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A great show: the American health care debate

September 7, 2009

A few days ago I wrote about Canada’s prominence in the current U.S. debate for health care.

I’m currently visiting my parents in the States, and recently had the opportunity to attend a now-infamous Town Hall meeting on health care, hosted by U.S. Representative Brian Baird in the small logging town of Centralia, WA. In recent months I had heard much from a-far of these meetings, with crowds of anti-Obama, anti-health care, anti-choice, anti-tax and pro-gunners filling halls across the U.S., demanding that Obama be impeached on the grounds that the health care proposal was reckless and unconstitutional, and fearing that taxes would sky-rocket and personal patient choice would diminish in light of the proposed “public option.” The whole atmosphere sounded crazy, with left and right wingers yelling at one another, hoisting their political signs high in the air, throwing age-old arguments against their already staunchly-set opponents. I had to see it.

My dad and I arrived at Centralia College at 6:30 for the 7 p.m. start. A few people milled outside, hoisting the expected signs: a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag flopped listlessly in the breathless air; an older man held a very large poster listing all the things that he wished he wasn’t taxed for; a grandmother covered head-to-toe in pink smiled quietly, holding a “Health thy Neighbour” sign. At first I was disappointed, expecting more life, more verbosity based on the stories splattered across the news. But as we shuffled down the side-walk, we encountered a small group of angry Centralians. As it turns out, the filled-to-capacity meeting room had been closed five minutes prior, with no other members of the public being allowed in. The quiet group milling outside the College were simply the leftovers: already over 600 people in a town of a few thousand were waiting for the debate to begin.

Being barred entry, I wandered, and listened. Brian Baird is a somewhat progressive Democrat, and some of his conservative constituents blamed his office of bussing other Democrats in from around the State, leaving little room for the opposition. Two young men from the LaRouche group staffed a table with several large posters of Obama sporting a Hitler mustache. Another man informed me that Ron Paul, the former presidential candidate and infamous Libertarian, had delivered 4,000 babies himself. A young couple with matching shirts that said “Team health care 09” yelled at the LaRoucher’s before meeting their friends to lament about the Conservative presence. It was a show; and it was fascinating.

Horrified as I was by the Nazi representations of the new black president and the general anger of the crowd, my dad and I decided that seeing a group this large—and this interested—was nearly unheard of in Centralia, let alone anywhere in the U.S. For a nation charged with political rivalries, ordinary citizens rarely become actively involved in the nitty-gritty of politics: the actualities of legislation are left largely neglected, with people sticking to their cornerstone topics of abortion and gun rights instead. But that’s what makes the health care debate so interesting: it seems to have to do with everything already discussed in American politics. It has to do with taxation and government control and the ever-present (although archaic) fear of Communism and Socialism; it has to do with the health of the poor and the old, with welfare and a social safety net. Debates of this magnitude were not seen in last year’s state election, are not seen in any other context, on any other matter. People care about health care; and oddly, such debates are quintessentially American.

I highly recommend that Canadians come down here and check it out for themselves. There’s much to learn and to see.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. marie josee permalink
    September 11, 2009 4:06 pm

    I cannot imagine attending one of these “events”. They are all based on fear, lies and ignorance (death panels, rationning, etc…). To attribute these events as “quintessentially American” is not showing the American people in a very intelligent light.

    The American people are not fed any truth about the Canadian healthcare system nor are they curious to inform themselves. Yet, they are quick to accept the lies and accept the fear being bandied about by their leaders.

    There is too much politics in this debate….the good of the people has been forgotten. It is immoral for a country such as the USA to not provide health care to its citizens.

    It is very sad – how many children will go without medicine – how many elderly on limited incomes will have to go without medicine?
    It is very basic.

    They just don’t get it.

  2. marakardasnelson permalink*
    September 11, 2009 8:42 am

    Of course there is much unhelpful rhetoric being thrown about by both sides of the argument, as pointed out quite eloquently and powerfully in Obama’s speech to Congress. It’s no secret that American politicians and media are expert at the spin factor, and that this debate especially has seen vile attacks by people tainted by their blatant disregard for truth. It was great seeing the president get up there and say “do policy, not slander.” This needed to be said, but rarely to American politicians take on the issue of mud-slinging so head on.

    As to whether or not health care opponents are against the plan primarily because of their hate for Obama: I have no doubt that in some cases this is true, but that probably more generally people who are already skeptical of the health care plan (because of fear of increased taxes; increased government control; or anything that even remotely–and this plan is pretty remote–resembles socialism) are easily affected by anti-Obama, anti-Democrat propaganda, and easily get on the birthers and teabaggers arguments. Whether people don’t like Obama, or they don’t like the health care plan, many Conservative groups are able to group the two together to create one big nasty evil.

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    September 8, 2009 12:10 pm

    That does sound like quite a show – very much enjoyed your colourful description. A couple of random thoughts:

    1. In anatomy, centralia (the singular is centrale) are small bones found in the ankles and wrists of many modern and fossil animals. Humans retain an equivalent bone, called the navicular, in the ankle.

    2. When I was a graduate student in the US a few years ago, I would sometimes pass by the office of a museum administrator who had a picture of George W. Bush prominently displayed in her window. Some cunning Photoshop user had added a metallic band around one of Bush’s fingers, along with the caption, “Frodo failed – Bush has the ring!” Comparing Obama to Hitler is rather unfair, but at least nobody seems to be comparing him to Sauron.

    3. I’m sure that attending one of those town hall meetings would indeed be fascinating. It sounds like there’s a lot of passion and energy on display, but also a lot of paranoia and wild, unhelpful rhetoric. What do you think of the widespread suspicions that a lot of the anti-Obamacare crowd are motivated more by visceral loathing of Obama himself than by anything to do with his health care plan? If that’s true, and if the mood continues, then we should have plenty more of these spectacles to look forward to.

  4. marakardasnelson permalink*
    September 7, 2009 6:55 pm

    Yes–it very much had the evangelical flair, although I’m hesitant to diminish the entire hall meeting to just that. It was evangelical in that it was preachy, but that’s part of what made it so interesting. People care about the health care debate as much as they do about some of the main debates that have taken place throughout U.S. history. Religion, of course, definitely falls into that category.

    But I don’t want to make it seem like just a show, ridiculous as it is. Watching politics take place on street corners is really just a beautiful thing, regardless of the antics involved.

  5. September 7, 2009 6:45 pm

    Wow. Thank you for this first hand account and for your open/minded view of Centralia’s goings on (the name, “Centralia,” sounds somehow like it should be in a David Lynch film?). The descriptions remind me of what I’ve read studying American history (eons ago at UBC and i didn’t do very well in the course), articles about camp revivials and The Great Awakening and “big tent crusades for Christ” type of meetings. How does that strike you? That in addition to everything you’ve described, part of the cultural/historical mix of the theatre/spectacle at this “town hall meetings” is rooted in the evangelical revival meeting sub-culture.


  1. Part 4: Canadian Health Care and U.S. Health Reform Debates « Canada’s World

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