Thursday, October 18, 2012

A multiple choice quiz

A good friend—a college roommate with whom you've stayed close over the years—comes down with cancer. Because that friend is single and quit his job after a midlife crisis, he doesn't have health insurance, so he waits too long to seek treatment for his ambiguous early symptoms. By the time he finally seeks medical help, the cancer has metastasized into his bones and his diagnosis is terminal. He cannot afford the treatment required. You:

a) Express sympathy.
b) Express sympathy and offer to help with his medical bills.
c) Decide to pay all of his medical bills so he can have the best care possible during the final months of his life.

Most people, I imagine, could find a choice on this list that they are comfortable with, even if it is likely to be a). That's why I didn't include

d) Savagely tell him that he has brought his suffering on himself and mock him during his final days.

So when Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote a column last week about his former roommate from Harvard, to whom the unspeakable events described above had actually happened, I figured he was making the strongest case possible for why we need nationalized health care, or at least a makeshift system like "Obamacare" that is designed to bring more people into the ranks of the insured.

That's why I was taken aback yesterday when Kristof published a followup column expressing shock at the number of readers who had been "savagely unsympathetic." It doesn't take much effort, after all, to say "your friend has my sympathy; sorry for your loss." (Kristof's friend did in fact die on Monday morning.) Instead, readers lambasted him for making a foolish decision—whether it was the one to quit his job or the one not to seek help earlier isn't clear. It appears that all Kristof's column accomplished was to fortify the battle lines between those who support the Affordable Care Act—which is what I will insist on calling it from this point on—and those who are desperate to repeal it.

I am writing this because I still want to believe that most of those people, if it were their friend whose life was at stake, would at least choose option a) above. Sympathy is famously inexpensive, but at least it is a human and moral response. Mockery of the dying is not. So when Kristof is deluged with messages from people who are "not sure why I'm to feel guilty about your friend's problem," I'm not sure what I'm supposed to think, but I do know what I feel. I feel something akin to the disgust at humanity found in the satire of Jonathan Swift.

To me and many others, the Affordable Care Act, for all its imperfections, is quite simply the best thing that has happened to this country since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is an expression of the very best in our nature: the mutual sympathy with our fellow beings that binds us together as a society. It shows we understand that when we extend a helping hand to others, we are sewing the fabric of civilization together, so that we know it will be there when we or someone we care about needs it. It shows we know perfectly well that we are not savages living in relentless competition with the clans of our neighbors, but an advanced society in which all are interconnected.

That's why this presidential election matters so much to me. If Romney and Ryan win, and if they succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act, I will be forced to conclude that America's best days are over. I will be forced to conclude that I do in fact live in a country controlled by people for whom sympathy is not an option and shared responsibility is not a concept. I will be forced to conclude that the majority of my fellow citizens would choose "none of the above" as the best answer to the question that I posed at the beginning of this blog. As someone for whom not caring is simply not an option, and who understands grace as all-encompassing and all-forgiving, I will despair.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

More on Romney

Every once in a while I post something to this blog that takes off in a way I don't foresee. I've never had a post go "viral," if that means page views in the millions, but I occasionally have one that gets way more hits than usual. Such a post was last week's "Romney the bully," which, at 589 page views, is now at four times my average. Since that average includes some other posts that have been read even more widely, the reality is that "Romney the bully" has been read by about six times as many people as normally read one of my posts.

The reason is clear: It was shared repeatedly by friends who agreed with it, many of whose friends shared it in turn. Many, but not all, of those friends were women. Some clearly thought I had articulated something particularly important, and said so in their forwarding messages. I can thus confirm what I said in that post: I am far from the only person who found Mitt Romney's behavior at last week's debate to be personally abusive. Many others read what I wrote and said: "Yes; that's exactly what I thought." We may be a small group or we may represent a broadly shared opinion - it's too early to tell - but the fact that we shared the same experience means that that experience was real.

A few comments on the blog shares were also revealing. One person said that personally, she considered Barack Obama to be one of the biggest bullies she has ever encountered, and that by contrast she finds Mitt Romney to be a compassionate leader. Another said that my reactions, and those of others, were clearly dictated by emotion. The implication was that all of our reactions were somehow not valid, while those of more rational thinkers are.

I want to take this occasion to clarify that I know my reaction to Romney's performance was based on emotion. THAT WAS THE POINT. Watching Mitt Romney in action set off emotional responses that harked back to the years of bullying I endured in school, while it reminded others of abusive partners. All of us realized that, for personal reasons that have nothing to do with his policy positions, we profoundly do not want to have this man as our president.

Since I have never seen Barack Obama bully anybody in person, I suspect that those who see him as a bully are reacting to his policies and the way he has enacted them. Yes, asking religious employers to include birth control in the health insurance they offer employees can be seen as abusive if you are so inclined. Passing the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote can be seen as an abuse of power by those who opposed its passage.

Such actions, though, are not bullying. Bullying is something that happens at a personal level between individuals, and it is a matter of style, not substance. Mitt Romney could have spent the entire hour and a half talking about chewing gum and toothpaste and his behavior - if he had pushed the other two participants around in the same way - would still have struck me as abusive. This is a man who apparently terrorized one of his classmates at school and who, when reminded of that behavior earlier this year, said: “There’s no question that I did some stupid things in high school, and obviously, if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.” This is a lame, conditional statement with no substance. It shows no contrition, no awareness of wrongdoing beyond the usual run of youthful indiscretions, and notably, contains no apology.

It's not surprising, therefore, that the bullying persona is still very much in evidence. An unrepentant bully has no business being president.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Romney the bully

What's worse than getting a bad grade because you "don't play well with the other children," when it's the other children who refuse to play with you? Seeing the biggest bully of all elected class president would probably come close.

As I watched the presidential debate last night, I thought to myself several times: "Mitt Romney is being a bully." I didn't say anything, though, because I was afraid I would be accused of overreacting to a performance that was simply long on assertiveness. Today, though, I have seen numerous women say that Romney's performance reminded them of abusive former husbands and boyfriends. So I now believe I'm in good company when I say that by effectively walking over the debate moderator and the President of the United States and running the debate entirely on his own terms, Romney was exhibiting classic bully behavior. What passed as effective debating in the dysfunctional world of the Republican primaries, where audiences cheered the idea of letting someone without health insurance die in the gutter, is now revealed more clearly for what it is.

I'll try not to comment on what was said in the debate, since the fact-checkers have been busy and may actually have some impact on the spin this time around. I want to single out, though, Romney's repeated statement that President Obama refused to work with the Republicans in Congress while, as governor, Romney willingly (i. e. out of dire necessity) worked with a legislature that was 87% Democratic. As anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention for the past few years knows, it is the Republican Congress that has refused to work with the president. It was the leaders of the Republican Congress who proclaimed, publicly, that their primary objective was to deny Obama a second term. It was the rank and file members of that Congress—including, I'm embarrassed to say, my own newly elected Congressman—who strapped on suicide vests last summer and threatened to blow up the country if they didn't get everything they wanted. (I borrow the metaphor from the NYTimes's Joe Nocera, who was later bullied into retracting it.) For Romney to try now to score a debating point by blaming Obama for not playing well with that kind of children is beyond shameful. It is the tactic of a bully.

During the debate last night, Romney repeatedly refused to be silenced either by Jim Lehrer or by the president. He made it clear that he considered himself the one in charge, and unfortunately Obama played along, smiling sheepishly every time he was humiliated. A lot of people have asked, in effect: "What happened to the president last night?" As someone who was bullied to within an inch of my life as a teenager, I know the answer. It's the same thing that happened to Jim Lehrer. They were both bullied into silence. They are both strong, experienced men who know better, but bullying works because it is so effective. Ask Rush Limbaugh. Ask Glenn Beck. Ask Mitt Romney.

And please, don't vote for a bully for president. You might be startled to know just how many of us you would be condemning to four years of PTSD.