Saturday, August 22, 2009

The American Approach to a Car Wreck

I was complaining one time in one of my seminars some years back that none of my students in Japan seemed to be up on current events. One of them said to me, “You should meet my friend, Taro. He’s interested in the news.”

Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the problem is not one of apathy but of messed-up priorities. It’s like there’s been a car wreck and we can’t see there’s a child sitting in the road because we’re all focused on the flames. We’re watching morons shout down senators trying to explain health care reform, we’re clucking over insurance company executives flying around in private airplanes and eating off gold plates on the money they made by denying health care to their customers, and we are not dealing with the kinds of things that make the difference between a just and an unjust society.

How about this question. When you have just so much money – and we, as a society, have just so much money – what do you do when you have to choose between spending $100,000 to keep a 90-year old alive another six weeks and providing pre-natal care to dozens of thirteen-year-old inner-city pregnant teenagers?

Actually, we have an answer to that question. If the 90-year old has health care, she gets the treatment because health care in this country goes to those with the ability to pay for it. And if kids are born into poverty and they grow up to be thugs and make more babies who grow up to be thugs, we still think the question is whether we should draw mustaches on Obama to make him look like Hitler because he “wants to pull the plug on Grandma.”

Behind making Obama out to be Hitler is the republican belief that the rich get rich because they are somehow superior. Rich people earn their money. Poor people suffer poverty because they are too stupid or too lazy to earn money. Critical masses of people in other modern countries have decided this is not true and they have built safety nets to help those who are not young and healthy and strong and rich and white and beautiful and disciplined and able to resist manipulation. Helping those people is socialist. Hitler was a socialist. Obama wants to help those people. This is a Hitler mustache. Any questions?

OK, so I made that bit up about the 90-year old and the pregnant teenagers for effect. I also jumped up and down with glee when I saw Barney Frank shoot down that moron calling Obama a Nazi. But what are you going to do? Like Rumsfeld said about the army – “You got to work with the army you got, not the one you want” or something like that – you’ve got to work with the American people as they are. Easily frightened, willing to believe what they want to believe, bored with civics and homework, and very quick to change the channel.

If I talk in hyperbole and get overly dramatic, it’s because my instinct tells me that without a little drama you don’t get any attention at all. After all, we lost Prop. 8 in California because we were making rational arguments about civil rights and the other side won because they lied and used fear to get out the vote. We know now that you only get results out of the American people if you shake them up. Calm reasoned discourse just doesn’t work any more.

We used to have Phil Donahue. Now we’ve got Larry Springer. We used to have Walter Cronkite. Now we have Bill O’Reilly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not sorry we’re learning to fight fire with fire. I’m glad that we have Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow to offset Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin and Sean Hannity. I understand and appreciate the value of ridicule.

But I wish that alongside the gladiator approach we still had the courage to ask good questions and keep at them until we got good answers. I really do want to know, now as I approach my seventies, how much my healthcare should come at the expense of poor young people. I do want to understand the implications of writing a check for $1000 to have an old crown replaced while passing by the dozens of homeless in the streets of Berkeley I say no to everyday. I really wish we could get to the topic of why the rich get richer in America while the poor get poorer, without having to wait until that topic seeps through the cracks when some moron decides to wave a sign suggesting that his right to make a profit comes from God.

The debate over health care reveals the real values Americans live by, and they ain’t pretty. Maybe some other day we can talk about whether to deny heart and lung transplants to people in their 80s (70s, 60s, whatever) the way Europeans do. Not today, because Republicans would simply have a heyday with that notion. The Europeans make health care decisions on some basis other than money, while we in America, because so many of us believe in our heart of hearts that people with money are better than people without money, are convinced money is the only way to go. We have to work with that.

We also have to work around the ridiculous notion that we have the best of all possible governments. Call that idea too much into question and the rightwingers smash the fire alarms and Middle America reaches for another Valium.

Never mind that going on pretending is getting us nowhere. Look what’s happening. We go and elect a wonderful man president this time who believes he has to govern from the center and get everybody on board, unlike that last bastard who grabbed his 51% and ran. A guy who appears to be as honest as the last one was dishonest. A man who actually learns from mistakes. He watched the Clintons go down in flames over health care in 1993 because opponents succeeded in labelling them bullies working in secret, and he wants to avoid that mistake by allowing Congress to do health care reform in the open this time. What’s wrong with doing things right that others did wrong?

What’s wrong is it all stems from denial. If Congress really could do the job in the open, this would seem to be the way to go. But look at how Congress, specifically the Senate, is actually working.

At the moment, the future of health care seems to be tied up in a single senate committee, the Finance Committee, six members of which, known as the "Gang of Six," are working to make sure the public option goes the way of the earlier Clinton reforms. These six men and women represent less than three percent of the American population. Five of them voted for Bush’s grossly misnamed “Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act” in 2003, which prohibited anybody from limiting drug company profits and helped significantly to put us in the mess we’re in today. And it's probably just a coincidence, but each of them earned between a million and three and a half million dollars from those same companies, surprise, surprise.

If I could trust them, I'd listen to their argument that delay is necessary because we don't want to get this program wrong and there are serious problems with funding to be worked out. But the cat is out of the bag - whatever interest they have in health care reform is subordinated to their desire to make Obama fail, a first step in regaining regain republican control. For reasons I can't fathom, Obama seems to believe he has to turn the chicken coop over to the foxes.

What are we to do in response with republicans this ruthless and democrats this wimpy? We can't shame them through public debate. Debate is no longer an American way of doing things. Instead of debate, what we’ve got is information in soundbites and sequential, often non sequitur declarations by talking heads. Entertainment where information transfer used to be. Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow (blessings be upon their name) doing the work Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein once did.

Time to think outside the box. Maybe this is the best way to go. Maybe it’s best to allow poverty in the cities to go on so that the rich can get richer and fund research on how to get to Mars and live to be 105. We wouldn’t have Chartres cathedral today if France had had universal health care in those days, after all. Maybe allowing 50 million Americans to go without health care is not a bad idea. We allow people to build museums to teach children that cave men rode dinosaurs. What’s wrong with a little social Darwinism to purify the race?

Better than letting that Hitler in the White House lead us down the path to socialism.

I wonder if I can find Taro. He probably knows. He reads the papers.

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