Spotting your neighborhood socialist

Opinion

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By JIM BOWMAN, Columnist

Pssst. Don't look now, but your Oak Park neighbor may be a socialist. Pass it on. He or she won't look like one of those bomb-throwers in page-one Chicago Tribune cartoons of the 30s and 40s, with hair and beard shooting in all directions. No, he will look like your other neighbors. It's scary.

Take Ron Baiman, who headed the recently abandoned effort to get wireless technology mothballed in Oak Park schools. It was in part a project of the Greater Oak Park Democratic Socialists. Baiman, a University of Illinois at Chicago economist, was its spokesman.

He and Oak Parker Tom Broderick described it in the Democratic Socialist publication New Ground of January, 2002. In the same issue, Baiman had "Ode to a Fallen Comrade," a eulogy of his friend and fellow socialist Joe Powers, Sr., who had recently collapsed and died while jogging.

Currently, Baiman has a provocative essay at FreePress.org and other Internet sites arguing that our recent presidential election was with "little doubt" not "free and fair."

Take also Jean Darling, another Oak Parker, who recently addressed a small gathering, open to the public, at Democratic Socialists of Chicago headquarters on Milwaukee Avenue in the city. Darling, a Unitarian minister, has started a church in a West Side union hall?#34;a free-lance effort, the sort her denomination frowns on, she said. In it she is pursuing a vision of non-coercion, or as she puts it, non-violence.

The vision stems from her lifelong opposition to muscling people argumentatively, what her father did to her less educated mother in their family's version of "class warfare," she said in her talk. Such coercion occurs in her Unitarian-Universalist (U-U) denomination, where she said "oppressive" use is made of Robert's Rules of Order to "run over minorities" at meetings.

At a Madison, Wisconsin, gathering, for instance, demonstrators yelling "You killed Rosa Luxembourg"?#34;a communist organizer killed in Germany in 1919?#34;were "undemocratically kicked out." She envisions a church that abhors such coercion, embraces "non-violent strategies" and rejects society's "domination system." For her own small congregation of eight to 10 worshipers, she is trying to devise such strategies, looking to the day when it has a "socialist Sunday school."

She is concerned that American "working people are voting against their own economic interests" and that "the spiritual values of the Left are in eclipse." She says "thousands of years are operating" to thwart these values, including "from Calvin to Wal-Mart." Echoing a common complaint of socialists, she rejects mere reform of society, which she considers "the impulse to fix things just enough" so as to prevent more sweeping change. In any case, "non-violence is essential," she said.

In discussion following her talk, I asked if religious socialism is not a contradiction, having in mind dialectical materialism, "opium of the people," and all that. But before I could say Karl Marx or pie in the sky when you die, I was handed a copy of volume 28, number 3 of the Democratic Socialists of America publication, "Religious Socialism: The Journal for People of Faith and Socialism." It had Princeton philosopher and Dissent magazine editor Michael Walzer writing on the good life and one of its own editors, Commonweal magazine contributor John C. Cort, reviewing books.

I was impressed but should have known better, having encountered another anomaly as a visitor some years back at Third Unitarian Church, on Mayfield Avenue in Austin, where believers in God were challenged in a discussion to come out of the closet and none did. You can lead Unitarians to church, apparently, but you can't make them believe. Whether you can make them bend or abandon Robert's rules, as Jean Darling would prefer, is another question.

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