Friday, August 21, 2009

Free Speech and the Health Care Debate

                We Americans tend to be confused by concepts—things that are complex and tacit by nature.  Instead, we prefer the black and white.  An example of a concept is Free Speech; another is the Separation of Church and State.  When we combine free speech with complex policies like health care reform, things get difficult for the black and white segments of American society, or maybe they don't precisely because they see in black and white.

                Just as we hear the President and his supporters talk about the morality of providing affordable health care to all Americans, we hear others talk about the immorality of Hitler's Nuremberg Laws.  Since both arguments address morality, some believe that they are equivalent.  That's the conceptual problem in the American national character.  Mr. Obama is no more Hitlerian than the Queen of England, but the LaRouche faction shows up at these local town hall meetings with no compunction about penciling in little Hitler-like mustaches in the President's mug shot.  Free speech!

                Free political speech is a Constitutional right in the United States.  Rep. Barney Frank agreed, even as he asked one participant at a town hall meeting what planet she was from.  She posed the Nuremberg argument as though she had, herself, studied those laws and come to a scholarly personal conclusion that Obama's health care policy—itself no more than a proposal to the Legislative Branch and a call to action for those lawmakers—was somehow equivalent to the Nazi health care "policy" of the 1930's and '40's.  Maybe she is an expert on WWII Nazi history, but I think I'd bet against it... and give odds.

                She was doing what she was told to do, and that was to raise this issue at a public forum.  That she may believe it's true makes no difference to its hollowness as an argument.  Many people in America believe that black people are inferior to whites, but belief does not make it so, and neither do the numbers of people who adhere to such an idea make it so.

                Free speech means that we all have the right to criticize our government, and I rise to uphold that woman's right to proclaim her ignorance in public.  Why would I want to stop her?  If my position is different, and she seems like she's from another planet to me, wouldn't I want her to keep talking?  I'd ask her about everything just so she could lay out all her oddly held opinions for me and whoever chose to listen. 

                Joe the Plumber may very well be an expert on plumbing, so what he says about the slope of a run of pipe might be worth listening to if I want to plumb a waste-water line correctly.  What he says about fiscal policy may be a bit less reliable, yet there are those, including a former presidential candidate, who think that J-the-P's opinion adds value to the public policy debate.  Perhaps the choice of advisors is why former presidential candidates remain former candidates rather than Presidents.

                Two speakers who lay claim to different sides of an issue do not necessarily have equivalent opinions, as in the case where Joe argues the value of PVC piping in a high-rise apartment complex and I, who know next to nothing about the efficacy of PVC piping, simply argue emotionally for bamboo piping because it's "green."  Experts can be wrong, and any two experts may disagree, but they are still experts and their opinions carry more weight than mine or yours.  They have no more right to free speech than you and I, but when they speak they are basing their arguments on having learned, read and synthesized the issues they speak about.

                We also hear a lot of free speech about how England's and Canada's health care systems are not the be-all and end-all of public health care systems.  Brits and Canadians are hauled in front of American TV camera crews complaining about their respective health care systems because they were asked to speak only about what problems they had, not whether they would ever give them up or replace them with America's system.  The response from Americans under the control of lobbyists and political fringe crackpots say, "See!  We don't want what they have.  They hate it!"

                The fact remains that we Americans, who are among the least self-reflective people I have met, never stop to think that people all around the world are griping about their institutions and services just like we are.  Objectively, their national health care systems are better than ours, even if they complain about them.

                Free speech is a gift that accrues to Americans simply because they were privileged to be born here.  Babies who can't speak or understand the world around them still live under the protection of the Constitution.  And if they grow into adulthood and still have nothing intelligent to say, the protections still exist.  Every knucklehead can be a public fool in America, but that doesn't mean they have to be.


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