I don’t pretend to know any more about the health care mess than the people yelling, but I do know something about the people waiting. It’s reasonable to assume the people waiting are in much greater pain than the people yelling. Whichever of the two you are, I think there should be a consensus that there is an egregious lack of compassion. Wednesday, the president is set to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress. This may, literally, be the speech of Obama’s life. With seemingly all men around him losing their heads, can the president’s unparalleled cool help calm the seas? Or will he blow it by being too academic, too cerebral or too aloof?

Okay, here’s what I know about it:

(1) There is no health care bill before Congress. Both the House and now the senate have been working to craft a bill, and there are several versions of several bills making the rounds on Capitol Hill, but there is no health care bill, not yet. Therefore, (2) all the hollering about “Obamacare” is certainly premature because (1) there is no health care bill before Congress. The hysteria over these imaginary health care bills, rife with “death panels” and presumed tax and rate hikes for the already-insured has risen to an insane crescendo, as I’m certain the president suspected they would. The Democrats, eating their young as usual, seem inexplicably cowed by the Republican minority, so much so that the Dems are, as usual, putting politics ahead of principle, seeking the political refuge a bipartisan agreement might provide them. So the Dems keep sounding more and more like Republicans, undercutting their own sitting president as they, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, seek to weasel their way into the GOP’s good graces.

All that bowing and scraping misses the two most salient points about this health care debate: (3) without some form of universal health care coverage, the so-called “public option,” there is no health care reform; all we have is a bunch of politicians putting lipstick on the same pig. And (4) the Republicans will not vote for any health care bill under any circumstances—with or without the public option. The Republican mission is to make the Dems look bad so they can win seats in the 2010 midterm elections. The Democrats’ mission is less clear. These guys are simply behaving like spineless cowards, and the president, already leaking “be a good soldier” talking points from his upcoming speech on the subject, appears ready to cave. I don’t get these guys. I don’t understand this gutless behavior—from the president on down. Appeasing the same lying, demonstrably evil men and women who gave us George W. Bush, and who obviously do not recognize Barack Obama as the duly elected president of the United States, is simply an insane political strategy. Appeasing bullies only emboldens them. By not standing up to these people on so critical an issue as health care reform, the president will likely irreparably damage his administration. The Republican minority—who have zero, I repeat, no political leverage whatsoever, are punking Obama at will. And, rather than stand up and humiliate his weak-kneed Democratic “allies,” as he ought to, the president seems intent on making deals with devils. With men and women who use fear and hatred to manipulate the American people, who don’t even recognize Obama as the president of the United States and whose blatant and obvious goal is his removal from office.

Why on earth is he appeasing these people? Evil must be confronted. The loudest voice, in any room, in any building on this planet, is that of the president of the United States. The president needs to call sin sin, to call these people out on their gross behavior for nakedly political reasons, and he needs to take his own party to the woodshed for being such cowards. In my entire life, I’m not sure that I’ve ever been so disappointed in our nation's leaders.

Democrats jammed the president pretty bad by failing to act while the president’s numbers were stratospheric and while momentum was with the administration. By failing to pass a bill before the Congressional summer recess, the Democrats have handed the Republicans an enormous political victory. The Republicans energetically maximized that advantage, driving the president’s numbers into the ground while dispatching carefully choreographed fake grass-roots events (appropriately called “Astroturf” movements), coaching their agents to yell and scream and act ignorant at town hall debates over this issue. All of which is a smoke screen to distract us from (1): there is no health care bill before Congress.

A week and a half ago I broke my foot. Well, thank God, I thought I broke my foot—I actually bruised a tendon or had a case of tendonitis. I’m guessing because I didn’t go see a doctor. I couldn’t walk and was in enormous pain. Simply moving around the house was a major effort and several times I almost passed out from the pain of simply trying to get downstairs to the kitchen. I didn’t go see a doctor because, for me, going to see the doctor is a big financial decision. The doctor would want to take x-rays. X-rays cost. Pain meds cost. Crutches, casts. I knew, if my foot didn’t start to feel better in a few days, I’d end up in the emergency room and billed for more than a thousand dollars. I don’t have a thousand dollars. So I endured the pain and sweated it out and, bless God, the foot got better.

This is what it’s like to be uninsured. I’m sitting home in agony, incapable of even moving around my house, and I can’t afford to see a doctor. Meanwhile, I’m watching these insane health care town hall meetings with these screaming people drowning out the Congressman or woman who’d come to engage them. Most any idiot could see the phenomena—the over-the-top shouting and lack of civility—was orchestrated. Fear and ignorance are Republican trademarks. They’re very good at profiting from both. It’s no accident that not one, not two, but a dozen or more of these town hall debates turned into shouting matches, where no shouting had ever taken place before. It was all a scam to get on TV, to stir people up and demonstrate how mad people were at the president for trying to change our health care system. And, it was all insane because (1) there is no health care bill before Congress.

All this hysteria, all this anger, all this division, is manufactured by Republicans to scare you, to anger you, to make you nervous and paranoid that the president is all about redistributing wealth: making you pay for my broken foot. “Stop being lazy/cheap and go buy some health insurance.” Well, now, why didn’t I think of that?

What I and most of my friends noticed: the angry shouters at these town halls were, for the most part, white people. We don’t see angry mobs of blacks spouting paranoid rumors about Obama’s health care plan. First, because the president (at this writing) has no health care plan. He merely asked Congress to come up with one. And, as I mentioned, (1) there is no health care bill before Congress. We’re all just shouting at each other over a baby when nobody’s even pregnant. But these are, for the most part, white folk, which I find interesting. Now, I’m sure there are blacks and Latinos just as paranoid and riled up about all this as are (apparently) white folk but, my guess would be, in the majority, blacks and Latinos and other minorities are more likely to be uninsured or under-insured. Which makes the debate, in many reasonable interpretations, metaphoric: white folk paranoid about being made to pay for black folk’s health care. We could say it’s the haves versus the have-nots and that race doesn’t play a role, but that would be disingenuous: look with your own eyes.

There seems to be two groups of people: those doing the yelling and those doing the waiting. I was waiting. Waiting to see if my foot would get any better or if my credit would be ruined (emergency rooms wreck your credit with the quickness, setting collection agencies on you almost immediately. If you’re broke, you end up in the E.R. And it’s a foregone conclusion that your credit will be wrecked by that same ER that perhaps saved your life). The people doing he yelling seem, at least on TV, to be white folk. The people doing the waiting, waiting to see what bill if any actually gets voted on and signed, tend to be black and Latino and other minorities. Certainly millions of whites as well are waiting, like the poor woman suffering two degenerative autoimmune diseases who was heckled—heckled—in her wheelchair last week. But, at my distance from this debate, it all seems metaphoric.

I accept, as a given, that the anger surrounding the health care debate is largely manufactured. Oh, we could point fingers at the major drug companies and their lobbyists and whoever else is getting rich off of the existing system, and we can call the Republicans soulless drones bought off by those people. I’m not sure how true any of that is. The Republicans simply want their power back. Hatred and fear are the only tools they know how to effectively use. They depend on us to be frightened, to be stupid, to be uninformed. They are whipping up hatred of Barack Obama not because he’s black or because he’s a Democrat, but because hating Obama will get Republicans elected in 2010. Or, at least, that’s the theory. Only, the manufactured hatred of the president has risen to a very scary degree, to the point where I am genuinely concerned about the president’s safety and the safety of his family. The greedy, and yes, evil manipulation of American ignorance touches, at its core, a more sinister realty—racism.

I didn’t vote for George Bush. I didn’t like George Bush. I’ve written maybe a couple dozen essays criticizing Bush, whom I and many people much smarter than me have deemed the worst president in American history. But, as much as I dislike the man and his policies, never once did it even remotely occur to me to take a shot at him. The GOP Swiftboaters stirred folks up against John Kerry in 2004, calling him a liar and a fraud and other things. But the opposition and mistrust of Senator Kerry never rose to the truly frightening levels of hatred—and that’s what it is, not simple political disagreement, but hatred—we see directed at our current president. Now, why is that?

Racism is still here, still among us. As angry as I was about the Supreme Court’s handing George Bush the keys to the White House, I didn’t ever hate President Bush. I simply disagreed with him about everything he ever did, and I criticized Al Gore for running a bad campaign. What we are seeing in these stupid Astroturf rallies, is hatred. These people *hate* President Obama in a fanatic and irrational way. In a Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan way. The health care debate has given people who despise Obama what they’ve prayed for: an actual reason for that hatred. Irrational hatred with no reason is what it looks and smells like: racism. And the last thing you want to say to a person—black or white—who is behaving like a racist is, “You’re behaving like a racist.”

Nobody ever wants to admit they’re a racist, but all that screaming, all that venom—c’mon. First and foremost: it’s manufactured. Second, it’s giving these folks lease to do what they’ve wanted to do all along—vent their hatred of Barack Obama. The actual issue is almost secondary because 9.5 out of 10 of these people have no earthly clue what they are talking about. They’re repeating lies deliberately distributed by the religious right, including our own Focus On The Family, the health care lobby, and, of course, the Republican party. They’re flying off the handle about the single-payer system and that Obama’s gonna force them into some complex government-run health care system.

Which is ironic, considering a great many of these red-in-the-face screamers are senior citizens on Medicaid—a government-run health care system. A system run efficiently for forty years. One reporter polled a room, asking some of the angry crowd, “How many of you are on Medicare?” Hand went up. “Okay, how many of you want your Medicare to go away?” Puzzled looks. They have no idea what they are talking about. What they are screaming about, They have talking points from Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKlein and Eli Lily, and rumors off Fox News. All of which is carefully calculated not to inform but to confuse, to frighten, and to stoke the flames of the deeper and truer catalyst of this fake phenomena: racism. These folks hate Obama, and they finally have a reason why.

Hobbling around my house, I was deeply saddened for those people and by those people. To me, they were, in the end, simply ridiculous. Marionettes being tugged around on strings by big pharma and the conservative right. I saw those red faces, those puffed cheeks, the veins popping, the blood boiling. And I paused and prayed for our president because, by deliberately stoking the flames of racism—and make absolutely no mistake, that’s the subtext of most of this fake anger—the GOP has unleashed something much uglier, and made the country considerably less safe for our president.

But I suspect they already knew that.

Who would Jesus insure? I don’t pretend to know any more about the health care mess than the people yelling, but I do know something about the people waiting. It’s reasonable to assume the people waiting are, in the aggregate, in much greater pain than the people yelling. Whichever of the two you are, I think there should be a consensus that, at least in terms of what gets broadcast on TV, there seems to be an egregious lack of compassion on the part of those doing the yelling. It’s all fear and paranoia about a health care plan that’s not even written, let alone signed by the president. But if you’ve ever been in pain—in fall-down-and-cry, wish-you-were-dead pain, pain too difficult to even describe with any real clarity—and if you, in your pain, had no access to even modest health care, you might well be one of the silent majority who don’t go to those town hall meetings. Perhaps because you have to work. Perhaps because you don’t have a car. But I don’t see a lot of those who wait at these shouting matches, and the few I do see are shouted down by those doing the yelling, people paranoid that the president is going to take away what they’ve got.

What they’ve got is a dysfunctional health care system that behaves a lot like a temperamental Doberman. Tuesday he’s your best friend, Thursday he bites you. Those doing the yelling don’t seem to know or realize health care premiums in this country have doubled over the past ten years. The economic crisis has cost millions of jobs, and many of those people have lost their health care and are now losing their unemployment. Millions of those doing the yelling are at risk for losing their health care or for seeing their premiums skyrocket—and losing their health care. The system is broken, has been broken for years, and is a major cause of our economic woes, both because of those doing the yelling and those doing the waiting—who get sicker and thus cost us more.

A great many of those doing the yelling claim to know Jesus. I’m not sure how a brazen demonstration of vitriol and thinly-disguised racism honors Christ or in any way glorifies Him. Where is the lesson of Matthew 25: For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in… (NAS)

The Christian right has historically walked in lock-step with the political right, and if conservative religious extremist Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) is any indication, the Christian right is ready to throw itself on the tracks to stop health care reform. Which seems troubling to me, as that choice seems more political than spiritual. Jesus had compassion for the poor, and the Apostle James said true religion is not about posturing in the town square—which Bachmann does a lot of—but quietly seeing to the needs of others. I have long suspected the religious right tends to follow whatever breadcrumbs the Republican Party drops behind them, and the black church tends to embrace much of the religious right’s positions by default, mostly out of laziness. Reconciling one’s spiritual beliefs with one’s political choices requires a deeper examination of our faith and a greater investment in understanding what is going on in the world than many of us are willing to make. Most black pastors I know won’t even read an email if it’s longer than two or three sentences. They simply can’t be bothered. There’s no intellectual curiosity and no real investment in crafting sound doctrine based on empirical research and prayer. In the black church, our doctrine is all largely Xerox copies of bylaws handed down from one generation to the next without questioning, without examination, without new proofs. It’s all stuff we done heard someplace, and the conservative (i.e. white) church is the group doing most of the talking. So, rather than read past the second sentence in that email (or this essay, for that matter), we just bounce off of whatever sound bites come our way and form positions based on what we *think* is being said and what we *think* is sound doctrine.

Michele Bachmann last week proposed a “blood covenant” by which we Christians would agree to “slit our wrists” should Obamacare pass into law. There was not a single voice from either the “moral” Christian right or the African American church to challenge her. And my suspicion is, not one black pastor in town has much idea who Michele Bachmann is. Who she is is the face of conservative Christianity. Whether you know it or not, she is speaking for you and people who do not know God, who do not have a relationship with Christ, are assuming you agree with her—with this woman you’ve never heard of. Why? Because she’s doing all the talking. Because the black church, as usual, as it has been for decades, is mute and ignorant on the most important public debate to rage in years. Where are we? Where’s our voice? That’s what’s so utterly disturbing about these phony “town hall” meetings, not that we were excluded, but that we *don’t care.* That your pastor is not talking about this, that your church is not circulating information and educating your community about this, is more condemnation of the dysfunctional nature of our tradition. A tradition satisfied to rub its belly, eat chicken and gossip.

When Congress passed Social Security in 1935 the opposition called it, “The lash of the dictator.” Two-thirds of African Americans in the labor force were excluded from receiving benefit because they were considered “intermittent workers.” When President Lyndon Johnson added Medicare to the social Security Act in 1965 there was stiff and angry opposition, George H.W. Bush calling it, “socialized medicine.” The truth is, no good idea ever made it into law without running a gantlet of uninspired political cowards.

Our current health care system is unsustainable. It is a chief cause of our current financial woes. Health care premiums have doubled—doubled—over the past decade and drug prices and health care costs continue to skyrocket as drug makers and doctors and insurers and health care providers seem to literally make up whatever price they want whenever they want. These same people hollering over some mess they done heard someplace about “Obama’s health care plan” are not facing the very real fact that, unless something is done to fix health care in this country, they themselves could find themselves laid off from work with no health insurance. The older folks hollering about this have no concept that none of this has much to do with their own health care insurance—Medicare. They’re hollering about nothing and criticizing government-run health care when they themselves have enjoyed the benefits of government-run health care for decades at taxpayers’ expense. I feel like I’m on safe ground when I say many if not most of the people doing the yelling are underinformed if not simply uninformed. They have no idea what they’re yelling about. And they’re defending a system that rewards greed, that bankrupts families, and that—whether these folks know it or not—will, sooner than later, get them, too.

Wednesday, the president is set to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress. This may, literally, be the speech of Obama’s life. With seemingly all men around him losing their heads, can the president’s unparalleled cool help calm the seas? Or will he blow it by being too academic, too cerebral or too aloof? The Jerry Springer-style circus of this debate has gone on way too long. The president needs to find his fire and crack down on his own weak-kneed Democrats—whom I consider to be accomplices after the fact.

He is expected to have a soft position on the Public Option—a government-run alternative to health insurers designed to force competition and control costs—which many consider the very definition of health reform. Without the Public Option, most any bill would be considerably less impactful on our dysfunctional health care system. Pundits are also hoping the president will include medical malpractice reform—limiting medical malpractice lawsuits which would, in theory, control costs and build equity within the healthcare system—and advocate interstate insurance purchasing, which would lead to fifty states competing for insurance business. Expect "choice" and "competition" to be keywords as the president attempts to douse the flames of the overheated health care debate which now polarizes his administration.

I pray we'll all be watching. All be praying. And that, at some point, we'll find our own voice again.

Christopher J. Priest
6 September 2009

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