Friday, September 18, 2009

Take Two Aspirin and a Dose of Vitriol

I grew up watching conservative William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line.” Even though I wasn’t conservative, I was impressed by Buckley’s intellect and depth of knowledge, and by how he brought these into play during his debates with guests on the show. At the other end of the political spectrum was Howard Higman, one of my instructors at the University of Colorado, a sociologist who was at least as far left as Buckley was to the right. Higman’s “Firing Line” was the annual campus wide event he organized called the Conference on World Affairs . The conference brought together politicians, writers, artists, and intellectuals representing the entire ideological spectrum for a week of panel debates and discussions on current topics. The atmosphere was one of spirited, yet informed debate, where the best minds grappled with complex and important issues in a productive way, despite their ideological differences.

In stark contrast is our national “debate” over health care reform, which seems strangely disconnected from reality and from rational, informed deliberation. There have been false and exaggerated claims from all sides (see for examples), but it is the emotional and hyperbolic behavior of the most vocal conservatives that concerns me the most. The most recent example of this was the outburst by Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina during President Obama’s address to congress concerning health care reform. Wilson yelled out “You lie!” when Obama stated that health care benefits would not be extended to illegal immigrants. Wilson quickly apologized, which is certainly to his credit. And it can be noted that other Presidents have also been heckled. But what concerns me is not only that Wilson was demonstrably wrong in his assertion (the current bill explicitly excludes illegal immigrants from receiving benefits), but that he was so vehement about it. Even more disturbing, many of his constituents in South Carolina endorsed both his behavior and his incorrect belief.

I’ve been puzzled over why this issue has been such fertile ground for emotional button-pushing tactics. After all, polls show that most Americans believe there is a real need for health care reform, and the issues of delivery, scope, and paying for it certainly could be approached calmly and rationally.

One suggestion offered recently by former President Jimmy Carter is that the vitriolic rejection of anything associated with President Obama is motivated by latent racism, by "an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president". The racism suggestion was quickly dismissed by President Obama himself , but I’m not so sure. It fits well with the view of Obama espoused by commentators like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh as a tyrant leading the country to ruin with his insidious hidden agendas and policies. Facts are replaced by fear in this kind of thinking.

Another suggestion is related but a bit broader and more complex. The reason many have resonated to the outburst by Joe Wilson, according to columnist Tim Rutten is that immigration is related to a number of other concerns: “Health care reform may be this month’s battleground, but immigration, abortion, gun control, separation of church and state, and jingoism decked out as patriotism are the articles of faith from which the talk-show right’s catechism derives. Immigration remains a particularly resonant issue because it touches on so many of this tendency’s sensitive nerves: racial anxiety, gnawing questions of national identity and a generalized sense of traditions under threat.”

Whatever the reasons, I really hope that the country can move beyond the fear-mongering and hyperbole that pervades much of the social, political, and economic issues facing us. I’m sure William F. Buckley Jr. would agree with me.....


DoctorMcLovin said...

According to today's Washington Post, "A part-time Census Bureau field worker was found hanged in Kentucky Sept. 12 with the word "fed" scrawled across his chest." I don't know if this is related to what you describe in your thoughtful commentary, or whether the fact that $6 trillion disappeared from the U.S. economy almost overnight has anything to do with it. But I do know that we have to take this very seriously.

PaddleDoc said...

Dick, I agree with you about the lack of any debate in the debate. I guess I miss Buckly as well, though I didn't know it! I find it even more difficult when I run into friends and family struggling with the issues that are not issues, but deliberate side tracks.