Monday, March 29, 2010

It's Not Just About Us!

When North Caucasus groups send suicide bombers to Moscow at the same time as right-wing militias are arrested for plotting to kill law enforcement officers in the U.S.,

When Juarez, on the U.S. Mexican border, becomes the most violent city on the planet;

When young people in Philadelphia use their communications devices to converge by the hundreds on certain popular streets (without anyone guessing as to why);

When increasingly, elections all over the world are contested, the latest being the Iraqi election;

When the most powerful nation in the world counts a growing minority of citizens who resent having to share a basic right to health care;

When all these things are in the news on any given day, we have to recognize that the entire world is in turmoil, and try to see through an apparent thicket to the trees.

Several factors come immediately to mind (but my readers will suggest others, no doubt): the existence, since 1945, of the atomic threat, which has increased over time with ever more lethal weapons; increased ease of communication between individuals; television and internet bringing reality in distant places to increasing numbers of people;

The growing desire for people rendered powerless by the above to live amongst like-minded Others whether for religious, national or sexual reasons - a powerlessness undiminished by the availability of mind-numbing drugs - causes rebellions against governments and ruling elites who place gain above psychological comfort.

Forcing a compromise in Afghanistan will not solve this problem. If it happens, it will be a dent in the wall of Other refusal - while we continue to send un-manned drones over Pakistan, and the Israeli government continues to defy world opinion and increasingly, the opinion of American taxpayers.

Refusal of Otherness is the umbrella category that encompasses all the elements of a world crisis.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Health Care: A Matter of Ideology

(This blog should have appeared a few days ago. For some reason after I uploaded it, it got lost. Sorry.)

Something is happening to the American political ethos when members start shouting in the hallowed chambers of Congress.

I can remember of visit to the U.S. in 1991 when Congress was debating whether to go to war against Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I was living in France at the time, used to seeing the French parliament in all its disorderly conduct. The polite yet passionate debate over the war struck me as the epitome of civilized behavior, something the French still had to learn.

Well, all that was very relative, as I have since realiz-ed. The reason why the French (and other) parliaments get into heated arguments is because their members have profound ideological differences. The reason why the American Congress has remained staid and dignified is that its members espouse essentially the same ideology. That ideology goes under the label of non-ideology, but there is no such thing: the liberal ideology is that of free-market capitalism. It has a pedigree just like communism, socialism, or fascism.

By claiming to be non-ideological, our political class implies that ideologies are bad, whatever they are, hence keeping all competing ideologies at bay.

Now something has shifted in the seemingly immutable tectonic plates of our political world: the effort to bring American health care within striking distance of the rest of the developed world - and even some underdeveloped countries - has shattered the carefully constructed myth that politics can be non-ideological. The proof: a Republican member of Congress called the President a liar during his State of the Union Speech, and yesterday, during the final debate on health care, a member of the opposition shouted that Bart Stupak was a “baby killer”.

The President has mentioned several times of late that there are “profound ideological differences” between the Democrats and the Republicans, all the while claiming that he is not an ideologue.

That insurmountable contradiction is due to the President’s conviction has that people can be “nudged” into doing what is right: behavioral politics. The furies unleashed by the right - of which we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg - are proof that the chasm is too wide between those with progressive ideas and those opposed to such ideas for this country to be reformed by nudging.

In politics there has always been and will always be a left and a right, regardless of how these ends of the spectrum are designated with respect to any existing government. (In the Soviet Union under a communist regime, the “left” was the liberal-oriented opposition; in Iran today, the same is true of those who oppose the right-wing mullahs.) Left is generally understood to mean more free-dom from the power apparatus, and in the twenty-first century it also means more solidarity, a recognition that individuals, while valuing freedom, require the support of the larger community to fully benefit from their individual freedom.

In a world of six going on seven billion inhabitants, solidarity can no longer be carried out on a neighborly basis: it has become one of the tasks of government. Those who are determined to deprive America’s less advantaged of health care fail to accept this reality. Their opposition is so visceral that it has broken through the barrier of respectability built up over the decades since Americans had a Progressive Party to counter the power of big business.

If the President learns only one thing from this battle - which is not yet over - it is that he should have taken the bull by the horns and drafted a “government takeover” of the health system, meaning simply that care would not be subject to profit. The battle would hardly have been more virulent than the one he has been through, for what is at best a first step. Because now the myth that we have a non-ideological system has been exposed.

Why Docs Don’t Talk

Did you ever wonder why your doctor is so tight-lipped, saying only the minimum to get through the visit?

The answer is in one of the provisions in Obama’s health care reform that was knocked out: doctors want extra money to talk.

It isn’t said in so many words. But that’s what the proposal to pay doctors to discuss difficult issues with patients was about (the one that gave rise to the ridiculous notion of ‘death panels’).

In an eye-opening interview today on Democracy Now, Dr. Diane Meier, a palliative care specialist, revealed that “it takes time” to discuss options with patients facing a serious illness, and that’s why there was a provision in the health care bill for doctors to be able to bill the time they spend talking to patients.

A propos, during this year of arguing over health care, no one ever mentioned the fact that doctors and hospitals tell patients that the fees they charge are those “allowed by the government”. In other words, everything they do is coded, with a corresponding fee. Why does the government - or whatever organization sets these codes and fees - accept that they be so absurdly high?

Recently I consulted an orthopedic surgeon in a major Philadelphia hospital, who didn’t introduce himself, didn’t explain what he was seeing on my x-ray and MRI, said I could have a cortisone shot or arthroscopic surgery for my torn meniscus, gave me the shot as I requested and charged me $400 - until I protested that I had specifically called in advance to be informed of the cost I would incur for the visit.

People need to do that more often.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A P.S. to Yesterday’s Post

Sometimes I get carried away and I forget to come back to the original event that motivated a post. I want to get back to Secretary Clinton’s remark that Israel’s announcement of new settlements in Jerusalem was a slap in the face. The remark itself was not the only significant thing. If you happen to have caught Clinton on TV you may have noticed a flicker of the eye, a hesitation in the voice when she said that the United States has always supported Israel because we have “shared values”.

It’s one thing to have occupying armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s one thing to dabble in assassinations by drones in Pakistan, it’s one thing even, to allow arms to flow to drug lords in Mexico - or local police, as was just reported today on CNN, to sell confiscated weapons to dealers. It’s quite another thing to flaunt all the rules that govern occupations for decades, with the excuse that the occupied populations rebel.

When Israeli soldiers, as reported by Chris Hedges in today’s Truthdig, are increasingly refusing to serve; when the Israeli government is cracking down in extreme ways against Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, it is no wonder that the Secretary of States has difficulty in enunciating that now defunct situation.

I visited Israel in 1986 to report on Israeli reactions to the first intifada. It was hard to believe that the Israel I saw on World Focus last night on my local public television station was the same country: there were no skyscrapers in Tel Aviv then, now Microsoft and other companies reach to the sky; the airport was rudimentary; it is now as impressively modern as any; there was only a budding technology industry: today the Israelis are making electric cars and charging grids, and a pill that photographs a patient’s insides.

One has to wonder, considering the needs of other countries who do not assert their rights with weapons, whether Israel still needs our money: its achievements do not appear to have given it the self-assurance necessary for a humane - let alone constructive - policy toward those it displaced.

In an ironic reversal of the story of David and Goliath, this is a country that crushes throwers of homemade rockets with tanks and bulldozers, and bristles when the world condemns it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dangerous Bedfellows

Ever since the end of World War II, during which time the United States left a lot of European Jews to die in Nazi concentration camps, this country has been trying to make up for the anti-Semitism that dictated that decision by supporting the State of Israel, founded so that Jews would never again be victims.

For decades, this support has been justified on the grounds that Israel was the only democratic state in the Middle East. As the years went by, Israel became less and less a shining example of democracy and human rights, but the American government could not afford to nuance its support because Israel is at the forefront in the development of the sophisticated weaponry and intelligence technology and practices that serve us so well.

As Israel increasingly abused its occupier status in the West Bank and Gaza - and increasingly curtailed the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel proper - it became more and more difficult for American diplomacy to reiterate an unqualified commitment to Israel’s security. With last year’s invasion of Gaza, in which 1400 Palestinians were killed while 14 Israelis died of rockets fired into Israel by Palestinians, Israel slid further and further down the slope of apartheid and away from decisions that would lead to a Palestinian state.

With the publication of the Goldstone report on the Gaza incursion, Israel literally turned its back on the international community, personified by a United Nations that it has for decades considered its enemy.

Now comes Vice-President Joe ‘Goodfella’ Biden to give a presidential impetus to a peace process that special envoy George Mitchell has been unable to advance: But lo, on the day of his arrival in the Holy Land, an Israeli spokesman announces that the Israeli government plans to build 1600 more apartments for Israeli settlers (sic) in East Jerusalem, which is the Arab part of Jerusalem that Palestinians hope will be their capital (the rest of Jerusalem to be the Israeli capital).

Biden, having repeatedly been warned of his tendency to say too much, was impeccably reserved. But the President, apparently, and notwith-standing Israeli hawk senior advisor Rahm Emanuel, directed Hillary Clinton, his Secretary of State, not to mince words. She came out and said it was a slap in the face, breaking with decades of mealy-mouthed acquiescence to Israel’s refusal to abide by U.N. resolutions to end its occupation of Palestinian territories, not to mention its unique interpretation of the occupiers’ duties under international law.

With our troops mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, a nuclear-armed Israel is ratcheting up alarm over Iran’s nuclear activities, forcing the United States to speak even louder in order to forestall Israeli action that would leave us with no alternative but to follow in what one Arab leader has called a regional conflagration.

It will be for historians and psychologists to speculate on what pushes Israel deeper and deeper into the abyss of self-destruction. But it has just given the United States an opening that will enable it to throw off the shackles it wound around itself at the close of the Second World War: that part of “never again” that pertains to the Holocaust.

There have been so many holocausts and genocides since then, that we no longer have to justify sleeping with its longest perpetrator.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Who Should Tell us What to Think?

Now that the President and the media are comfortable referring to an ideological divide, let me put the question in non-ideological terms: historically, Americans have wanted to keep government out of their lives. But over the last 200 years, business has become so powerful that it tells us what cereal to eat, that we should smoke, drive instead of using public transportation, where to go on vacation.

Try as I might, I don’t see the advantage. Business is in it for profit. When government tells us to get health or car insurance, it’s not making a dime.

The trouble we all see with government is that it spends our money for things we don’t agree with. That’s where we should be trying to change things.

If you have two friends, and one of them tells you to try his favorite breakfast cereal, and the other is a salesperson for a different breakfast cereal, which one would you trust?

When the country was first coming together, the incipient federal government had to fight to supersede the powers of the individuals colonies, which were in a sense separate “countries” with a common interest, that of getting Great Britain off their backs. It wasn’t easy to get them to unite.

Now we have fifty states, each with their histories, customs, and heroes. A good part of the state legislatures’ time is spent fighting with the Federal Government over who should pay for what. Then there are crucial laws regarding what can or cannot take place “across state lines”.

Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, is the clause that authorizes Congress "to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes." Much of the U.S. government's regulatory authority derives from this clause, which specifies that “when Congress is silent, states may act, unless the specific subject requires "uniform national control."

After the civil war, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing all citizens equal protection under the law complicated the issue of states’ rights and continue to affect a wide range of issue.

With an on-going polemic over which organs of government are empowered to do what, it is not surprising many that citizens see Government with a capital G as something to be resisted.

I wonder what needs to happen for Americans to realize that being told what to think and what to do by business, over which they have no control, is worse.