Flipping the Health-Care Script



I set out early and blurry on the final Saturday in August, bound for Waco to witness one of the last town-hall free-for-alls in this summer of health-care hysteria. What could be more fun to watch and tape-record and scribble about? Especially since the local Democratic congressman, Chet Edwards, had tried to get away with holding a “telephone town hall” after the outbreaks of town-hall ugliness in Austin and Houston and across the map—a gesture greeted with universal “you’re-so-gutless” condemnations that convinced him to schedule three live encounters.

So I figured it had the potential to be a juicy scene. I’d interview the Dittoheads sporting T-shirts depicting President Obama with a toothbrush mustache. I’d listen to liberal-minded folks appalled by the anti-democratic antics of their fellow citizens. I’d see if Rep. Edwards could manage a word edgewise. And then I’d come home and turn it into an editorial that made some small sense of the whole mess. You know. The usual.

But as I bobbed-and-weaved my way up I-35, slurping an X-tra large vat of convenience-store coffee, something hit me. Something that made me queasy. And it wasn’t just the coffee. It was this: I was missing the point. Again. Sometimes, it struck me, we smarter-than-thou progressives get suckered and distracted from the real issues at hand just as surely as the Limbaugh loonies. And during this whole nutty health-care brawl, it had happened again.

All spring and summer, the insurance overlords and their well-paid toadies—Dick Armey, Glenn Beck, Gov. Rick Perry & Co.—have been busy circulating bodacious whoppers about “ObamaCare.” They’ve whipped folks into a frenzy not only by stoking their fears of gummint-run health care, but by tapping into deeper anxieties about the dissipation of white privilege: the apocalyptic spectre of a black president, the rising plurality of Latinos, the economic meltdown, and God knows what-all else.

It’s a familiar script, as old and all-American as union-busting, red-baiting, celebrity-deifying and scapegoating the poor. But Machiavellian corporate shills and feeble-minded right-wing regulars aren’t the only ones with parts to play in this national drama of distraction. It’s the role of high-minded liberals to observe and report it all with a mixture of horror and ridicule and scorn. Which is exactly what we’ve done. We’ve tut-tutted over the tea parties. We’ve organized counter-protests to out-shout and shush the Astroturf mobs. We’ve tuned into MSNBC, nodded our heads in disgust along with Keith and Rachel, and thought: What a bunch of brainless goobers! Will these people never realize that they’re screwing themselves? Did they not read What’s the Matter with Kansas? Can they read at all?

Along the way, we’ve lost sight of the rightful targets of our scorn and our organizing. By letting our attention be diverted toward the rabble—and the evil Armeys rousing them—we’ve taken our eyes off the real villains: the Aetnas, the Blue Cross Blue Shields, the American Medical Association, the profit-grubbing hospitals, the mangy Blue Dog Democrats.

Worst of all, we’ve let the clear, pure call-to-arms of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy—health insurance as “a right, not a privilege”—get drowned out by the clamor. Like President Obama, we’ve let shades of gray blur a debate that should be framed in starkest black and white.

So about halfway to Waco, I turned the car around and drove back to my keyboard to bat out a message that ought to be a universal no-brainer: Quality health care for every U.S. citizen (and citizen-to-be) is a moral and ethical imperative. Anything less, whether it goes by the name of “insurance reform” or “health care co-ops,” is immoral and unconscionable.

If anybody ought to have that script memorized by now, it’s Texans. Our state has the sickest health-care system in the nation. The highest percentage of uninsured people (now an ungodly 26 percent.) The stingiest allotments of Medicaid and Medicare. And, as the Observer‘s Melissa del Bosque so powerfully reports in this issue, we increasingly abandon uninsured Texans to their sad—and sometimes mortal—fates.

There is no health-care safety net. That’s another truth we need to be hollering from the rooftops—aiming it, right now, at the members of Congress who’ll return on Sept. 8 to reboot their debate. Because, as faint and remote as it might seem, there remains a glint of hope. The irrational venom that the congresspeople have tasted throughout their summer recess has done the corporate cause no good. Kennedy’s passing just might have lent the issue the kind of fresh emotional oomph that resonates among Washington types (as the suffering of the uninsured does not). If nothing else, maybe these people can be guilted, at long last, into doing the right thing and passing an Edward M. Kennedy Act complete with a full-blown public option.

And maybe, just maybe, we high-minded smarties can flip the script and stop being distracted by the stupid tricks of humans who don’t know any better. It might not make the difference this fall. But it sure wouldn’t hurt.