Tuesday, August 25, 2009

No Hope: Have the Morons Won?

With the increasing likelihood of the 'Public Option' being dropped from Obama's health care legislation, one cannot help but stand back and wonder what it is about the American political system that causes it to stand alone amongst western nations in rejecting government funded healthcare. A debate centered on preserving the health of the American people should not invite this degree of acrimony.

In principle, at least, there are legitimate objections to government-funded health care. Will government funding, for instance, increase the cost of health-care across the board? The experience of other western nations probably tells us no, but there is some economic basis for such claims*. Perhaps the US government simply cannot afford to fund health-care: perhaps attempts to do so would simply strain the budget deficit to breaking point, either wounding the entire economy to everyone's detriment or draining much needed funds from other important federal programs. Again, not an unrealistic concern, but I should sincerely hope that no-one proferring this argument was ever a supporter of the $3 trillion Iraq war, enough money to have funded Obama's initial UHC proposals for up to 60 years**.

As I said, though I may disagree with such reasoning, these arguments are at least intellectually tenable. When changes are proposed to the health-care system, I should expect nothing less in a functioning democracy than to see such issues raised as a matter of political process. However, these are also the kind of arguments that are not being raised within the context of the current debate. The debate long ago descended into a kind of hysteria - capably inflamed by the Republican Party - which has long since precluded the possibility of any sensible argumentation at all. The people most vitriolically opposing health-care reform in the US are also the people turning up town-hall meetings*** with assault rifles and posters comparing Obama to Hitler, which obviously presents an obstacle to those of us trying to discern any deeper intellectual thread linking their ramblings together into anything even vaguely resembling a sensible argument.

So far as I can tell, the principle objection seems to be "socialism". That term, you'll note, is not qualified in any way, but to these people it doesn't need to be: the word "socialism", really, marks both the beginning and end of their argument. We can't have UHC because that's socialism and socialism is bad. Bad? Bad as in worse than letting millions of uninsured Americans suffer in agony for want of the price of a doctor's consultation? Perhaps I'm giving them too much credit by even posing this question. For the woman who opposes health-care reform because she doesn't want the US "to become Russia" or the woman waving the placard emblazoned with the words "I AM NOT YOUR ATM!" (I like to imagine that this sign is directed at an impoverished child trying to scrape together the funds to get his brain tumour looked at) the capacity for such moral nuance, or to consider and compare such contrasting views in the first place, is either absent or otherwise completely surpressed. Obama = Socialism = Bad: any other considerations are mere clutter.

The question then remains, what to do with such people? Obama's plan to send congressmen to town-halls across the country to engage directly with their electorate was a noble one, but one too noble, as it turns out, for the crass, adversarial nature of US political debate. Really, that's the problem: there is no way to engage with people who really believe that Obama wants to euthanise old people and introduce forced abortion; people who long ago surrendered any concern for "logic" or "facts" in favour of admission to the long-existing "Cult of the Offended", a cult whose sole purpose is to relexively - and loudly - react to any perceived Democratic encroachment on any number of given conservative values with a vocal, unified and often violent response. The best analogy is dogs in a kennel: turn on a light, and they'll all start yapping in unison. That's the popular conservative movement in the US in a nut-shell.

If that's right, then trying to engage with these people by appealing to reason or to their better instincts is entirely futile. Nor should we presume that we should tip-toe quietly around instituting progressive legislation for fear of - as one of these town hall protestors put it - "waking a sleeping beast". Put simply, no matter what legislation is put before these people - and in whatever a manner it is put before them - the misdirected outrage will be there just same. As the slacktivist puts it:

These people are offended and outraged and so politicians and journalists respond by trying not to further offend or enrage them. As though that were possible. Indignation is their raison d'etre. They will take offense whether or not it is given. There is no point trying not to offend them. There is no point in trying not to make them angry.

An appropriate response isn't to be more offended or more offensive, but it should involve going on the offense. The IndigNationalists are behaving shamefully and it is appropriate and necessary to point that out to them. It's our duty to point that out to them.

The appropriate and necessary phrase when confronted by members of the IndigNation -- by the birthers, the deathers, the baggers, the immigrant-blamers and homophobes and cryptoracists and misogynists -- is simply to tell them the primary thing they need to hear: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Precisely. Perhaps there will be some day when America can have a sensible, adult conversation about health-care reform, but so long as the Cult of the Offended exists and is given an undue degree of legitimacy by a media and a political system that is terrified of offending them further, that day is still a long way off.


*Although what the proponents of this argument will probably fail to mention is that the costs are due to rise, to put it in simple terms, because more people will be seeking access to health-care from the same number of doctors. In other words, the only reason that a laissez-faire health-care system can - in theory - keep prices low, is by ensuring that a given percentage of the population is actually denied access to any form of health-care.

**Given the Obama campaign's cost estimate of $50 billion per year.

***This was probably Obama's first mistake: presuming that there was any way of reaching out to, or finding common ground with, people that have literally been demented by misplaced fear.

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