Losing minds and fingers in the debate over health care reform
by Kate Wihtol, guest writer
You’re a fascist!” shouted a young man in the back of the room. My mouth dropped as I noticed he was holding a large image of our President with the distinctive Hitler mustache. “No, he’s a socialist!” yelled a woman in front of me. Glancing down at their talking points for support, these fuming individuals screamed about “death panels,” abortion funds, and coverage for undocumented immigrants. As Representative David Wu (D-OR) began to respond at his August 11 town hall meeting in Portland, Oregon, the screaming intensified, silencing him. “You’re lying,” another woman cried. “Move to Canada!”
As our nation grappled with the issue of health care reform over the summer, public forums, protests, and Congressional town halls across the country turned violent. Reports of wrestling matches, arrests, hospitalizations, and death threats led many Democratic Senators and Representatives to opt for smaller group meetings, conference calls, and online web surveys to hear from their constituents on the subject of health care reform. Such reluctance by Democrats to appear in public has generated significant criticism from the media, while allowing opponents of health care reform to frame the debate.
Though the Republican Party claims the animated protests are entirely organic in nature, many Democrats, including the President, are accusing the GOP, as well as conservative lobbying groups and talk show hosts, of assembling hostile crowds to suppress discussion and spread rumors. Websites of conservative interest groups such as Freedom Works, Tea Party Patriots, Right Principles and Join the Mob encourage visitors to pack town hall meetings, offer ideas for protest signs, and provide talking points to challenge the statements of legislators. At one of the most riotous town halls of the summer, an audience of 1,500 in Tampa silenced Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida with shouts of “tyranny” and “read the bill.” Some groups have gone so far as to label President Obama’s proposed health care as genocide on par with Adolf Hitler’s fascist agenda. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh added to the tumult by comparing Obama’s new health care logo to the Nazi swastika. But, as some opponents of Limbaugh have pointed out, anything looks like a swastika when you digitally impose a swastika onto it.
The proliferation of right-wing political activist organizations on the web, television, and radio has shifted the health insurance debate away from the original legislation under consideration and recast it as a fight for fundamental American principles threatened by change. With the proposed health bill coming in at a whopping 1,017 pages of dense legal jargon, many Americans turn instead to biased sources funded by prominent national lobbying groups for their information.
Colorado Springs is home to a few chapters of these national groups that have sprouted in the past several months. The Colorado Springs Tax Day TEA Party advocates for a free-market system and opposes “out of control government spending.” Evoking the spirit of the 1773 tax protests in the Boston Harbor—the letters T, E, and A stand for “taxed enough already”—TEA party activists view health care reform as the government’s attempt to “take over another aspect of our lives.” The Springs is also home to the 9 -12 Pikes Peak Patriots, organized by conservative television and radio host Glenn Beck. The group is named for nine principles and twelve values Beck believes to embody the spirit of the American people on the day after the September 11 attacks.
In late August, both organizations urged members to attend local town hall meetings of Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-CO). Though he shares the conservative views of most El Paso County residents, Lamborn and other Republican legislators struggled this summer to appease the raucous crowds. Since these radical groups represent a minority of the Republican Party, it remains unclear whether their performance in August will have an effect on health care reform in the coming months. In his speech to Congress Wednesday night, President Obama made it clear that he will not let opponents thwart the improvement of the country’s health care system. “I won’t stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are,” he insisted. “If you misrepresent what’s in this plan, we will call you out.” The entrenched partisan divide became glaringly obvious, though, when Joe Wilson (R-SC) interrupted the President’s speech, calling him a liar.
As the meeting in Portland came to a close, Congressman Wu urged audience members to keep the debate civil and avoid “demonizing” opponents of either side. Despite the numerous heckler affronts, Wu managed to maintain public discourse and attempted to correct the inaccurate claims of the audience. Considering that just last week a man bit off a sixty-five year old man’s finger at a health care protest in Thousand Oaks, California, the Portland town hall was a comparative success. ~