Monday, August 24, 2009

Oversaturated with the Never-ending Health Care Debate

For the past several weeks, the unceasingly and frequently frustrating back and forth that has characterized proposed health care reform legislation has sucked the air out of the rest of the news and the energy out of people like me. I am aware of the importance of the debate and have spoken up as passionately as I could to advance the cause. I've listened to the opinion of the person on the street, the pundit on the airwaves, and the academic in a think tank and have tried to give each of them equal weight when it came to forming my own conclusions. I've even visited a Town Hall Forum set up by my Republican congressman. While I disagreed strongly with most people in attendance and took extreme liberty with the vast amount of misinformation displayed as fact by my Representative, Spencer Bachus, I genuinely sought to understand the motives, prejudices, and their inherent bias of the other side. Friends, I now admit to being thoroughly exhausted with the entire process.

When I'm out and about running errands or doing all of the boring chores that one must do when one becomes an adult, I can't help but notice something very strange afoot. Something else is present in the place of what would ordinarily exist this time of year. College football, for those of you unfamiliar with the South, is a force whose combined impact in the lives of nearly every resident make it a very real way of life. Kickoff of the first week's worth of games is less than two weeks away, but the excitement that would normally be so omnipresent, celebratory, and expectant as to resemble the arrival of a saint is now nowhere to be found. Football plays such a huge role in shaping the mentality of this region that when people are actively concerned and preoccupied with other matters, nothing else easily steps in to fill the void.

It's the first time in my life that I can recall that the sport that is our regional pastime has been entirely trumped by something else altogether in the psyche of the public. Many times before I've noted to anyone who would listen that I thought an obsessive reliance on the sprained ankles and rushing yardage of bunch of eighteen to twenty-two year olds playing a game was a dangerous means by which to boost one's self-esteem. My criticism, then as it is now, is that I'd much rather people branch out and be more well-rounded when it came time to pick a hobby. Furthermore, I know well that the kind of highly destructive rule violations that fell someone's favorite team often stems from players being paid off and players receiving special consideration---this flagrant and unfortunately frequent rule breaking is due to a large extent to people who have no better way to channel their leisure time. While I'm sure the recession has not stopped those who want to give their team an unfair advantage by way of an open checkbook, the average fan finds it difficult to muster the same degree of enthusiasm when preoccupied with matters like keeping a job, maintaining health insurance, paying off a car title, making sure the bills get paid, and wondering what will happen if the worst-case scenario comes to play.

It really makes me annoyed when the media talks up and in so doing gives a disproportionate amount of airtime to the wingnuts who dare to bring a gun to a Town Hall Forum, implying, of course, that peoples' outrage is bubbling over and that at any moment it might turn to outright violence. It's as if they're wagering that these people are the canary in the mine and some early clue to the next direction. Some in the media might perversely wish for this doomsday scenario because nothing would be more of a ratings bonanza than seeing a riot in the streets or an act of senseless violence in plain view of the cameras. The media have also been known to give a disproportionate share of airtime to the people who spout bizarre conspiracy theories or come to extreme conclusions with a kind of cocky, moronic defiance, only to receive their commuppence from a congressman or a talking head salivating to set them right. In contrast, what I observed when I attended a Town Hall Forum a week ago were that most people who stood up to the microphone were equally misinformed, equally cocky, but also equally sane. I also notice that most of the Town Halls which have been covered in the national media have been held in the presence of Democratic Representatives and Senators, which really makes me wonder why. The meeting I attended in front of a GOP representative was not recorded by television cameras, except the perfunctory interviews by local news stations with those who attended and the live reports covered outside by roving reporters. Was there some fear on their part of my Republican congressman that the vast amount of ignorance and bad grammar among those who asked questions would reflect badly on the party as a whole or on his own re-election bid next year? Perhaps the party as a whole is afraid this kind of genuine response among constituents would damage its cause when it turned out that those who oppose health care reform can only parrot discredited talking points, scare tactics, and immature logic?

And, for that matter, no network I know of has ever shown an entire Town Forum from start to finish, even in front of Democratic politicians, which makes one lose all sense of context. Many people have been slandered by quotes taken out of context in different circumstances, and this is why taking ten seconds out of a three hour Town Hall isn't exactly fair and balanced coverage. If one had seen the way that events progressed at the Town Hall I attended, one would have plainly observed that after it came time for those of us who favored the public option to speak, many on the other side who had previously been adamantly against our entire platform at least grudgingly conceded that the matter was far more complicated than they had ever before been led to believe. Soundbytes can never suffice for a complete picture of the truth and this goes for every event, including Town Halls.

Now I return, briefly, to the world I encounter on a daily basis. I don't mean to disappoint, but what I see in the great wide open is not the threat of societal chaos, or pervasive bad behavior in public settings, and certainly not overt ugliness between people. What I see, in great contrast to what many might wish to advance, is weariness and worry. The world seems frozen. Few have the energy to maintain even the pretense of sustained rage. From talking to friends of mine who are psychologists, they report that the number of people actively involved in talk therapy has grown tremendously ever since the recession took a stranglehold on the American way of life. Most have put a good face on but underneath that facade many are hurting and hurting badly. If this were reported, we might have more sympathy for the ignorant, the misinformed, and manipulated. It's easy to hate and it's easy to go for simple answers that only separate us from each other. Finding the human element that draws us all together might not be a particularly compelling news flash, but it's a far more truthful characterization.

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