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Should Bernie Sanders drop socialism?
The term socialism makes political discourse difficult. Should we do away with it altogether?
- Politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have self-styled themselves as socialists.
- Linguist John McWhorter argues the term is so polluted that even well-intented usage will make critical discourse impossible.
- He recommends leftists drop the liberal and socialist labels and transition fully to progressives.
Bernie Sanders is on a mission to save socialism. Not the concept, the term. He has described his politics as democratic socialist for decades. His popularity in the 2016 Democratic primaries saw a resurgence of the label among Americans, especially millennials. And last month he delivered a speech titled — with no sense of Calvin and Hobbes-style irony — "How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism."
But Sander's battle is being fought on two fronts. On the left front, socialists' organizations argue he has misappropriated their label, while the right front has surged with moral panic over socialism's burgeoning popularity.
As President Trump said at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference, "Democrat lawmakers are now embracing socialism. Socialism is not about the environment. It's not about justice. It's not about virtue. Socialism is about only one thing. It's called 'power for the ruling class.' That's what it is."
These competing ideas and definitions have left many confused, and since 2016, article after article, ad nauseam, has been penned to try to untangle socialism's lexical mess. At the 2019 Aspen Ideas Festival, linguist John McWhorter pitched a novel solution. Why don't we just toss the word out?
How do we define socialism? (Depends on who you ask.)
Many people still understand socialism in its Cold War context, but the term has evolved much since. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Before we get into McWhorter's argument, it's worth exploring said lexical mess.
In fairness to Sanders, he has been clear in how he defines democratic socialism. As he explained at a Georgetown University speech in 2015:
Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy. Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.
For Sanders, democratic socialism offers a mixed-economy system to level the social playing field for all. It's the system we have today, but with some quality-of-life upgrades such as universal health care, free college tuition, and a guaranteed living wage.
The problem is that Sander's definition incorporates a free market and private ownership of production, both principles that stand in direct opposition to traditional definitions of socialism and democratic socialism. "To me, socialism doesn't mean state ownership of everything, by any means. It means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living."
Confused? Big Think writer Scotty Hendricks wrote a handy guide to socialism and its variants as typically defined by political philosophers. Here's a quick rundown:
Socialism. An economic system where the means of production are socially owned, as opposed to capitalism. In some understandings, the state does the owning and takes care of people's needs; in others, worker cooperatives or communes perform that task.
Democratic Socialism. The means of production are socially owned by the state, cooperative, or commune, but such means are managed democratically.
Social democracy. A mixed economy with a free-market system. However, the government regulates the market and may enforce control over some portions of the economy. It is sometimes called the Nordic model.
Yes, what Sanders calls democratic socialism typically goes by social democracy, and it's worth noting that labels like social liberal and New Dealer could potentially apply, too.
National Socialism. Socialism in this context is vestigial. The term was added to the National Socialists German Worker's Party (i.e., the Nazis) name to draw in leftist support. But once in power, the Nazis pursued a virulently anti-socialist policy by dissolving trade unions, ending social welfare programs, etc. If someone tells you the Nazis were socialists, remember that national socialism is the adopted sibling of the socialism family. It's related by name, not by blood.
This doesn't even begin to consider socialism's relationship with communism, which is a whole other headache to consider.
The case against Bernie Sanders use of socialism
This brings us back to McWhorter. Surveying socialism's historical baggage and many usages, he concluded the label is too polluted to be anything but toxic in American politics. It reminds us of the Soviet Union, he notes, and is associated (if unfairly) with the Nazi menace. And it's just plain unpatriotic.
"Wherever there's socialism, it's always a cloudy day," McWhorter said. "We shouldn't think of it that way probably, but that doesn't mean that we don't, and it doesn't mean that we can necessarily change it."
In recent years, Gallup has tracked American's feelings toward socialism. Its 2018 poll showed that fewer than half of Americans, age 30 and older, viewed socialism positively. The older an American, the less likely they were to have a favorable view of the word.
Conversely, capitalism was seen positively among most Americans though, again, more favorably among older Americans.
It's as though Americans are still channeling William F. Buckley when he said: "The problem with socialism is socialism. Because there are no socialists. Socialism is a system based upon an assumption about human nature that simply isn't true."
But McWhorter has his banhammer aimed at more than just socialism. He also argued the word liberal has become equally elusive. Like socialism, liberalism has been renamed, redefined, and repackaged in innumerable ways – social liberalism, neoliberalism, classical liberalism, progressive liberalism, radical liberalism (need we go on?). With each qualifier or semantic change, the term becomes more difficult to parse and makes discourse fraught with confusion.
Enough is enough, McWhorter argues.
What McWhorter is and isn't saying
First, McWhorter is not arguing against any ideas espoused as liberal or socialist. He is merely arguing that the terms themselves obfuscate rather than elucidate.
Second, McWhorter admits that his is an odd stance for a linguist to take. Typically, linguists are content to sit and watch as words shift, drift, and evolve through languages. It is what words do, and like a nature photographer, linguists record the process. They don't make judgments or interfere.
But McWhorter believes these terms have a uniquely destructive effect on our political discourse:
I think we need to talk about things in a new way. I think that we could have more time to talk about real things if we didn't have these ancient, and frankly effed up, terms gumming up the works and allowing unscrupulous people to make accusations that don't actually make any sense, but which have to be discussed leaving less time to talk about the crisis that our nation is in.
If not socialism, what term should Bernie Sanders adopt?
The Chinese Progressive Association protesting at a Stop ICE Rally. (Photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen/Wikimedia Commons)
According to McWhorter, we already have a perfectly good word waiting in the wings, progressive. Unlike socialism, progressive is not weighted down by overly complex semantic change (yet) nor does it require listeners to perform tricky "mental acrobatics." It would further alleviate confusion between liberal and libertarian — both of which stem from the Latin liber-, meaning "free," but represent contrasting ideals — as well as nonpolitical uses, as in "liberal arts education."
As a bonus, the word is "etymologically transparent." Progressive means someone who wants "to progress" the current status quo. It contrasts nicely with conservative, someone who wants "to conserve" the status quo.
Across the board adoption of progressive would simplify our political discourse, streamline conversation, and make it so that bad actors can't willfully play an ideological shell game (see President Trump's comment above).
Can socialism be saved?
Earlier this year, I wrote an article wondering whether Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could redefine socialism in the U.S. There is some evidence that they are managing it.
The previously mentioned Gallup poll showed that more young Americans (age 18-29) hold a positive view of socialism than capitalism. Another Gallup poll found that more Americans today define socialism as meaning "equality and equal rights" versus "government ownership of the means of production." For both the tipping point came in 2016, when Sanders started his presidential bid.
McWhorter acknowledges that word definitions can ameliorate over time, but typically they drift into pejorative territory. Nefarious used to simply mean "famous" before coming to mean "wicked." Writing for the Atlantic, he points out that neoliberal originally separated middle-of-the-road conservatives from laissez-faire capitalists. Today, the word is little more than a "knee-jerk slur" used by the left to describe far-right conservatives.
Can socialism be saved? Maybe, but the struggle is uphill and the outcome unlikely. McWhorter's solution is far simpler, far less messy, and offers a change our political discourse desperately needs. Maybe it's time Bernie Sanders drop the socialism label.
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The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
What’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota?
This is a mysterious map. Obviously about music, or more precisely musicians. But what’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota? None of these musicians are from those states! Everyone knows that! Is this map that stupid, or just looking for a fight? Let’s pause a moment and consider our attention spans, shrinking faster than polar ice caps.
MRI scans show that hunger and loneliness cause cravings in the same area, which suggests socialization is a need.
- A new study demonstrates that our brains crave social interaction with the same areas used to crave food.
- Hungry test subjects also reported a lack of desire to socialize, proving the existence of "hanger."
- Other studies have suggested that failure to socialize can lead to stress eating in rodents.
People sometimes crave socialization, literally.<p> Forty participants underwent 10 hours of either social isolation or fasting before being placed in an MRI machine. Those who fasted had their brains imaged while viewing pictures of food; those emerging from isolation viewed photos of socializing people. <strong><br> <br> </strong>The areas of the brain related to hunger pains, reward, and movements, the substantia nigra pars compacta and ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), are also associated with cravings for food or addictive substances. When those who fasted viewed images of food, these regions of their brains lit up. Most interestingly, the same brain regions lit up when those who had been isolated for 10 hours saw pictures of other people socializing. <br> <br> Test subjects also filled out questionnaires during and after the fasting and isolation periods. Not only did this confirm that people felt cravings for what they had missed, but that the effect was similar in both cases. </p><p>They also showed that very hungry people were less responsive to images of socializing, suggesting that "hanger," the state of being irritable as a result of hunger, is a demonstrable <a href="https://www.insider.com/loneliness-and-hunger-have-similar-effects-on-the-brain-study-2020-11" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state</a>. </p>
How can I use this information? I’m asking for a friend.<p> The obvious takeaway is that it is perfectly normal to feel a need for interaction with others after an extended bout of isolation. Our brains treat some form of interaction as a basic need that must be met. While not shown as clearly in humans, not getting these needs often drives mice to <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29334694/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress ea</a><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29334694/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">t</a>, a finding that makes a great deal of sense in light of these new findings. <br> </p><p>Exactly how we can meet the need for socialization outside of just meeting up with people (a tricky proposition at the time of writing) remains up for debate. Anybody who has tried a Zoom party during the pandemic can attest to it just not being as nice as seeing friends in person. <br> <br> The study's authors are aware of this issue and note that:<br> <br> "A vital question is how much, and what kinds of, positive social interaction is sufficient to fulfill our social needs and thus eliminate the neural craving response. Technological advances offer incessant opportunities to be virtually connected with others, despite physical separations. Yet, some have argued that using social media only exacerbates subjective feelings of isolation.<sup>"</sup><br> </p><p>Unfortunately, the study cannot offer us an answer to this question just yet. </p>
Like always, there are limitations to this study.<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/sgxMsgDWnAU" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> This study involved 40 participants. While its essential finding is likely to be generally applicable, exactly how applicable it is to the broader population cannot be known with certainty from such a small group. The participants were also healthy, well-connected young adults who might react to various problems differently than other demographic groups. </p><p>Their tendency to do so while being the focus of endless studies on psychology is a well-recorded problem. <br> <br> Likewise, the fact that the participants knew they would only be isolated for 10 hours may have impacted how they reacted to the isolation—it is often easier to endure something when you know precisely when it will end. </p><p>Getting around that in future experiments may prove impossible. From an ethical standpoint, it would be difficult to structure an experiment on humans predicated on the idea that they will be kept isolated from all social interaction indefinitely. <br> <br> Lastly, while all of the participants were quite hungry after 10 hours, there were enough variations in how lonely people felt after isolation to suggest a more significant variance in need for socialization than in demand for food. While this seems obvious, we all know both introverts and extroverts; it does make it more challenging to determine how much social interaction counts as a "need" that the brain craves just as it craves food. </p><p>As usual, more research is needed.</p><p> The idea that humans are social animals existed long before modern neuroscience was possible. Now, we can see exactly what happens in the brain when we can't socialize. While the final word on the subject is still to be said, it might be time to give a friend a call. </p>
Researchers document the first example of evolutionary changes in a plant in response to humans.
- A plant coveted in China for its medicinal properties has developed camouflage that makes it less likely to be spotted and pulled up from the ground.
- In areas where the plant isn't often picked, it's bright green. In harvested areas, it's now a gray that blends into its rocky surroundings.
- Herbalists in China have been picking the Fritillaria dealvayi plant for 2,000 years.
Fritillaria dealvayi<p>The plant is <em> </em><a href="http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=200027633" target="_blank"><em>Fritillaria dealvayi</em></a><em>,</em> and its bulbs are harvested by Chinese herbalists, who grind it into a powder that treats coughs. The cough powder sells for the equivalent of $480 per kilogram, with a kilogram requiring the grinding up of about 3,500 bulbs. The plant is found in the loose rock fields lining the slopes of the Himalayan and Hengduan mountains in southwestern China.</p><p>As a perennial that produces just a single flower each year after its fifth season, it seems <em>Fritillaria</em> used to be easier to find. In some places its presence is betrayed by bright green leaves that stand out against the rocks among which which it grows. In other places, however, its leaves and stems are gray and blend in with the rocks. What's fascinating is that the bright green leaves are visible in areas in which Fritillaria is relatively undisturbed by humans while the gray leaves are (just barely) visible in heavily harvested areas. Same plant, two different appearances.</p><div id="19cbf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c68d3086f5411ffd951edaad1cb811b9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1329832938985435138" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">2/2: The picture on the left shows a Fritillaria delavayi in populations with high harvest pressure, and the one on… https://t.co/oriBNZGcsV</div> — University of Exeter News (@University of Exeter News)<a href="https://twitter.com/UniofExeterNews/statuses/1329832938985435138">1605891854.0</a></blockquote></div>
How we know we're the cause<p>There are other camouflaging plants, but the manner in which <em>Fritillaria</em> has developed this trait strongly suggests that it's a defensive response to being picked. "Many plants seem to use camouflage to hide from herbivores that may eat them — but here we see camouflage evolving in response to human collectors."</p><p>"Like other camouflaged plants we have studied," Niu says, " we thought the evolution of camouflage of this fritillary had been driven by herbivores, but we didn't find such animals." His close examination of Fritillaria leaves revealed no bite marks or other signs of non-human predation. "Then we realized humans could be the reason."</p><p>In any event, says Professor Hang Sun the Kunming Institute, "Commercial harvesting is a much stronger selection pressure than many pressures in nature."</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDgyNzM0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDc3NDQwMn0.lXwsG0ShcnMcVLl06APdEeEOY5_WOs4UfN8oVCKsgtc/img.png?width=980" id="ccc8e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="907e152dd5ad0429aa6350c53f5a85aa" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="herb shop" />
Credit: maron/Adobe Stock