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What's Happening to America? Lies, Threats, and the Health Care Vote

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A German friend, a former foreign editor, international affairs scholar and a colleague from my years working in Washington on arms control in the 1960s and '70s, e-mailed this week to ask what I thought about the passage of the health bills. He wrote, "I am dismayed by the international press which is eager to discount the health success by concentrating on other challenges ahead for the Obama team, as if this was just one of those usual tactical political ploys and not a seminal event, whatever the critique one might have on certain aspects. The journalists are thus contributing to a public sense that politics is just another game with fake money."

Here is my off-the-cuff reply:

I have mixed feelings about Obama's health care victory. It was wonderful that he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (whose arguments were clearly crucial in persuading him to press for action now, while he still has significant majorities in both houses of Congress) were able to pull it off, but now the challenge will be to keep the focus and energy on improving the situation so that some day the US will have a health care system comparable to that existing in every other civilized country, instead of the costly third-world model we have been pretending is modern and efficient.

The measures approved on Sunday, though applauded (or deplored) here as a huge march forward, were indeed seminal (Vice President Biden rightly called the accomplishment "a big f***ing deal") but they are only a first step in the direction of affordable, universal health coverage. They still leave the private insurers and the pharmaceutical industries very much in control of how health dollars are spent in the US. But they open the door to more significant measures if the political will is there.

The more immediate concern, and a serious obstacle to further progress, is that the debate and the passage of the bill have become such a polarizing event that there is a growing, unsettling atmosphere of hatred and suspicion in this country that is reminiscent of the days of McCarthy and the red scares that were so pervasive in the US in the 1950s.

Congressional Republicans have contributed significantly to this mood by their conscious decision to maintain a unified front against almost every Obama initiative, but they have been backed up by a barrage of manipulative, shameless, deliberate lying on the part of the right-wing media, led by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News but by no means limited to it, that have led to a broad-based mistrust of everything the Obama administration and congressional Democrats put forth.

It's undeniable, too, that the people most susceptible to these misrepresentations are the less-informed Americans who tend to believe every conspiracy theory put forth by people like Dick Armey, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, who know how to throw red meat to hungry animals.

Worse, there are the beginnings of real civil (or uncivil) unrest, exemplified by the so-called "tea party" activists, encouraged by some Republican politicians, who have engaged in racist and ethnic slurs, hate mail, spitting, brick-throwing and death threats directed at Congressional Democrats, both during and after the House debate. Missing in action are almost any outspoken Republicans who recognize that this angry polarization will be a disaster for their own party. They, not just Democrats, must be the ones to speak out publicly against volatile speech and behavior.

Anyone who has studied more distant history, even superficially, can see the parallels between now and past periods of economic hardship, with opportunistic politicians seizing on public unrest, ignorance and misunderstanding of facts.

A major difference between now and more distant history is that television, which has encouraged simple sound-bite solutions to complex problems, has conditioned so many people to seeing everything as a battle between good and evil, and to accept as truth all sorts of misrepresentations, about the contents and consequences of the health care legislation, and about the motives, intentions and even the legitimacy of the Obama administration, and of Obama himself.

Latent racism clearly plays a role, but it is frightening to see the results of recent opinion polls, reflecting such broad scale public ignorance. So many people apparently believe that Obama is a Muslim, a Socialist or Communist, that he was born outside the US and is therefore ineligible to be president, that he will take away their guns, and that Obamacare provides for "death panels" to decide whether to euthanize poor old granny.

A majority of Americans now do not believe in evolution, are convinced that global warming is a hoax, and are deeply suspicious of science and scientists, and all the other people they denounce as "elitists." It's scary. I hope it doesn't lead to widespread violence or political assassinations, but could easily imagine both happening.

I am saddened by the present trends in Washington and the country as a whole. I remember (perhaps more fondly than the times deserved) how much more civilized Washington was in the 1960s and '70s, when I was working there. We may have thought the country was being torn apart, first by Vietnam and then by Watergate, but in many ways the situation today is worse.

Then at least Republicans and Democrats worked together, socialized with each other, and seemed far less ready to mistrust one another's motives. People gave speeches or wrote editorials and articles declaring that things were not always black or white, but that there was room for shades of gray. And they were listened to.

In the present atmosphere there's little hope for meaningful and needed environmental legislation, financial regulation, or significant arms control progress. We don't yet know all the details of the new START agreement, but the modest improvements that appear to have been negotiated may be meaningless if there's no way to muster the 2/3 Senate vote needed for consent to ratification. And the same is true, of course, of renewed efforts to ratify a comprehensive test ban treaty.

I may be overly pessimistic, but at this point I see few grounds for great optimism. To be sure, the passage of the health care bill must indeed be viewed as a seminal event, but seeds for what? What's needed most right now is reconciliation, but the mood of too many players now is one of intensified confrontation instead.