Sunday, August 9, 2009

Controversial topics

I wrote yesterday of the confirmation bias, our own conscious (and subconscious) tendency to seek and accept information that doesn't challenge our world view. While my own bias skews far left, I try to be well-informed on all sides of an issue.

A controversial topic is one on which reasonable people disagree. I am vehemently opposed to the death penalty, and I can find statistics, examples, and logic to support my point of view. But there are smart people who are in favor of the death penalty, and they can also make a strong case. I don't think they can persuade me to change my position, but I'll certainly consider their argument.

When I hear President Obama say "we can disagree without being disagreeable," he is acknowledging that we can hold opposing positions and each have reason on our side. He wants to find that common ground. And while my single-payer-wanting self may want him to fight dirty, demonize the other side in the same way that they're trying to demonize him, it's against his nature. He knows there's a middle.

But there are a few things that concern me about this health care debate:
1. The still too-cozy ties between the government (from the White House to both Houses of Congress) and the insurance industry. Frank Rich has an excellent article today about the influence of corporations on media and our representatives. Many of us feel an anxiety that the government isn't for us. He concludes:
A bill will pass in a Democrat-controlled Congress. What matters is what’s in it. The final result will be a CAT scan of those powerful Washington interests he campaigned against, revealing which have been removed from the body politic (or at least reduced) and which continue to metastasize. The Wall Street regulatory reform package Obama pushes through, or doesn’t, may render even more of a verdict on his success in changing the system he sought the White House to reform.
Rich concludes his article in a way I don't agree with:
The best political news for the president remains the Republicans. It’s a measure of how out of touch G.O.P. leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are that they keep trying to scare voters by calling Obama a socialist. They have it backward. The larger fear is that Obama might be just another corporatist, punking voters much as the Republicans do when they claim to be all for the common guy. If anything, the most unexpected — and challenging — event that could rock the White House this August would be if the opposition actually woke up.
I don't think Obama's "punking voters": two wars, an economic crisis, the structure of our government, for better or for worse, doesn't lend itself to quick change. It will take years and far more than one election to get rid of the corporate culture in Washington. But also, I think that a reasonable Right would be good for the government and good for America. Currently, it's the party of "no." Scare tactics. Demonization. But conversations? ideas? This can only raise the level of discourse to something that doesn't make me want to Canada.

2. While those of us on the left may feel some anxiety that corporate influence still reigns supreme, the more startling development (surprising more in tone than content) are the vitriolic protests that have been overshadowing rational discourse on health care reform. The overt racism is like nothing I've seen in my lifetime. This Daily Kos diary summarizes three "movements" going on right now: the "birthers," who believe Obama is not legally president because he wasn't born here; the "teabaggers," who are concerned about taxes and expanding power of the federal government (putting it nicely); and now there are the "deathers," who believe Obama is going to kill all the old people. The author writes,

But these are not three disparate movements with three different practitioners, three different conspiracy theories that simply happen to share the same summertime stage. In practice and organization they are one movement, a single collection of the same set of animated citizens and televised leaders, and their signs decrying fascism, Naziism, communism, taxes, euthanasia and outrage over 1960's-era Hawaiian government paperwork mingle freely at every protest. If you find a newly minted tax protester, you are as likely as not to find a birther and a deather as well, all tucked neatly inside the same polo shirt. They are nearly exclusively white, predominantly middle aged and elderly, and unambiguously conservative.

[....]It is, in short, a movement made up of the enfranchised and enabled; people who have gained every benefit from the politics of America and yet who feel in their very bones that they are the oppressed ones, the ones who have nothing left to lose, so rapidly is America falling away from them.

The author, Hunter, goes on to say that "the last time we saw public discourse be as intentionally devolved as it is today was during, of all things, American desegregation." He or she writes persuasively about fear and power and their impact on the national dialogue. How do we find common ground? How can we have a debate about health care when reason is shouted over? When insurance companies are still able to get the ear of public officials and secure sweetheart deals?

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