Obama and the Call for 'Economic Justice'

Historically, social justice has meant different things to different people, and equally so today, where the term remains as frustratingly elusive as ever -- an ambiguity to the left's advantage. Like the progressives who champion the term, the definition seems to evolve based on progressives' ever-evolving purposes. Like progressivism itself, "social justice" is hard to pin down.

Most exasperating is that many who speak the language of social justice really mean "economic justice." Unlike traditional practitioners of social justice, whose occasional noble interests ranged from abolition to prison reform to child-labor laws to the inherent dignity of the human person, many modern practitioners seek wealth redistribution, "living wages," progressive income taxes, and an ever-widening net of federal government power; they are inclined to class interests rather than human rights. And by their estimate, achieving economic justice requires collectivism. They invoke social justice to try to resolve not traditional social differences as much as class/income differences.

This is why, in many modern eyes, including those of the much-maligned Glenn Beck, mention of "social justice" -- including by the Religious Left -- seems a red flag for socialism.

And if you think Glenn Beck is guilty of hysteria, wildly warning John Q. Public of some sudden, emergent thing -- real or imagined -- you're badly mistaken. Many of those who mouth the language of "social justice" have long meant "economic justice." American communists have employed this tactic for decades, since at least the founding of the American Communist Party in 1919. They talk "social justice" because they know it works nicely in appealing to the naïve, particularly to embarrassingly gullible liberal Christians. It's a quite excellent duping mechanism to hoodwink non-communist/non-socialist liberals.

Of course, every now and then, some of those on the far left (Marxists, socialists) slip up and blurt out the words "economic justice." And it's indeed a "slip-up," especially for a politician. By and large, you can't think that way -- or, more accurately, talk that way -- and get elected in America. Politicians who privately view the world according to contours of economic justice must publicly avoid such Marxist-socialistic rhetoric while running for office -- running, that is, as mainstream Democrats. Certainly, they can't run for office as members of a party that truly aligns with their beliefs, i.e., something like a Socialist Party. And if they do slip up, they must be oh-so-careful not to do so again. If they do, they need one of two things: 1) an obsequious media to not dare cover the transgression (or to attack anyone who dares flag it), or 2) a public so mis-educated that it doesn't know the difference between Marx and Milton Friedman.

That's a somewhat long way of getting to a dramatic case in point: the current president of the United States of America, the man in charge of the most prosperous free-market system in the history of the world, a system anchored in economic freedom and not on socialist-classist nonsense of "economic justice."

Speaking in January 2001, when he couldn't conceive that the typical American would elect to the presidency someone with views as far to the left as his own, Barack Obama gave an interview to the Chicago Public Radio station, WBEZ, 91.5 FM, an NPR affiliate. There, only a few years before he would launch a successful bid to be leader of the greatest free-market powerhouse in human history, Obama used the words "economic justice" and "redistributive change." (Click here to listen and here for the transcript.)

It was a remarkably revealing interview in many respects, arguably unprecedented for a would-be American president. Speaking of the super-liberal Warren Court, known to the ages for its unparalleled judicial activism, Obama lamented, "[A]s radical as people tried to characterize the Warren court, it wasn't that radical." No, in Obama's view, the Warren Court had not been radical enough. Why? Because, averred Obama, it hadn't "ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society."

Note the magic words, "economic justice." Here, Obama spoke the heart of a true believer. It was a refreshingly candid moment, breathtaking from a politician able to rise so high and so fast in a country like America.

Yet politically, the young Obama was sloppy. He wasn't yet politically savvy enough to cloak his "economic justice" language in the more palatable jargon of "social justice," a tactic rigorously employed at that very moment by associates of his like Bill Ayers, the former Weather Underground bomber who by then was a professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago and, believe it or not, author of several books on "social justice," which now find home in the syllabi of some of America's scandalous education departments, and one of which a young Obama (sloppy again) once endorsed.

Ayers was shrewder than Obama. As Ayers wrote those books, he remained a committed Marxist, fully dedicated to "economic justice," but smart enough to use the language of "social justice" instead.

Here's an extremely telling contrast: A few months after Obama mused about "economic justice" and "redistributive change" to the Chicago Public Radio affiliate, Ayers' infamous remarks about having "no regrets" for setting bombs appeared in the September 11, 2001 New York Times -- yes, that's right, September 11, 2001. What's stunning is not merely the date that Ayers' words were published, but also something else related to my argument here. Consider: Bill Ayers didn't know any better in expressing his incendiary but honest feelings about bombs, but he did know enough to couch his advocacy of "economic justice" in the acceptable language of "social justice."

In 2001, Bill Ayers knew better. Barack Obama, however, did not -- at least in 2001. Today, a savvier Obama knows better, slipping only rarely, as he did to "Joe the Plumber" on the campaign trail in 2008, where he was caught on tape urging the redistribution of wealth.

Needless to say, this doesn't mean that everyone who uses the words "social justice" in fact means "economic justice." It's crucial to understand that. Often, however, that's indeed the case, as the far left has co-opted these buzzwords to dupe fellow travelers on the soft left for the ultimate glory of the collective. When the likes of Glenn Beck warn Americans that when they hear "social justice," they should think "socialism," he has clearly learned from repeated observation. Liberal Christians angry at Beck for supposedly exaggerating have only themselves to blame; it is they who have bedded down (usually unwittingly) with the Marxists, the socialists, the collectivists, and the redistributionists, allowing these people to hijack them and their language. It is they who have been mercilessly duped again and again.

Too bad. This means the socialist left has perverted and appropriated respectable language. And thanks to concealed intentions -- this has been happening for a hundred years now -- we must be extra vigilant every time we hear words like "social justice." We need to be suspicious, probing deeper, always asking hard questions: What do you really mean by "social justice"? How would that translate into policy? What kind of regulations, government control, and increased taxation do you have in mind? Do you really mean "economic justice"?

Alas, America's crisis continues, made possible by an even larger group of dupes who obliviously elected the very crew who uses them, their votes, and their language.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His coming book is Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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