Friday, August 14, 2009

Outside the Town Hall--My Own Private Tea Party

I think there's some kind of scientific idea/theory/principle that the simple act of observation changes the behavior of the object observed. Someone will have to clarify that point for me, but I think I witnessed that phenomenon Wednesday afternoon outside Sen. Ben Cardin's health care town hall meeting in Hagerstown. Watching and listening to the news these past few weeks made me think that I was going to run into a group of rabid Tea Partyers, foaming at the mouth and primed to have a Bill BBQ if I dared to disagree with these folks.

When the cameras were on, that was exactly what I found. But, once those cameras turned off, it was quite a different story.

Of course, Shakespeare said (well ... everything) that all the world's a stage and all men and women merely players. So, yeah, this Tea Bag bunch knows their role, and they play it quite well. And why wouldn't they? This is their chance in the spotlight. But once the lights go down and the make-up is off, you find perfectly normal people with whom you highly disagree. And boy, did we disagree.

But we didn't throw one punch or Molotov cocktail at each other. Of course, Mrs. Unknown made me promise that I wouldn't get into a fight. So, I stayed away from the skinheads with their "A Revolution is Brewing" and Obama/Hitler one saying "Never Again" (I know, without those two words, I would've thought they were for Obama). In fact, I only lost my cool twice.

Once had to do with that first picture, provided by those beautiful LaRouche lovin' lunatics. I was perfectly willing to ignore them until they asked me to sign up. I may have said a few things.

Me, This Guy, and This Guy's Friend

This Guy
: So are you conservative or liberal?

Me: Oh, a bit further Left than that.

TG: Well ... that's OK.

Me: Why thank you. Now I can go home feeling reassured.

This Guy's Friend: {chuckle}

Me: (pointing) Interesting sign. I briefly lived in the Czech Republic.

TG: Really? Do you know any Russian?

Me: Well, "dobry vyecher" [transliteration] because it's basically the same in Czech.

TG: {corrects the author's pronunciation--though the author is highly dubious}

Me: And "krasny."

TG: Yeah. "Red."

Me: But it means "Beautiful" in Czech.

TG: Cool. I've just learned some Czech. ... Well, the reason I have this sign is because my parents are from Russia, and I'm afraid where this health care debate is going.

Me: Well, this is not Russia.

TG: It's looking more and more like it everyday.

Me: Hm. Now I know that a Black Russian is a drink. I didn't realize it was our president, too.

TGF: {chuckle}

TG: Let's go.

The other time I lost my cool was a bit staged. A TV reporter set up her camera in the middle of the crowd. So, the Tea Party moved behind her camera ... and waited roughly twenty minutes until she was ready with her live feed. Then, on cue, they started chanting, "No Socialism!!! No Socialism!!!"

The few liberals in the crowd stopped munching their granola long enough to whine, "What about Medicare? What about Medicaid?"

I, being a bit further left than that, a bit of a hot head and a loud mouth, decided to take this opportunity for a "teachable moment" and enumerate other services that our government has provided for us that aren't necessarily provided for in the Constitution that would be considered, using their criteria, would be considered socialism, in the most urbane, genteel, nearly-hysterical tone I could adopt:

"No Socialism! No national highway system! No socialism! No police force! No socialism! No sewer system! No socialism! No fire department! No socialism! No public schools!"

A few people gave nervous chuckles. But that pretty much shut them up--which is how I prefer my public discourse.

An older white guy approached me afterwards, scowling belligerently, "What exactly is your definition of socialism?"

"I'm just taking your definition of socialism and taking it to its logical conclusion. If we want to get rid of things you call 'socialist' then we should get rid of all of that stuff."

This guy came at me as a free-marketeer who hates taxes. He believes that instead of paying taxes to provide for roads, etc., we should be charged user fees for everything. But the more he and I talked, I got to understanding that he just didn't think the federal government shouldn't be in charge of health care. He actually believed that health care should be handled on a state-by-state basis.

And the more I talked to a lot of these Tea Party poopers, the more I realized that no one is really talking to them. Nobody's really talking to any of us. And it was all just a confused muddle.

People would talk about how horrible it was in Canada and Europe, and I would tell them my Health Care Stories project. I would tell them that these countries with some sort of universal health care just weren't giving me the horror stories that our media's giving them. There were some like Angry Woman with her sign, "If you think our health care's bad, ask a European."

Me: Actually I have this thing on my blog where I have stories from Europe, Israel, Taiwan--

Angry Woman: (smugly) Israel's not in Europe.

Me: Neither is Taiwan. There was a comma in there.

Angry Woman: {walks away}

(I swear those were the only two who walked away from me.)

Mostly what I found were people who were willing and anxious to engage in a conversation they were clearly not getting from their "leaders." Yeah, clearly, a lot of their talking points were straight out of the Fox News sphincter. But I didn't have any talking points. There really is no bill to defend or counter. What I did do was talk about a lot of the problems we have with our health care. I was surprised how many people would agree with me.

I talked about how in France and Spain have a mixture of public and private insurance. I told them about how, according to Desiree, Spaniards use their private insurance if they want fast care but revert back to public when they have something serious (and I'm assuming really costly). Folks actually didn't think that was such a bad idea. One guy actually thought the French system wasn't half-bad.

The one that people seemed most receptive to was how I understand Switzerland's system to be. The Swiss made it mandatory that everyone has health insurance, subsidize folks who can't afford it, and, most importantly, (the fatal error Massachusetts made in not doing) CAP what insurance companies can make. Those same companies still make huge profits by stressing preventive care and efficiency within their own business.

Even people like the woman below (who was really nice and made up this sign herself) could agree to something like that. It made me wonder what all this (mediated?) rage is all about.

This Got a Laugh from Both Sides

: So, we're all agreeing that our health care system is broken, but you want the people who broke it to fix it themselves. If my babysitter beat my child, I'm not going to give my child back to that babysitter. Or, better yet, if he were still alive, I wouldn't have my kid spending the night with Michael Jackson. If he said, "All right, Bill, I'm done with all this plastic surgery, I'll be black again," I still wouldn't--'cause he's Michael Jackson."

As I was driving away, I saw an older white couple walking off the campus. It looked like they had a long way to go. I wanted to ask them if they needed a ride but was afraid they were some Tea Partyers and I'd live to regret it. But then I decided I didn't want to be like that and picked them up anyway. Fortunately, Tom and Maria ended up being lifelong Democrats.

Tom summed up what he thought they were all about: "They're just a bunch of racists. They're scared. They don't know where this country's going. They see Obama in the White House and a Latina on the Supreme Court, and it pisses them off."

I wouldn't know. I didn't hear any of that. Of course, being a 200-plus-pound black man, most wouldn't have said any nonsense like that (the skinheads never did approach me). But there were some people who were definitely making me wonder. There seemed to be a lot of hatred for Barack and Michelle Obama in that crowd.

But mostly what I found was a lot of confusion and anger and a sense of powerlessness. People were complaining about the bank bailout and the auto bailout. They were complaining about the speed of this health care debate. There are a lot of things going on this country and a lot of them are absolutely terrifying. I feel just as powerful as they do. My little way is by having this Health Care Stories project. Theirs is by having a tea party.

Yeah, I'm dead certain that a lot of them do not like the Obamas and Sotomayor and what that represents. After all, a lot of these people have been hearing about how the White Man is losing his power for the past 40 years, and, damnit! here's proof positive.

But, while a lot of the things that they are raging against (publicly-funded abortions, death panels, and the like) are total fictions, it does not mean that their rage and sense of powerlessness are not legitimate. What it also means, I think, from talking to a bunch of the protesters (though, clearly not all of them), is that they are actually not against health care reform. They are probably not even against a fundamental change to the system--if done right.

Personally, I blame Obama and Congress for all this anger. As my friend, Boeing, put it, they "need to pick a horse." They need to actually come up with real, transformative change to the system. If they trot out a dog-and-pony bill that doesn't change anything at all; if they sign some Massachusetts bullshit that doesn't cap what insurers can charge us--only to balloon the budget, charge me $900 a year for not having insurance, and end up kicking hundreds of thousands of people off their health rolls anyway; if they come up with some COBRA bullshit and act like they're doing us a favor by charging us exorbitant rates for insurance we can't afford in the first place; if they're sitting up there making secret deals with the insurers and pharmaceutical companies to guarantee that nothing actually does change until elderly Baby Boomers are dying in the street, I'll go and Tea Bag Congress my damned self.

What the Dems and Obama need to realize is that the Republicans are actively trying to sabotage you, and a lot of these people out there protesting like mad have always been mad at you. They never voted for you, and they never will. While they may be the majority of protesters at your town halls, they are not the majority of Americans. They do, however, represent a more virulent form of the anxiety that is out there.

If you actually do the right thing, if you actually have the courage to step in and do what is right for the common good of this country--not your lobbyists, not your former colleagues and, perhaps, future employers in Pharma, not your powerful donors who represent those interests--if you actually step up and give us universal health care (no matter the non-Massachusetts method) and explain to us exactly what it is you are doing, exactly how much money it will cost, how many lives it will save, even a lot of these "Tea Party" participants will support you.

But the Dems and Obama need to step up and show the courage and accountability that we all feel has been sorely lacking this past decade. Not only do they need to "pick a horse," they need to DO THE RIGHT THING!


Shaindel said...

Brilliant work, Bill. I laughed out loud at:

"Yeah, clearly, a lot of their talking points were straight out of the Fox News sphincter."

Thanks for working for a dialogue for everybody, really. Keep fighting the good fight!

Paula said...

Great post, Bill. Yes, I agree, Obama must come out smoking at this point, even if just to get the media attention swung over to him. Nothing tickles the fancy of media more than nuts running around saying crazy stuff that no one refutes. Lest he be Swiftboated on this issue, he's gotta pull out all the stops and reach some of the folks you met that night.
Once again, keep doing good stuff.

RonStrelecki said...

As a science fiction author, I am amazed Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is unfamiliar to you. It is perhaps the most poorly used metaphor in all of Science Fiction! In fact, it is so poorly used in so much Science Fiction that it has actually escaped the genre wall that surrounds SciFi like a border fence that actually could work. Basically, the Uncertainty Principle states that it is impossible to know the position and momentum of a subatomic particle simultaneously. The more precisely you establish one, the more uncertain you become of the other. This is known as the "Observer Effect" and has many examples...

I hope you weren't being facetious. In any case, I feel like an a-hole, which is fine. I always feel like an a-hole.

Demeter said...

A pleasure to read!

Hobie said...

Great post, thanks for sharing!

I think if these people could put aside their fear, they might actually learn something. Of course, the media loves this circus, as do the insurance companies.

Perhaps Obama can bring the cool hand of reason to these fevered brows. This teabag fiasco really imperils our national discourse and our social fabric generally.

Distributorcap said...


that was great!

it proves the point that we have an ineffective, non-communicative and corporate heavy govt.

if they actually talked to us and had simplicity in the laws - we wouldnt be here - most people are reacting and not listening

i really wonder why people think it is ok for insurance companies to make fortunes off their medical miseries

jadedj said...

Yes, yes, yes. That is what is on my mind. Screw up to your promises, and pretend you are not going to run for re-election...DO THE RIGHT THING. We all, even those who you talk about in this post...we all KNOW what the right thing to do is.

Very beautiful post!

diane said...

Global non-compliance day is August 25th, no spending. Let's put these politicians and bankers in their place, and let them know that the people have power.

Keep writing posts like this one. : )

Political Jaywalker said...

Glad I read your take on this "grass roots" tea bags errr party, for awhile I am almost tempted to tell them off to stop shouting as people may think Americans are going nuts, lol.