Just added: Sarah Palin Is Latest Heartless Person to Attack Protestors.
I want to have a heart-to-heart conversation with the Left and the Right. Last week was truly one of those moments when shocking behavior by others made me feel like I was stuck in some horrific episode of the Twilight Zone (the ones where some unsuspecting person suddenly loses the ability to communicate with others).
The spooky feeling resulted from the headline story of the week: The, um, passionate behavior occurring at various healthcare reform forums. I blogged about the highly unsatisfactory nature of the public discourse even before the Tampa/St.Louis outbursts occurred. The same day, the Pew Center released a study demonstrating that 70% of the public believed that media coverage was poor or fair. That night, "the people" took to the streets in Tampa and St. Louis.
The Messy Details
The news from Tampa, Florida (my home state) emerged first. Apparently, opponents of the Democrats' healthcare proposals, many of whom are conservative, stormed a townhall meeting conducted by Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat. As soon as she started speaking, protestors shouted and made it impossible for others to hear what she was saying.
Responding to my harsh criticism of the circus, several of my loyal conservative readers defended the protestors on free speech grounds. Today, the immensely popular and very open-minded Glenn Reynolds (of Instapundit), mockingly reminded commentators that "protest" was a form of patriotism, a line often employed by anti-war activists to justify their protests against charges of treason and demands that they "support the troops."
News from St. Louis arrived later (much of it after I had analyzed the Tampa mayhem). Apparently, Democratic operatives and Democratic voters sparked much of the madness in St. Louis. In response to the anticipated presence of conservative protestors, liberals mobilized and brought out their supporters. During the meltdown, a black conservative was assaulted. Liberal media have not really covered this aspect of the event, although though they have portrayed conservative protestors as racists. And while many conservatives have used the racial assault in St. Louis to stigmatize liberals, a lot of these same commentators very recently decried "race cards" and vigorously dismissed allegations of racism by blacks themselves as nonsense and as continued victimology.
Hello, Kids. Today's Lesson Is. . . .
Since people are acting like kids and because I feel that meeting them on their own terms is probably more helpful, I will break things down in mental-age appropriate language for both liberals and conservatives.
1. Racism = Wrong. Racism is a pathology. Nevertheless, our society has denied its existence or the harms it causes even during slavery and Jim Crow (see Racial Exhaustion). But current events demonstrate that it persists.
Being liberal does not excuse a person of his or her racism, nor does it mean that other liberals should refrain from criticizing the person. In addition, being conservative does not mean that it is fine only to acknowledge or see racism when it impacts conservative people of color. If liberal racism exists (which it does), then so does conservative racism. Condemn it on all sides and assist, rather than impede, causes that seek to rid the country of racism and racial inequality.
2. Protest = Good; Disruptive Behavior and Violence = Bad. The First Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to engage in speech and to come together for expressive purposes. And while this includes a right to engage in boisterous speech, the constitutional guarantee of free speech is not absolute. Instead, so long as the government is not attempting to alter the content of speech, it can nonetheless regulate the "time, manner and place" of the speech (that takes place in a public forum).
Making governmental venues or other public spaces available for a townhall discussion is not the same thing as permitting groups to hold marches, parades, rallies, carnivals or other expressive activities. The townhall discussion requires a back-and-forth between participants. This can only occur when participants listen while others are speaking. This is not what the conservative protestors did in Tampa. This is not what liberals did in St. Louis. Both sides were wrong.
Commentators who attempt to justify the protestors' disruptive behavior by calling it "speech" are missing the point. Yes -- the protestors were engaging in speech, but their speech silenced the expression of others. The Constitution does not give us a private right to silence participants in a public political debate.
I have always been consistent on this issue. In fact, unlike many liberal bloggers, I never condemned the "tea party" movement. Granted, I found the groups' protests peculiar because their sudden concern for fiscal soundness seemed unprincipled -- or as Ron Paul would say, it made them look like "born-again fiscal conservatives." Nevertheless, the tea party protestors have the right to organize, mobilize, protest and criticize fiscal policy -- even in a way that is unprincipled -- until they collapse from exhaustion. The protests, however, were self-contained; they took place in locations where they did not silence the speech of others; the groups did not seem to break any laws with their activities. Rather than flooding local government and shouting down proceedings, they staged their rallies in appropriate venues and brought public attention to their cause. That is a model of advocacy. I do not agree with the advocacy, but the form in which it occurred is sound! The healthcare protestors used a different and unacceptable model.
I invite people to toss aside partisanship for a moment and actually begin the process of having a real discussion about healthcare reform. Due to lack of space, I will not delve deeply into the substantive issues of healthcare reform, but I will isolate two things that bother me on the Left and the Right.
First, when conservatives condemn the Democratic plans as "socialism," they are making a "nonargument." First, the assertion is purely descriptive -- and, given the definition of socialism espoused by people like, say, Karl Marx, the description is grossly inapplicable to this setting. Even if the liberal reform amounted to a "socialist" policy, this alone does not tell us whether the plan is desirable or not. Conservatives could replace the word socialist with "crazy," "zany," "liberal," "bad," "harmful," or "nasty," but these adjectives do not provide details. Instead, they simply seek to stigmatize the plans.
Second, to my fellow liberals, I share the opinion of those of you who want a public plan option (this is not the same as a "single payer" regime that eliminates private insurance altogether). The public plan option would likely reduce costs. I have not seen any reliable literature that disputes this. In fact, much of the conservative opposition to new public sponsorship assumes that a public plan would reduce costs and make private insurance nonviable.
Although I believe that conservatives are overstating their position, there are other implications of a public plan that warrant debate. In particular, the mix of services under a public plan seems highly relevant to these talks, but liberals do not want to engage this issue. Part of the cost reduction under a public plan would result from the government using its power to negotiate cheaper care from providers. Cost reductions will also occur if uninsured people begin to receive preventive care and, rather than obtaining expensive emergency room treatment of their illnesses, visit a primary care physician who can attend to their health needs.
Some of the cost reductions, however, could (and perhaps should) involve a changed mix in covered services. Congress could diminish this tradeoff potentially if it reduced its enormous subsidization of employer-sponsored (supposedly "private") plans. Nevertheless, the mix of services subject to governmental financing seems like a legitimate subject for these debates. Liberals have run from this issue, but evading an issue by running is as unhelpful as evading it by yelling. Liberals have also neglected to get input from nurses, who could play a much larger (and less expensive) role in the delivery of health care.
Here's hoping for a better week.