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When I was asked to direct "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," my friends warned me not to go anywhere near it.
The story is so American, they argued, that I, an immigrant fresh off the boat, could not do it justice. They were surprised when I explained why I wanted to make the film. To me it was not just literature but real life, the life I lived in Czechoslovakia from my birth in 1932 until 1968. The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do; what I was or was not allowed to say; where I was and was not allowed to go; even who I was and was not.
Now, years later, I hear the word "socialist" being tossed around by the likes of Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others. President Obama, they warn, is a socialist. The critics cry, "Obamacare is socialism!" They falsely equate Western European-style socialism, and its government provision of social insurance and health care, with Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism. It offends me, and cheapens the experience of millions who lived, and continue to live, under brutal forms of socialism.
My sister-in-law's father, Jan Kunasek, lived in Czechoslovakia all his life. He was a middle-class man who ran a tiny inn in a tiny village. One winter night in 1972, during a blizzard, a man, soaked to the bone, awakened him at 2 in the morning. The man looked destitute and, while asking for shelter, couldn't stop cursing the Communists. Taking pity, the elderly Kunasek put him up for the night.
A couple of hours later, Kunasek was awakened again, this time by three plainclothes policemen. He was arrested, accused of sheltering a terrorist and sentenced to several years of hard labor in uranium mines. The state seized his property. When he was finally released, ill and penniless, he died within a few weeks. Years later we learned that the night visitor had been working for the police. According to the Communists, Kunasek was a class enemy and deserved to be punished.
I found myself in an equally absurd, but less depressing, situation when I was moonlighting on Czech TV as a moderator, introducing movies, in the early 1950s. It was live, so there was no chance to bleep politically undesirable words. Every utterance, even in supposedly spontaneous interviews, had to be scripted, approved by the censors, learned by heart and repeated verbatim on the air.
When I was preparing to interview one Comrade Homola, a powerful Communist, I sent him questions, but didn't receive his answers. My boss, also a powerful party member, told me: "He is lazy! Write his answers for him, and remind him to learn them by heart." So I did.
Homola arrived at the last moment. When the red light went on and I asked the first question, he reached into his pocket, took out my answers and started to read them, awkwardly and obediently -- including my inadvertent grammatical mistakes. And thus, to my consternation, went the whole interview. In the control booth, my boss hit the roof. I was fired the next day for ridiculing a representative of the state.
Whatever his faults, I don't see much of a socialist in Obama or, thankfully, signs of that system in this great nation. Obama is accused of trying to expand the reach of government -- into health care, financial regulation, the auto industry and so on. It's fair to question whether the federal government should have expanded powers: America, to its credit, has debated this since its birth. But let's be clear about how frightening socialism actually could be.
Marx believed that we could wipe out social inequities, and Lenin tested those ideas on the Soviet Union. It was his dream to create a classless society. But reality set in, as it always does. And the results were devastating. Blood flowed through Russia's streets. The Soviet elite usurped all privileges; sycophants were allowed some and the plebes none. The entire Eastern bloc, including Czechoslovakia, followed miserably.
I'm not sure Americans today appreciate quite how predatory socialism was. It was not -- as Obama's detractors suggest -- merely a government so centralized and bloated that it hobbled private enterprise: It was a spoils system that killed off everything, all in the name of "social justice."
What we need is not to strive for a perfect social justice -- which never existed and never will -- but for social harmony. Harmony in music is, by its nature, exhilarating and soothing. In an orchestra, the different players and instruments perform together, in support of an overall melody.
Today, our democracy, a miraculous gathering of diverse players, desperately needs such unity. If all participants play fair and strive for the common good, we can achieve a harmony that eluded the doctrinaire socialist projects. But if just one section, or even one player, is out of tune, the music will disintegrate into cacophony.
I am not asking Obama and the Republican leaders to stop playing instruments of their choosing. All I am asking is that every player keep in mind the noble melody of our country. Otherwise the noisy dissonance might become loud enough to wake another Marx, or even worse.
Milos Forman won Academy Awards for best director for the films "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus." He wrote this article for the New York Times.