Thursday, January 13, 2011

It's Entirely Up to Us

For months now, I have been deeply troubled by the tone of our public discourse. Since the real vitriol started last summer when the Tea Party took aim at health reform, I think it's appropriate to talk about this here.

How did a desire on the part of many Americans to make sure that everyone has access to health care become such a divisive issue? Part of it is misinformation. For example, the claim that health reform amounts to a government take-over of health care is completely false. First, there's already Medicare, Medicaid, military health care, and so on. Second, the health reform bill is premised on the notion that private insurance companies will remain private insurance companies, and we consumers still get to buy from whichever insurance company we choose. People carrying signs last summer saying "get your government hands off my Medicare" evinced a lack of understanding, since Medicare is a federally administered and funded program. The misinformation -- which has been spread quite actively by FOX News and others -- made it impossible for us to have a rational discussion. We were talking apples and oranges.

It seemed to snowball from there, though. People bringing weapons to town hall meetings. People painting Hitler mustaches and white-face on photographs of the President of the United States. People shouting so as to drown out those with whom they disagree.

I'm prepared to agree, for the sake of discussion, that the rhetoric became personal and heated on both sides of the debate. I think it gets us nowhere to argue whether the Tea Party is more responsible for this than Ed Schultz. When Rush Limbaugh says that the Tuscon shooter has the full backing of the Democratic party, that's just plain disgusting. But it would be no less disgusting if Keith Olberman said the shooter had the support of the GOP.

Sarah Palin says that vigorous debate has always been part of American democracy. Not like this, though. Not to where we accuse the President of the United States of being "hell-bent on weakening America" -- a charge that pretty well amounts to an allegation of treason.

When discussions of health care reform bleed into discussions of who's worse, the Tea Party or the Black Panthers or ACORN or whomever, we've lost the ability to have a discussion in this country that can lead to acceptable compromise. Indeed, mostly out of the public view, there was a lot of compromise on health care reform. We on the left gave up the public option -- grudgingly, but with the understanding that we had to give something up to get what we ultimately got. The right pushed for some things it got, as well -- strong restrictions on the use of federal funds for abortion, express language that illegal aliens could not get health care, to name the two most talked about. Indeed, one of the reasons the American people are evenly split on the wisdom of health reform is that it represents an imperfect compromise that isn't completely what anybody wanted. The public notion that this was something the left shoved down the "people's" throats simply is false. Senator Baucus made compromises to get the GOP's Olympia Snowe's vote in the Finance Committee. The White House made compromises with the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry. There are huge differences between the more liberal bill that came out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the more moderate bill that was passed in the end.

And really, in any event, how does it help us to focus on blame?

I think the President's speech in Tuscon last night found exactly the right tone. He said that the lack of civility in America didn't cause the shooting, but it does get in the way of our democracy, which is dependent on the ability to have open and honest discourse. He said that we can do better as a country than to allow our public discourse to deteriorate into verbal attacks. He said that, "when it comes to how we treat each other, it's entirely up to us." And that means we must take responsibility for treating each other with the respect that all of us deserve.

The solution to what happened in Tuscon is not to "wish there was one more gun in Tuscon" to use to shoot the shooter. The answer to violence is not more violence. The shooting in Tuscon should remind us all of how out of control things can get when we allow our discourse to become unfettered by common decency. When it becomes the norm to make fun of the President or to flat out lie about current events or to engage in baseless name-calling, we all lose. When we are unable to have a civil discussion about the merits and detriments of health reform because we are too busy throwing invectives at each other, we become polarized, as we have done.

We can do better, and we should not wait for our political leaders to set the example. We should start treating each other with respect immediately. I vehemently disagree with those who oppose health reform. But I'm prepared to talk about what parts of it can be changed, should be changed, if the opponents are willing to have that same discussion.

Last year, I was on a panel on health reform at the University of Connecticut Law School. A gentleman in the audience said he thought that insurance companies are evil, that they deny claims and delay decisions in the hope that people will just die and no longer cost them money. I responded strongly that I don't believe that is true, and I don't. The people I know who work at health insurance companies don't intend to cause harm, although I know that there are terrible problems communicating with insurance companies, which make it hard to believe sometimes that they are well-intentioned. But let's talk about it in terms of the problems with decisions they make and how they make them rather than ascribing to them an intent to cause harm. Let's solve the problem without even trying to figure out whose fault the problem was in the first place.

I'm not anywhere near as articulate as President Obama. If you didn't hear his speech last night, I hope you will watch the video or read a transcript. He said what I'm trying to say far better than I ever can say it. But I think that, the more we try to engage in civil discourse, the more we commit to being respectful, the better our democracy will function. The health of our democracy depends on it. Jennifer

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