Two stories of the US stand in stark contrast with one another in the wake of the passage of Health Care Reform 2010.
Unlike most of my progressive and liberal friends and family, I turned the radio dial to conservative talk radio after the signing of this bill into law. Angry voices described a nation under siege with a federal government trampling over the individual rights of its people. They strip the president down and paint a picture of an autocratic rugula-eating emperor who has illegitimately seized the throne which has been built on the backs of working people and who sends his minions in Congress to do his bidding. “Obama is the next Hitler.” “Obama is a liar.” “Obama is a socialist.”
A recent Harris Poll reflects this sentiment and reveals that two-thirds of Republicans interviewed think that he is a socialist. Hatred of the president has been equated with patriotism and this health care bill is taken as further proof of the illegitimacy of this government. The commentators invoke the age-old battle of state rights versus federal rights. This is their story about “freedom.”
This is not a new story and its general template has been revived successfully many times over the years. However, it is a dangerous story because it ignores its own shadow and eclipses another narrative that has been struggling for more than a century to be heard.
This story becomes more complete when we focus on one of its key protagonists, former President Ronald Reagan. He has been hailed as a hero by many conservatives but his record on key civil rights legislation is conveniently ignored or forgotten and even forgiven. We conveniently let slide his public opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the creation of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr holiday. In 1980, he launched his presidential campaign in the town where civil rights workers were slain and declared, “I believe in state rights.” In the same year, he decried the Voting Rights Act as “humiliating to the South.” In 1982, he intervened on the side of Bob Jones University when it was about to lose its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating. The most instructive is Reagan’s explanation for opposing California legislation when he ran for governor that would have outlawed racial discrimination in housing—people have the right to sell to whomever they want.
Now, I willingly consider the possibility of innocent mis-steps or misunderstandings. My intent is not to demonize Reagan as a racist but to highlight the unacknowledged aspect and outcome of the conservative freedom story. One of its real dangers is the lack of self-criticism on part of its tellers. Their one-sided narrative dismisses my story and many others like me, especially 106-year old Ella Mae Johnson, who passed away this past week.
Ella Mae witnessed over a century of African American history and traveled at age 105 to witness in person the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. “I have experienced some of the terrible things that happened to groups, to us, and to others. There are people who believe because you were different, you were less than.” At age 4, she was orphaned and neighbors took her in and cared for her. When she needed money to go to college, women in her town gave her a scholarship. She eventually became the first black woman on campus when she got into graduate school. Upon graduating, she turned around and became a social worker because she wanted to be the one to now help others.
Her story is similar to my father who was dismissed by his co-workers when he first came to the US from the Philippines and was told that he was only good in getting coconuts from a tree. With help from friends and family, he eventually started his own successful business to escape the racism. When I asked his key to success, he told me the story of my grandfather who caught a thief in his small store and told the person, “If you want something, don’t steal. Just ask and take only what you need for you and your family.”
I share a similar story with Ella Mae and my father. Because my parents wanted a better life for my younger brother and me, they had to work long hours and leave us alone at extended hours at a time. At age 7, I would tuck my 4-year old brother into bed and lock the house doors at night as we waited for them to come home. Neighbors and friends would check in on us and give relief to our isolation. The nearby Catholic Church would provide a structure for my life and I would remember a particular priest, Fr. Moore, who stressed importance of the “human gesture” in guiding my actions.
Writer Patricia Mulchay commented that “Ellie Mae’s real lesson is that compassion is what will get you through life.” The story of Ellie Mae, my father, me, and many others like us is the story of community and compassion. It is our stories that shape how we view the role of government in our lives. It is our stories that has allowed us to survive and grow as a community.
The conservative freedom story has historically and currently excludes our individual and collective experiences. It abruptly intruded into the intertwined stories of my father and me after he suffered a debilitating accident which left him with a cracked skull, bleeding in the brain, and damage to his reasoning faculties. When he was first brought into the hospital, his head injuries sent him into violent fits and I had to hold him down so that he wouldn’t pull the tubes out that sustained his life. Temporary amnesia from his accident caused him to push against me and not recognize me as his son as he yelled at me to let him go. Due to understaffing, my brother and I had to secure him. I kept thinking as I struggled with my father and held back my own tears, “we should not be doing this by ourselves.”
The greatest hit was when my mother thanked me and told me that my father would not have been alive without me. My dad as a small businessman does not have his own healthcare insurance but he was included in my mother’s health care coverage, which was secured when we helped organize a union in her workplace. The bills totaled over a million dollars within two weeks and without the healthcare coverage we fought for, he would have been declined the care he needed to progress and most likely my parents would have sunk into inescapable debt.
My feeling about health care reform is best summed up in a comment from an old high school friend, name Mauricio, who runs his own business:
“How we treat our own elderly and defenseless says a lot about us, just like it does any other culture. It’s a big topic and this probably isn’t the solution but I feel that this is progress. As Darwinian as I love to get about my own business, I still know that sometimes the right decision is not the best business decision.”
So when I first heard Obama say the following words during the Democratic primary, I stood up and took notice:
“We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and dissonant in the weeks to come. We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”
Our collective stories are ultimately girded by hope, not anger or fear.
State rights and individual freedom have an important place in our society but so does the values and beliefs informing the lives of Ella Mae, my father and I. Our narrative of community and compassion yearns and demands to be included in the larger story of America. Although the health care reform bill is imperfect, it communicates to us—“we are beginning to be heard.”