The Guns of August
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
This August we watched angry gangs invade town hall meetings with torches and pitchforks — actually, worse, surround them with assault weapons and pictures of Obama as Hitler. Democratic congressmen were hanged in effigy. The President was accused of planning to impose a Nazi-Communist-Satanist death program aimed at killing off seniors, veterans, unborn children, Republicans, and Trig Palin. He was accused of being foreign-born and thus not actually president, suggesting his plot against America was an alien plot.
Republican leaders of states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina threatened to secede — creating the deliciously ironic prospect of Lincoln’s party starting another Civil War — while many in their constituencies howled for insurrection, threatening to water the tree of liberty with the blood of democratically elected public servants. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.
And the focus of this madness on the Right? The initiative to improve the nation’s health care.
Having grown up under a socialist system myself, I can speak from personal experience about government-provided health care. Government doctors gave me my childhood physicals and innoculations. Government doctors stitched my upper lip when it was cut open in a front yard accident. A government optometrist provided my first set of glasses. None of them tried to kill us. The system was certainly not perfect — my mother in particular had complaints about it — but it took decent care of us virtually cost-free. Granted, there were sacrifices in return. Our institutions were anything but democratic. The State told us where to live; the State told my father where to work and what to do and could order him into harm’s way. He even had to wear a uniform.
That’s right; I was a military dependent. It was my Republican father, a career Navy officer, who first pointed out to me that the military was a socialist institution, for better or worse. It’s always struck me as really funny that the one government entity Republicans can’t throw enough money at or give enough power to is the armed forces. By definition, a big military is big government; you can’t have the former without the latter.
That was not my only experience with socialized medicine. No sooner had I finished graduate school than I moved to Germany to teach for a year. My son was an infant, and in Germany he got his internationally mandated immunizations for no more than the cost of the shots themselves. Even as foreign residents, we received a monthly stipend of twenty marks, then worth about ten dollars, to help cover his needs.
Following a trip to Berlin that April, I fell ill with a Legionnaire’s-style influenza that left me too nauseated to hold down food and too weak to get out of bed. My landlady called the local doctor, who came to her house and my bedside. There I received a check-up and a penicillin shot against complications, for which I was charged twenty marks. Two weeks later and on my feet again, I visited him for a follow-up, which cost another twenty marks. For the equivalent of twenty dollars altogether, I got personal service from a government-paid German doctor.
At no point did he mention euthanasia.
If one cleaves to the empirical evidence, public health care works just fine for Europe, Canada, the Department of Defense, and Medicare. Furthermore, all of the signs, guns, and bloody shirts cannot wipe out these statistics:
Health spending accounts for over seventeen percent of our GDP, and since the last failure of health care reform in 1994 medical costs have expanded at five times the rate of inflation.
Americans spend, on average, twice as much per capita on medical needs as the U.K. or Canada, yet the World Health Organization rates our national health at 37th in the world, just above Slovenia.
Forty-six million of us have no insurance, with the number rising as businesses shed health plans and health plans shed sick people.
As Obama and many others have already pointed out, doing nothing to fix the problem means it only gets more expensive and more deadly. There is no status quo.
Yet I would not expect a centralized, single-payer system ever to take root in the U.S. It won’t precisely for the reason that Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats quail at “the public option,” even if it covers only five percent of our citizens: because insurance and pharmaceutical companies don’t want it. As Howard Dean states in his book Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform, “Their real concern is sacrificing profits.” Even with government involvement, American health care will remain the world’s most expensive because here the profit-motive is more sacred than human life. But you won’t see any signs saying that at rightwing rallies.
There are conservative arguments that probably deserve a hearing, but they have been drowned by all the accusations about death panels and Naziism. As Rob Long writes in the September 7 National Review, the “energized mobs” of August missed the real point. Although he found them “fun,” they “weren’t really arguing for a rational health-care system — they weren’t agitating for less government . . . . [T]hey were arguing for a more generous system, one that covers everything . . . .” He admits sardonically, “if I have to subsidize everyone else’s health care out of my paycheck, I’m going to demand death panels” (29).
So how do you achieve a reasonable compromise with yahoos throwing their own feces, with loonies convinced that national health care means Konzentrationlager and gas ovens? How do you meet purely imaginary concerns? Would it be enough to humor the insane by promising not to include such fevered inventions as death panels and mandatory sex changes if we get the public option? How do you negotiate with folks as detached from reality as the birthers, deathers, and teabaggers?
One wonders whether the Republican politicians who exploit these wingnut nightmares do so out of conviction or political calculation. Their express endgame, after all, is to stop healthcare reform not only to protect corporate profits but to destroy the Democratic hegemony as they did in 1994. As noted by conservative historian Sam Tanenhaus in Newsweek: “Rush Limbaugh’s stated hope that Obama will fail seems to have become GOP doctrine.” And he adds, “This is the attitude not of conservatives, but of radicals . . . ” (40).
With his new book, The Death of Conservatism, Tanenhaus joins conservative intellectuals like David Brooks and David Frum who see the rabidly anti-modernity, anti-science, anti-education populism of today’s Republicans as a mark of decadence, an abandonment of the principles that sustained the movement through the nineteenth century and restored it in the post-New Deal era. Thus, in this view, the GOP is relying on an increasingly isolated and irrational base, threatening to disappear up its own colon.
We can only hope so. Look at the crazed crowds — the deathers, the birthers, the teabaggers — who stormed town halls in August or marched on Washington in the thousands on September 12. For one thing, they are eight years too late complaining about out-of-control government spending. Where were they when hundreds of thousands of us marched against Bush’s war on Iraq? For another, their persistent goofy insistence that a half-white man with an African name could not possibly be an American tells us a lot.
These are history’s losers: they lost the last Civil War, they lost the Civil Rights movement, and through sheer ineptitude they lost the conservative century promised them by Karl Rove.
The best news about Obama’s September 9 speech is that he seemed to remember he had won decisively, with decisive Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Polls show that the majority of Americans still want health care reform and even the “public option,” and that they still trust the President and his party more than the Republicans.
There is room for a healthy debate on details, but if Republicans want seats at the table, they must meet some standards to show they are serious — and rational. They have to choose between the wingnuts and the grown-ups. Any politician who compares Obama to Hitler, or calls him a communist, or asserts that his healthcare quest is a plot to kill people is out of the loop.
That not only takes care of the reality-challenged congressmen who stroke the birthers or praise gun-toting terrorists as “patriots”; it should be a warning for the likes of Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, who is supposedly negotiating with Blue Dog Max Baucus as part of the Senate Finance Committee’s Gang of Six, but who went on record trotting out the “death panel” fantasy.
I am reminded of the end of the movie Star Trek III: Captain Kirk is fighting his Klingon enemy, played by Christopher Lloyd, as the planet falls apart around them. When the Klingon slides off a cliff, Kirk decently extends a hand to save him, but the Klingon tries to drag him over too. Kirk resorts to kicking him repeatedly in the face — snarling, “I have had enough of you” — until the Klingon falls to his doom.
Just saying . . .