A couple of weeks ago, I went to a town hall meeting held by my Senator, Claire McCaskill, in a rural Missouri town on the outskirts of St. Louis.
It depressed me.
Health care reform opponents screamed and heckled and interrupted the Senator, again and again. Some health care reform supporters got frustrated and started yelling back. At one point, a white man in the audience snatched a poster of Rosa Parks from a black woman in attendance and crumpled it and ripped it and stomped on it and shoved the woman when she tried to take it back from him. The man cited the "no sign or banners" rule imposed by the university hosting the event as his defense as security escorted both him and the woman he had taken the sign from out of the building; meanwhile, several anti-health reform protesters blatantly displaying "Don't Tread on Me" Gadsen flag banners were allowed to stay without incident. That depressed me.
A fellow blogger was called a "babykiller" for wearing a pink Planned Parenthood t-shirt and had a racial slur tossed at her to boot for being black while wearing said t-shirt. That depressed me.
A man standing outside with the St. Louis Tea Party protesters held a sign equating President Obama to Hitler:
(Photo courtesy of Michael Bersin from Show Me Progress.)
That made me want to weep for education, America, manufacturers of cheap men's hair dye, and all humanity.
Someone ignorantly asked whether "illegal immigrants would be able to take their health care home with them," and THAT depressed me, not just because it was racist, but also because Mexico and Cuba already have universal health care.
Several people yelled at Senator Claire McCaskill for voting for or not voting for this or that House of Representatives version of the bill, and that made me want to call my 8th grade Government teacher and thank her.
But really, the most depressing thing I witnessed during the whole event was a crowd of mostly working class and lower-middle class Midwesterners cheering when the Senator mentioned recent record profits for health care companies and astronomical salaries for health insurance CEOs amid an epic financial crisis. Cheering, not for the Senator calling out these companies for profiting at the expense of sick and injured Americans, but for the health insurance companies for making record profits.
It was at that point that it really sank in for me: town halls have been rendered practically useless.
Senator McCaskill impressed me to no end with her ability to not only keep her cool in a gymnasium full of angry, shouting people, but actually refute falsehoods with facts and dispense useful information under those ridiculous circumstances. But as far as I could see, little was accomplished. The people who came to the event to oppose health insurance reform did not come with any intention of changing their minds, or listening to a reasoned debate. They had already decided what they thought they knew about this debate, and damned if anyone was going to persuade them otherwise.
The people who came to support reform came largely to try to balance out the incoherent screaming from the other side.
And the people on the fence who came to learn something probably couldn't hear much of anything over the din.
The day after I attended this town hall, I lost my voice.
And I don't mean just figuratively -- I mean literally. I could not speak.
I had laryngitis, it turns out. And acute bronchitis. And for the next few weeks, I fought an infection that wound up requiring two rounds of heavy-duty antibiotics to cure. My health insurance company did not pay for the second round of antibiotics, which wound up costing me $20.
Bronchitis is expensive in America.
As I struggled to talk, struggled to breathe, and wondered how much cheaper maximum strength Levaquin might be in Canada, I found myself passively watching a nationwide political debate I would, under more ordinary, healthier circumstances, have tried to be an active participant in. And I honestly began to despair. So much virtriol. So many rumors. So much fear and mistrust and lack of respect and lack of empathy. And yet I felt too sick to do anything substantial about it.
And as I sat, voiceless, watching Tea Party protesters call fellow Americans socialist communist fascist Nazi sympathizers for wanting to help sick people see doctors, I thought about how so many of the people who most need this reform do not have a voice in this debate. They are too busy being sick. Or caring for someone who is sick. Or being dead. Because the real death panels at the private insurance companies denied them coverage. Because they were too sick to work and couldn't afford health insurance in the first place. Because they needed help, from us, their neighbors, their fellow citizens-- and no one helped in time.
22,000 Americans died in 2006 because they did not have health insurance.
"Do you know what we need?" I croaked to my husband as my voice started to recover. "We need vigils, damn it. Candlelight vigils. For the people who have been hurt by this system. For the people who have died. We need to shift the focus of this debate away from petty political gamesmanship and back to people in need."
Thank heaven someone at MoveOn.org who was NOT spending most of his or her time in bed with a wicked cough had the same thought.
On Wednesday night, I went to one of the 300 candlelight vigils in support of health care reform across the country, where Americans from all walks of life shared their personal stories of struggle and loss in a broken health care system. A group of several hundred St. Louisans gathered peacefully in a wooded city park in the moonlight to support their neighbors, support civil debate, and support health reform.
I'm not depressed anymore. My voice is back.
Let's do this thing.