Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The First Amendment for Mean Girls

On Friday night, my dog had 5 pups; by Sunday, 4 were dead, and the remaining puppy was dying. The last thing I needed was someone choosing to exercise Freedom of Speech on my laptop.

A lot of discussion has been making the rounds lately about the First Amendment; one might say there's been a lot of freedom of speech being exercised about ... well, about Freedom of Speech, especially at that curious American phenomenon called the Town Hall Meeting, with raucous crowds of the white, the elderly and the ignorant, insisting, when challenged, that they are only exercising their First Amendment right. The White House, pontificating, agrees and does nothing.

Then the earnest Left protests that these people aren't really exercising Freedom of Speech; instead, they are actually prohibiting others from exercising their Constitutional right. And, again, the White House agrees and does nothing.

The First Amendment, Freedom of Speech, can often be a confusing concept, especially when the person using it doesn't really understand it; and that's when it becomes a dangerous weapon.

You know, someone once said that the pen was mightier than the sword. If that's the truth, then the tongue - and by extension, the fingers propelled by the thought processes onto the keys of a personal computer - can only prove to be venomous to the point of being lethal; because at some point, Freedom of Speech becomes irresponsible speech, and irresponsible speech has been known, in some instances, to be an effective death sentence, sometimes literally.

The ability to discern when Freedom of Speech becomes irresponsible speech is down to tact, good upbringing, and common sense. Sometimes, we cross the divide, most times, unintentionally in a moment of anger, madness or sheer insanity; and then we repair the faux pas by that simple act of contrition: the apology.

Funny enough, apologising was the theme of this week's editorial given by my socio-political guru, Bill Maher, on his Real Time program. Bill castigated the Republican Party, personified by Mitt Romney, Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, as unabashedly propagating the misguided belief that one should never apologise for actions effected in one's country's name. In short, America, in the view of the Right, was absolute perfection, a country who never acknowledged its mistakes and, therefore, should have no reason to make any apology to anyone. They espouse, I would imagine, not so much a doctrine of American exceptionalism, but more a chauvinistic doctrine of national infallibility.

Which is really a load of turgid bullshit, when you think about it.

Bill's premise was to show how Obama (and, by extension, the Democratic Party) were showing a mature approach, in international issues, by admitting American fallacies and apologising for them, which is, basically, the mature thing to do - own up to your mistakes and make amends through the simple act of contrition. Nations, after all, consist human beings, all of whom, from time to time ... make mistakes.

The Republican approach was merely to bully through, posturing and posing, and going only as far as admitting pity for the culprits of our actions, without ever admitting culpability. It's sheer arrogance and blatant stupidity.

The three people singled out by Bill, pretty much represent the tripartite soul of the Republican Party:- Romney, basically a good man misguided by faith; Rove, a heartless and soulless opportunist; and Palin, the ultimate Mean Girl.

Now, as it happens, I know quite a bit about Mean Girls, having grown up in the South. Transplanted from Europe in colonial times, the temperate climate must have meant this species of womanhood burst to fruition there. Miss Florence King in her master work, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, describes the Mean Girl as Scarlett dressed as Melanie with a Daddy fixation. And she's pretty much right, although probably all women have a touch of the 'Mean Girl' about them, and - in truth - it doesn't hurt to release the inner bitch from time to time. We all do it.

I remember once attending an inter-collegiate sorority function and over-indulging on Singapore Slings. When a rival sorority Phi Mu arrived at the function, I remember announcing their arrival in a loud voice to all and sundry, 'Rattle, rattle, rattle. Here come the cattle ... Phi MOOOOO!'

That went down a treat. I ate crow and apologised.

Or when I ran into my ex-fiance' with his then-current squeeze, who'd been graduated from cheap bit on the side to fully-fledged girlfriend at my expense, I couldn't resist plunging the verbal dagger and twisting it by quipping: 'Well, I see you're indulging your penchant for having a cushion for the pushin.'' THAT time, I didn't apologise. He was an almost-married man, I had the ring to prove it, and she was NO Angelina Jolie.

Freedom of Speech? Yes, on both occasions; but the first one was an example of irresponsible speech, tempered by an admission of culpability and rectified by an apology. I'd stayed too long at the free bar and thought I was being witty and cute, when, in fact, I was being a prat. The second occasion was a justified observation. This woman had snaked my man; I'd been abandoned. My pride was hurt, and I was justified a bitchy rejoinder. Besides, it made me feel better, and, anyway, they married, only subsequently to divorce. Karma works absolute wonders.

But irresponsible speech becomes exclusively the domain of the Mean Girl, when she uses it, like murder, with malice aforethought. Palin excels at this trait: 'palling around with terrorists' ... 'being a small-town mayor is sorta like being a community organiser' ... 'death panels' ... conveniently twisting words around to make herself appear the victim of a merciless onslaught - the air of injury when Obama made the remark about 'lipstick on a pig', an analogy which had nothing to do with her, but which gave her an opportunity to make it look like a personal insult; the David Letterman escapade, knowing full well the joke (admittedly in poor taste) referred to her older daughter, the one with sexual form, rather than the younger, underage one. Mean Girls are like 'cafeteria Catholics.' They pick and choose the information relevant to their slimey plans and machinations and put a pejorative spin on it.

But cherry-picking isn't exclusively a habit cultivated by professional Mean Girls. Cherry-picking information and using it to promote a specific agenda has been the prime tool of every spin doctor since the saintly Sir Thomas More, in his youthful service promoting the Tudor family legitimacy, put pen to paper to propagate the rumour that Richard III killed the Princes in the Tower - and we know what thanks he ultimately got for that! On Bill's show this week, during his monologue, he wondered aloud what on earth could be done to convince the Town Hall protesters that their fears and assumptions about healthcare reform were unfounded, that there were to be no death panels, no health rationing, that abortion wouldn't be funded by the government.

The short answer to Bill's question is: Nothing. Because all of the above rumours, like every bit of rumour and innuendo, is founded on irrefutable fact. The Republican Party have done exactly what I imagined they would do, when faced with the prospect of universal healthcare being implemented in the United States - they've gone to the original and most famous source of universal healthcare, the United Kingdom, and found cursory evidence of various inefficiencies and embellished upon them for their own purposes. Here is some evidence:-

- Death Panels: Of course, there are no such things, per se; and Palin extricated her off-kilter interpretation of this from a Republican-initiated clause in one of the healthcare bills, dealing with the living will aspect of end-of-life care. It's an option, not a requirement, and it's dependent upon the patient in question being completely compos mentis. However, it has to be said that end-of-life care, especially for the elderly, in Great Britain sucks, to put it mildly. These are the people who were adolescents or young adults, when Aneurin Bevan founded the National Health Service, whose motto at that time was a promise for care 'from the cradle to the grave.'

Of course, 60 years ago, when the National Health was founded, people stopped work at 65 and were dead 2 years later. The 'founding fathers' of the NHS never once imagined that better diet and medical advancements would mean an extended life expectancy. They also never reckoned on future generations marrying later and having smaller families, a combination of this and other factors, resulting in precious little money to spend on extended end-of-life care for the elderly. If a care home is needed for an elderly person, the person in question pays, if it's proven he has assets amounting to more than a certain amount of money - meaning, most everyone does pay, even if it means selling the family home. The care offered in a lot of these homes is questionable at best, because the wealthy owners of these private facilities employ the low-hanging fruit of the employment world at the cheapest of wages. Well, you pay peanuts, you get monkeys; and in the end, it's the elderly who suffer. There are horror stories as well, some even reported by the venerable BBC, of lackadaisical care extended elderly patients in hospital facilities, often put down to over-worked medical staff. The recent brouhaha over rampant MRSA and c-diff prevalent in filthy hospitals was brought home to the public only when the mother-in-law of a popular television personality caught c-diff from her local hospital and died.

All of the above, added to the very popular and positive presence of hospice care homes, not just for the elderly, but for anyone of any age, suffering from a terminal illness, has been pejoratively spinned into the misbegotten misnomer we now know as 'death panels.'

- Health Rationing: Again, this is based on a 'half-truth' emanating from single-payer Britain, amplified for adverse publicity purposes. The real truth is that healthcare in Britain is only as good as the local authority is able to manage its budget effectively. Basically, some do and some don't. In The Guardian, some weeks ago, there was an op-ed written by an American woman, extolling the virtues of the NHS in having dealt with her post-partum surgical procedure. Faced with the prospect of being put on a 6-bed ward, and separated from her newborn child? No problem. A kindly nurse goes away and - hey, presto! - the woman in question is immediately ensconced in a private room on the exclusive 13th floor with baby in tow. What a wonderful healthcare system! This would never ever have happened in her hometown of Brooklyn! Marvelous! Stupendous!

Then the ubiquitous commentators, most of whom were British, went into overdrive. First of all, the hospital in question was University Hospital in London, arguably the best teaching hospital in the country; secondly, that the woman in question lived in the catchment area serviced by University Hospital meant one thing and one thing only - money. Thirdly, it seems that the lady, herself, is the wife of a visiting professor at that concern. Favouritism? Just a bit. And finally, for expressing concern at being placed in a 'common wardroom' where privacy was scarce to non-existent, euphemistically understand that she pitched a hissy fit and probably scared the living shit out of the nurse in question, who had no other recourse, considering her temper and status, than to play nice. A pleb like me pulling a stunt like that would have been left to stew in her own juices. It's whom you know, dontcha know?

But I digress ... the basic truth is sometimes services are rationed, depending upon the finances available. It's a question of administrators deciding whether they need more doctors and nurses (always in short supply) or whether pharmaceuticals/treatments prevail. In some areas, yes, it is a postcode lottery. About a year ago, a woman took her local health authority to court, demanding that they supply her with the drug herceptin, which would enhance her survival chances for the breast cancer from which she suffered. Sometimes, as well, services are actually cut. Margaret Thatcher removed dentistry from the sphere of the National Health Service, and initiated fees for eye examinations (heretofore free, under the service), all in order to save a buck (or a quid, as the case may be). Until the most recent slanging match occurred over the British taking umbrage at the GOP's misrepresentation of their health service, there was much, much talk about reducing/removing various services from the scope of the National Health Service, in a last-ditch effort to prevent it from tanking in the next two years. In short, to quote a well-known Democratic sage, 'It's the economy, stupid.'

- Government-funded Abortions: Now this is something straight from the UK's system. Yes, there is abortion on demand here, and it's funded by the NHS; but there's no reason to believe that this would be something actively promoted in the US. In the UK, birth control is free and available on demand. Used responsibly, especially amongst the young and sexually active, there should be no need for abortions or even underage pregnancy. Responsible sex education is actually promoted in school health programs here, but the sad fact is that Britain leads the way in underage sexual activity and pregnancy; and children who become pregnant can actually have an abortion without their parents' consent or knowledge (not that any do, because abortion, here in the UK, is used as a means of birth control). Sordid? Well, yes, but there's truth in what the GOP are propagating, and their base is believing it.

But the Left aren't immune from picking a few cherries, themselves. Bill's been on a rant this summer about 'stupidity', specifically how stupid certain tranches of American society are.

'Stupidity is a pre-existing condition,' he remarked on this week's show; but, Bill, as much as I love ya, I gotta tell ya ... It's not just the Right who are stupid.

Single-payer seemed to be the focus of discussion on this week's Real Time, and Bill mused that possibly the majority of people in the US (meaning those who 'feared' the concept) actually understood what a 'single-payer' system was all about, what it entailed. He then proceeded to explain this system thus:

'Single-payer is when the government pays for your healthcare; it's the system that most of Europe uses.'

First point: 'Single-payer' is not a term that's widely used on this side of the Pond at all. In fact, most Britons understand their health system to be paid for via a single monthly deduction from their monthly salary to be paid into the vast kitty known as the National Insurance (hence 'single-payer', geddit?) Basically, the tax payer pays the government to provide him/her with healthcare, which is 'free' at source. Just because you don't pay your doctor at the counter, doesn't mean it's free. He gets paid via your National Health contribution. And certain services aren't free - you pay for your eye exams and your spectacles or contact lenses (and neither of those are cheap); most people pay for their pharmaceutical prescriptions (and those are, hence, the propensity of doctors in the UK to prescribe unnecessarily - Big Pharma operates here too, but in a different way).

I agree with Bill. Too many people in the US don't understand the 'single-payer' concept - but just as many people on the Left don't understand it either, and for different reasons. These people believe it actually is free, that the government will pay for your health. What they don't understand is that taxes will have to be raised to pay for this service. Honestly, there's a ditto-head who posts regularly on HuffPo, whose every rant is a mantra of 'Single-payer! Single-payer! It's free! It's free!'

I could scream.

Could it work here in the US? Probably, but it wouldn't be ideal; and it wouldn't be a long time before people would start harping back to the 'old days' of healthcare. The simplest way to implement it would be to go the Canadian route, rather than the British - extend Medicare to everyone, make it 100% instead of 80% and tack the added expense of this onto a person's Social Security contribution - a stealth tax, if you will. Then, you do what they do in Canada: present your Medicare care, the doctor's receptionist takes your details, and the doctor bills the government.

Second point: Most of Europe do not use single-payer as a healthcare system. In fact, most of Europe wouldn't touch single-payer with a barge pole. France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands operate a highly effective hybrid system, where the 'public option' pays around 77% of medical care and employers offer group top-up private schemes via heavily regulated private health insurers. Taxes, I have to say, are high; because the 'public option' kicks into 100% for unemployed individuals and in certain instances of critical medical care; but a person has the option of being treated entirely within the realm of public health, or opting to get the treatment of his choice, in the hospital of his choice, with the specialist of his choice, via his private top-up. In France, this even covers holistic options.

Could this work in the US? Infinitely better, provided the public option is presented as a given. Again, extend Medicare to cover its 80% as present, and then tie the private insurers in with employers, regulate them, and then have group top-up schemes offered as part and parcel of a person's employment ... and raise taxes, because, really higher taxes is a small price to pay (bad pun) for healthcare, as opposed to bankrupting yourself, losing your home, or losing your temper and your sanity in a welter of paperwork and haggling with your insurance company.

Continuing, Germany doesn't even offer a public option. Curiosly, Germany's healthcare plan, based on work-based private group schemes, coupled with healthcare co-operatives where people's premiums are calculated on their ability to pay, is closer to the rigamarole that Obama seems to be punting about. The Germans, like everyone else, heavily regulate private insurers ... and the system there works just fine. If you're happy with the cover you have, fine; if not, you can shop around, and even go into a co-operative system.

And guess where private health insurance is making a killing at the moment? Great Britain. A lot of firms offer private health cover as a perk, but only for the executive cadre; however, more and more people are individually taking out private health insurance to circumvent the possibility of having to wait an undue length of time for a minor surgical procedure that could be taken care of privately, right away. Says it all.

Now, I know a little bit about all of the above. I live under one system and have various and sundry friends and relatives who live in France, Italy and Germany, and who can attest to the above. But I have a distinct impression that people from the Left would be just as obstreporous as people from the Right when it comes to wanting to believe certain mantra and dogma to enhance their own particular brand of righteous superiority. I know that for a fact.

I received it, unsolicited, on my laptop Sunday morning, a stark but subtle warning, cherry-picked to perfection in its spin, about my ability to exercise my 'freedom of speech'. It seems I should be due a bit of exclusion, based, more or less, on the fact, since I live abroad, I don't really have any understanding or knowledge of the country where I was born and educated, where I still pay taxes and whose passport I still hold. In a distinctly Luddite view, as I'd 'gone native', I had no real right to comment on the situation in the US, basically because the only insight I could give was that limited insight of someone abroad ... which, is to say, doesn't really count.

For an instant, I was tempted to double-check my passport just to ensure that it didn't give my name as 'Benedict Arnold', a traitor to the British, or even that I was a real-life manifestation of Philip Nolan, the man without a country.

That was exclusion. That was a denial of freedom of speech as if what comment or opinion I had to offer (in another forum) was perfidious or harmful to the collective thought processes of the participating group as a whole, because it was 'foreign'; it implied, as such, sedition. And this was from the Left.

Now ... leading on from the Rightwing Mean Girls belloweathering about exercising their basic right to Freedom of Speech, this rather insalubrious warning smacks of the only piece of Constitutional legislation effected in a misguided effort to stifle freedom of speech and any harkening of thought back to the old 'Mother Country' - the Alien and Sedition Act, something so contrary to the Founding Fathers' establishment of this nation's ethos that his passing of it weighed upon John Adams's heart until the day he died. To this day, it's never been enacted.

You may well reckon that my little billet-doux came from a lady of sorts. An anonymous Mean Girl from the Left, who even resorted to a bit of ad hominem (or should I say, ad feminim) within just for a bit of bite. Respond? Moi? The ability to respond, dear Reader ... was blocked.

So the Mean Girls of the Right invoke Freedom of Speech as their prerogative and shout the opposition down with lies and invective. And the Mean Girls of the Left, who have yet to make a mark on the public stage, do the same cherry-picking spin dance, whilst stifling any difference of opinion, simply by hitting the block button.