The less some Americans know, the more strident and voluble they become. Take socialism. The wailing about it over healthcare reform proves my proposition.
Shrill critics menacingly brandish "socialism" to terrify the unthinking, forgetting – or willfully ignoring – that while the United States is capitalist, it's also hip deep in various modes of socialism.
Republicans apparently don't know that it was their beloved President Theodore Roosevelt who in 1912 proposed national health insurance for all.
Some American critics of socialized medicine cite nightmarish accounts of bungled medical treatment abroad, boasting that America has the best medical system in the world.
As a foreign correspondent, I lived in Britain, Germany, Israel, and the Soviet Union and did not discover any sapping of a nation's vital essences because the public enjoyed publicly funded national health insurance.
As a US citizen who lived more than two decades abroad, I found socialized national health insurance programs are often more compassionate and charitable than what I have seen with profit-driven, private insurance companies in the United States.
Some years ago my former wife took my sons on a driving tour of Britain and became involved in an accident. My elder son had a badly broken leg and was taken to a hospital for six weeks until his leg healed. Although I didn't live in Britain at the time, the British National Insurance system paid all his hospital and doctor bills. When I offered to reimburse the hospital, the British charitably declined and only charged me $35 for a crutch my son used to hobble aboard a plane home to America.
A decade ago, a federal report shocked the nation by suggesting that our modern medical system was one of the leading causes of death in America. It called for cutting the rates of medical mistakes in half within five years. But it's only gotten worse. Today, preventable medical injuries kill some 200,000 Americans each year.
Earlier this year, a friend entered a suburban Chicago hospital to have a gall bladder removed. The surgeon was scheduled to go on vacation immediately after finishing the operation. In the process of making a large incision, the doctor unknowingly nicked the lower intestine and punctured the aorta. My friend nearly bled to death before the surgeon discovered his error.
Where is the statistical evidence that private healthcare outperforms national health insurance programs? The United States ranks 37th on health outcomes, according to the World Health Organization, and it has one of the highest infant mortality rates among developed countries, suggesting that socialized medicine may afford better patient care in some situations.
Opponents of the White House healthcare plans deliberately distort the extent of government involvement in such programs, when the only thing to be "socialized" was the so-called public option health insurance plan – and that may be dropped. Doctors and hospitals would remain private. Critics appear to have deliberately polarized public opinion to scuttle President Obama's initiatives.
Meanwhile, members of Congress enjoy "cradle to grave" socialist medical and retirement benefits that outstrip those of the old Soviet Central Committee members.
Many thousands of the poorest Americans and illegal aliens already have access to taxpayer-funded socialized medicine and hospitals through existing Medicaid benefits. One physician tells me that Medicaid recipients get free hospital care plus stipends at taxpayers' expense. Yet tens of millions of working Americans whose taxes subsidize Medicaid have no access to any health insurance of their own.
Particularly lame are the complaints of healthcare critics in the southeastern US who benefit from the regional socialism of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned-and-operated supplier of electricity for tens of millions.
America's Social Security program is Bismarckian socialism. Medicare, especially with its prescription drug benefit program is socialistic. Government aid to parochial schools is sleight-of-hand socialism.
Socialism's most vocal critics are often beneficiaries of corporate welfare with all its perks: expense account meals, free NFL box seats, free corporate cellphone use. One firm for which I worked held foreign correspondent meetings in Rome, enabling the executives to visit tailors and shop for Christmas presents in Italy. Exploiting US tax codes, corporate America has long enjoyed its own brand of socialism subsidized by taxpayers.
Like most Americans, I am not overly keen on socialism. History shows that it can curb important personal freedoms and stultify entire economies. But it is not inherently evil. And by the way, if you enjoy your 40-hour workweek, with weekends off, you owe those to an earlier generation of socialist-leaning labor leaders who championed that and so much more that Americans now take for granted.
Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition.