August 7, 2009

Why So Angry?

We've disagreed in this country before. Where is the heated anger over health care reform coming from?

People are showing up at congressional town halls and shouting their representatives down, intimidating anyone who supports reform and even threatening the lives of people. They yell "THIS IS AMERICA!" yet they act like some mob from a third world country. What gives?

I think Paul Krugman's take sheds some light.

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they "oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care." Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don't know that Medicare is a government program probably aren't reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. [...] the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that's behind the "birther" movement, which denies Mr. Obama's citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don't know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn't be surprising if it's a substantial fraction.

People who stand to gain from the current very expensive system are funding efforts to continue to whip up cultural and racial anxiety and bruised pride in the wake of the election. These are people who are sick of losing and they're doing something that Democrats didn't do after 2000 in Florida. They're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore -- they'll turn to hooliganism.

Any they're proud of it; reason appears to be a tool of last resort when you're angry to some. I have corresponded with someone who did express pride in the shouting down of congressmen, who said that any tactics were OK as long as the "message got out there."

But what is that message, and can it effectively get out there by screaming?

The message, if you ask these people, is "NO!" It's "STOP OBAMA!" And, as you can see from the quote above, their reaction is not grounded in reason. And from people I've spoken to, they have no qualms telling you that they are not trying to convince you of anything. Reason doesn't enter into it. They want to show you their teeth and their anger; like a bully or a dog, they want to see you back down. Ever tried reasoning with a bully or a dog? You won't get far.

What does this mean for people who want to take a reasoned approach? Does it mean we're wasting our breath, constantly busy either being shouted down or trying to debunk lies of these culture warriors? I've heard credulous folks repeat the following lies in the last few days, completely without irony:

  • Obama's plan will kill old people.
  • Obama's plan will send government agents to people's homes to force old people to decide how they want to die.
  • Obama's plan outlaws private insurance.
  • Obama's plan outlaws new private insurance policies.
  • Obama is not a citizen.
  • Obama is asking people to report anyone who disagrees with him.

Confront people on any one of these and you will either get yelling, changing of the subject, or someone will attack you for believing the president (forget judging based on the facts, you're a robot if you agree with the president.) When you get an argument, the arguments are often a twisted parody of reason.

For example, the dishonest, slippery, craven version of "Obama is not a citizen" is "Obama has not been completely truthful with the American people; he hasn't released x." where "x" is some piece of documentation. The person you're arguing with either really believes Obama is not a citizen or really believes it's important to keep repeating this garbage because it confounds his supporters. It's hard to tell which. What you can tell is that these arguments usually start out bold and then lapse into cowardice or changing the subject.

I ran into another argument on Twitter (someone who I do not follow replied to my tweets) about the "outlawing private insurance" bullshit. When I was able to show that the plan does not outlaw insurance, we almost had a rational conversation. In the end, he suddenly took a detour into attacking immigrants. You see? All along we weren't really talking about health care. It was all about cultural and racial anxiety. Scratch the thin veneer of lies and it's lurking right beneath.

This is why I think Krugman is right. But what does that mean for passing this reform, and for the future of American political discourse?

Posted by James at August 7, 2009 9:13 AM
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Great post!

What does it mean? I wonder if it means that we need to stop reacting to hooliganism? When we react, we let it define the debate. Yet, if we ignore it, it will take roots and continue to rile up those who are looking for an "acceptable" way to express what you rightly call cultural and racial anxiety.

So, perhaps the question becomes: How can we define the debate? How can we firmly, rationally, and with persuasiveness bring things around to the real issues?

I don't have an answer yet, but I am confident in people's collective wisdom that if we keep talking about it, we'll figure out the answer. We just have to keep encouraging and supporting each other so that we don't get too discouraged. And we need to remember that the attacks on us aren't really about us, they're about the people making the attack.

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at August 7, 2009 12:20 PM

I work every day as a Medicare particpating provider of medical equipment. There is no discrimination in Medicare. If you are enrolled and your doctor establishes medical necessity, you get the equipment. No one reviews it and says "This walker is wasted because you will not live long enough to justify the cost." No one waits for life sustaining equipment (i.e. home oxygen). Those are two (of the many)things about the Canadian and British systems that frighten Americans.

There is a drug called Revlimid that is effective for 82% of multiple myeloma patients. Americans can get it, no matter what their insurance. There are charities and corporate assistance for those with no insurance. People in Great Britain can not. Cost is the only reason. Also, people who go to Italy to get it privately can be thrown off of National Healthcare for skirting the rules. Stop and think about that for a moment. Almost everyone has something that their insurance won't pay for. Imagine going to buy it privately and your insurer coming back and taking away your coverage because you were not content to sit and suffer.

I think people are upset about this issue more than most for many reasons. One, health insurance or the lack there-of, matters to everyone. It's not like the war where only 1% of Americans were directly involved with the military.

Second, they understand what they stand to lose as opposed to say cap-and-trade. I have asked tons of people if they know what "cap-and trade" is and most people say no. But everyone knows that in Great Britain for example people over a certain age are denied transplants even if they are good candidates otherwise.

Third, people are getting increasingly fed up with Congress going ahead with action on bills they haven't read. No matter how you feel about healthcare or any other issue, doesn't that bother you? I am not saying it's a new development. It's certainly not. However, thanks to the Internet, it is increasingly well known.

I don't hate Obama. I don't like him, I don't trust him, I don't agree with him. But I don't hate him. I have always felt this way about socialized medicine, long before I knew who Obama was.

I applaud these people who are going to the townhall meetings. Yes, they should calm down a little, but they are passionate. They feel disregarded. They are sure if they don't make a stink they will be ignored. In many, many cases they are correct. I can remember my first TownHall meeting with Rep. Gerry Studds. I raised a foreign policy issue and he made fun of me and moved on. No answer. I was 24. I was mortified. But I got over it and kept going. I have become more assertive. I daresay that the people who are shouting are doing so after being passed over and ignored.

If I were there, I would hope I could help moderate the discussion. I would tell them to calm down a little without losing the passion. I would tell them to be tenacious.

How did I do? Do I need to come back and type in all caps & symbols? LOL

Posted by: BostonMaggie at August 7, 2009 12:46 PM

I call myself a humanist, so I really need to work on my confidence in humans.

I say that, but I can't deny that my outward cynicism about people covers an underlying confidence that, at the very least, we all share similar motivations. How we balance and express those motivations, fleshes out our personality and defines our personal ethics. But still, there is a basis for communication there.

This is why, even at times of high frustration, I don't run screaming, even if I sometimes despair that the discourse itself is doomed to swatting at individual points of argument.

Back to the subject: what do we do in return? Do supporters stage counter-mobs? Or do we allow the demonstrations to play on TV and hope this evidence of an unwillingness to reason loses them the argument?

(Or, do we draw on our other skills? Humor is one I cling to, at times.)

It helps to return to core ideas: I want health care reform because the current system is only working for the relatively wealthy, and the cut-off line is rapidly moving up as costs grow. This is why I care.

And while I feel that there are many issues with how that reform is accomplished, I feel that the fight against reform is more damaging than almost anything we do to fix health care. And nothing is to say that we can't try to stop the damage now and tweak it later. Calls for delay are simply re-worded calls to do nothing.

I feel outrage when I see lies and underhanded tactics, like scaring older Americans into feeling that teh government has a plan to kill them, or make them choose how they wish to die. Or (and this is amazing) simultaneously decrying government health care while telling older Americans that their medicare will be dangerously cut.

It makes me angry to see the deception. And our recent history shows that if you tell a lie that scares people enough, they'll support your cause against their own interest.

The answer is not to scream back at town halls. But we also can't let elected representatives feel that these loudest voices are the bulk of their constituents. these tactics are meant to unsettle the congresspeople and make them feel like their lives and jobs are in danger.

For now I will simply fight back correcting lies and using humor where possible. But nobody who works for a living has the time to answer all the lies. They can manufacture them faster than we can debunk them; like out-of-control Facebook quizzes.

Posted by: James at August 7, 2009 12:46 PM


And it is posts like yours that fill me with encouragement, because while we disagree, you make your points rationally and calmly. We could actually have a discussion where maybe we would both learn something.

I can't learn from people shouting at me, but I can learn from words like yours.

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at August 7, 2009 1:06 PM

True, the debate needs all sides. That's one problem posed by shouting down at town halls.

Sure, they might scare some congresspeople into changing their vote. But they're already causing the shutting down of future and present town halls and the restriction of other events.

That means that fewer voices will be heard. Hooligan tactics become an all-or-nothing deal. Either the legislation is killed or it will go on in some form.

In the end, I believe something will pass. And it will be poorer for the effort if it passes with less discussion. Unfortunately for the protesters, it is their discussion that is most likely to be overlooked as a result of their actions.

Posted by: James at August 7, 2009 1:21 PM

As far as the actual shouting at the meetings, I don't think it is the sinister orchestrated Rush/Rovew conspiracy that is being put out by the Pelosi et al. I have seen the videos that the DNC has carefully edited to show only fat, white, (which I am), unintelligent birthers (which I'm not) in full blown anger.

Those people didnt' walk into those meetings screaming. I'm not saying that some didn't go looking for a fight, but the majority went to express opinions. Then after their slick pol (and remember, Republicans are being yelled at too) gave them some smooth talk, they got frustrated. If and when I go to one of these meetings, I don't want to be judged by the words of the "birther" next me.....anymore than you want to be judged by the Acorn types.

You could go to almost any sort of public forum and find some poor behavior, then edit your vid to make it seem like a mob.

I went to a Ford Hall featuring Dr. Yaron Brooks. What he had to say was wildly unpopular with some local college students and they tried to shout him down. BPD had to remove several of them. Most of the people in that audience disagreed with Dr. Brooks, but they in turn repudiated the students shouting. The funny thing was that *I*, the most conservative person in the room, was yelled at by people who would have physically attacked the protesters. I was the one speaking calmly to the protesters. I was the one standing between the two groups. The fact that these student protesters were violating Dr. Brooks right to speak superceded their distaste for the idea's Dr. Brooks was expressing. But I could have easily edited video of that to make it seem that a conservative voice could find no audience in liberal Boston by showing just the student protesters.

My point? It's not about the issue, it's the anger level. The answer is to keep talking until you get past the anger. The answer is also for every member of Congress to read that bill and be able to answer specific concerns. Right now, these Congressmen(women) are hoping to jolly people along with their silver tongues.

And a minor point is not to let the DNC paint everyone who opposes Obama's health plan as a lunatic.

Posted by: BostonMaggie at August 7, 2009 2:34 PM

If I could bus you around to calm the protesters down, I would do that. :)

It's not happening much (if at all) at Republican town halls because, well, nobody thinks the Republicans are going to have any hand in this legislation. They've already committed to voting no on whatever plan comes up.

Birthers are crazy, but I do not think everyone who opposes health care reform is crazy. I think many of the people who are motivated to show up at these town halls *AND* cause disruptions overlap heavily with the birthers. There's a reason for that which has nothing to do with health care.

It's how they are organizing (or, in some cases, being organized). I don't deny that some of the motivation to show up at town halls is grass roots. But it's impossible to ignore that there is corporate backing behind the organization here.

Patients United Now and Patients First are corporate sponsors (through Americans for Prosperity) the creation of grass-roots-looking websites and blogs to encourage people to show up at these events. Patients First is the organization responsible for the buses people are seeing show up at these events.

This isn't a secret. Tim Phillips, one of the principal people behind these efforts, openly welcomes corporate sponsorship for these efforts. (Recent examples are It's his business. He brags that he is specifically good at getting Christian communities whipped up.

(I recognize that Maddow is a biased source, but I'm referring to Phillips' own admissions and words)

No, they are not filling town halls with corporate shills. They're using a corporate front group to send corporate shills to whip up the locals and stand with them at town halls to ensure that it gets turned up a notch.

Do I have a problem with that? Not in a legal or "rights" sense. I do have a problem whenever people are being shouted down for expressing an opinion. And I do think that if corporations are going to play a role in whipping people up to the point where that happens, especially when they are not exactly hiding their involvement now that it's being reported, then that should be acknowledged.

I'm certainly willing to acknowledge those with valid concerns about health care. Why are others not willing to acknowledge the corporate organizing going on?

Once we acknowledge that, the questions becomes: why is this corporate organizing being focused on creating disruptions at town halls? Why is it not focused on handing a better argument to these people?

The answer that I come to is that corporations don't feel they can win that way. Or they feel it is important to paint a picture of general and widespread anger over reform.

Painting that manufactured picture then becomes part of the argument.

Now, is my blog post a remedy to this? Is it refocusing the argument on the issues? No. It's a place I post what bothers me. And I do believe it is worthwhile to point at what I consider to be detrimental to the debate.

Sometimes, as a reasonable person, I feel bullied into not speaking out about underhanded tactics. I am told (also by my inner voice) that I should elevate the discussion. I agree with that sentiment. But I should also decry what I see as forces that are erosive to the discussion. I am a passionate person. I am still human. We can't all be Mr. Spock.

The compromise is, I suppose, to speak reasonably about the things that anger me. This I will try to do.

Posted by: James at August 8, 2009 9:19 AM

Just to be clear, the "bullying' is mostly metaphorical. No person is actually bullying me

Posted by: James at August 8, 2009 10:59 AM

James, you bring up a great point when you say that these belligerent people are not really debating about health care. I've noticed this, too. Too frequently they bring up immigration issues because they don't want National health care to pay for illegals.

It's a reasonable concern, but it can be easily addressed. In Canada you get health coverage only if you are a citizen or a legal resident. Otherwise you have to pay and will be billed. It works fine. Canada has plenty of immigrants to deal with - legal and illegal. What opponents fail to address is that illegals are here and are getting treatment right now. Hospitals deal with this by simply raising their rates on insured peoples and charging even more for those who pay in cash.

Also, buried in there is this one thing: The USA will never get National Health care because of pro-life activists and drug warriors. Why? Because they are both health issues. What happens when pro-lifers find out that birth control and abortion can be covered because they are legal medical procedures?

What happens when your prescription for medicinal marijuana is paid for by National Health care? That's when the sh!t will hit the fans.

Posted by: Rui at August 12, 2009 6:31 PM

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