Critical condition: The health-care debate isn’t too healthy right now

Anyone paying attention to the news this week knows that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania got shouted down in a town-hall meeting about health care, as did some citizens who just wanted to ask a few questions.

When President Barack Obama spoke in New Hampshire, protesters outside compared him to Adolf Hitler, repeating the stupidity of left-wingers who compared George W. Bush to Hitler a few years ago. (Note to activists: The fastest way to get reasonable people to stop listening to you is to compare someone to Hitler.)

All this followed a few weeks when national leaders, including former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, repeated scary lies about what was being proposed in the health-care plans.

Several weeks earlier, Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, was a little too frank for his own good when he approached health care more as a political weapon than a problem for his constituents. “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo,” he said. “It will break him.”

Watching these videos and listening to these reports, I thought, “This isn’t good for the nation’s soul.”

I usually don’t think of the nation literally having a “soul.” I take it as a metaphor, a poetic way of talking about our society’s values. But however we think about it, something corrosive and discouraging and damaging is going on.

It’s not the issue itself. Health care and insurance is perhaps the most important domestic question of our generation and we need to have a good, open debate about it.

But that’s the problem: Right now, the debate, or at least the part that is getting the most attention, is neither good nor open. Not when political leaders are blatantly more interested in making partisan gains than in addressing national problems. Not when a fellow citizen can’t ask an honest question in a public meeting without getting screamed at. Not when talk-show hosts like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh joke about killing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Not when people carry concealed weapons to town-hall meetings, as happened in Arizona last week.

Angry reactions are predictable. Log in to a left-wing blog or the comments section of any big news organization, and you’ll find plenty of broad-brushed insults labeling conservatives as kooks, idiots and threats to the nation.

Even some conservatives are getting concerned.

“The guns are coming out. The risks are real,” wrote David Frum this week in his New Majority blog. “It’s not enough for conservatives to repudiate violence, as some are belatedly beginning to do. We have to tone down the militant and accusatory rhetoric. If Barack Obama really were a fascist, really were a Nazi, really did plan death panels to kill the old and infirm, really did contemplate overthrowing the American constitutional republic—if he were those things, somebody should shoot him.

“But he is not. He is an ambitious, liberal president who is spending too much money and emitting too much debt. His health-care ideas are too over-reaching and his climate plans are too interventionist. The president can be met and bested on the field of reason—but only by people who are themselves reasonable.”

Some people in the self-styled “mob” who disrupt town-hall meetings claim the American Revolution as their inspiration. They should remember that the revolution was framed by appeals to reason and defended with lengthy argument, and that a declaration of independence – which didn’t pass with a unanimous vote – emerged from the Continental Congress, where formal rules of order allowed representatives to debate passionately, speak honestly and produce something of value.

The health-care issue calls for our best efforts, our best thinking and our best examples of citizenship. Lives are literally at stake.

Today we’re not at our best. The strident and sometimes threatening town-hall rants, the lies and the distortions – all tactics closer to “fascism” than anything Obama has ever suggested – are distracting us from actual issues and getting in the way of potential solutions.

Since I’m not even sure we can talk about the nation having a soul, it might be a stretch to think that some simple scriptural words might help carry on an emotional debate: Do to others what you would have them do to you.

Maybe the Golden Rule even sounds naïve. But it’s a start.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 15 August 2009.