In the dining room, speaking to the table

The summer doldrums are here, so please forgive that I was away in cooler climes these past two weeks, hence missed much of what passes for civic discourse.

The main topic this month, of course, is the raging debate over health care reform. President Obama’s proposal includes offering a public/government option as an alternative to the high-cost insurance plans offered by the giant insurance firms in the private sector. That issue alone, according to an NBC poll this week, is now opposed by a plurality of Americans – 47% – while support now stands at 43 percent.

But the issue has got caught up in the right wing screed over “socialized medicine.” While the issue certainly is over finding ways to control the runaway costs of health care and provide insurance for the 45 million Americans who are uninsured, the president’s opponents are having success in subverting the debate. Red herrings like health care for illegal immigrants, public funding of abortions, even the euthanising of our elderly population – all proven factually wrong – are being introduced by the opposition in an attempt to scare the citizenry.

In the last two weeks, the following incidents occurred:

– In Portsmouth, NH, a 62-year-old man was arrested at a high school on the morning of an Obama town hall meeting set for that afternoon. The man carried a knife in his pocket, and police found an unlicensed loaded pistol in his car.

– In Arizona last week, a man walked around a pro-health care reform rally “with a pistol on his hip, and an AR-15 (a semi-automatic assault rifle) on a strap over his shoulder,” a Phoenix newspaper reported. When asked why he was armed, he said, “Because I can do it. In Arizona, I still have some freedoms.” A CNN report added that another man was prowling around the rally carrying an assault rifle.

This week, during Congressman Barney Frank’s town hall forum in his district, a woman held a photo of the president, adorned with a Hitler-like black mustache on his lip. She said to Frank, “Why are you supporting this Nazi policy?” The congressman replied, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” He called her approach “vile, contemptible nonsense,” and added, “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table.”

To his credit, Frank acknowledged the woman’s First Amendment right to express her view, odious as it may have seen to others. When some shouted “liar” at the congressman, the AP reports, “Frank said at one point in response to the verbal attacks, ‘Do you really think that advances your argument? I mean, I thought you were thoughtful people here to have a conversation.’”

In truth, on this issue there really has been very little “conversation.” Civil discourse has been reduced to uncivil diatribes, and the divisions in America are revealed in stark terms.

There is a fault line that runs through America, one that divides our people into two distinct sets of views. It was evident in the Bush/Gore 50-50 split of 2000, and the Swift Boat polemics that defined the Bush/Kerry 2004 contest. Even the Obama win over John McCain ten months ago was close, albeit the Democrats won by a larger margin than the earlier GOP wins.

Note, too, that the healthcare debate plays out in the midst of the current economic woes, and many of our fellow citizens continue to struggle. It is not a happy time in America.

Most agree with the need to reform health care costs, and now that the nation has come this far down the road, there can be no turning back. Demagoguery for the sake of a political win is contemptible, and the hate-mongers need to be recognized for what they are.

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