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Kingston, NY, Friday, August 28, 2009

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To Whom Much Is Given ...
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

Money doesn't buy happiness, they say; but lately our love of keeping it and fear of losing it is sure buying a lot of unhappiness. When there doesn't appear to be enough, we become whiny and disoriented, or snappy and impatient; when we're having trouble making our own finances work, we get annoyed at those who show no sign that there's a fiscal crisis sweeping the nation. We live in a state of fear and depression that masks our private, isolated terror about tomorrow. The middle class that everyone talks about is not as middle as we think it is, anyway; the lower middle class is where most of us live and that's taking the most direct hits. Lately, we're paddling our little canoes as fast as we can and not making much headway. As we speak, the average citizen is getting a sense of just how difficult, how worrisome and how dangerously vulnerable their lives can become in a shaky economy. If you mention your challenges to acquaintances, they will surely be able to testify to their own troubles; do it, if you're brave enough -- it's a great equalizer. Grieve together if need be, and encourage one another; share a hug. We'll get through this.

Let's make lemonade, shall we? It's way past time we came into awareness of the way we earn, the way we spend and the thousand and one ways we're bled as citizens of this prosperous nation. If we put aside our national pride, and resolve not to spit the pea soup of cold war propaganda we were raised on, the Socialist supposition that we're a manipulated nation of slaves to the capitalistic model is not entirely without truth; up until lately, that lifestyle was comfortable enough to keep us lulled, our nose to the grindstone. When the comfort disappears, it's time to rethink; that's usually the point when harsh realities intrude.

We're at a national turning point; some of us sense it deep within, aware that we can't continue as we have, i.e., Einstein's proposition that repeating old patterns and expecting a different outcome is insanity. Others of us are determined to beat the Old Paradigm horse to death, trying to breathe life into its dissolving carcass. As we've come to expect, any good news we hear of economic recovery seems to be showing up only on accountant's books; the trickle-down effect to American households is mostly moot. This has created a kind of internal catharsis in the national persona: we're battling our deepest fears while engaging our highest hopes; we're emptying our psyches of moldy-oldies, awakening from the lethargy of decades and looking for a new way forward. In this purge of outworn consciousness, the glut of late-20th century 'plenty' that made us increasingly self-absorbed and consumption-driven is getting a second look; that's what suffering does for us -- it snaps us awake, it makes us consider what life is all about. It forces us to ask the hard questions; to define what's really important.

One question we should ask, if we want to survive into this new century, is how the constant pernicious din of advertising drives our desires. One night not long ago, watching a favorite TV offering, I tracked what the commercials were peddling in their full 18 or so minutes of prime time, per hour. Turns out we're continually being bombarded by clever ads for cars, pharmaceuticals, insurance and fast food. Of the three, fast food is the one most of us can afford -- if you want to know why the nation is grossly overweight, consider that fresh, healthful food is priced over the budget of too many. The Whole Foods CEO is currently catching hell because he said we don't need health care reform, just the expensive organic products he offers; this is the 'let them eat cake' miscalculation that lost Marie Antoinette her head. The average family would have to cut out several meals a week in order to afford to eat a few well-balanced and healthful ones. Of all the ads, the insurance ads are the most emotional; my favorite is the Hallmark Card'ish offering by State Farm, telling us that we have come to our senses, discovered the joys of playing Jenga with family and barbequing with friends now that we've given up the glory days of spend-spend-spend -- so now we should spend with them, enjoying the benefits of their heartfelt coverage; cue violins.

Insurance companies are a collective, designed to offer discounts based on numbers and taking a calculated risk of payout based on statistics -- the more insured, the less expensive the services. For instance, if you're Mrs. Smith of cookie fame, a bag of your cookies will cost much more to produce than if you're Keebler of elfin fame, cranking out mass boxes of cookies. The Keebler cookies will cost less because they're buying ingredients in bulk and keeping the costs of production down. Now it appears that Mrs. Smith and Keebler have teamed up to make some sort of sugary product line that one website called "nutritionally reckless" -- and vastly profitable, I'm sure. This news amazed me; together, they're a kind of high-end cookie cabal. If they can lure in Pepperidge Farm, they'll have a lock on the yummy market.

Just think if there were only a couple of cookie companies, putting out a similar product, and we didn't have any choice of which to buy. If we can't live without cookie yumminess, we must deal with what's provided -- and who can live without cookies, for heaven's sake! Have you ever met one you didn't adore? But what if we can't afford a whole bag of cookies; maybe only one or two. Too bad for us? It turns out that in each state, there are only a couple of health care providers defining the market. They function, in essence, as local monopolies; even though nationally they appear to be mostly interchangeable, stamped from the same corporate cookie cutter. Each seems to have made an art form of denying services, and all charge inappropriate amounts of money for the privilege. Too bad for us.

This model of health care delivery was fostered by Richard Nixon, who certainly knew how to work the system for his own ambitions and his party; frankly, I don't see what use health insurers would serve if, instead, we had national oversight to keep costs regulated and standards upheld in the medical community. I doubt you would be surprised to know that in my Liberals' heart, I think of health insurance providers as vampiric conglomerates forced upon us for political ends, sucking away the lifeblood of those they've pledged to serve; nor that we, if we are to survive the challenges of coming years, must be in search of a stake to drive through their shriveled, empty hearts.

While I'm of a mind that health care is a civil right, and that single payer is a vastly superior choice, it can't be denied that we're currently tearing this nation apart just trying to pass a Public Option that could compete with the big insurance syndicate. The Republicans will have none of it because such a proposition will prove government capable of providing effective health care -- as if Medicare and the VA hadn't already -- and effectively limit the assent of Corporate America. This despite the fact that employer-provided health care is due to go up 10.5% this year alone; a projected 50% in the next ten years.

If Obama is able to institute a Public Option, an initial, and conservative, estimate of 50 million people will become one giant collective, able to pare down costs, negotiate fees and because it will be a government program, there will be no profit-sharing investors, administrators, or lobbyists to pay off at the top. It will take a bite out of the old familiar model that's been forced upon us, and make carriers work harder to be competitive in order to draw customers. Now that's a great cookie, and perhaps a first step toward a single payer confection down the line! It's also one the nation simply must afford, as long as real reform is at the heart of it; the elimination of procedural pay-outs, repetitive testing, unnecessary hospitalizations, inappropriate administrative costs. Health costs must be contained as they're due to spiral in the coming years with no end in sight; if we can't afford to rebuild our infrastructure, how do we propose to pay for doubling health care costs?

Without reform, the small businesses Republicans zealously insist they are protecting would still be saddled with the burden of providing for their employees, limiting growth and productivity; and millions of uninsured citizens would continue to be forced into emergency rooms, unable to pay the huge sums that are ultimately passed on to the already burdened consumer. With only weak reform, we will get a mandate to cover everyone, increasing the insurance rolls of the providers by almost 50 million new customers without assisting them to pay for it; the market already reflects that possibility in an uptick of stock purchase, building on rumors that the Public Option is dead, and giving providers a reason to throw confetti and rub their hands together in glee.

In order to kill the Option, every insecurity of the American citizenry is being exploited with reckless untruth, from Palin's 'death panels' to fears that Medicare will be gutted. Think Progress broke down a recent example:
To perpetuate the fear of Medicare cuts, the RNC released a "Seniors' Health Care Bill of Rights" declaring that Medicare should not be "cut." "We want to make sure that we are not cutting the Medicare program," said Steele on ABC's Good Morning America. But the $500 billion in cuts the Democrats are proposing would eliminate inefficiencies, reduce insurance company subsidies, unnecessary hospital readmissions, and lower payments that encourage overtreatment. None of the $500 billion is coming out of benefits. In fact, some of the cuts have been endorsed by the health industry and supported by Republicans -- including Steele.
Mr. Steele, the improbable leader of the Republican National Committee, is a bit of a buffoon; yet clearly not in the league of an ever-verbose Beck, Limbaugh or Gingrich. Still, he throws anything to see if it will stick, which is the Republican tried-and-true tactic of turning opinion. On August 24 he threw his fearful retirees the tidbit regarding cuts to Medicare, while the very next day he passed along another for the ideologues: "Medicare is a very good example of what we should not have happen with all of our health care." (Be still, my heart!) With the cognitive dissonance suffered within his party, these talking points will be grabbed up by those who agree and his mixed message ignored. My inbox continues to be stuffed with Righty wrapped-in-the-flag rants that seldom cite facts and always harshly demonize: particularly in regard to the 'traitorous' Jane Fonda, Nancy Pelosi and ... of course ... Liberal icon, Teddy Kennedy; may he rest in the arms of the Angels.

Edward Kennedy, grand old Lion of the Senate, had more baggage than Amtrak. He was a man of appetites, power and privilege that was ultimately polished by his sorrows, his errors and his challenges. The New York Times published an obit this week longer than any in recent memory; still, in my sorrow over his loss, it seems to me that there is no one that can adequately speak to Teddy's passing, as did he so movingly in the many family eulogies he presided over, voice occasionally breaking. Barack Obama will deliver his this Saturday, and we will see history made. The closing quote in the Times piece, by political scientist Norman J. Ornstein, summed up both Ted's burden and brilliance:
"If his father, Joe, had surveyed, from an early age up to the time of his death, all of his children, his sons in particular, and asked to rank them on talents, effectiveness, likelihood to have an impact on the world, Ted would have been a very poor fourth. Joe, John, Bobby ... Ted.

"He was the survivor," Mr. Ornstein continued. "He was not a shining star that burned brightly and faded away. He had a long, steady glow. When you survey the impact of the Kennedys on American life and politics and policy, he will end up by far being the most significant."
Surprisingly, because he's no favorite of mine, Senate Leader Harry Reid put out the most moving public statement on Kennedy's passing; the one that brought me to tears.
"Because of Ted Kennedy, more young children could afford to become healthy. More young adults could afford to become students. More of our oldest citizens and our poorest citizens could get the care they need to live longer, fuller lives. More minorities, women and immigrants could realize the rights our founding documents promised them. And more Americans could be proud of their country."
The Kennedys were a uniquely American dynasty, and one which endlessly fascinates us; after the eight-year tenure of Poppy Bush's oldest boy, the public has little interest in political dynasties any more, but by any measure the Kennedy clan produced a legacy of achievement that marked 20th century history. The youngest of nine fiercely competitive children, Ted became the family patriarch by default; and with the death of his sister Eunice this month, the next-to-last remaining child of Joe's political ambition and Rose's insistence on service as a tenant of both position and faith. He is survived by his remaining sister, Jean. I doubt that Teddy could have foreseen most of the events of his life; and a blessing if he didn't. After the death of his three brothers, the expected presidential ambition fell to him; this frightened the bejesus out of most members of the family who had become convinced, with some validity, of the Kennedy curse. When he finally did attempt a run, his misadventure at Chappaquiddick kept him from the nomination, and his speech that night became both famous and prophetic of his forty-year career.

Finally relived of the burden of his father's expectations, he went to work in earnest for the liberal cause and compassionate progressivism. He became a stalwart figure, constantly in motion, in his attempts to level the playing field and give the little guy a hand. If his demons weren't put to bed, they were at least buffered by his commitment to forge ahead for public concerns. Health care was his baby from as early as 1969. As a passionate advocate for the public wellbeing, no one did more. Ted not only lived up to the Biblical passage from Luke that his brother, Jack, quoted in a famous speech ... "For of those to whom much is given, much is required," ... he personified it.

In looking at the legacy of this Liberal warrior, it simply isn't feasible not to compare his life and times to our own. What were we given, as citizens of this nation? Were we born to plenty, or to just enough or to very little? What do we actually need, as opposed to want? While there is every reason to decry the poverty that this nation tolerates, there is more in each of our pantries than in most other places across the globe. Even our homeless are better off than many in third world countries; those who are forced to exist in cardboard crates are envied by those who are doing without shelter of any kind. Our conservative friends would regale us with tales of those who made something from nothing, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps -- and while I have great admiration for the self-made entrepreneur, I wish the GOP would just put a sock in it during this challenging period. More and more of us are looking around for those bootstraps right now, and some of us don't have shoes at all; until we all do, their tired, old mantra is just crap.

Meanwhile, the more we lose of our rigid capitalistic structure, the less we should be afraid of losing; the more we can be relieved of the expectations put on us by big advertising firms, corporations and those that still believe that who you are is reflected by what you have. The youngest son of Joe Kennedy, Irish bootlegger and Ambassador to Great Britain (is this an amazing country, or what!) is the one who screwed up the most and led the messiest personal life, yet ultimately chose not to be defined by what he had, but more by what he could contribute; and I think that decision was constantly informed by what he'd lost. Perhaps that's the very point of our current financial challenges; why we need not fear them as much as learn from them.

I belong to a Democratic Club that meets monthly to plan small projects and create a footprint in an overwhelmingly Republican county. They're a pretty lethargic bunch, most of them cowed by the dominance of Conservative politics in the Pea Patch. We are planning a booth at another of the fairs local to us in a few weeks, and I proposed that we copy some articles out of the paper that nail the disinformation campaign on health care so that we can pass them out; or at least be informed during a conversation. I got a barrage of negative response along the lines of ... don't hold your breath, you can't talk to these people. I had a little outburst; I don't think there's a soul in the group under 50, and I believe I quite startled them awake. I suspect you're laughing, I hope you are. In my own defense, I plead that you can take the girl out of Berkeley, but ... yadda. Here's what I told them:

Look, it doesn't matter who THEY are -- it only matters who WE are. We're Liberals and we're proud of that. Our party looks out for the workers and the oppressed and the immigrants and the children; we work for equality, civil rights, labor laws and opportunity for all people. We do what we do because of who we are! We need to show up even if we're surrounded by a sea of people who walk right by us ... and likely, they will. But we'll be there, offering another way to look at the world.

Now, more than ever, beloved, each of us needs to show up. If we have begun to understand who we are and what this pivotal juncture in history is all about, we can't afford to do things only because they're easy, or because they serve us personally or because they make us safer. We have to do them because they're the right thing to do; because our nation and our planet need them more than they need a new iPod or another sandwich with the works for under $5. We need national health care, and that's just the beginning. We stand, now, for what's right because of who we are; and health care for every one of our citizens is the right thing to do.

Ted Kennedy showed up, even when it was difficult, embarrassing and disheartening; even when he couldn't get a chink in the armor of change for the better. His humanhood was badly flawed, but his heart was as big as they come and his life a story of redemption under fire. I fancy that when the old Lion stood before the Pearly Gates, or whatever awaited him, he was welcomed in with a heartfelt, "Well done!" I'd like to think that when I leave this plane, I'll be worthy of a similar welcome; but since that's unknowable, the only thing that's important is how I feel about myself right now, and what that requires of me as a spiritual entity and citizen of this nation and world.

If you're on the Left side of the political spectrum, I will remind you that you already have a foot in the New Paradigm; you're coming from empathy, from compassion, from heart. You have a vision about what life can be and how happiness actually works, with contribution an integral portion of it. If the result of our intention isn't here yet, then we just need to keep showing up. We need to stand in our own power and demand that this nation meet our intention for universal justice and equality. Why? Because to whom much is given ... as has been given to each of us in the promise of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" ... much is required.

Ted is gone; but we're still here to take up the causes that mean so much to us all. Can we do it? Yes, we can ... because that's just who we are, by the millions.

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