Be Engaged, not Entertained, by the National Healthcare Debate

I’ve been sneaking in and out of meetings all day to catch snippets of the President’s “Healthcare Summit” (insert flying graphics and dramatic theme music here!) with Congressional members at Blair House. Colleagues in D.C.—some of them in the actual room—have been sending me texts and emails with juicy one-liners from the wit combat of quotable zingers that our politicians have so mastered. (I sometimes wonder if they spend more time thinking up catchy phrases than crafting legislation). I’ve devoured quick blog bites of controversial headlines and “fact checks” on the internet and TV. (I seem to be watching a frightening amount of C-span these days.) For a moment (okay, for most of the morning, actually), I am a conflict-addicted spectator…a ticket-buying fanatic at the partisan sparring competition…an eye-witness to the ideological Olympics…a blood-thirsty citizen shouting from the rafter seats of the governmental gladiator match but unable to see the action down below, to know what the score is, or to really know what team I am pulling for; but man, this crowded rage and comfortable yelling feels good!


Okay, so that’s a little over the top, but not by much. I find myself rubber necking at the train wreck of our national debate on healthcare reform in spite of myself. It is too easy in this thick media soup of news coverage to go with the mob mentality. It is too convenient to experience all of this as reality TV where ratings and entertainment matter most—to play the couch potato role that I believe our political system has come to relegate us to as citizens. But beyond all the political theatre, the real reality is about human suffering, moral choices, real consequences, and resource prioritization in our nation. Perhaps because we are the melting pot, we’ve come up with other elaborate and entertainment-oriented ways to group ourselves. We have become a culture of teams, of choosing sides that we can cheer for, of talking smack about our enemies on the opposing team. But this is our health we’re debating about—this is life and death and the sustainability of our national economy, infrastructure, and global leadership—not some water cooler conversation about the game last night or who was voted off the island.


I’m struck particularly by the battle of statistics being played out before us during the meeting today. Each side is sure they speak for the “majority of Americans,” armed with the latest poll numbers that, selectively rendered in sound bites, feel so convincing. This game is an exercise in manufacturing belonging—in making us feel that we can simply, comfortably choose which team to belong to. No matter what, some version of the numbers can leave us feeling secure: “Hey, I’m in the majority now according to the polls, so I must be right.” “The majority of Americans are unhappy with the Senate’s healthcare reform bill so we should start over,” claim the Republicans, conveniently ignoring that those same polls show most Americans in favor of the major tenants of the bill when presented with them individually. “The majority of Americans want healthcare reform now, so we should push this through,” claim the Democrats, conveniently ignoring the research that shows so many Americans afraid of the staggering costs of this legislation and skeptical that government will manage our money efficiently and consistently as a result of this particular force-Fed bill.


So let’s stop being entertained by this debate; and let’s be engaged in it. Engagement means a lot more than quickly glancing at the channels and news outlets that make us comfortable—that we already “belong” to. Engagement means doing a bit more research and critical thinking than just forwarding on the inflammatory email chain someone sent to us about a “fact” in the healthcare bills. Engagement means embracing and wrangling with the complexities of the issues in these bills instead of simplifying the world in three bullet points. And it means being willing to untangle and rethink our own hypocrisies and contradictions (like vilifying the public option for others while demanding social security for ourselves at any cost…like insisting that we balance the budget but no one better cut my benefits or increase my taxes…like telling others that they should responsibly ration their healthcare services while insisting upon “all you can eat” for ourselves).


And engagement certainly means voting for—and holding accountable—politicians who articulate (and commit to) specific policies they stand for, not for those who merely entertain with witty slogans and poetic zingers. After all, Nielsen ratings don’t do anything to actually reform our healthcare system. The poll numbers of the “majority of Americans” don’t really matter because they shift, they spin, they confuse, and they misrepresent the majority—and the notion of a majority—in such a large, diverse country. The numbers that matter are the number of uninsured, the bankruptable growth of healthcare costs, the demographic realities we face, and the years of quality longevity that we can each achieve if we reinvent how we do healthcare starting now.


A colleague popped into my cubicle just before lunch as I fast forwarded through a funny pundit clip of today’s Washington production. He had been watching the spectacle, too, and asked, “Who’s winning?” I laughed and enjoyed our banter; it was entertaining and belonging. But now it occurs to me that I wish I had answered his question differently: “No one is winning.” No one is winning when we’ve cast our national debate on healthcare reform as a reality TV show (Big Brother stars on “Big Brother”) whose contestants play caricatures of themselves in front of the cameras to win viewers and win the show through “gotcha!” edits and scripted improvisations. Engagement may well also require turning off the TV more often. And the blogosphere.


So with that, I’ll turn off this blog entry. (And C-span). And get back to my own real world where health really matters.


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