Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Guns, Health Care and the Meaning of Democracy

A sideshow to the ongoing debate about healthcare reform is the fact that protestors have now begun to show up with guns. If you haven’t seen it, you need to watch Chris Matthews’ (Hardball) interview with William Costic [I believe that was his name, but am not sure], the man who started the gun-toting process by bringing an unconcealed weapon to the Obama town meeting in Portsmouth, NH last week. My good friend Bryan Miller of Ceasefire New Jersey wants us to consider such acts as just plain “craziness.” However, I don’t think we can so easily dismiss them, for as Bryan goes onto explain if they are crazy, they are a very well orchestrated and organized group of crazies. As I listened to Mr Costic explain his views to Chris Matthews,I heard a man with a world view informed by a hyper-vigilant, individualistic, libertarian logic. When asked if he thought Social Security or Medicare were mistakes, he said “yes.” He openly admitted to voting for Ron Paul in the last presidential election. He spoke out of a very well thought out and largely coherent perspective.

These are the folks (mostly unknowingly) indebted to and informed by the political philosophy of the late Robert Nozick, who saw the government’s role in maintaining justice as protecting basic individual rights, and otherwise staying out of people’s business. Nozick considered taxes “robbery” and paying them “forced labor.” However, Nozick was no dummy; he taught at Harvard throughout most of his career, and his ideas are deeply embedded in the American psyche especially when people talk about individual rights. Before we dismiss these gun-toters as a “lunatic fringe,” we need to recognize that they have a coherent worldview, however distant it may be from our own.

Behind and beneath all the rhetoric about health care, gun rights and the like is a struggle over what it means to be a citizen of this country. The fears are being stirred up the media and corporate manipulators, but at the same time they are more than simply fears about people's financial future. I believe they are fears of a seismic shift in what it means to be an American citizen. I could not be further from the worldview of people like William Costic not only on the issue of guns, but also on what “rights” should be protected, and who gets to decide that. Yet, I have known people like him, and I sometimes despair of the widening chasm in our civic life between people like Mr. Costic and myself.

The fact that people can go to these town meetings, shout down the speakers, and then say it is their right to be “heard” in a democracy, seems bizarre to me. People don’t even know what they are talking about. For instance, I heard one protester berating his representative to keep the government away from my Medicare. Your Medicare comes from the government, dummy! Democracy relies on an informed public; that’s why the public education system is so vital to the health of a democracy. A democracy occurs when people can talk across their differences in a respectful manner. Democracy is not just about “being heard” but about hearing others as well.

Passing a meaningful health care reform bill will neither solve the dilemma nor end the tension. However, it raises again the fundamental questions about what it means to be citizens in a democracy, and even what a democracy truly is.

Democracy used to be defined by the old New England town hall meeting, where the citizens of the community would come together to discuss community issues, and then make decisions together. Today “democracy” has become a political weapon used to spread Western corporate interests around the globe. “Democracy” has become the media circus we have seen in these so called town hall meetings over the last month. Regardless of how the health care reform bill is resolved, the deeper questions remain as to what our “rights” are and should be, and what values and truths are worth fighting for, no matter how difficult and painful the struggle.

Friday, August 14, 2009

In Search of Heroes on the Underground Railroad

During this week of August 9-15 I have been travelling through southern Ohio studying the pre-Civil War anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad (UGRR). This trip was prompted by a small note in my family history I had found, which indicated that two of my ancestors, William Silver (1798-1881) and his son Albert R. Silver (1823-1900) of Salem, Ohio, were involved in the anti-slavery movement and most likely allowed fugitives from slavery to stay hidden in their homes enroute to freedom in Canada. I went on this trip to try and get a feel for what it would have been like for them and for others involved in the anti-slavery cause. As such I set out to learn as much as I could about the anti-slavery movement in Salem and throughout Ohio, to learn about what fugitives from slavery had to go through to find their freedom, and the routes they took through Ohio.

In the course of this week, I learned about the little town of Ripley, Ohio, a town on the banks of the Ohio River, which was a major entry point for fugitives escaping from Kentucky into Ohio. I went to Ripley to learn about two of their citizens, Rev. John Rankin and John Parker. After visiting their homes, learning more about their stories, and walking the streets of Ripley. I wrote the following reflection on why I had come to this little river town.

After visiting the home of Rev. John Rankin, abolitionist, leader of the UGRR, and a Presbyterian minister, I realized why I am on this trip; I am in search of social justice heroes, mentors and models from history. Rankin is such a man. As a “station chief” in the UGRR, he provided shelter and guidance to over 2000 fugitives (I can no longer call them “runaway slaves” after this trip) from 1821 to 1865. He did so publicly through his sermons and writings, especially “Letters on American Slavery” published and distributed in 1826. He did so covertly and illegally thru his leadership role with the UGRR. He was an activist and a public intellectual, a man of faith and political conviction.

He did so at the expense of his career; he was driven from a church in his native Tennessee; and he did so despite having a wife and 13 children. He did not use his family as an excuse for inaction and “playing it safe.” He did so at the threat of his life; “Wanted” signs in Kentucky offered a reward for his death.

In a search for mentors, we need to realize that seldom do they operate alone, even though we will put them on a pedestal; I don't want to do that.For every Rankin, there was a congregation and host of others that supported him, cooperated with his efforts, and followed his leadership. He was able to operate as he did in Ripley because the people of Ripley shared his convictions and commitment to action.

Rankin was white, and one thing I have learned is that the commitment and conviction was far greater and deeper among blacks, both slave and free, than most whites, even those of Rankin's character. For every John Rankin, there were also several John Parkers. Parker was a former slave who came to live in Ripley after he purchased his own freedom and moved from Alabama. He ran an iron foundry and had two patents. Parker was a “conductor” of the UGRR, meaning he ferried people across the Ohio River from the shore of the slave state of Kentucky to freedom in Ripley. Parker also had a family, and yet did not shrink from action. Despite numerous threats to Rankin, the danger to Parker was much greater – first because he was black and second because he was not a religious or a public figure. The culture being what it was then as now, Parker’s punishment would have been much greater than Rankin’s; the difference between then and now, in pre-Civil War America the Fugitive Slave Law clearly stated greater penalties for blacks, rather than being covertly rationalized as they are today.

This trip has given me new insights into what it takes for people of all faiths, colors and backgrounds to work for and achieve social justice. We all play our part.I cannot be a John Parker, but I can be inspired by John Rankin. I am blessed to be in the privileged position to be a servant of social justice; may I learn from John Rankin and not squander the opportunity.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Heath Care, Individual Rights and the Common Good

I must admit I am mystified by the vehemence and the vitriol that appears to be getting stirred up over the proposal to develop a universal health care system. Providing access to health care for everyone in this country seems like a no-brainer, and something long overdue. It seems to me that the debate should be how we are going to change the current system, not whether or not we should change it. However, I seem to be mystified a great deal these days because I also can’t figure out the logic that would resist a ban on the sales of assault rifles, or limit sales of handguns to one per month or require that people report when a gun is lost or stolen.

However, like the debate in this country over guns, emotions and perceptions rather than logic seem to be at the forefront of the health care debate, which point to some deep tensions and some nefarious manipulation beneath the surface in our culture. I saw a CNN video of a man screaming at a town hall meeting with PA Senator Arlen Specter and he was accusing Specter of taking lobbyist money for supporting Obama’s health care plan, when it’s the lobbyist money that is being poured into fight his plan. I saw another Fox News clip where O’Reilly was criticizing Obama’s body language as “defensive” and “angry” at a town hall meeting when he was joking about his critics. Well duh, you’d be pissed off too, if you were being falsely accused of things you never even dreamed of. All sorts of rumors such as people not getting treatment or being forced to euthanize themselves or their loved ones are being put forth as “truth;” the whole thing is bizarre to me.

At a deeper level I suspect two things are going on. First, the critics of the universal health care proposal seem to be playing up the tension between individual rights and common rights, or what is sometimes called the common good. There are somewhere between 45-50 million people without health insurance today. With rising unemployment, and tighter employer budgets those numbers are only getting higher. There are also millions of people who are “under-insured” meaning the health insurance they have is woefully inadequate. At the same time there are lots of people, like me, whose health insurance is very adequate, and provided in part by my employer. Eight years ago when I had hernia and prostate surgery, I was well cared for. Likewise my wife has had outpatient surgeries twice this year, and has been quite adequately cared for by her employer-provided plan.

Personally, like the majority of Americans we don’t need better health care. However, my individual plan will probably have to change in order to make it possible everyone in this country to enjoy the right and benefit to the health care I enjoy. I might have to pay more, or even have my taxes raised (although this has not been proposed for my tax bracket). On the other hand, my daughter has just graduated from college and was booted off our family plan; she has no health insurance and neither of her employers are providing it; with universal health care, she would not be left exposed. The individual plans available to her are ridiculously expensive and inaccessible to her.

As her father, I am hoping she stays healthy, but am quite aware I may have to “cover” her if something happens. Now I suppose I could protest and say that I have no obligation to my daughter since she is an adult, but what kind of parent would I be? What kind of person would I be? Expand this tension to the entire country and we see this tension between the health care haves and the have-nots.

At play is my individual right to health care versus the common right of all to health care. A focus on common rights (rather than individual rights) says that it is the common right of all people to have access to health care. The pundits will stir up emotion by calling it “socialism” and developing scenarios where people with serious health issues won't be able to see a doctor for months on end, but in the end, it is really about community and common decency. However, this tension plays out in so many ways in our society over things like taxes, driving gas-guzzling versus hybrid cars, and regrettably even so called “gun rights.”

However, nefarious corporate forces seem to be stirring up this tension and creating the kind of chaotic circus atmosphere I saw at the Specter town hall meeting. Recently (July 17) Bill Moyers reported that the health insurance industry, including companies like CIGNA and Aetna are spending a half million dollars a day in advertising, political contributions and lobbyists to defeat the president’s proposed changes to the health care system. We like to think we are a democracy where people get to have their say. However, those with money get access that the rest of us don’t have, and spend millions of dollars to confuse people, so that you get a man screaming at a supporter of health care reform (like Specter) and accusing him of taking lobbyist money, when it is the lobbyists efforts he is trying to overcome. Despite our efforts to expand democracy over the world (however ineffective), we don’t really have a democracy in this country, we have a money-ocracy, where big money supports corporate interests, drowns out common sense and stirs up tensions that should be manageable.

Back in the book of Genesis, Cain asked God if he was his brother’s and sister’s keeper. God’s silence implied that yes, he was, and we are. What good is the most advanced health care system in the world if 50 million plus people can’t access it? How can other countries far less “advanced” than us (we could have a whole discussion about what “advanced” means) have resolved this tension. My individual rights do not eclipse the common right of all to have access to health care. I only hope that common sense can prevail. Given the current confused and politicized state of affairs, that will be a tough sell.