AMERICA'S WALKING BACKWARDS
And what it will take to turn it around
A few years ago while visiting London, I woke up in the middle of the night with horrible stabbing pains in the area above my waist. It felt like razor blades were ripping open my insides and I wondered if I was going to die. I was visiting my daughter at the time and I remember dragging myself across the floor, crawling towards her bedroom and crying out for help as best I could.
My daughter called an ambulance right away and help arrived almost immediately. I remember asking one of the medical attendants, “Am I having a heart attack?,” and his answering, “That’s what we’re trying to find out, Ma’am.”
I was taken to the hospital and things get a little fuzzy after that. I remember seeing a medical team receiving me when I was taken into the emergency room but then I blanked out. The next thing I remember I was lying in a hospital bed and no longer in pain. As a needle shot fluid into my arm, a nice doctor explained to me all the myriad tests that had been administered and the medicine they were giving me. The best guess they could make, he said, was that I had had an attack of gastritis. He gave me medicine to tide things over and suggested I see a doctor when I returned to the States.
Back home, the doctor said he couldn’t figure it out either. Nothing like that has happened to me since.
I have no idea why that event occurred, but I do know something important that I learned from it. As I was leaving the hospital I asked the nice woman at the check-out desk what I owed her - after all, I had received all that medical attention - and she looked at my quizzically as though she didn’t understand what I was asking. “Why, nothing!” I owed no money for the all the care I had just received.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is socialized medicine. Universal healthcare. Medicare for All. Whatever words you want to use to describe it. It’s when healthcare is viewed like the fire department or the police department or public schools - not something you pay for directly, but something that comes with being a citizen. It’s not a way for insurance companies or pharmaceutical companies to make billions of dollars of profit. It’s something that taxpayer money provides in order to increase the health and well-being of its citizens.
Now let’s be clear. It’s not just insurance or pharmaceutical companies that would find it inconvenient if we were to move away from a profit-based health care system. Big Food companies, chemical companies, even Big Agriculture and energy companies would face challenges as well, because the entity paying for all that medical care would be far less indulgent of carcinogens, artificial fats, and toxins that continuously assault the bodies of our citizens. Government would have a vested interest in people being healthy, rather than a sickness-industrial-complex having a vested interest in people being sick. All manner of non-pharmaceutical, preventative, healthy living alternatives would be supported, not maligned or suppressed. It would save the government money if more Americans were healthy.
And that would change everything. One of the reasons universal healthcare gets such strong resistance in Congress and the White House - despite the fact that it is favored by a majority of Americans - is because it would cause a fundamental paradigm shift in the American economy.
In the first 2020 presidential debate, I pointed out that we have a sickness care system in the United States, not a real healthcare system. I was saying that in order to address that problem, we would have to address our food policies, chemical policies, our — and it was at that point that the moderator shut me down (American politics in a nutshell.)
We can either base our economy on the short term profits of huge corporate entities, or we can base our economy on an effort to increase the health and well-being of our people and planet. We can’t do both. The former is an economic model that serves a a few, insuring that a majority of people will be made to sacrifice to shore up the piles of goodies being enjoyed by a small number of us. The latter is an economic model that serves the many, ensuring that a majority of people have a chance to get into the game, create their own wealth, and contribute to an economy that serves everyone.
Gee, you wouldn’t think that would be such a hard call. And it wouldn’t be, if our representative democracy actually represented the people. But these days it does not. It represents its corporate donors, the very entities that thrive at the expense of people and planet, putting the needs of an unfettered capitalism before the needs of the American people. Those corporatist forces spend huge amounts of money trying to convince people that standing up for their own good is socialism! communism! collectivism! the destruction of America! They don’t want people to know, apparently, that there are successful capitalist economies in the world that still provide people what they need in order to thrive.
All that “of the people, by the people and for the people” stuff is just so quaint now, isn’t it? We still pretty much pretend that it’s real. But it’s not real, and the people know it. A friend was pointing out to me recently that young people in America would no longer be willing to fight for our way of life. In a way, why would they? What has global capitalism has ever done for them? It has not delivered healthcare, affordable education, or almost any of the promises of democracy that would make this country worth fighting for. When has this younger generation of Americans ever felt truly heard within the political sphere? Yet they’re the ones who would be asked to fight, were it to come down to fighting, for the very system that has betrayed them.
Other countries are racing right past us when it comes to providing for the common good. Visiting England but also Australia and New Zealand over the last couple of weeks, I was struck by differences between those countries and the United States. When I visited Australia 25 years ago, I remember thinking, “Oh this is like America, but ten years behind.” This time I felt the opposite. It’s like America, but ten years ahead.
One young Australian told me that his father is kept alive due to a $30,000 pill - completely paid for by their health care system. An Australian woman told me her expenses for going to college and then on to a master’s degree were so negligible she couldn’t really remember what they were. And in both Australia and New Zealand, mass shootings had been followed by a complete and total shut down of sales and ownership of assault weapons. A woman in New Zealand said to me, “No one here even argued with that.”
Yes, I heard of problems with the health care system in New Zealand; how it was sometimes hard to get an appointment to see a doctor and so forth. None of the systems in those countries are perfect, but the kinks could be worked out both there and here. It is absurd, and at this point immoral, that every advanced democracy in the world except ours - as well as many that are not democracies - provide health care to their citizens. We have been hoodwinked into believing that less is more in an area where less is definitely less.
But the particulars aren’t even the point. What I noticed in Australia and New Zealand is not just that people have universal health care, access to higher education, or even guaranteed gun safety. What I noticed is that people just seem so much less stressed than they do in America. I had almost forgotten there was a time when such a level of anxiety didn’t saturate the air in this country. When people weren’t so on the edge all the time. When despair didn’t seem so rampant. And it probably helps, I’m sure, when armed militia aren’t running around one’s country threatening civil war.
Something else I noticed in those countries, particularly in Australia, was the obvious expenditure of resources on areas of public recreation and enjoyment. Beautiful riverwalks, gardens and water parks such as those in Brisbane, and Federation Square in Melbourne, create environments where people can easily experience our shared humanity, not fearfully trying to avoid each other but actually enjoying each other. There is more to building a healthy community than just economic and utilitarian interests. I noticed in those surroundings that people were looking at their kids, and at each other, more often than they were looking at their phones.
Yet, with all of that, when I walked onto an American carrier to begin my flight back, it felt good to be again in what felt like a familiar place. Sometimes we’re hardwired for a country, or for a culture, and I’m hardwired for mine. I’m not angry at America; I’m just sad for America. We’re walking backwards.
The question is, why is the United States fighting so hard to block its own progress? What is it about us that we seem so intent on suppressing our own potential?
That’s a question the answer to which is fairly obvious, of course. The controlling interests in our country don’t give a damn about American progress. It’s as though the country has an autoimmune disease, as the instruments of our own power now attack us more than serve us. From the Supreme Court restricting women’s reproductive rights and limiting the ability of the EPA to protect us from environmental hazards, to state legislators suppressing voting rights and Congress continuing to pass military budgets that primarily serve the merchants of war, the enemies of our good are in our midst. The blind aren’t leading the blind; the blind are leading the sighted.
Having said all that, however, history proves that things have been this bad before. What’s happening now isn’t all that different from things that have happened in the past. In order for us to turn things around, however, we’re going to show up the way other generations did. We’re going to have to toughen up. Educate yourself, run for office, volunteer for campaigns, refuse to give up, go to protests, organize, unionize, share information, be an activist, support the good things, take care of others, don’t give a damn if they don’t like you. And above all, believe in miracles. They happen.
The threat of neo-fascism in America is real, but it will only defeat us if we allow it to. It would never have gained the foothold it has, had democracy delivered on its promises. We need to deliver on them now. We need to counter our despair with conviction, willing into being what it is that we want. There were those who in their time said we will abolish slavery. Who said we will gain women’s suffrage. Who said we will desegregate the American South. And then they did.
Today, it is our turn. We will solve the problems in our democracy or we will lose the right to even try. We can still push back against the undemocratic forces that threaten; it’s in America’s DNA to do so, like a spirit buried beneath layers of numbness but retrievable still. We will have universal health care. We will have affordable or even free higher education and trade schools. We will have common sense gun safety laws. We will have a fair economy. We will regenerate the earth. We will build peace in our communities and the world. America will have a season of repair - if that is what we set out to do. The entire free world is moving in that direction. America can’t keep walking backwards forever.