10 March 2011

Heroes and villains

Waiting for the thaw
the path to our door--
more like a canyon!
and it can be slippery!
I always get sick when the
weather gets better...
but I don't lack for company!
an outstretched paw
ad on light pole outside Mcdonald's
--"a team of experienced teachers"
is ready to write your theses, term
papers and homework assignments;
rates from 500 to 8000 rubles,
roughly $15 to $240
Many of Barack Obama's election-year supporters are suffering from buyer's remorse--how in the world could he support indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay!!--while, paradoxically, many of his political enemies continue to paint him as a rogue socialist. Are these two groups talking about the same person? I wryly remember my own somewhat cautious defense of his candidacy--even if he were only 5% better than his opponent in the election, I remember thinking, that could still mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands of people.

Dear outraged readers, left and right, Obama is simply the chief executive of a huge bureaucracy. He's not an emperor; he answers to thousands of constituencies, all of whom know that presidents come and go. Just consider the mislabeled monstrosity "Obamacare," of which he is not actually the author. It's the product of hundreds of compromises and transactions among thousands of players; sadly, many of these transactions did not reflect the ideals of fair access to health care for all.

Still, the people demand a hero--or a villain. Too bad Obama is just a human being, a servant leader in a strategic and very exposed position. He deserves to be treated (especially by believers!) as a responsible adult--with prayer. love, and constant intelligent criticism. But that criticism must not stop with him! If you wanted him and his colleagues to take a more nuanced view on some subject of peace, justice, or the economy, what did you do--what did I do--to open up the space for such a discussion? Did we demand that legislators at all levels operate with similar sensitivity? Did we talk with neighbors about our concerns? Did we reach out to family members who disagree with us?

There's nothing wrong with heroes; for certain audiences, heroes and their stories are far more persuasive than theoretical arguments. By all means, let's find worthy heroes, but the best ones might be outside political structures whose leaders have a mere 5% mobility range from dead center. Once in a great while, such heroes appear even within the structures (possible nominees: Franklin Roosevelt; Nelson Mandela), but I for one will not demonize Barack Obama for being "merely" competent.

So if a hero won't do our heavy lifting for us, what hope do we have? Again, to take the economics of health care as an example, maybe we need to operate on at least two tracks.

Track one, bottom-up, is the way we behave as consumers and citizens--being intelligent patients and patient advocates, participating on local and regional health policy and management boards, balking at unreasonable fees, pursuing claims, filing complaints, expressing outrage (after checking the facts!) when others are treated unjustly, being squeaky wheels whenever necessary, always refusing to accept a passive role in a hero/villain drama.

Track two, wholesale reform, is looking at the whole system and working with others who are doing the same thing. In health care politics, as in so many other spheres, we Americans have operated on a hero-vs-villain based system, the hero being the so-called free market, and the villain being socialism. (True, some people suffer from the reverse oversimplification!) Trapped in these artificial frames, we've allowed rampant bureaucratism, lack of true choice, and non-medical interference in the doctor-patient relationship whenever the "market" imposed them, all in the service of avoiding "socialism" out of fear of rampant bureaucratism, lack of true choice, and non-medical interference! Let the hero be good health care and those who support it (just as we want good police care, good firefighting care, good post-office care) and the villain be any unnecessary complications, public or private, to that care.

One example of these distorted frames and the compromises they've forced "Obamacare" to make: many say that the recent health reform is unconstitutional because it requires purchasing health insurance. In fact, that requirement is functionally more like a tax--but because we're allergic to sane conversations about taxes and centralized funding, we can't call it that. In order to avoid the "socialist" simplicity of basing our health care on public funding, some part of the cost and the risk-pooling in this intricate compromise must be covered through the device of a "purchase"--but even this device isn't satisfactory to those who do not see equitable health care coverage as an overriding national priority.

As voters, we can get part of the way there through elections, but politician-heroes can only do so much. We must do our part to change the way the wind blows, starting with our own rhetoric. It's not what our heroes do, it's what we do in every relevant conversation, every transaction, every day, to advance health care as a public good rather than a marketable private luxury...and to re-recognize government as our own mechanism for working for the common good, rather than an external evil for which we have no responsibility.

In Libya, too, I wish I could imagine some heroic breakthrough. I wish I could picture how the whole world could rise up and say "enough." How could one colonel (who reminds me of a hugely inflated version of Jim Jones) be allowed to equate a whole country's fate with his own? Sadly, as much as I grieve for Libya, I can't imagine how violent heroics by outside forces could do anything but complicate the situation even more. I don't know whether the current lack of assertive outside intervention is based on cowardice, or a secret desire to defend present lucrative arrangements, or genuine wisdom, but one thing is clear--the nation-state system still trumps human solidarity as a basis for responding to injustice. No doubt the Western addiction to oil plays a role as well.

For those of us who are committed to nonviolent responses, maybe these weeks of unprecedented change, revealing a whole new generation of local heroes, will spur us to more creativity in enlarging and replicating such fledgling institutions as Christian Peacemaker Teams. Never has their need been so clear.

Guantanamo: Helena Cobban's "Open letter to the Pentagon's Rosa Brooks."

The "Freedom Square" you may not have heard of.

Christianity Today: "Behind Egypt's Revolution." "During the last month, we Christians in Egypt have witnessed an unprecedented coming together of local Muslims and Christians, especially among young people."

"Why the Mideast Revolts will Help al-Qaeda." Michael Scheuer: "Bin Laden and his peers are counting on the fact that the uprisings' secular, pro-democracy Facebookers and tweeters--so beloved of reality-averse Western journalists and politicians--are a thin veneer across a deeply pious Arab world. They are confident that these revolts are not about democratic change but about who, in societies where peaceful transfers of power are rare, will fill the vacuum left by the dictators and consolidate power." Is this a useful corrective to the optimism of many (such as al Jazeera's Wadah Khanfar, quoted here last week)? Or do Scheuer's glibness and false dichotomies signal another purpose? Is the region truly condemned to an endless succession of filled vacuums?

Huda Seif: "Shaken Regimes Get Desperate."

"Is Universalism Heresy?"

The Roadhouse blues podcast celebrates its sixth anniversary. Belated congratulations!

Susan Tedeschi...


Jeremy Mott said...

Susan Tedeschi is, as you say, a
marvelous blues singer. For a truly
spectacular performance of hers,
just go another couple of clicks
on youtube to her performance of
the Iris Dement song, Sweet Forgiveness. Amazing!
Jeremy Mott

Anonymous said...

Susan Tedeschi is going to also perform at this years Doheny Blues Festivals in Dana Point, CA (May 2011).