Thursday, May 22, 2008

Kwitcher whining, fool, health care is a privilege!

That's the basic attitude expressed in this callous and arrogant letter to the Anchorage Press:
Your story about Aaron Selbig getting injured without medical insurance should have been called “Selbig's Screwed Up.” He shouldn't have been playing soccer if he knew he didn't have insurance.…[I]t was Selbig's responsibility to get a job with insurance—like I did. He needs to stop blaming everyone else for his problems and take care of his business.
This is a classic blame-the-victim stance.

It reminds me of an intense grilling I received in Europe (actually happened a couple of times) while visiting over there: people wanted to know why Americans were so heartless to the poor, the ill, and the unlucky. I tried to explain that (as it seemed to me then) US citizens have a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, that accepting or offering charity in this society is seen as an insult to a person's dignity.

But it goes beyond that. For example, being on welfare is viewed with horror and disgust, and great suspicion in the US. It implies, to many, that somehow a person is lazy, a leech, a societal parasite, that an upstanding adult of good moral fiber would never allow themselves to be supported by others. They would just go out there and get themselves a good job, one with benefits that would pay for a soccer injury or other accident of fate. And, as the writer of this letter indicates, they would never place themselves at risk in any way if they didn't have health benefits (or ever indulge in any small luxuries whatsoever if they didn't happen to have a job). Likewise, being without paying work is viewed as a terrible moral failing. It's not that there are no jobs or a person is unlucky. Nope.

It's the ol' Shark Rule: eat or be eaten. But society is not solely or even mostly a competition for survival--it's a cooperative network. Taking the attitude above is an old, old club, best used by an aristocracy seeking to keep the peasantry down: keep them thinking they deserve whatever they get and that the wealthy and secure got that way through merit (or divine intervention on behalf of the morally and spiritually deserving), and they'll accept their lot as lower classes should and keep beating each other down if they fall. If health or jobs or property or food or water is scarce, well, it's your own fault. If the cops arrest somebody, well, he's guilty. If somebody doesn't get equal pay, well, she just needs to work harder and get more education.

And what's really stupid about comments like this letter-writer's is that when a society does have universal health care, it's good for everybody: public health improves. When your neighbor's able to get good care, you're less likely to get sick. Likewise, if the middle class (i.e., people who not only have a living wage, but a wage good enough to buy or save for some luxuries) is large, the economy of a country is strong and has a lot of buying power and actual productivity. Polarize that country into the haves and the have-nots (in health care or financial health or education), well, the society has been weakened for everyone.


Ishmael said...

Very well put!

Arvay said...

Maybe Americans are more callous toward the poor because we have a bit more social mobility. A friend of mine told me that she learned a fundamental difference between Americans and Europeans while waitressing in London. Americans will assume that a waitress is putting herself through college, or supporting herself until she gets a career break in her "real" career. Europeans would assume that a waitress was a waitress for life.

So maybe Europeans view the poor with more compassion because they carry the basic assumption that the poor are born to be poor and will stay poor, through no fault of their own. Americans, on the other hand, have a bit more social mobility, so we might tend to view the poor as people who are poor through their own bad choices.

Just a thought.

Deirdre Helfferich said...

Interesting idea, but it doesn't carry as smoothly toward health care as it does toward welfare or charity. In France, the term "individu", relating to "individual" has a bit of a nasty, selfish connotation, whereas in English, particularly American English, the term "individual" implies strength of character, a person who is worthy because they stand out, stand by themselves, do for themselves. In France, that implies a person who doesn't give a rat's rump for others and for the common good. So there's a bit more--it's not just the idea that we are what we are--the emphasis in America on individualism can mean, on the negative side, a self-centered focus. As in the title of the book, Looking Out for #1.

Arvay said...

That's true. They've got liberté, égalité, fraternité. We've got life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So we meet on the liberty thing. And we arguably are making progress on equality. The one thing we don't really care about is fraternity...