The Emperor wears no clothes but which one?
Many of us use Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the emperor who wears no clothes to colorfully illustrate the disturbing truth of powerful people or institutions. However, the current emotional chaos rolling through the nation in the form of healthcare town halls shows that we do not really know who the emperor is. Like the emperor and his subjects who believe the two tailors who claimed the clothes they have sown are invisible to those who are incompetent or stupid, most of the attendees on both sides of aisle, in order to not be cruelly judged, will not admit that they have made their decisions before finding out the facts.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, there will be no intelligent or thoughtful dialogue at these healthcare town halls sponsored by Congressional members, just competing interest groups flexing their muscle. Ideally, town halls on huge issues should serve as community spaces for discussion but in practice, even before this current healthcare debate, most have become venues for people who have already made up their minds to come and vent their positions and those hosting to listen.
This debate is really about an ongoing ideological battle between those who distrust “big bad government” versus those who oppose “corrupt greedy corporations,” not about the current healthcare proposals or how we can provide quality healthcare for all. Cries of “socialism” and “death panels” are about fear of incompetent government bureaucracies and stories of totalitarian regimes in other countries. These types of arguments have been historically tied to nativism and racism regardless if those at the town halls are prejudiced or not.
The anger towards health insurance companies is about the frustration with unfair denials of health treatment, the rationing of care for profit and the naked displays of corporate avarice amidst unemployment and declining workplace conditions. Yes, members of different communist and socialist parties in the US have historically been involved in struggles against corporations and some have supported governments like Cuba. At these town halls, we are witnessing a battle of ideas, fueled and informed by emotions (Although, the opposition to the public option have been the most visible at these town halls).
Questionable ties do exist with the leaders of the groups mobilizing opposition but those who support should realize the anger has a material basis. Peel back some of the crazy talk about false birth certificates and so-called “creeping socialism,” there are people, whose wages and benefits remain stagnant or are declining, who are witnessing large financial institutions, bailed out at taxpayer expense, now receiving rising profits and paying themselves huge bonuses. These are the financial giants who originally plunged us into economic crisis with their risky speculation. This goes beyond partisan lines. Mostly Democrats supported the financial bail-out but a united GOP opposed legislation which would have regulated their behavior. Yes, the Dow is rising and the 2nd Great Depression is stalled but people are still hurting. It is hard to trust “Big Government” when our wallets grow thin and their arms clasp around “Big Business.”
Of course, if you go back to their crazy cries, they will tell you they never voted for Obama in the first place. In other words, they are not the majority who changed this country in November 2008. The ones missing in the town halls. The ones, for most of their lives, who largely stayed on the sidelines while the two historic sides fought. The ones who understand and even feel the anger about financial bailouts while supporting Obama. The ones who do not want to debate about “big government” or “big business” but how to create effective government and responsible companies. The ones who took to heart Obama’s message to believe in their ability to make change, not because they saw Obama as their savior. Where are the young and the young at heart who made history?
On the presidential campaign trail, Christina Chavez reminded us that her father, Cesar Chavez, once said that we don’t need perfect government but perfect participation. Criticism comes easy to those who have been long disappointed but hope lives on imagination, perseverance, and initiative. Ultimately, democracy is not about voting or criticizing but organizing and building community.
We need more organizers, than critics. We need to reach those with different politics but common values. Organizing in the workplaces. Organizing in the classrooms. Organizing in the streets. Organizing everywhere we gather and do not know our neighbor. In a democracy, we are the emperors and guess what--we are a damned nudist colony.