit and projected forward a few decades.
posted by gurple at 2:58 PM on February 4, 2011


The actor’s role in the community is quite unlike anyone else’s. Businessmen, for example, don’t take their clothes off or cry in front of strangers in the course of their work. Actors do.

So, I've been doing it wrong all this time?
posted by Slap*Happy at 3:00 PM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


Inconceivable!
posted by brand-gnu at 3:01 PM on February 4, 2011 [12 favorites]


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
posted by lesli212 at 3:05 PM on February 4, 2011 [12 favorites]


My Dinner with the Inner-Wizard and me.
posted by clavdivs at 3:07 PM on February 4, 2011


{orders a high-ball, waits for Wallace}
posted by clavdivs at 3:08 PM on February 4, 2011


I love Wally Shawn so, so much. (I read this at Counterpunch earlier today and was hoping it'd make it to MeFi soon. His one-off journal Final Edition was great too, but the writing and thinking in this piece are on another level. Just a beautiful piece.

That joke you keep making? I do not think it's as funny as you think it is. Couldn't people at least quote from My Dinner with Andre once in a while too? Or is Vizzini just going to follow Shawn around for the entire rest of his life?
posted by RogerB at 3:09 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


As for all the other babies, the market sorts them and stamps labels onto them and hurls them violently into various pits, where an appropriate upbringing and preparation are waiting for them. If the market thinks that workers will be needed in electronics factories, a hundred thousand babies will be stamped with the label “factory worker” and thrown down into a certain particular pit.

Funny, the only modern societies where this has actually happened are those that were self-described as "socialist". Wallace Shawn's performance art consists in signaling his infinite compassion. It is exquisitely reasoned compassion that factors in his own contemptible selfishness and the self-centeredness of his class. This used to be called Christianity, and it got people not invited to parties.
posted by Faze at 3:10 PM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


Or is Vizzini just going to follow Shawn around for the entire rest of his life?

No, that's probably some local fisherman out for a pleasure cruise... at night... through eel-infested waters.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:12 PM on February 4, 2011 [21 favorites]


"...We went to a reading of the poetry of Octavio Paz with our friends the Goldsteins, and we saw Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi there — they looked fantastic”… whatever.

It’s this year’s fantasies that present a difficulty."

thats rich, heavy on keen.
posted by clavdivs at 3:13 PM on February 4, 2011


RogerB: " Couldn't people at least quote from My Dinner with Andre once in a while too? "

Actually he calls something inconceivable in that too. Always gets an unintentional laugh.
posted by roll truck roll at 3:15 PM on February 4, 2011


I enjoyed this essay and the conceit on which it is predicated very much but I nonetheless heartily disagree with his premise that people are sorted, slotted, and locked into place. In my experience, people are far more mutable, experience far greater changes of fortune, and do far more with their lives than he believes. People really aren't stage characters -- they are far more than what we perceive in the casual moment.
posted by bearwife at 3:15 PM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


the cliffs on insanity
posted by neuromodulator at 3:15 PM on February 4, 2011


But what if some people really are born to be certain things?
posted by koeselitz at 3:17 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


No, but seriously, I fundamentally disagree with Shawn's proposition that "We have to start out naked again and go from there." Because, well, how? It would be great if we could even the playing field so that no one starts out disadvantaged, but to be truly even, we'd have to make sure no one had advantages either.

But tt's just part of human existence that we want to give our own children a comfortable life. I would think to do otherwise would go against human nature.

...fine, if princess bride is soooo objectionable (twice as objectionable!), I'll instead quote the great Grand Nagus Zek's Revised Rules Of Acquisition: "Money can never replace dignity." It's even appropriate!
posted by lesli212 at 3:18 PM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Shawn makes the case for one of the problems. But the solution trumpeted in the headline is a non sequitur. He provides no reason to think it can solve the problem or that it is the best way to solve it.
posted by Jahaza at 3:19 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Does the author even know what his point is? Cuz I can't figure it out.
posted by spicynuts at 3:21 PM on February 4, 2011


Jahaza: That's exactly my issue with the article. He starts with the assumption that socialism = fairness and compassion, and the alternatives = the opposite. In my observation, socialism has caused more unfairness and dehumanization than any other system yet tried. Of course that's anecdotal, but Shawn's starting point is nonetheless just as fallacious.

Not to mention, that is some truly pretentious prose.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:22 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


If things are born, nothing is certain.
posted by clavdivs at 3:22 PM on February 4, 2011


In my observation, socialism has caused more unfairness and dehumanization than any other system yet tried.

How so? Care to expand on that?
posted by leftcoastbob at 3:24 PM on February 4, 2011


"No, that's probably some local fisherman out for a pleasure cruise... at night... through eel-infested waters."

Actually just laughed out loud. At work.

Oops.
posted by Eideteker at 3:29 PM on February 4, 2011


In my observation, socialism has caused more unfairness and dehumanization than any other system yet tried.

What would be an example of a society in which the means of production were controlled by labor instead of by a non-laboring elite?
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:29 PM on February 4, 2011 [14 favorites]


This is the dinosaur from Toy Story talking? The force field eating one?
posted by chavenet at 3:30 PM on February 4, 2011


Would that I knew, koeselitz, would that I knew.

Not even in the sense of having some kind of Fate or even a purpose, not so much as to say, "Ah, there, on that axle, that is where I ought to be a cog," but even a sense that I had something to which I might be well-suited or that I were utterly free of utility. I might have something against which I might rebel, a reason to run wild, or a happy label for myself where I might sigh and murmur to myself, "At last, here I can get something done."

We haven't that, not even a sign of it. How many incompetents have stomped through Wall Street while the more savvy labored in roads south? What fantastic potential athletes have gone unknown? Who are these poets who do not write where we can read?

All of these systems, philosophical, economic, religious, divinatory as palmistry or your guidance counselor, are the struggle to deal with that lack, whether they pretend to know better or ascribe that knowledge to some unknown force.

Shawn neglected the final and greatest fantasy: that anyone has a lock as to which is right or if right is at all.
posted by adipocere at 3:30 PM on February 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Not to mention, that is some truly pretentious prose.

The pretentiousness is very self-aware (which may or may not excuse it, for you). You'd get the same feeling about pretty much all of his essays, I think. He's a very self-aware child of privilege, and, to my mind, does a very good job of conveying his perspective both as someone who's part of the Privilege Club (by birth) and eating its scraps (by profession). The pretentiousness is part of that commentary.
posted by gurple at 3:30 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


In my observation, socialism has caused more unfairness and dehumanization than any other system yet tried.

Yeah, life in Sweden sounds like a non-stop nightmare.
posted by kenko at 3:32 PM on February 4, 2011 [53 favorites]


It's a very well-written essay full of lovely thoughts, and I'd note that it's called "Why I Call Myself a Socialist" and not "Hey Everybody I've Got a Totally Worked-Out System of Global Economics That We Need To Implement Right Now So You Need to Become a Socialist." So some of the criticisms in this thread feel a little soft to me.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:32 PM on February 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


I'm guessing he hasn't read The Blank Slate. It would be nice if we could all start out naked, but we don't and can't.

I'd like to know what his magical fairness socialist sorting method is. Seems like most of the magical fairness socialist sorting methods we have these days like public schools aren't doing so well. Though to be fair, I don't think anyone still thinks they are fair.

I'm not being facetious, I'd really like to see good solutions and not regulatory capture by bureaucrats.

My family is from one of the poorest parts of the USA. I don't think he's right about social mobility being null. I do think about my cousins in Mississsippi and Louisiana though and if I ever make more money I'd like to help them get into better schools. One tax I'd feel good paying would be if they just got an educational stipend to use as they want instead of being doomed based on where their parents live.
posted by melissam at 3:32 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, life in Sweden sounds like a non-stop nightmare.

I think when people think of socialism in the US they think of corruption, regulatory capture, and bureaucrats who care only about their pensions. They don't see that you can have a patchwork system based on things that worked. Sweden seems more than willing to experiment with socialism and discard it if it doesn't work. When I lived in Sweden there were plenty of things that were less socialist, such as privatized public transit and school voucher systems. Mention the latter in the US and much wailing and gnashing of teeth commences...
posted by melissam at 3:35 PM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'd really like to see good solutions and not regulatory capture by bureaucrats.

So the bureaucrats shouldn't... control the bureaucrats? What do you think regulatory capture is?
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:35 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think when people think of socialism in the US they think of corruption, regulatory capture, and bureaucrats who care only about their pensions.

I think most people in the US think of Socialism as Communism Lite and just one step along the trail to a Red Takeover.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:38 PM on February 4, 2011 [12 favorites]


Not to mention, that is some truly pretentious prose.

I disagree. Remember, "pretentious" implies pretense, pretending. Wallace Shawn is a smart, well-read guy who writes like a smart, well-read guy. If he wrote like an ignorant moron, that would be pretentious.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 3:40 PM on February 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Man, what a depressing thread. Has the range of our collective political imagination really dwindled this far, and been supplanted by such a thin set of ideological pseudo-givens about "human nature"? Are we really willing to stake our future on Reagan/Thatcherite "TINA" anti-utopianism because it's "pretentious" to try to awaken a stronger sense of humanity's beauty and possibility? Then I guess we're truly getting the politics we deserve.
posted by RogerB at 3:42 PM on February 4, 2011 [27 favorites]


So the bureaucrats shouldn't... control the bureaucrats? What do you think regulatory capture is?
This occurs when bureaucrats run the system for their own benefits: high salaries, pensions, rules that make it impossible to fire them. It also occurs when the industry being regulated makes the rules to benefit industry and reduce competition, as has happened in the food industry, which has pretty much captured the USDA.
posted by melissam at 3:47 PM on February 4, 2011


But tt's just part of human existence that we want to give our own children a comfortable life. I would think to do otherwise would go against human nature.

I disagree. I want my children to have fulfilling, happy lives, not necessarily comfortable ones. And I certainly don't want them to be given them. I want them to have the freedom to create and discover their lives on their own.
Incidentally, I also want the same for everyone else's children.
posted by rocket88 at 3:50 PM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


I want them to have the freedom to create and discover their lives on their own.

Isn't that the definition of a comfortable life?
posted by lesli212 at 3:54 PM on February 4, 2011


Not in the context it was give. It was about giving your children advantages that others don't get.
posted by rocket88 at 3:58 PM on February 4, 2011


Eh, this is clearly the "let's debate socialism" thread and not the "let's quote The Princess Bride" thread that I thought it was. It's a personal policy of mine to avoid all politics on MetaFilter, so I'll just see myself out. For my blood pressure. Carry on, folks.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 4:00 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Or is Vizzini just going to follow Shawn around for the entire rest of his life?

Don't make me start quoting Grand Nagus Zek. You'll be offering me bars of gold-pressed latinum to go back to quoting Vizzini before you know it.

Maybe later I'll actually read the essay and say something relevant.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:02 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is Vizzini just going to follow Shawn around for the entire rest of his life?

Why not? It's a nuanced, joyful, hilarious performance by an actor at the top of his game who is clearly having the time of his life.
posted by The Bellman at 4:06 PM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


Not in the context it was give. It was about giving your children advantages that others don't get.

But the thing is, one person's "advantage" is another person's "basic standard". Running water is an "advantage" to some.

From many global perspectives, giving your children the "freedom" to "explore options" is absurdly indulgent. Does that mean you should refrain from doing so?
posted by lesli212 at 4:14 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's a nuanced, joyful, hilarious performance

Yeah, and I love it too, but there's something so thoughtlessly automatic that it's almost Pavlovian about the line-quoting that accompanies every mention of his name. It's like shouting "play your old songs" at a concert; the chief message conveyed is that you think he's basically a one-hit wonder. In any case, everyone here knew one of the first comments in this thread would be "Inconceivable!" — it's not funny or original or a contribution to a real conversation.
posted by RogerB at 4:16 PM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


What would be an example of a society in which the means of production were controlled by labor instead of by a non-laboring elite?

All right fine. Give an example of an attempt at creating such a society which has not degenerated into an oppressive, autocratic regime. If all attempts thus far at creating a socialist state have led to outcome X, it is foolish and overly theoretical to claim that socialism doesn't lead to outcome X in theory. Theory is nothing before empiricism.

Yeah, life in Sweden sounds like a non-stop nightmare.

Sweden is not a socialist country. I'm sure you don't adhere to the American Right Wing view that any government provision of services is socialism, but incorrectly labelling social democratic countries as socialist is buying into their preposterous framing.
posted by atrazine at 4:16 PM on February 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


My neighbor Jeff just interviewed Mr. Shawn last year (it's pretty interesting, and tangentially hits some of the same points).

I must say-- some of you in this thread are coming off as, well, morons. He's clearly brilliant, whether or not you agree with his point (or are just being deliberately obtuse). Equating him with his movie roles is as silly as opposing a lawyer appointed to a political position because of the clients he represented-- yeah, there could be some overlap in personality/views, but I wouldn't necessarily count on it.
posted by norm at 4:25 PM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm curious which states, historical or contemporary, you define as socialist (rather than communist).
posted by serazin at 4:26 PM on February 4, 2011


I haven't thought about Boal in a while--this is a very nice reminder, although a bit of a bummer to muse on for a Friday afternoon. Particularly appreciated his nod to teachers--this is, without a doubt, the worst thing about being a public school teacher of poor children: seeing so many buckle under the incredible weight of the myriad obstacles and pressures they face. It's inconceivable (no, really, not making PB joke) unless you've spent some time working with the disenfranchised.

I'd never run across his writing before, but will check it out. This was lovely.

Middle class guilt, table for one
posted by smirkette at 4:29 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


"As for all the other babies, the market sorts them and stamps labels onto them and hurls them violently into various pits, where an appropriate upbringing and preparation are waiting for them. If the market thinks that workers will be needed in electronics factories, a hundred thousand babies will be stamped with the label 'factory worker' and thrown down into a certain particular pit."

Funny, the only modern societies where this has actually happened are those that were self-described as "socialist".


I don't think this is true at all. Take the United States: look at the emphasis on "skills learning" (vocational training, basically) in lower-income high schools, as opposed to the college prep that's available in higher-income high schools. Conservative talk about bootstraps and gumption aside, we have a system where kids from different communities are absolutely tracked into different careers (if employment is even available). On a global scale, there are countries (usually ones with less restrictive labor laws and little actual oversight of corporations) that capitalism has turned into so many factory worker pits, to use Shawn's language. To say that it's only "socialist" (that is, authoritarian) societies that do this is to turn a blind eye to the effects of class and capitalism.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 4:33 PM on February 4, 2011 [11 favorites]


Equating him with his movie roles is as silly as opposing a lawyer appointed to a political position because of the clients he represented

Are you referring to my comment above that compared him with his Andre role? I don't think that's as silly as your lawyer-client strawman -- he wrote that part, himself, and the character clearly has a lot in common with Wallace Shawn the person. I'm certainly not equating them, but I do think it's remarkable how the same general shape of him as a person emerges through his acting (OK, just that role, that I know of), his writing and his public speaking.

Most writers that I've seen speak come off much differently in person than they do in their writing. Wallace Shawn seems like exactly the same guy. I think it's a testament both to how thoughtfully he speaks (even in an off-the-cuff Q&A setting) and to how he intentionally and successfully projects his viewpoint and personality into his writing.
posted by gurple at 4:33 PM on February 4, 2011


Are you referring to my comment above that compared him with his Andre role?

No! I missed that! I was mostly referring to the dismissive cracks about Vizzini and the Toy Story dinosaur. I think his Andre role may well be fair game. Sorry for the broad brush, although in my defense note that I did allow myself a bit of wiggle room by saying that there may be some overlap.
posted by norm at 4:37 PM on February 4, 2011


Sweden is not a socialist country

From wikipedia:
"In 1990, it was estimated that the family indirectly controlled one-third of the Swedish Gross National Product.[3] Peter Wallenberg (senior) stepped down from leadership of Investor in 1997.
...
The Wallenberg family has occasionally been criticized for its nepotism, notably when it was disclosed that Peter Wallenberg (senior) was given a retirement salary of 16 MSEK (EUR 1,6 million) per year from Ericsson, in spite of never having been employed by the company."
posted by rider at 4:41 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was mostly referring to the dismissive cracks about Vizzini and the Toy Story dinosaur.

Oh, well, yeah. I went to a little wine-and-cheese reception with him before he spoke, and he did a little Q&A there, and he made it all the way to the third question before someone used the word "inconceivable". She thought she was awfully clever.

It makes sense. That's what people know him for. Poor bastard, though -- he must be so thoroughly sick of it by now.
posted by gurple at 4:42 PM on February 4, 2011


gurple: "I don't think that's as silly as your lawyer-client strawman -- he wrote that part, himself, and the character clearly has a lot in common with Wallace Shawn the person."

I'm not arguing your point, but you might get a kick out of this:

Gene Siskel and I did a question-and-answer session with Gregory and Shawn after the first anniversary screening of the film's New York run. What I remember best from that night is that the two men, asked what they might do differently a second time around, said they would switch roles--``so that no one would think we were playing ourselves.'
posted by roll truck roll at 4:43 PM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


He's quite devastating. 8:30 in the video.
posted by zoinks at 4:48 PM on February 4, 2011


I thought this essay was great, perhaps especially so because it is by Wallace Shawn. I wasn't aware of his nonfiction, and I want to go read some other things now.

It also seems to be (perhaps not intentionally or explicitly) many of the ideas in The Sould of Man Under Socialism (1891) by Oscar Wilde. Parts of it are a bit dated, but well worth a read.

To me, the important thing to take away is that humans are a malleable creatures, and we can either be molded by forces we don't acknowledge and take as natural (his example of the hand of the market) or we can attempt to break out of those forces and form ourselves some other way. Granted, this has been tried many, many times with horrific results (id, Cambodia); that doesn't necessarily mean we should abandon the search for a different way of life (and no, I'm not advocating an "up against the wall!" type of situation).

And atrazine, I'm not sure who we're using for our definition of socialism here, but there's quite a range in opinions in the tradition itself (Leninism, classical Marxism, Engels' somewhat utopian strain, Christian Socialsm like St. Simon, etc). It's also a bit weird to talk about a socialist state, since one of the goals of (most) socialist/communist/cummunitarian type of movements is the elimination/withering away/dissolution of the very existence of the political state. Just saying as a basis of discussion, it's weird. With that in mind, there are quite a few socialist movements that have come and gone without necessarily degenerating into autocracy or authoritarianism: Robert Owen, Tolstoy founded a Christian anarchist movement that resembles what many utopian socialists think of as the well developed socialism, the Paris Commune of 1871 didn't have time to do much of anything as it was violently crushed by the French government, the Oneida Community (strange as they were, especially about sexual matters), etc. Food for thought, sorry about the length.

Also Wallace Shawn is great.
posted by scdjpowell at 4:49 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


But what if some people really are born to be certain things?
Also, what if life were totally just an illusion and we're living in vats in some kind of matrix, man!?
In my observation, socialism has caused more unfairness and dehumanization than any other system yet tried. Of course that's anecdotal, but Shawn's starting point is nonetheless just as fallacious.
What?
I think when people think of socialism in the US they think of corruption, regulatory capture
Because obviously that's not happening in America today.
Sweden is not a socialist country. I'm sure you don't adhere to the American Right Wing view that any government provision of services is socialism, but incorrectly labelling social democratic countries as socialist is buying into their preposterous framing.

The party in Charge in Spain is the Socialist party. They seem fine. It seems like a lot of people in this thread are basically considering socialism and soviet-style communism to be the same thing.

In general I don't like the idea of assigning morality to economic systems in the first place. The argument is that socialism leads to oppression but it's not all that clear that capitalism doesn't result in "free market" oppression of the poor, especially when income inequality gets so far out of whack.
posted by delmoi at 4:51 PM on February 4, 2011 [11 favorites]


as opposed to the college prep that's available in higher-income high schools.

Yeah and that's working out great for them
posted by overeducated_alligator at 4:53 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sure you don't adhere to the American Right Wing view that any government provision of services is socialism, but incorrectly labelling social democratic countries as socialist is buying into their preposterous framing.

You don't really get 'socialist countries' as such, because socialist parties operating within a democratic framework rarely enjoy total dominance over the political landscape. Consequently, they'll implement socialist policies, but those policies will invariably be partial, negotiated and subject to revision.

That doesn't make those parties and their policies not-socialist though. It simply makes them socialists who are committed to democracy. Most socialists I'm familiar with don't see a contradiction between the two ideas.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:55 PM on February 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


I've heard Shawn complain about everybody quoting his lines from The Princess Bride, a movie which he acted in but somehow had no appreciation for. I know he wants to be known as a great playwrite instead of a highly memorable small role in a much beloved movie. He seems like a swell guy, but I don't have any sympathy for his irritation at this. Oh woe is me, I was in an awesome movie that everyone loves playing a great small role, and nobody will let me forget! Why won't they recognize my true genius? Please! Also, how does someone not like or even get The Princess Bride? Not everything has to be ground-breaking and avante guarde. He needs to put this in perspective. Does Mandy Patinkin whine about people saying "My name is Inigo Mantoya, you killed my father, prepare to die"? God, I hope not.
posted by Edgewise at 5:03 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't call myself a socialist, although to be fair I wouldn't call myself a capitalist either: I think they're both sort of silly and dangerous simplifications and it seems odd to me that so many people want to reduce the grand questions of how we should live as a society to economic systems.

I also don't understand the vitriol being thrown around in this thread; maybe Wallace Shawn is a polarising figure whom I for some reason have never heard of?

Anyway, I liked the article. All nature/nurture/destiny/free-will arguments aside, I think we middle-class Westerners can easily forget that a lot of people around the world and in the lower classes of our own nations are not able to make some of the same basic choices that we can make. (I suppose that we may also not be aware of the ways in which we are under the illusion that we have certain choices.)
posted by tivalasvegas at 5:05 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


It seems wonderfully right. If I steal a car, I go to jail, and if she steals a car, she goes to jail. If I drive on the highway, I pay a toll, and if she drives on the highway, she pays a toll. We compete on an equal basis for the things we want. If I apply for a job, I take the test, and if she applies for the job, she takes the test. And I go through my life thinking it’s all quite fair.

I think this is the gist of the essay. What most people who believe fervently in our system is that it's fair. The fairness is an illusion, though. Not everybody starts the race from the same starting line and, for me, therein lies the rub.

We are certainly capable of implementing a more equitable system. All we lack is the collective (pun intended) will.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:06 PM on February 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


I've heard Shawn complain about everybody quoting his lines from The Princess Bride, a movie which he acted in but somehow had no appreciation for. I know he wants to be known as a great playwrite instead of a highly memorable small role in a much beloved movie. He seems like a swell guy, but I don't have any sympathy for his irritation at this. Oh woe is me, I was in an awesome movie that everyone loves playing a great small role, and nobody will let me forget! Why won't they recognize my true genius? Please! Also, how does someone not like or even get The Princess Bride? Not everything has to be ground-breaking and avante guarde. He needs to put this in perspective. Does Mandy Patinkin whine about people saying "My name is Inigo Mantoya, you killed my father, prepare to die"? God, I hope not.

I do not think his response means what you think it means.
posted by benzenedream at 5:12 PM on February 4, 2011


I wouldn't call myself a socialist, although to be fair I wouldn't call myself a capitalist either: I think they're both sort of silly and dangerous simplifications and it seems odd to me that so many people want to reduce the grand questions of how we should live as a society to economic systems.

Simplifications? Nobody (well, okay, Ayn Rand, but whatever) is asking you to define your soul in terms of what economic system you believe in.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:13 PM on February 4, 2011


"What would be an example of a society in which the means of production were controlled by labor instead of by a non-laboring elite?"

How about the people in Papua New Guinea described by Jared Diamond in Collapse? Only because I know one or two of you have read his book, and they're kind of a "pure" example. They've been at least a collectivist agrarian society for several thousand years. There have been lots of other examples, but they don't last very long in contact with the Capitalist West, as it's against the interests of the non-labouring elites to let this sort of thing get out of hand.

There are economically thriving communities (are they societies?) in North America that are socialist, if not downright communist: the Amish and the Hutterites.
posted by sneebler at 5:25 PM on February 4, 2011


I do not think his response means what you think it means.

Whose response to what? I'm referring to specific interviews that I've read of Mr. Shawn, which seems to inspire a certain amount of defensiveness around here about exclamations of "Inconceivable!" People are saying that he's done so much more and what a shame it is that he's remembered for this bit part. I'm saying that I don't think it's a shame at all; with my comparatively small expectations, I'd be delighted to be known for something like that.
posted by Edgewise at 5:28 PM on February 4, 2011


I propose a new term, "schmocialism," meaning "any form of economic and political organization that calls itself socialism but in fact has very little in common with socialism as defined by political theorists." A scrupulous observation of the difference between "socialism" and "schmocialism" would drastically reduce the number of crippling irritation-headaches and prevent the loss of countless hours to pointless pseudo-discussion.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 5:46 PM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Some folks posting here seem to need to think of socialism as some de facto evil. They remind me of nothing so much as an angry teenager saying "yeah, but" to everything they're being told because they're not really listening or open to having their minds changed, they're just pissed off and determined to have their own way.
posted by stinkycheese at 5:50 PM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


Why I don't call myself a socialist:

Americans (certainly) have no clue what the word means.
posted by lathrop at 5:56 PM on February 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Also, how does someone not like or even get The Princess Bride?

It's really not that difficult.
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 6:04 PM on February 4, 2011


I'm sure you don't adhere to the American Right Wing view that any government provision of services is socialism, but incorrectly labelling social democratic countries as socialist is buying into their preposterous framing.

Not necessarily. In the European (mainly Greek, German, Spanish ymmv) context I'm most familiar with outside of MeFi, socialist usually refers to socialdemocratic and redistributionist politics (or the lack thereof, heh). Here on MeFi this meaning is often met with Karl Marx quotes, which is fine if one doesn't care about the last 70 years of European politics.

To be honest, I wouldn't even have mentioned it if other people hadn't spoken up. Accepting exclusively the Marxist definition of socialism is dismissive of the millions of people who use the word in a different sense and leads to the 'no true socialist policy', which is as bad framing as 'all government provisions are socialist.'
posted by ersatz at 6:13 PM on February 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Man, that argument sucks. Socialism gave us gulags and ... the viet cong? Capitalism gave us nazis and crusades and sundry genocides. Let's stop willfully misrepresenting political systems we disagree with. People do ugly things regardless of the badge they wear.
posted by wayland at 6:16 PM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


The pretentiousness is very self-aware (which may or may not excuse it, for you). You'd get the same feeling about pretty much all of his essays, I think. He's a very self-aware child of privilege, and, to my mind, does a very good job of conveying his perspective both as someone who's part of the Privilege Club (by birth) and eating its scraps (by profession). The pretentiousness is part of that commentary.

I agree about the tone of the essay.

I also think it's interesting what you say about privilege. You know how it's so often said, in certain milieus, that it's so important for us all to be aware of how much "privilege" there is in society? Well, I think it's safe to say Wallace Shawn is very aware of this (despite his false modesty about how he walks through life rarely perceiving the theatrical nature of reality — this is actually meant to signal how perceptive he is). He made a lot of the same points back in 1981, in the great movie My Dinner With Andre; he both delivered the lines and wrote the script. He has been thinking these thoughts about privilege for at least 3 decades. Yet the conclusions he draws from them are (as lesli212 and melissam have aptly pointed out) astonishingly naive.
posted by John Cohen at 6:26 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sounds like someone just finished Myth of Sisyphus recently
posted by AndrewKemendo at 6:30 PM on February 4, 2011


Capitalism gave us nazis

You could just as well say, "Socialism gave us Nazis." I wouldn't agree with either statement. The Nazi (National Socialist) Party didn't have a clearly defined economic ideology, and economics wasn't their driving force.
posted by John Cohen at 6:36 PM on February 4, 2011


I prefer my celebrity arguments for socialism from pit village football geniuses:
The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day.
posted by Abiezer at 6:54 PM on February 4, 2011


I grew up in a 'schmocialist' country - Ireland. I believe strongly in public service, and in things like publicly funded healthcare and education. I have worked in the public healthcare system, doing some of the grossest and least glamorous work it has to offer, and a wide variety of other environments, from day labor to high finance. I have never been rich, and don't really aspire to be, although I like being busy and making decent money in return for hard work. I have spent a great deal of time being poor, as in not having enough food to eat.

I live in the US and much prefer it to European socialism, despite its numerous faults. Wallace Shawn is a good actor, but his political ideas strike me as patronizing and juvenile. And whatever he may feel about being best known for his minor role in a kid's adventure movie, I guarantee you he cashes the royalty checks that have been coming in like clockwork ever since, thanks to filthy capitalism.

I did not like Ireland while I was growing up, partly because of the state's heavy-handed influence on career outcomes. So I got on a boat and went to England. Later I came to the US and found I liked it much more than I expected I would. My wife's family, who were basically peasants living in North Vietnam, got tired of being variously bombed (by the US) and stuck in re-education camps (by their own government) and eventually climbed onto a convoy of 8 boats that were heading for Hong Kong. 6 of them sank en route and hundreds died, but fortunately not the one carrying my future in-laws. Having just returned from visiting relatives in Hanoi, they think the explosive growth of trade and manufacturing in Asia is working out nicely, although they don't see themselves ever moving back.

All this talk about the market slapping labels on babies' heads and flinging them violently into a pit of capitalist exploitation, to be sorted and trained for a hopeless future amounting to little more than slavery and death...asinine. Examining the worst-case failures of capitalism and pronouncing them to be the general case is either ignorant or dishonest. This is not to say capitalism is perfect or should not be regulated; but there is not, and never has been, an economic and political system in which everybody wins and nobody loses. If you try to control one variable such as prices or incomes, then the inequalities will just manifest in other non-monetary forms - usually corruption, sometimes oppression, often in the form of environmental wreckage or gross misallocations of resources. And despite all these inequalities, when people are unhappy with the state of their lives they look for and usually find ways to leave to leave and go somewhere else, sometimes in the face of considerable danger. The idea of leaving and trying one's luck somewhere else does not require much in the way of education or economic leverage, just a little bit of imagination and a willingness to take risks.

Left-leaning people on MeFi frequently cite European democratic socialism as the ideal model. Understandably - it's got quite a lot going for it even if it's not my ideal. So, how many of you have ever tried packing a suitcase and actually moving to one of those countries, even on a temporary basis?
posted by anigbrowl at 7:42 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


So, how many of you have ever tried packing a suitcase and actually moving to one of those countries, even on a temporary basis?

I have. What's your point?
posted by blucevalo at 7:58 PM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


So, how many of you have ever tried packing a suitcase and actually moving to one of those countries, even on a temporary basis?

Meeee. When my Swedish BF at the time and I graduated from college none of us could find jobs. None of our friends could either. Seemed like my French and Italian friends were having the same problem in their home countries. The recession seems to have been more brutal to the recession graduation cohort there than here. Not that it was easy getting a job here either, but the market is much more flexible and it's easier to start your own business.
posted by melissam at 8:39 PM on February 4, 2011


I do like his points about acting. (Remember the first half of the article?) And what sociologists like Erving Goffman have called "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life." When you've been on stage, you do see the everyday world of human interaction a little differently.
posted by kozad at 9:03 PM on February 4, 2011


Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
"What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."


To which I can only add, be true to Abou, or as they say in the UK, up Ben Adhem.
posted by uosuaq at 9:06 PM on February 4, 2011


So, how many of you have ever tried packing a suitcase and actually moving to one of those countries, even on a temporary basis?

Hang on while I conjure up either a job offer or ludicrous wealth.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:13 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


anigbrowl: “I did not like Ireland while I was growing up, partly because of the state's heavy-handed influence on career outcomes.”

I'd like to hear a bit about this; what part, exactly, does the Irish government play in deciding what careers people are allowed to pursue?
posted by koeselitz at 9:40 PM on February 4, 2011


I'll hold your wallet brother
posted by clavdivs at 10:04 PM on February 4, 2011


My point was that talk is cheap, and those idealizing socialism need to get to grips with the fact that it's not a panacea. I've worked in Ireland, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK, and visited most other Eurozone countries as well as Russia while it was still communist. All countries have positives and negatives, things other places could learn from and endemic faults of their own.

But many people on MetaFilter seem to think European socialists would have it all worked out by now if only the darned capitalists would get out of the way. It's not that simple, and I wish more people would go try it out for a while so that they could focus not only on the things other countries do well but also on things that are done better in the US than abroad.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:42 PM on February 4, 2011


I don't think this is true at all. Take the United States: look at the emphasis on "skills learning" (vocational training, basically) in lower-income high schools, as opposed to the college prep that's available in higher-income high schools.

Sure, but many social democratic countries in Europe (among others: Germany, The Netherlands, and Sweden) have explicitly vocational streams in their education systems. Many fewer people go to university (which I think is a good thing) and many more go into vocational training programs.

I don't think what you're saying is correct at all, is there really a great deal of vocational training in lower-income US high schools? Are there many kids following carpentry of machining apprenticeships? I kind of doubt this, in fact one of the first things that school systems cut are these vocational programs.
This is for two reasons:
a) Teachers and administrators are all educated at academic universities.
b) They're actually way more expensive. If I want to teach a classical Greek course, all I need is a teacher, a classroom, and textbooks. Now, to my knowledge proper carpentry apprenticeships that are run by schools and industry together don't exist in the US at all, but even a shop class (as close as the American school system tends to come to voc. ed.) is really expensive to run. The machinery, the large space, the insurance (not cheap!).
posted by atrazine at 12:52 AM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'd like to hear a bit about this; what part, exactly, does the Irish government play in deciding what careers people are allowed to pursue?

There are two state-administered examinations that take place in high school. The former is geared towards people who leave after 3 years and can thenceforth only do trade school (rarer nowadays), the latter is taken after 5 or 6 years and determines college admissions. Results are graded and assigned point values, which are added up and compared against point admission requirements for different courses by a single university placement authority. If one does not have enough points for the course one wishes to take (you can register for 8 or 10), one is not eligible for the course and the only option is to repeat the examination the following year.

Extracurricular stuff has generally been considered irrelevant, though this is changing. So for example, one of the options I picked was to study journalism. I missed the requirement by a single point, as I had failed the physics exam despite usually being a B+ in that subject. The fact that I had proposed, founded, edited and sold a monthly student newspaper in my high school (not a traditional thing over there) would be considered on a US college admission, but the centralized point-based system in Ireland accords no weight to such things and individual universities don't have a free hand in choosing who to admit.

Students have to make all their decisions about which courses they want to take at which universities/colleges about 6 months before they take the exit exams, while still in high school; there's no recruiting. You make the choices about which subjects to take in the exit exam before you take the intermediate exam. You make the choices about which subjects to take on the intermediate exam before you have finished your first year of high school (and know the results of your school-administered summer exams). Switching classes is generally frowned upon, you don't get to change a major in college or switch your choice of subjects in high school unless you have an exceptionally good reason to do so. It's possible for a coursework decision you make at the age of 12 or 13 to end up having a direct impact on your college admission chances.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:57 AM on February 5, 2011


So, how many of you have ever tried packing a suitcase and actually moving to one of those countries, even on a temporary basis?

Well, I'm from one those countries (the Netherlands), though I actually don't live there at the moment.
posted by atrazine at 12:57 AM on February 5, 2011


(So, how many of you have ever tried packing a suitcase and actually moving to one of those countries, even on a temporary basis?)
Hang on while I conjure up either a job offer or ludicrous wealth.


Perhaps you'd like a ready-made social circle and romantic partner as well - no sense in going somewhere so far and not knowing who to talk to, is there? A diplomatic posting with the State department would suit you nicely. You deserve nothing less, because...because...um...

OK, I give up. What makes you so special that you can't stay in a youth hostel or couch-surf for a month in some large international city while you scare up some job to pay rent? Wash dishes, move furniture, work in a convenience store. Find some fake American burger place and offer to be their real American cook. You can learn the work in a day or two and it comes with free food while you wait to get paid, plus there might be tips. If they laugh and slam the door in your face then try somewhere else. Good jobs usually come through social contacts, but in order to develop any you need some way to sleep, eat, and find places to hang out.

I had about $6-700 when I came to the US and I didn't know a soul. For that matter, I didn't know anybody when I moved to London at the age of 18 either. There wasn't any world wide web, so I was forced to rely on my wits, a guide book, and newspapers. The world isn't going to organize itself around your needs any time soon, possibly not ever. If you want something you're going to have to go out and look for it.

Atrazine - it shows. 'Socialism' as understood in the US is something like Disneyland.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:05 AM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


One of the wonderful things about the world's population explosion is that, sooner or later - short of some mammoth catastrophe - everyone will become a socialist whether s/he wants to or not.

For a year or two, anyway.
posted by Twang at 2:54 AM on February 5, 2011


All this talk about the market slapping labels on babies' heads and flinging them violently into a pit of capitalist exploitation, to be sorted and trained for a hopeless future amounting to little more than slavery and death...asinine. Examining the worst-case failures of capitalism and pronouncing them to be the general case is either ignorant or dishonest.

I agree with that- capitalism deals with the labor market currently available. Any system that controls the economy of labor like that wouldn't be capitalism. That's getting toward fascism, I think. (Using the broad definition where the proles are meant to be grist for the mill of Industry.)

One of the wonderful things about the world's population explosion is that, sooner or later - short of some mammoth catastrophe - everyone will become a socialist whether s/he wants to or not.

For a year or two, anyway.


HA! Exactly. Capitalism is greed, socialism is compassion. One can't exist without the other- they are two sides of the same coin as far as I am concerned. If you try to legislate away one or the other, it will work for a while until someone starts getting greedy or hungry. And then we start stabbing each other in the neck.

They both act as societal shock absorbers for each other.
posted by gjc at 5:49 AM on February 5, 2011


And that does this have to do with Dick Shawn, anyway?
posted by gjc at 6:01 AM on February 5, 2011


Perhaps you'd like a ready-made social circle and romantic partner as well - no sense in going somewhere so far and not knowing who to talk to, is there? A diplomatic posting with the State department would suit you nicely. You deserve nothing less, because...because...um...

OK, I give up. What makes you so special that you can't stay in a youth hostel or couch-surf for a month in some large international city while you scare up some job to pay rent?


I'm an adult with debts and responsibilities, you smug, thoughtless horse's ass, and besides which, unless immigration policies have significantly changed, most Western countries won't simply let you in because you feel like coming on in. This whole "well shit I flitter about the world like a milkseed pod on the wine" bullshit is stupidly privileged and your utter lack of empathy and your inability to comprehend that other people have different situations and obligations than you is disgusting.


I've mostly been ignoring this thread, because I've learned that when liberals start talking about socialism, the usual American near-total ignorance of politics takes over the conversation and we start hearing all kinds of asinine and inane statements that, even if you point out how asinine they are, will just get repeated ad nauseum. But your little tirade about how people who think the European system is better should just uproot their lives and magically conjure the money needed to flit around the world and live in poverty... I mean, goddamn, what the hell is wrong with you? What's broken in your head that you can say things like that and not feel shame? Are you so devoid of empathy that you don't understand how privileged the ability to simply up and leave the country is?
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:52 AM on February 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


What's broken in your head that you can say things like that and not feel shame? Are you so devoid of empathy that you don't understand how privileged the ability to simply up and leave the country is?

Um, he was making a point about the inflexibility of those country's job markets. I'd rather be an immigrant here than in France or Sweden, particularly if I wasn't white.

"I don't think this is true at all. Take the United States: look at the emphasis on "skills learning" (vocational training, basically) in lower-income high schools, as opposed to the college prep that's available in higher-income high schools."

Sure, but many social democratic countries in Europe (among others: Germany, The Netherlands, and Sweden) have explicitly vocational streams in their education systems. Many fewer people go to university (which I think is a good thing) and many more go into vocational training programs.


Haha, this is so true. In the US in poor schools there is no emphasis on vocational skills. There is emphasis on passing standardized tests so the school administration doesn't get in trouble.

In Sweden or Germany you get sorted into various paths kind of young. People who don't do well in tests do often end up at vocational schools. Most of my Swedish BF's brothers were at such schools and I'd say they were 100% better off than my poor relatives in Mississippi. But there is a tradeoff. I guess it's possible and it did happen that some of us climbed the ladder out of there on personal ingenuity rather than doing well at tests, but his brothers are stuck being plumbers. However, being a plumber is a well-paid stable job...

Another thing that was interesting to me in Sweden was that you can't just decide in college that you want to be a doctor. You are tracked into those professional schools in high school. It's kind of rigid, but much less stressful in some ways.
posted by melissam at 7:08 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


As Pope Guilty said, there is a big difference between being a citizen of a country with generous social welfare provisions and living there as basically an illegal immigrant. An American living in a European country outside of legal visa status has no access to the majority of those wonderful facilities we have. Even if they did, they still wouldn't speak the language, would be far away from their families.
posted by atrazine at 7:11 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm of two minds about the European approach actually. I think that we have things just about right in the Netherlands, it has the same streaming as the German system but is less rigid. At any point you can switch to a "catch-up" course, and end up in the higher stream. There's no point in the system at which there is no return.
posted by atrazine at 7:29 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This essay was really, really good.
posted by milestogo at 8:19 AM on February 5, 2011


Europe is a large geographical area comprising many nation states, all of whom do things differently from each other. Here's the Wikipedia entry on Europe in case you're unclear.
posted by Summer at 11:14 AM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm an adult with debts and responsibilities, you smug, thoughtless horse's ass, and besides which, unless immigration policies have significantly changed, most Western countries won't simply let you in because you feel like coming on in.

Don't give me that. You're a student and there are all sorts of ways to go visit Europe on a student visa and work legally. For that matter I've met plenty of Americans working illegally in big European cities. No government in Europe cares much about trying to keep Americans out, and lots of businesses are happy to hire an American either to bring in other Americans (in a bar for example) or to help them reach American buyers with an export product. These are not career-boosting kinds of jobs, but they're fine for supporting yourself and possibly even making some money while you gain experience living in a different country, possibly learning another language or something as well.

But your little tirade about how people who think the European system is better should just uproot their lives and magically conjure the money needed to flit around the world and live in poverty... I mean, goddamn, what the hell is wrong with you? What's broken in your head that you can say things like that and not feel shame? Are you so devoid of empathy that you don't understand how privileged the ability to simply up and leave the country is?

If you can conjure up money, by definition you don't live in poverty. If you can scrape up/save the money for a ticket to go somewhere and then get some bottom-rung job like washing dishes or scrubbing floors in order to feed, house and clothe yourself, there's no privilege at work.

Do you think all the illegal aliens who have come from/via Mexico to the US to work long hours for shit pay are privileged? I mean, they just upped and left whichever country it was that they came from, so according to you they're just 'flitting around the world.' According to you, all those years I spent working in kitchens and on building sites and sleeping in dormitories I was actually living a life of privilege and thumbing my snobby nose at poor working-class people like yourself, from the superior position of building your houses, cooking your fries, and shoveling your shit. I guess when my future in-laws were floating through the Yellow Sea in the hold of a leaky cargo vessel, that's practically the same as an all-amenities pleasure cruise. Too bad there was never someone like you around to tell us how privileged we were. Oh wait - there was. Now that I think about it, many of the people doling out very small amounts of money in return for very long hours of work used to cite their obligations and responsibilities as an explanation for why they would not be paying that promised wage increase after all. Good times, had I but known.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:47 PM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Disney against the metaphysicals"
-Pound
posted by clavdivs at 7:18 PM on February 5, 2011


Don't give me that. You're a student and there are all sorts of ways to go visit Europe on a student visa and work legally. For that matter I've met plenty of Americans working illegally in big European cities. No government in Europe cares much about trying to keep Americans out

First of all, while I don't want to be all "Haha, I'm comment-stalking Pope Guilty", I seem to vaguely recall that last time someone pulled a "you don't know anything about poverty as a student" on him, he produced a much favourited response that rather shut down that line of "argument".
All of this is irrelevant. We're not talking about people who wish they could live in Europe because they like old buildings or studying languages, or even to escape civil war or other violence.
This thread (which started out about Wallace Shawn) is now apparently about Socialism or social democratic systems and Americans who wished they lived in them. Not about Americans who wished they were illegal waiters living on the margins in European countries.

You said earlier:
So, how many of you have ever tried packing a suitcase and actually moving to one of those countries, even on a temporary basis?

Which triggered Pope Guilty's response. But if we're discussing people who want a social-democratic system, then why is it appropriate to bring up Americans working illegally in Big Ted's Tex Mex Joint or wherever-the-fuck in Europe? Illegals, even white American illegals, do not benefit from the generous state education, unemployment benefits, subsidised housing, or health care services that legal citizens and other residents of various European countries may have access to. If they do get sick, they'll get treated and then deported if they're lucky (it's not unknown for the government to try and bill you for your treatment).

Once again, when Americans say they want a social democratic system, by no means do they mean that they want to be illegal immigrants living a life where they'll never have any kind of career or security. If I said that I wanted to stay at the Four Seasons Hong Kong, you presumably wouldn't advise me to get a job scrubbing toilets there so that I could sleep in a dormitory in the sub-basement.
posted by atrazine at 9:53 PM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I did not say PG "doesn't know anything about poverty as a student." He's the one saying that anyone who goes from one country to another and works at a blue collar job is living a life of privilege, which is bullshit.

The reason it's relevant is that if you live somewhere for a while, even if it's only a few months, you get a much better sense of how things work there - both the good aspects and the bad aspects. And when you have a better idea of how things actually function, you can make more persuasive and informed arguments about what, why, and how domestic institutions can be improved by incorporating ideas from abroad. You can learn useful and interesting things about a place without necessarily needing to be fully or permanently integrated into the socioeconomic system. You can get a good perspective on how social-democratic public sector services work, where they do a better job than the private sector does, and where they sometimes fall short.

Some interesting and useful observations are more easily made from the margins than from the comfortable center of things, like how responsive the public sector is towards the least well-off, or what sort of bite high sales taxes take out of a worker's wages. These would be useful things to understand when advocating an expanded role for the public sector in the US, so as to avoid duplicating mistakes or understand in advance what the political obstacles will be, but they are rarely talked about. Advocates of more social democracy just invoke its successes in Europe in some vague hand-waving fashion, as if it's just a matter of passing a law that will raise some new taxes on the rich and bingo, problem solved.

As we say in Ireland, "faraway hills look green." To find out whether things are actually better on those hills (and whether or how we should do things differently on this one), you need to go over and take a closer look.

Once again, when Americans say they want a social democratic system, by no means do they mean that they want to be illegal immigrants living a life where they'll never have any kind of career or security. If I said that I wanted to stay at the Four Seasons Hong Kong, you presumably wouldn't advise me to get a job scrubbing toilets there so that I could sleep in a dormitory in the sub-basement.

You seem unclear on the concept. If you wanted me to build you a hotel but considered yourself too good to actually try working in one, I'd tell you to go build it yourself. If you want to have a social democratic system on the European model, then you should live in one for a while in order to understand what the trade-offs are.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:56 PM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I up and moved to Germany in October.

It's not Disneyland, no, but the U.S. could definitely stand to learn a few things about public transportation, health care, and a social safety net, as a few examples.

There are areas where I think Germany might also, perhaps, benefit from change (their attitude towards working mothers is a bit ... weird, to my American eyes), and areas where reasonable people might disagree (I am no fan of big box stores, which have difficulty getting a toehold here, but low price and one-stop shopping have their vocal advocates as well.)

But on some of the "socialism" aspects ... yeah, I don't see how the U.S. would be anything but improved by not being so frightened of the term.
posted by kyrademon at 5:57 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you want to have a social democratic system on the European model, then you should live in one for a while in order to understand what the trade-offs are.

OK, well, just so you know, about 300,000,000 people are headed your way to check things out. I mean, we can't know unless we experience it firsthand, right?

Don't worry. We've asked Canada to check the mail and keep an eye on things while we're gone.
posted by krinklyfig at 4:22 PM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


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