It was Lew Wallace (1827-1905) who said, “Beauty is altogether in the eye of the beholder.”
Since I began getting involved in Washington, DC with the debate over healthcare reform a number of years ago, I have wondered more and more about how we have arrived at such a place that every issue, every decision, every need is met with such partisan, fractional, divisive and inflammatory rhetoric. Today it seems that there are no discussions on any issue that doesn’t revert to, “they said this, and what they really mean, is that.” Or, you can hear a statement from one side or the other to the effect that, “It’s clear that their agenda is to do X, Y or Z to harm us.” Any, and all, of these statements amount to “doodly squat” as Granny Hawkins would say! – a prize to anyone who knows this reference — without using the internet!
Spin is not a new concept
Nothing related to any issue facing our national interest today is devoid of some spin to gain advantage on some other tangential issue–related or not. Not to pick on any one side, or the other, but how often do we now hear the phrase, unfortunately most recently attributed to Rahm Emmanuel, “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Or to be fair, the statement by Senator McConnell that the prime goal of republicans is to defeat the president. If you think Mr. Emmanuel or Mr. McConnell are the first to utter these kinds of ideas, that they meant them completely literally, or that it is not a practice by each side of the political aisle, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I am willing to sell you; if you can convince me you deserve it!
If you think hyper-partisanship and gridlock are new I again encourage readers to go to Google Books and look up some of the old papers from the late 1800s and early 1900s and read what was going on then. There are surprising similarities.
Agenda based legislation now the norm
During the drive for healthcare reform there were a series of changes to the goals of the legislation that occurred as the process spread to one committee after another. Senator Kennedy began the current process of healthcare reform in the wake of the disastrous attempt during the Clinton administration. The bill that he authored just prior to his death was the result of his long-term attempt to find some legislation that would be acceptable to people on both sides and improve the healthcare system. The HELP bill, while clearly not likely to have conservatives jump up and proclaim it a triumph of modern legislation, was still a bill that he clearly had worked hard on to find areas of support from his political opponents and an honest attempt to find methods to improve the healthcare system.
Having read it in its various iterations myself, it was clearly legislation moderate republicans would have found the ability to support. Overall, it was my opinion then, and remains even more so now, that it was a bill that would have truly helped to fix some of the fundamental issues related to the current system. There were a number of republican ideas that he incorporated into the bill that did have support. While there were also items that many felt were a bridge too far, Kennedy’s HELP bill was far superior to the final legislation and provided a much better framework for an effective solution that both parties could have supported. So why did this bill fail and why did the ending legislation have little or nothing to do with his original goal of improving healthcare for all of America?
This is a question I have spent a lot of time contemplating and was one of the reasons I wrote the book, The History and Evolution of Healthcare in America. As an interested participant in the process, what I observed left me to wonder how we have come so far that even the most universal goals could get subverted and co-opted to such an extent, simply to feed secondary agendas and partisan ideals on both sides. Also, I was astounded at the extent that the public was informed of the changes in the goal from improving the healthcare system for all Americans to that of laying the groundwork for the failure of the current system in order to have a path to a federal single payer system and the elimination of private sector health care. This was something that was stated numerous times publically, and even reported in a limited fashion on the major news networks but little to no outcry ensued.
A nation of two equal minds on almost everything
One could draw the conclusion that the majority of Americans want the federal government to provide health care for all. The reality, like almost everything else, is there is not a clear majority who wants such a singular solution. At best, if left as a nebulous conceptual question the country is about equally divided. If specifics are provided in the framing of the question as to what it might mean in the opinion of the pollster the numbers become a very slight majority on one side or the other depending on the framing of the question. At best, it is clear that most of America has no clue what they want and likely does not have the information to make an informed decision. But this is not the issue!
America has been a divided nation historically since founding. One simply needs to read the writings of Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson or Adams to see that within days of the creation of the constitution, America has had a diversity of opinion as to the role of the individual and the role of government. It was as a result of this dichotomy that our constitution is long on what the federal government should NOT do and rather short on what it is permitted to do. The debate then was less about empowering the common man and more on not allowing the federal government an opportunity to become tyrannical and to suborn individual rights. Both of the antagonistic sides of the debate during the framing were in agreement that the power of the national government needed to be limited because they believed that the end point of any democracy was either tyranny or anarchy. To this end they specifically did not create a democracy but instead created a constitutional republic!
Compromise through Tolerance
It was in the area of the underlying core beliefs that the founders held in common that their compromise through tolerance, a term coined by Benjamin Franklin, brought forth upon this nation a new form of government. And it is specifically this form of government that has allowed us the freedom to expand it, celebrate it, interpret it, enhance it and also to screw it up at will.
I have come to think that over the past 234 years, since the constitution was ratified, we have changed in ways we are not cognizant of. One of the areas that the founders tried to check and balance, were the decisions and changes in laws and governance that could come forth as a result of the arrogance of man. Something they believed was endemic in mankind and as equal a threat to the republic as active tyranny by government through the development of a ruling class. The concepts of the three equal branches were devised to check and balance many different opposing beliefs and in effect to impose a mandatory system of tolerance.
We now only tolerate intolerance
Today, every discussion at the fundamental level seems to revert to an argument as to whose fault it is that something someone wants, or feels should be one way or another, is not as they wish it to be. We have arrived at a time where the simple act of saying Merry Christmas is fraught with controversy and argument as to its constitutional authorization. I have said many times that the only thing we tolerate today is intolerance because there is nothing I can think of that people do any more that is not fraught with someone feeling they have a right to stop it, mandate it, or impose their specific idea on how it should be done. Again this is neither a republican nor a democrat behavior; like so much else it has become ubiquitous but we refuse to recognize it as such.
You want to hunt foxes because it is part of your way of life or heritage, or because the foxes are eating your chickens, or because you don’t like foxes: there is a group somewhere who will petition the government to stop you from doing it? You want to repair a fence around a grazing field that has existed on your property, holding cattle, since the founding of America and, someone somewhere will complain and a law will be passed that you cannot repair the fence without a obtaining building permit, and you can’t get a building permit because the latest laws say you can’t have cattle this close to a stream because their waste may wash into a bay or river.
How about, you moved to this beautiful bucolic community, an hour or so outside of the city where you work, to get away from the hustle and bustle and get to a peaceful life surrounded by farmers and fishermen. You get annoyed that the chickens crow early in the morning, that the waste of the animals sometimes is smelly and the fishermen fish right in front of your house and impede the view, or get in the way when your trying to water ski or sail your yacht. No matter, just call your friendly politician and remind them that it was your donation that helped them get elected and pretty soon these people will be forced to stop interrupting your lifestyle. After all, you spent a lot of money to come here for this bucolic existence and you just won’t tolerate their inconveniences.
Its still about Tolerance
You see, we have slowly come to the position that our collective concept of tolerance only works one way. If I do not like something you are doing, then the government needs to step in and stop you from doing it. Regardless of whether there are a few or many of us, the government has to stop it because the constitution says something somewhere that we feel makes it such and so. But, tolerance, by definition, is the act of allowing a behavior or action by another that you do not like. Sure, you could make the argument that they need to tolerate you desire for no smells, or your desire to sleep late, or your desire to not have them in your view or impeding your sailboat. But, if we use that argument we end up with a situation where you cant do anything unless the national government creates some law, oversight group and financing authority to expressly authorize it and control it. Hum! Is this where we are now?
Tolerance is not the only thing
While I think lack of tolerance is one of the keys to why we are where we are today, it is not the only one. I also have come to the conclusion that we no longer believe it is neither wrong to be envious nor wrong to blame others for our own decisions. I do think that many of us have become immune to our own responsibility for our successes and failures. Again, one side today wants to attribute success only to the role of the individual, and the other want to attribute success not to the individual effort but the largess of the masses that made it possible. Both positions, when stated this way are clear to most to be wrong-headed. Likewise, the nuanced positions of these issues are wrong as well. While most of you will agree with the prior point, I am sure many will disagree with the second point and find some rationalization why this is simply not true. Ask yourself why you feel this way. I have many times lately and astounded myself as to my own answer.
Over the past few days, I have been having a dialogue, primarily with an old and very respected friend. Like always we disagree on some points and we agree on others. Both of us come from the same upbringing, from the same town, same schools, same church, same friends, etc. And, we share all the same values. Yet, there are areas where we are each and at the same time more conservative than each other and more liberal than each other. This discussion became of interest to me because it was driven by a larger point I was attempting to make relating to the fundamental, not partisan issues that are causing the lack of progress on almost all levels economically and politically. But we kept coming back to who was at fault and my friends belief that I was just pushing a partisan agenda.
Every time I have a discussion with this one good and valued friend I learn something. Sometimes it is about him, sometimes it is about me. In this case it was about both of us. What I learned is that we all have really evolved a long way from the principals, mores, values, beliefs–I am not sure what to actually call these characteristics–that guided the founding fathers. I have also realized that they must have believed these fundamental characteristics of mankind were immutable as they relied on them to help check the system for evolution of the very checks and balances that were built into the constitution. Now, I wonder if the distance we have moved from these founding fundamental characteristics of mankind have damned our form of government to suffer the same fate as all foundations of government since the dawn of civilization?
Me and my Arrow–in the Land of Point
There was a story, put to music by Harry Nilsson, called, Me and my Arrow. The story is a tale of a young boy, named Oblio, from the Land of Point–where everything and everyone had a point–who had to wear a pointed hat since birth to conceal the fact that he was born round headed and had no point. He has a dog, named Arrow, and one day when it is found out that he has no point, he and Arrow are banished to the Pointless Forest because you cant live in the Land of Point if you have no point. It is a very interesting story on many levels.
During his banishment through the pointless forest, Oblio begins to discover that everything there, while seeming to be pointless at first glance, really did have a point somewhere if people were just tolerant enough to look for it. This culminates in Oblio and Arrow’s meeting with the Rockman. The Rockman tells Oblio at one point that in reference to pointedness, “You see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear!” Oblio returns to tell the so called pointed population that as he and Arrow traveled through the pointless forest they discovered that everything there did in fact have a point. And, if everything in the Pointless Forest had a point then he must have a point also. To which someone in the audience says, “well he’s got a point there!” And, all the points on the heads of all the citizens of the Land of Point melted away and they became like Oblio round headed. Yet, they understood that through tolerance they could all still have a very valuable point!
Where’s our point?
Are we not becoming like the citizens of the Land of Point? Must we now refuse to see the point of anyone who dares to think any differently then we do? Are we at the point that we simply banish to our own pointless forests all who are not like us because we are too intolerant of any other position to see them? How does one re-ignite the practice of tolerance once it is lost? Where are our Oblios and Arrows?