American media have gone wild this week for an arcane set of arguments. I suppose we should be grateful; it certainly is unusual.
Drawing amply on images of placards outside the US Supreme Court, like the one proclaiming "OBAMACARE IS UNAMERICAN!" news outlets have purveyed countless articles and studio discussions that parse recondite questions about our Constitution's relation to commerce.
Let's leave aside for a moment the USA's deeply entrenched (but not immutable, and not widely copied) notion that health care is and should be a commercial, profit-driven enterprise. In America, it is simply so. Accordingly, let's live with it -- but let's also be aware of the real-world consequences of there being a national commitment to a defining role in our lives -- and not just our health -- for the almighty marketplace.
Wild words and much hot air have been vented about the rightness or wrongness of compelling someone to engage in commerce. The venting can be heard repeatedly of course in media venues, but also, I'll say, on the Court's own compelling audio recordings of the Justices cross-examining the attorneys appearing before them. In this instance, familiarly now, the compulsion to engage in commerce allegedly consists of making individuals buy a health insurance plan. Meanwhile, the unavoidable truth is that every single citizen is being pressured every day in just about every way imaginable to engage in commerce.
This is, it seems, The American Way. We're constantly pressured to buy products, from a sugar-laden breakfast cereal to mastery of the universe via a package of mental exercises. We're also bombarded by "offers" to become our own entrepreneurs. Even the most tightly-meshed spam filter won't protect my inbox from emails telling me I can "Start Business Now In Radiology," "Make $300 Profit A Day In Flip-Flops," "Set Up On Your Own," "Turnkey Franchises -- Available Now" ... and so on and on. We don't get fined or taxed if we don't join in ... but it's as if we may as well be.
The tightly woven strands of finance and trade throughout our American consciousness give a special and extraordinary power to that classic of US theater, Arthur Miller's Death of Salesman, which is currently running in yet another revival on Broadway. It's now Philip Seymour Hoffman's turn to embody the tragic Everyman figure of Willie Loman under the direction of a quintessential interpreter of American psyches, Mike Nichols.
I saw the play last week (with Nichols in the audience, intriguingly -- he seemed satisfied but not ebulliently so) and was struck afresh by the sometimes agonizing subtlety of Miller's fable-like story. The layered delusions that Loman has bought into through his life -- not untypically among his peers, whether we think of 1949 when he first appeared on stage, weighed down by his salesman's cases, or of today's truth-bending business environment -- are explored with precision by this incisive cast.
Hoffman makes us both believe in and despair of his character. And as Linda Loman, Linda Emond manages to transfix us with the poetic lines that often seem so hard to deliver convincingly -- about her husband's relentless eradication from an uncaring world, both financial and personal.
We know exactly what Mrs. Loman means when she cries, "Attention must be paid!" Paid by the cold trade that employs her husband, yes -- but also by a world of human beings conditioned to believe that merely 'collateral damage,' just another incidental casualty, is what we're seeing here -- nothing important. That it all just comes with the territory; that market-forces are fate.
The media-trumpeted "drama" of the Supreme Court, meanwhile, seems stodgy and mechanical by comparison. And the many onlookers' commentary on screens or in columns may get expansive at times, but some of the broad sweep of the issues at stake still gets avoided.
There's a dedicated argumentative push, for instance, employing some detailed data to minimize the number of 40-plus million people who are not currently covered by health insurance. "More than a quarter are not citizens," we now hear. "Nearly half of them are young and healthy and don't WANT insurance" is another example of the paring-down. (Some clever copywriters are catching our attention by calling this segment of the market "The Invincibles.")
Such bits of special pleading may well have some merit. But the fact remains that an unacceptable number of our population does need, and does not get, health coverage -- unacceptable to any civilized society, that is.
And to those people most of all, "attention must be paid." Paid by journalists, pundits, politicians, attorneys and yes, justices.
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