Democracy! Near at hand to you a throat is now inflating itself
and joyfully singing.
—from “Starting at Paumanok” by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
The Republicans may be tone deaf to these songs, but Walt Whitman was singing them over a century ago in his great ode to America, Leaves of Grass. Until June 25 we were, despite our wealth, that rare developed country that saw health care not as a right, but as a privilege for those who can afford it. The Good Gray Poet — “I am he bringing help for the sick as they pant on their backs” — would certainly have approved of Chief Justice John Roberts’ historic decision. During the Civil War Whitman cared for the wounded at Fredericksburg and Washington, and his compassionate inclusive vision of America was forged in those years, pouring out of him for the rest of his life. (St. Pete’s recent pride parade reminded me that Whitman could have been accurately called the Good Gay Poet as well, but he lived in the days of a truly severe Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and left no definitive evidence.)
You’ll hear a lot of technical nonsense, or near-nonsense, about Roberts’ vote, but as you head to the polls in November, you need only to remember this: He didn’t do it for the Democrats; he did it for his country. Whether Roberts decided to support those “huddled masses yearning to be free,” as Lady Liberty promises; or didn’t want to tarnish forever the Supreme Court’s reputation for fairness — or just felt guilty about his vote on Citizens United — he wasn’t being technical: He was making a moral choice.
The reaction to Roberts’ decision from his own party has been one of rage, predictable but unnerving in the shameless way they shout obvious falsehoods to the voters. It’s not “a huge tax increase” on anyone. It’s not our “government taking over the entire health insurance industry.” The Democrats politely avoid the word “lie,” as proclamations by Romney, Boehner, Jindal, McConnell et al. give passionate speeches that one after another are labeled by PolitiFact as “Pants on Fire.”
What Robert recognized about the “mandate” is that it doesn’t matter what it’s called — though he, being a conservative, called it a tax, to energize its base. Basically it’s a fine for irresponsibility, like a speeding ticket or for paying your actual taxes late. Moreover, it only affects a very small number of people: those who can afford it but refuse to be responsible for their health care (the Romney mandate!), throwing the cost on emergency rooms and taxpayers when the inevitable illness or injury arrives. This doesn’t compare, morally speaking, to ruling that over 30 million uninsured citizens won’t have to be afraid that they’re one accident or illness away from bankruptcy and ruin. The Affordable Care Act brings a breath of freedom to those on the lower economic rungs of our society. Hey, if Scandinavia, Europe, Australia and Canada can do this, so can we.
For 40 years Jeanne and I took Florida college students to study in Europe. Although most of our students sailed merrily along, during those years we naturally had accidents, broken bones, burst appendixes, and a variety of illnesses, all handled kindly and competently in England, France, Germany and Switzerland, for no or very little cost. We make jokes about their “socialized health care,” and those nations themselves can complain about them (as we certainly will) — but we never met a single European or Canadian who wanted to repeal his or her system.
Because of President Obama — and Chief Justice Roberts — America has joined the rest of the industrialized world, offering millions of its citizens a way out of the prison of fear and truly hopeless poverty, giving them at least a chance to “breathe free” in a healthier and more prosperous life.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
—from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
Like most of you reading this, Jeanne & Peter have health insurance, and won’t have to change it in the new system. Read more Poet’s Notebook at clatampa.com/news.
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