What Does Happen Here
By Tom Sullivan
September 14, 2009 - 4:17am ET
Last weekend, tens of thousands of health reform protesters prompted by Glenn Beck descended on Washington. They fear America is turning fascist because Barack Obama wants health insurance reform that reduces cost, guarantees choice, and is affordable and high quality for every American.
The 1930s had Father Coughlin, the inspiration for Sinclair Lewis’ Bishop Prang in “It Can’t Happen Here.” We've got Glenn Beck.
But it was Nicholas Kristof’s commentary, "The Body Count," in Sunday’s New York Times that brought the phrase “it can’t happen here” to mind for another reason. Kristof cites T.R. Reid’s “The Healing of America” and the tragedy of Nikki White.
Diagnosed with lupus at 21, Nikki became too sick to work, lost her job and lost her insurance. Collapsing in her home made Nikki eligible for free emergency room care. Twenty-five emergency surgeries and six months of critical care later, Nikki lost her life needlessly at age 32.
“Nikki didn’t die from lupus,” her doctor told Reid. “Nikki died from complications of the failing American health care system.”
That can and does happen here. Kristof laments,
After Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans, eight years ago on Friday, we went to war and spent hundreds of billions of dollars ensuring that this would not happen again. Yet every two months, that many people die because of our failure to provide universal insurance — and yet many members of Congress want us to do nothing?
Nothing is just the alternative Beck’s paranoid patriots offer to reform proposals in Congress. You find only the “spitting, incoherent rage” Paul Krugman observes, not policy alternatives on their posters. They can tell you what they think the way forward isn’t, but just try asking what they think the way forward is.
Obama’s Organizing for America collected many thousands of health care horror stories. Yet those stories, like Nikki White’s, make no impression on Americans blinded by inchoate fear of the Other — any more than warnings about hot stoves make an impression on small children until they burn their fingers. Until it affects one of their own, it’s someone else’s story, someone else’s child, someone else’s problem.
It is an impoverished view of America protesters hold, all patriotic symbolism but lacking a soul. It is an America they will defend with their lives and their sacred honor, but not with their fortunes, HELL NO. Their taxes might help those who are not “real Americans,” people not of their tribe — My family, My friends, My neighborhood, My church, My ethnic group — or people who don't share My opinions.
“Don’t Tread On Me” is their battle cry — emphasis on “Me.” There is no "we" in their America, no welcome for your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of Americans, much less immigrants. E pluribus unum is Greek to them. They have reduced freedom to a fetish.
This is the kind of cheap, plastic, made-in-China patriotism you buy at Wal-Mart at everyday low prices — all packaging and empty on the inside.
Sadder still is seeing corporate capitalism crudely alloyed with and sold as Christian faith. Bill McKibben critiqued the trend in the August 2005 issue of Harpers. Three-quarters of Americans wrongly believe “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. This Benjamin Franklin quotation isn't just not biblical, McKibben observed, “it’s counter-biblical.” Yet how neatly it reinforces the gospel of self-interest preached by conservatives. McKibben writes,
How nice it would be if Jesus had declared that our income was ours to keep, instead of insisting that we had to share. How satisfying it would be if we were supposed to hate our enemies. Religious conservatives will always have a comparatively easy sell.
“It's hard to imagine,” he continues, “a con much more audacious than making Christ the front man for a program of tax cuts for the rich or war in Iraq.” And yet, it is a con Americans in significant numbers not only embrace, but celebrate as heroic, noble and Christian.
Kristof considers the issue of how America cares for its sick a moral one: “Do we wish to be the only rich nation in the world that lets a 32-year-old woman die because she can’t get health insurance? Is that really us?”
But can a people who don’t know the Bible from Ben Franklin really know who they are? As Allan Bloom complained two decades ago, Americans have little idea where many of their bedrock “American” ideas hail from (Europe). Or simply believe they thought them up on their own.
As a result, the conservative rank-and-file who disrupted town hall meetings have got their Edmund Burke, Ayn Rand, and Friedrichs Hayek and Nietzsche — all of whom most have never read — so confused with their Jesus Christ that they have no idea where one ends and the other begins. No wonder, as comedian John Fugelsang suggests, they want a Christian nation that denies healing to the sick.
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