Christopher Beam, in a Slate magazine last Wednesday (published while I was winging my way back to the UK by a modified air route far south of Iceland), connects the strange business of birtherism (the political perversion of believing, or pretending to believe, that President Obama doesn't have a US birth certificate and thus isn't constitutionally allowed to serve) to lexical semantics:
Birtherism is here to stay. And not because more people are going crazy, but because crazy has been redefined. Birtherism isn't the only example. Consider how conservatives accuse Obama of peddling "socialism." Sure, some of them genuinely think that Obama is going to usher in a new Soviet state in which the government owns all means of production. But most right-wingers use it as shorthand for government overreach. So now that's what "socialism" means.
There is a fairly major difference between birtherism and the socialism charge: Birtherism has been disproved by facts. But they're similar in the way they get tossed around without much connection to their original meaning.
He isn't very clear in the way he puts this: "crazy has been redefined" isn't quite right, because everyone agrees that craziness is irrationality or mental disorder of a sort that gives rise to unpredictably strange behavior. But the idea that the word socialism has actually changed its denotation in modern American English might not be so crazy.
Having grown up in England and then moved to America, I do actually recall reading books about socialism, and knowing actual socialists. Very few Americans have ever met a socialist. The socialists at the University of York that I knew in the 1970s were divided into various factions and microfactions depending on their exact interpretation of the degree to which Trotsky had been right to break with Lenin, and the the degree to which Lenin had betrayed the ideas of Marx, and the degree to which the murderous Stalin had utterly wrecked the strategy of Lenin. But all of them would laugh at the idea that the Labour Party, often referred to by the newspapers back then as "the socialists", were socialist at all.
To be a socialist, at least of the Trotskyite stripe (and everyone to the right of them was dismissed as being to some extent fascist enemies of the people), you had to believe not only that capitalism and private ownership of homes and businesses was a massive evil for humanity and had to be eliminated, but also that capitalism was almost certainly going to be destroyed, in a revolution that would involve the working people rising up and completely destroying the state and its political machinery. The people would seize the "means of production" and would reorganize society into a system where councils of workers would determine everything about the economic, political, and social life of the country, and indeed, the world. There would be no conventional political leaders leading this revolution, and it certainly would not be televised.
National borders would soon cease to matter, so it wouldn't matter who was foreign-born and who wasn't — the division between Indonesians and Kenyans and Americans was just another trick of the fascist capitalists to divide the workers. After the revolution there would be no Members of Parliament in the UK or Senators in the USA because there would be no Parliament and no Senate. There would be some inequality of income due to differential level of work contributions, but even that was supposed to be only a transitional state on the way to the final perfection of communism. Ultimately, under the communism that socialism would lead to, there would be no bankers for any president or government to bail out because not only would there be no president or government, there would be no banks.
The idea that the Soviet Union was socialist (let alone communist) was also derided. The true socialists in Britain in the 1970s regarded the Soviet Union exactly as Ronald Reagan did: it was an "evil empire", ruled by a corrupt Russian dictatorship. Russia needed a socialist revolution perhaps more than any country in the world, and had done since Lenin began to betray the 1917 revolution some time in the early 1920s. In the UK you could stand on a box at the famous Hyde Park Corner free speech area and shout that the government was a corrupt bunch of plutocrats and should be destroyed by a popular uprising, even if there were policemen walking nearby; whereas in Russia if you did any such thing, or even considerably less, you would be sent to a camp in Siberia for decades. The difference was that they regarded the British government as a corrupt plutocracy as well — and the American government as considerably worse.
Socialism meant complete and utter dismantling of the capitalist system — the very idea that you could have private property and own a house and have a bank account and run a profit-making business and keep the profits. It meant no more politicians or kings or queens or presidents. The idea that socialism might be compatible with a charismatic politician holding the office of President of the United States, and working with a Congress that passed laws, and heading armed services that could be directed to fight wars, and protecting the world financial system by having a Secretary of the Treasury (formerly president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) regulating the banking industry and bailing it out of its problem with "troubled assets" would have seemed a total sell-out to the real socialists.
And the fact of Hitler's party having chosen the term "National Socialist" for itself was treated as just a bizarre semantic perversion. Nothing could have been further from the ideals of socialism than the ruthlessly racist and militaristic nightmare that Hitler unleashed. If you wanted to wear a socialist button, first, at the very least, you had to be anti-racist, internationalist, and opposed to wars that had the people fighting each other for the interests of nation states (though that did not mean being opposed to violent struggle to bring about the revolution).
When today's Tea Party activists declare that Obama is a socialist, do they seriously commit to any of the foregoing principles of socialism? Do they even know about them? Do they seriously think Obama is working to have the people rise up so that he has no presidency, and no armed forces to be commander-in-chief of, and he simply has to work in a collectively owned factory to contribute to the material well-being of society like anybody else, and lend his voice, one among equals, to the discussions in the worker's committees that would run the factory?
It is reasonable to think that they do not think this at all — that they use the term "socialist" as a kind of general term of abuse aimed at anyone in the political establishment who is involved in government control of things like the Federal Reserve, the Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and so on. Their "socialists" are exactly the sort of people who would have been the first target of the real socialists who were attending meetings of Trotskyite factions at universities in Britain in the 1970s. The socialists that today's radical Republican right-wingers rail against are the very establishment that the Trotskyites aimed to deprive of their power.
At the very least, we have to allow for a massive polysemy in the word socialist today (the Webster's dictionary entry quite properly begins with "any of various theories or social and political movements…"). A word must be flexible indeed if it is to cover early Christian communities who gave up private property; Trotsky's atheistic plans for a worker-controlled Russia; the bureaucratic authoritarian Soviet Russian state as it actually existed between 1920 and 1990; the Labour Party of postwar Britain with its nationalized industries alongside privately owned ones; and "government overreach" such as the Democrats' guarantee of insurance coverage permitting Americans access to their country's largely private and profit-making health industry.