I was in a funk last week and a person in a funk sometimes makes bad decisions. Like the other night -- I decided to take in Michael Moore's SiCKO to shake some of the horrible thoughts I was having. Very bad idea: like treating food poisoning by downing a milkshake. I walked out staggering, as if the film forced me to acknowledge what I already half understood. Having resided in Denmark for three years with a wife and two infants, I knew that we do not have to live in a society in which the dying have to worry about whether or not their exit will be covered by their insurance carriers.
The documentary should have given us pause to catch ourselves, but the media on the left accepts a great deal of advertising revenue from drug companies, so they were unusually reserved about the questions raised by Moore. Those on the right, who feel nothing but nausea at the notion of the government-run health care, worked to douse the discussion that the film stoked. They trotted out one Canadian after another to complain about wait lines for bypasses -- as though the less than wealthy don't have to wait here, as though children haven't died waiting for treatment in the emergency rooms of U.S. hospitals! I believe there have been two such deaths already this summer.
But stories can be conjured up to make any point and stories aside, we are a practical, bottom line people, and the bottom line is plain, we are 36th the in world -- behind Cuba -- in infant mortality rates. And for all our football-type prattle about being number one, we are in the 29th spot in life expectancy. How does one argue with these vital statistics? Generally, they don't.
Discussing the film with former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, Tucker Carlson of MSNBC, harrumphed about the queues in Canada and then mocked Moore's film burbling, "How much does that guy weigh anyhow?" A few days earlier, Moore was on Larry King Live. One gentleman called up to comment, "My wife and I are in our sixties. Neither one of us has health insurance. But we just can't understand why you keep bashing America." Sicko.
Though so many are suffering from our health care system or for lack of access to it, it is hard to imagine what it would take to regenerate our healing institutions. It took riots and mass demonstrations for Americans to finally act on the idea of equal rights, but it is not likely that the ill or inadequately insured are going to take to the streets to demand that everyone have access to medical treatment, nor are those who can sleep well with their coverage likely to spend their leisure hours going door to door for universal health care. For the most part, the healthy and blissfully insured don't want to think about revamping the system, especially when health care and insurance companies are willing to spend millions creating golems that reinforce that aversion. So what is all the huffing, puffing, and posturing about -- as though we were about to perform radical surgery on our public policy? We're not. And yet there is still medicine to be found in the debate sparked by SiCKO.
In the final sequence of the film, Moore sighs, "We are a nation of me instead of we." Like him or not, that was one point that it was hard for even hidebound conservatives to snigger at.
We Americans have made a godterms of "personal dreams" and "freedom." Though we don't often explore what we might mean by freedom it seems that for us being free mainly means having disposable income and the freedom to spend it. We do not seem overly concerned about, say, being free from the painful idea that our brothers and sisters might be sick or have sick children whom they are financially unable to care for. Europeans have had plenty of chances to vote down universal health care. They don't because they would rather do with a little less in the pockets, than to be haunted by the idea of their fellow citizens being sick and without access to medical care.
The doctor will tell you, it is better to know what ails you than to be in the dark; better to know ourselves than to kid ourselves. And the truth about ourselves is that whatever other virtues we might have, we as a people are not exactly overly empathic.
In a recent op-ed, Deroy Murdock of the Hoover Institute thought that he reduced the call for universal health care to an absurdity by arguing, "what's going to be next -- a universal right to food and clothing?" Just imagine. Murdock and his like are not going to lose a wink of sleep over homelessness, hunger, and uninsured sick children. Maybe this is the logic of rugged individualism, but if so, let's be rugged enough to acknowledge the basic truth that we as a people have a little chill in our souls, where other nations have some warmth and resolve.
Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College.
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