Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Civility Matters

Well, by now a thousand pundits have weighed in on the apparent loss of manners in our nation; their discussions go all the way back to the beginning of August with the shouting matches at town hall meetings on health care. It's good to know just how civil we were being up until that point.

Okay, maybe cynicism is not the chief stance to be taken here. Of course the crudeness in this country started way before the town hall meetings. And while there is clear evidence that some of the behavior was being pushed by people with strong interests in killing any health care reform, it must also be fairly stated that a lot of the anger is genuinely felt by people who are afraid they will lose some of what they have.

Nevertheless, we should stop and consider the consequences of all this rudeness, no matter where it comes from. What really matters is that, in almost every form of public life, we have somehow decided that this is okay. Heck, we almost expect it from our athletes instead of canceling their shoe endorsements and suspending them from play; at least Serena lost the match for her stupidity. How many stupid statements does Kanye West have to make before we stop buying his music, cancel his recording contract and tell him to go away somewhere and grow up? And when a congressman thinks that an interruption of an internationally televised speech by the head of state is only offending the president and not his colleagues (much less the American people), we should not be giving millions of dollars to his campaign; we should be ashamed.

But look, I would not be jumping on the civility bandwagon except for one thing, and sadly, it is something I predicted which has now come to pass in at least one instance. All of this indignation is coming from people who believe, on some level, that they are entitled to some privilege and that it is being disrespected or taken away from them. They are scared, and they are lashing out. I am sorry that you thought you deserved something that many in our nation were not getting in the first place. Maybe you did deserve it, but not as your exclusive right.

But back to the point. What this behavioral response to our national sense of privilege has done is to let everyone know that interruptions and verbal attacks are an okay response to anything we do not like. And the next step from that is, as I predicted, violence. There have already been reports of people being hurt at the town hall meetings (hope they already had health insurance!). But let me tell you what the next step is by mentioning a couple of incidents at Guilford College last week. This is quoted from a text sent out from the college:

On Monday, September 14 a student informed Residence Life and Public Safety that a note was left on his Bryan Hall room door the prior evening containing the following message: "Die you MF fag. Nobody wants your kind on campus.” On Thursday, September 17, at approximately 11:30 pm someone dropped a rock and a note in the same student’s open, residence hall room window. This note contained the following message: “I hope it hit you in the [f---ing] head faggot. You don’t deserve life like the rest of the world. It’s bad enough with out all the gay crap pulling people down. It’s sick, unnatural, and death is almost too good for you. Almost.”

This is what happens when we tell everyone that it is okay to say whatever you want, do whatever you want, and let everyone know how much you disagree with them in whatever fashion you deem appropriate. Needless to say, Guilford, a Quaker tradition school known for an activist student body and much tolerance and acceptance is shocked, especially given that it would have been almost impossible for an outsider to have committed these acts. But that is who we are becoming as a nation.

What is worse to me is that most of the people committing those earlier seemingly harmless verbal sparrings (unlike this particular incident, which is being treated as a criminal offense) would likely tell you they are Christian conservatives. So I have one thing to say to them. Go read the fourth and fifth chapters of the letter of James.

James has a lot to say about unbridled tongues, and it boils down to this: shut them! And then he has a lot to say about God's wisdom versus that of the world. God's wisdom is gentle and promotes unity. The world's wisdom is brutal, violent, divisive. Any of that sound familiar?

I could call the Guilford incident an unfortunate but rare occurrence, but I bet we will see a whole lot more of them around the country in the coming weeks and months. And why shouldn't we? This is exactly what we have been giving the okay to.

Right now, someone is about to go off about the first amendment and freedom of speech. Well besides the fact that there are limits even on that freedom, this is not about what is lawful, but what is right. And it is time we stopped confusing those two. An act being lawful does not equate with it being the right thing to do. There are times when shouting and interrupting is appropriate. But sorry, folks, Kanye West was not fighting Bull Connor for the right to vote; Taylor Swift was hardly denying him anything (By the way, to clear the record, Beyonce was not even nominated in the category that Swift won). And immature minds are learning from you.

Pray for our nation. Pray that we learn to bridle our tongues. And pray for the students, faculty, and staff of Guilford College, especially Wednesday night at 7:00pm, as they hold a vigil. And it you happen to live in Greensboro,....

Most especially, pray for whoever did this that they can get past their fear and learn a new way to deal with difference in their midst. Because, while I wish they would get past the homophobia, I'll settle right now for civility because those with whom we disagree still deserve to be treated like human beings.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Who Cares About Health Care?

Yeah, I know. Like you really need to read something else about health care right now. What more is there to say?

Well, how about this. There is no right to health care. That's it. Now, let me add a few things to that statement, so that you can see what I really mean.

One of the things the good Alasdair McIntyre's book After Virtue managed to instill in me while I was in graduate school was the reality that rights are arbitrary concepts, not intrinsic or even God given. We may wish they were, but the reality of our world is that most things that we call rights today were not only not rights that people had in past centuries but were in fact, explicitly not something people believed they could expect. Life belonged to the master or the Lord or the king. Liberty was something that slaves dreamed of, serfs could not imagine, and free men struggled with unless they had a trade or money. And the pursuit of happiness: forget about it. You were happy to survive.

No, most of the things we call rights only exist for us because we as a society declare them to be rights. And if we look beyond our won country, we can see that we often do not agree about what should be a right. The right to a multi-party system of voting? Ha! The right to keep property you own unless a legal process takes it for public necessity and even then pays fair market value for it? Even the citizens of Connecticut can tell you about that one. The right to an education? Ask girls in small Pakistan villages about that one (This is where I make a cheap plug for Greg Mortensen's book, Three Cups of Tea) .

So, no we do not have a right to health care. People in Canada or France or Switzerland might be able to claim they have a right to it, but we in the States do not. In fact, it is fair to say that we do not yet even believe it should be a right (though there is a growing consensus slowly starting to emerge). If we did, the only discussion we would be having is how to make it happen, not whether we should change what we have or not.

What we have now is a health care system based on capitalism, in which care is a commodity to be purchased. If you have money, you get better care than if you do not. We believe in the freedom to pursue health care, but we do believe in the right to actually have it.

So while we debate whether the Obama plan is a good one, we are missing the point. Until and unless we reach a national consensus that it is a good thing to make sure that we all have health care, we will tinker with a corrupt and over bloated system, in which your doctor has three people working to cover the insurance payment system (three people you are paying for in copayments and premiums), and enormous profits are being made by a very small group of people based on the idea that they deserve to get rich off of you being sick.

Sadly the biggest thing blocking us from doing something about all this is our own fears and selfishness. Let's face it: very few of us are holding up the torch for the insurance companies. Most of us detest these death dealers with as much passion as we love our partners or our favorite sports team. Just look at the faces of people as they go to make a co-payment and you will realize I am telling the truth. We do not go through this system willingly.

But evoke the notion of socialism and you can create hysteria on the level of McCarthyism. Why that works with Christians I do not know. Doesn't Acts describe the early Chrisitans as pooling their resources and giving to each as had need. Now that's socialism! All we want is one standard of care for everyone. Is that too much to ask?

But between the socialist bogeyman and the oft-repeated fear that somehow my personal insurance is going to get worse under health care reform, and we reject it out of hand. Throw in a few non-existent death panels, a near hysterical Sarah Palin (I can see her hospital from my back window), and a slow summer characterized mostly by Wacko Jacko's death, and you have a bit of insanity where we can't even agree in principle that some kind of health care reform is a good thing a right even.

Now, of course we need to continue crafting and refining the appropriate laws. For example, it should be clear that individuals who want to keep their current insurance should be able to. And there are certainly a hundred other things that must be tweaked in the bill. But really, folks, it is time to get this done. We blew it in 1993, and look how long it has taken to get it back on the table. We can't wait that long again.

And yes, McIntyre is right. Thank you Stanley Hauerwas for pointing that out to me. Rights, are, in fact arbitrary and can be changed at any time.

So I am declaring that I believe health care should be a right in this country and be treated as such, not as if it is a luxury, which is what we are doing now. Only when we are willing to make that bold claim will we stop being guided by the bottom line. Only then will the question be "How will we pay for it?", not "Will we pay for it?"

And it some insurance company stops making billions of profit and some other low level workers have go get new jobs (assuming we will, in fact, pull out of this recession), so be it. What we have now provides the worst care in the First World and costs twice as much. Think of how much good work for the environment that money could buy.