11/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Americans Abroad Debate Healthcare Reform

PARIS -- September 22 -- The heated debate over healthcare reform continued last week in an unlikely place, the cobblestone courtyard of an apartment building in Paris. It was there that I encountered an American couple close to retirement age, but not yet retired, from Washington State and visiting the City of Lights for a week. No sooner had we discovered that we were all Americans than we began ferociously debating healthcare reform--they are opposed to reform while I support it.

I must confess that, in spite of the antics of the past summer, I am still astonished that there are Americans who do not want to reform a system that is charging us more for less, as the insurance industry is, while leaving millions of Americans without coverage. I do not understand how so many senior citizens do not know that Medicare is a government-run program. I don't understand how those who say, "I don't want to pay for other people," do not understand that--because of the emergency services given to the uninsured--they are already paying for them at the equivalent of one-thousand dollars per person. Finally, I don't understand why anyone would oppose a lower-cost, government-funded insurance option to give us an alternative to over-priced, unregulated private insurers.

Normally, when I meet individuals whose views are in such stark opposition to mine, I just walk away; but after witnessing town meetings first hand this summer and feeling frustrated that the Democratic Party together with the President's communication's team did not effectively respond to the organized fear-mongering of their opponents, I felt I had to respond to the misinformation being spewed by the couple in the courtyard. I could not walk away and let it stand.

The husband threw his first punch by claiming that the President is a "socialist" who wants to, "redistribute my money, money I worked for." I responded by telling him that it was the previous administration that redistributed Americans' money by giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class; and exploding the deficit by borrowing money for a war based on dissembling. I told him, also, that he was repeating Republican talking points rather than thinking for himself.

The husband them claimed that his company had terminated his health care benefits because of Obama's health care legislation. I explained that the legislation had not been passed yet, that it was barely out of committee. His wife said, "She's right." Nonetheless, he insisted that he'd lost his benefits because of President Obama. (I suspect that he lost them because of his age or a pre-existing cause.) When I tried to explain that President Obama is trying to make it possible for people to keep their coverage; and for those who lose their insurance to have access to an affordable insurance option, he refused to believe me.

Then the subject of race entered the conversation. The couple together told me they didn't want to have to pay for people who don't want to work. When I asked them to clarify who these people are--they said, "Like people in Harlem." They added that they are not racist because "we don't see color," and that they give money to school children in Cambodia, but wouldn't give a dime to "those people" in Harlem.

I saw fear in the husband's eyes so I looked directly at him and said, "You are filled with fear--fear of losing what you have or thought you had, fear of people who do not look like you, fear that the world is changing--and the Republican Party preys on your fear."

I explained to him that ever since the Democratic Party (that was once dominated by southern segregationists) began to support equal rights for African Americans, conservative southerners have allied themselves with wealthy Republican corporate interests--an unholy alliance. By manipulating a percentage of voters into believing black people were their problem, Republicans have elected politicians and passed legislation that has hurt the middle class while creating an obscenely wealthy corporate class.

To make my point, I said, "To the cabal that controls the Republican Party, you are the same as black people--just pawns in the game."

When Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty talks about "nullification" and "states rights" he is borrowing language from 19th century South Carolina nullifiers, pandering to the far right in code language that is easy to detect. The Republican Party could have taken the high road after the civil rights gains of the 1960s and not used race as a wedge issue--which would have helped us to move forward together as a nation; instead they decided, as a cold political calculation, to use racism to their advantage. How cynical. They don't need to explain their policies as long as they can manipulate people's fears.

I would like to write that my encounter in the courtyard ended in Obamaesque bi-partisanship, but it did not. The couple has accepted the Republican talking points as true because they are predisposed to do so. They are not bad people--but they are fearful, misinformed people who would rather accept policies that are not in their best interests than face the truth--and have to re-think their assumptions.

When the couple began to defend Cheney and water boarding, I knew I'd reached my limit and turned to go.

The wife, though, stopped me and asked me why things have "gotten so bad" in our country. Her husband, too, turned and waited to hear my response.

I said, among other things, that, "Until we realize that we are one country, one people, regardless of race, ethnic background, class or geography--until we realize that we are in this together and stop playing one group or side against the other--we will defeat ourselves more than any outside force could possibly defeat us."

They didn't argue with this. The fact that they asked the question, perhaps, is something to be hopeful about.