In The News
Demons of Socialism arise in John Nichols’ lecture
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Invited by mentor Frank Zeidler, then titular head of America’s Socialist Party, to address the group’s annual picnic, the young journalist was deeply honored,-- even though the picnic turned out to be about 12 people.
“It’s a bigger crowd than usual this year,” Zeidler told John Nichols, “so you’d better use the microphone.”
“Frank, I’ve got a big voice,” Nichols recalled, as he regaled the crowd at Centennial Hall with some tongue-in-cheek memories. But Zeidler insisted on dragging out the traditional Socialist Party mike, which explained a lot to Nichols about the faded modern fortunes of the party. It looked like an antiquated giant box.
“I think Norman Thomas used this,” Zeidler told Nichols, referring to the 1930s Socialist commentator. “No,” Nichols retorted, “more like Eugene Debs,” invoking the turn of the century union leader.
For the audience gathered for his free lecture at the Milwaukee Public Library Centennial Hall, Nichols used these tales not just for humor but to defuse the current hysteria over what Nichols called “the S Word, the one that has social and ism in it.” The ism and Frank Zeidler (whose casual talks influenced hundreds of young people before his death a few years ago) may well be the topic of Nichols’ next book, since debunking the myth of an all-powerful political movement seems long overdue.
Nichols is now nationally known as author or co-author of provocative books on current issues (the latest being “Death and Life of American Journalism”), as columnist for the Nation, as radio and TV commentator and guest, and as progressive voice for independent journalism.
He grew up in Union Grove – under the “shadows of socialism” and the nearby “totalitarianism schemes” of Milwaukee Mayor Zeidler, a description that evoked gales of laughter from the audience attending the not so coincidentally named annual Zeidler lecture, dedicated to the public service of the late mayor who brought clean, pragmatic service to the city.
The timing and circumstances of this lecture added to the humor – and the point. Nichols was speaking on the day President Obama signed national health care into law -- amid cries and slurs from opponents that this was the country’s Armageddon takeover by Socialism, whose most famous practitioner in the US was Zeidler.
And Nichols was speaking 50 years after Zeidler left office as the last major Socialist leader elected in the US. The talk also came 100 years after the bigger landmark, when Socialists swept to power at Milwaukee’s City Hall, resulting as Nichols pointed out, “ in the page one headline in the New York Times: Red Triumph in the Middle West.”
Nichols’ main theme dated back a century to Victor Berger, a Socialist campaign manager, 5th District representative to the US Congress (elected twice by Milwaukeeans even after the House refused to seat him because of his anti-militarism during World War I) and pioneer journalist and editor of the Milwaukee Leader.
The history lesson he offered will come as a shock to Tea Party rallyers and Fox bloggers but they owe their free speech and free press protection to oppose government policy because of spirited defense of the Bill of Rights from a Milwaukee Socialist. Berger won some defining opinions about free speech from the most famous justices on the US Supreme Court of the time, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis.
The Zeidler anecdotes were prelude to the main theme, but they vividly spoke to the current exaggerated turmoil – and to the tone of wry amusement Nichols adopted throughout.
He recalled teasing Zeidler about his devotion to the Socialist Party label even after Republicans, Democrats, Greens and whatever had shanghaied concepts of good service through government. Zeidler gave Nichols back as good as he got in defending the ideas of his party even if its actually influence had waned in America.
Then again, Nichols said looking at today’s political rhetoric, “I guess we have to stop joking” about socialism’s evaporation. “Over the past weekend, half of the Congress of the United States, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and Sarah Palin all said socialism was taking over the United States. Who am I to argue with them?”
Pointing to the one active registered Socialist in the Centennial Hall crowd, Nichols quoted her as saying, “I guess we’d better start taking over the government because right now we can’t get 10 people to our meetings.”
“But in truth,” Nichols said, “Frank would have loved every part of this weekend” when health care finally passed in Congress. “He would have been amused that a little bit of health insurance would be described as socialism.”
“But he would also have been pleased that a framework for national health care was finally put in place. It did what the Socialist Party said in 1900, 1904” and on and on “even in 1976 when Frank Zeidler was the party’s candidate for president -- that the government has a role in providing health care to Americans.”
Nichols in his syndicated columns has also written extensively that a lot is still missing in the health legislation, so as he said at Centennial Hall, “This is probably not as good a plan as Frank would have proposed.”
“But the bill realizes another of Frank Zeidler’s beliefs” – the importance of racial and gender diversity. That belief “was not just to be nice to black people or women,” Nichols explained, but because “their involvement would bring a better country.” And now he and the late Frank Zeidler have their proof.
“As I heard all the talk the last few days about how presidents from Teddy Roosevelt on” – here Nichols rattled off the familiar litany through Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton – “proposed health care and all failed . . .
“Well, Frank would have very much appreciated that when we put a woman in charge of the House and a black man as president, we got health care.”
The event was televised by Milwaukee public TV. Along with future availability it was scheduled for broadcast twice on Easter Sunday, April 3, on Channel 36 (Channel 16 on Warner Cable) at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Nichols’ talk was the third in the annual lecture series, and was dedicated to the memory of Zeidler’s widow, Agnes, who died last year. One of their daughters, Anita, attended and she and other notables there were saluted by Nichols – including elected officials past and present, and colleagues of the Zeidlers.
Committee chair of the Zeidler lecture series is Philip Blank, retired member of the AFT. The moderator handling the entertaining question and answer period was Dawn Drellos.
And while Nichols is a national figure and the talk was about public-good journalism, the only working local newspaper journalist there was from the Labor Press, though Nichols pointed out a noted Milwaukee Journal departure in the house, Tom Heinen, now executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and a member of the Zeidler lecture committee.