Nonconsensual Democracy

Portrait caricatureWe don’t have democracy in the U.S. People often respond to this observation with the somewhat patronizing explanation that no, of course we do not. What we have in the U.S., they explain, is a “republic,” or a “democratic republic.” That isn’t what I mean, however, when I say we don’t have democracy in the U.S. Qualifying the U.S. as a democratic republic does not avoid the issue of the necessity of the representation of the popular will in political decision making because, a “republic,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a state, or form of government “in which power rests with the people or their representatives.” That is, our “representatives” are supposed to “represent” our combined political will. And yet, they rarely do that.

Poll after poll had shown that the majority of Americans want universal healthcare. Bill Clinton promised to provide such healthcare, but failed to deliver it. Obama promised this as well, but Obamacare, while an improvement on the system that preceded it, still falls short of what Americans really want.

Universal healthcare isn’t the only thing Americans want that they do not currently have. There are lots of other things they want, things such as a better system of public education, free higher education, a better infrastructure, a living minimum wage, a crackdown on the abuses of the financial industry, etc., etc. People aren’t going to get any of these things, though, because they have no influence over the political process.

The problem is twofold. First, it is the sheer stupidity of a large portion of the American electorate that allows itself to be brainwashed by political propaganda the relentless message of which is that the things they want (and which are available in other countries) are not possible. Second, it is the willingness of an equally large, if not even larger portion, of the electorate to be bullied into voting for the “lesser evil” of two candidates, neither of whom represents what they want.

The simple truth is that democracy cannot work if people allow their votes to be determined by ignorance and or fear. The foundation of democracy is the Enlightenment ideal of rational self determination. Human beings, argued Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, are inherently rational. This means not only that they are capable of making intelligent decisions concerning how they want to live their lives, but also that they cannot achieve full humanity if they are not allowed the freedom to make these decisions. That human beings are rational requires that we respect them as such and endeavor to organize society in a way that will allow them to fulfill their distinctively human potential for self governance. Political democracy is an outgrowth of this insight. A person’s vote is the means by which he expresses his political will, his consent to certain ideals of social governance.

There has been a lot written lately about consent because of what appears to be an epidemic of sexual assault on college and university campuses. Can a young woman “consent” to sexual intercourse if the person “requesting” it has drugged her, or has threatened violence against her? Is she “consenting” if she “puts out” because she is too weak and addled to resist, or if she is simply afraid of having her head bashed in? Most people easily see that when “consent” is coerced in such ways, it is not really consent.

Few people seem to understand these otherwise straightforward aspects of consent when consent is placed in a political context. Voters are bombarded with propaganda to the effect that what they want is not possible. Many are so swayed by this propaganda that they can no longer think clearly about the issues to which it relates. The purpose of propaganda is precisely to circumvent rational thought. It works like a drug, depriving those it influences of autonomous judgment. Of course, people conclude, if these things were possible, then we would all do our best to see that they became actual, but, alas, they are not possible, so to work for them is a waste of time.

Is that sort of resignation the expression of an autonomous will? The answer is obviously no. Such people are acting from ignorance, not knowledge. If they knew that what they wanted was possible, they would take steps to achieve it. But they have been misinformed. They have been told it would be counterproductive to pursue such things and since no one wants to waste his energies, they refashion their political hopes to what they are told is more reasonable. A person whose judgment is clouded by a fog of propaganda cannot give informed consent to a political platform any more than a person who has been drugged can give such consent to sex.

But wait, there’s more. Not everyone is taken in by political propaganda. Some people know that not only are the political changes they want possible, they are genuine realities in other parts of the world. A special indignity is reserved for people who dare to keep their political wits about them despite the fact that they are bombarded with propaganda designed to undermine them. These people get to be fully conscious participants in their own degradation. Okay, respond the powers that be, you go ahead and vote your conscience, vote for someone who promises to bring about the kinds of changes you want. You know what will happen? You will get someone far, FAR worse than the “moderate” candidate you deem not good enough for you. The rest of the electorate, the sonorous voice continues, is not so forward thinking as you are. You will be “wasting your vote” on a candidate who doesn’t have a chance, and in that way, you will ensure that your worst political nightmares will come true.

It’s as if your date, upon realizing that the drug he’d given you hadn’t worked, threatens to beat the hell out of you if you refuse to have sex with him and then have sex with you against your will anyway. You can “consent” to something horrific, or you can refuse to consent and endure something even worse.

If you give in to such threats, have you consented to having sex with the person who made them? The answer is pretty clearly no. You’ve been violated every bit as much as if you had simply been taken against your will. In fact, one could argue that there is more dignity in resistance than in giving in because if you give in, not only have you been violated by someone else, you have, in a sense, betrayed yourself as well.

People who vote for the lesser of two evils aren’t expressing their political will in any kind of meaningful sense. They are acting out of fear. They’re not approving of the platform of the candidate they “choose.” They are merely expressing disapproval of the platform of the bogey man with which they have been threatened. They have surrendered their autonomy to fear. The weak minded have their autonomy stolen from them by the insidious drug of propaganda. Those who are more temperate and level headed have it wrested from them at knife point, so to speak.

Why do I insist on voting my conscience in the face of imminent political disaster, I’ve been asked again and again. My answer is always the same: Because it is the only way democracy can actually work. If people allow their political vision to be clouded by propaganda, or surrender their autonomy to their fear of an unthinkable future, then it doesn’t matter how many people turn out to vote because the votes themselves are not an expression of the popular will, but merely of ignorance and fear. And the result of those votes is a foregone conclusion they have had no positive part in determining.

(This piece originally appeared in the 7 March 2016 issue of Counterpunch under the title “Nonconsensual Democracy and the Degradation of the American Electorate.)

 

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on Healthcare

Portrait caricatureThroughout the three years I lived in Canada, and the eight years I lived in Denmark, I would periodically return to the U.S. to see family and friends. I would regale my American acquaintances with stories of what it was like to live in a land with little to no poverty, absurdly cheap to outright free higher education, a generous minimum wage and free government healthcare. I was surprised and even hurt to find that instead of inspiring my listeners to lobby for such things themselves, I was branded an “America hater.” My hope that we might bring the quality of life indicators in the U.S. up to, or at least approaching, those of every other economically developed nation was viewed not, as I had conceived it myself, as an expression of fervent patriotism, but as outright treachery. How dare I say that anyone anywhere in the world was actually living better than people in the U.S!

Everyone knows there are lies, damn lies and statistics, so why would any intelligent American give credence to fantastical claims about such abstract and esoteric things as life expectancy, infant mortality, rates of disease, obesity and malnutrition? And how can you be malnourished anyway if you’re obese? Clearly these statistics are just part of a leftist conspiracy to make us feel stupid for believing what everyone knows is the God’s honest truth–that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, and that no people on earth live better than we do!

I am beginning to wonder, actually, whether the people who are opposed to a government option in the healthcare debate might not be right. That is, I am coming to view it as irrelevant to the debate that my experience of the Canadian and Danish systems was very positive, far more positive, actually, than has been my experience of the American system since I moved back to the U.S. in 1998. I saw physicians in Canada and Denmark for bladder infections, colds, sinus infections, acne, toxoplasmosis, migraines and suspected melanoma. I could always get an appointment within a few days of calling. Never did I wait more than twenty minutes to see the doctor and usually the wait was less than ten. I did have one bad experience in Denmark. I went to a doctor for acne and was told pointedly that I did not suffer from acne and that I should not be wasting the doctor’s time. But then I just went to another doctor who was very sympathetic and who prescribed a topical antibiotic–all without paying a dime.

My best experience with the Danish system was the treatment I received for migraines. I was diagnosed with migraines by a friend who was a physician and who very kindly wrote me a prescription for some new medicine, Imitrex (Imigran in Denmark), which he said was very effective. I was initially put out when I had the prescription filled and learned that my little 100mg pills were approximately $5 each. Five dollars a pill, I thought, that’s outrageous! It was only later when I ran out of the medicine in the U.S. and found out that it would cost me $100 for a 100mg dose that I came to appreciate how reasonable was the $5 price.

I asked my friend, when I returned to Denmark, why there was such a huge discrepancy in the price of the Drug in the U.S. versus the drug in Denmark. The Danish government, he explained to me, negotiated with the pharmaceutical companies to buy drugs in bulk at very low prices, then on top of that, the government subsidized 75% of the cost so that the public paid only 25% of what the government had paid. We both quickly did the math and realized that the Danish government was paying Glaxo Smith Kline $20 for a 100mg dose of Imitrex.

But if the Danish government could get it for $20, why did Americans have to pay $100 for it? Of course most Americans who take Imitrex don’t really pay $100 for it, not directly anyway; their insurance companies pay $100 for it. That’s why, as I learned to my distress when I moved back to the U.S., my insurance company would not cover more than six doses per month of Imitrex, Maxalt, or Zomig, or any other of the new migraine drugs. If I needed more than six doses (as I sometimes do), I was on my own.

Of course it would be easier for U.S. insurance companies simply to negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies the way the Danish government does to get drugs at a more reasonable price–but then it would be harder for them to charge such high premiums! Or perhaps it is just that the drug companies know that Americans are blithering idiots whom they can easily milk for five times the cost of what they feel is sufficient to justify the sale of the same medicine to Danes if they can convince us that by paying more we are avoiding the taint of socialism. No matter that the Danish money goes into the same capitalist coffers as our American money. We won’t see the implications of this because we are just irredeemably stupid.

If you want proof of Americans’ stupidity just listen to the talk in the U.S. about how government healthcare would limit people’s choices. My experience has been precisely the opposite. It’s private health insurance that is designed to make a profit off people’s illnesses that limits their choices. That’s how these companies make a profit, actually–by limiting people’s choices. That’s why Obamacare isn’t going to be much better than the old system: it still depends on insurance companies. How much money can insurance companies make if they cover every visit to the doctor, every medicine or treatment you need and make sure you were fully and completely taken care of?

No, insurance companies make their money by cutting corners on your care. We’d understand that if we weren’t butt stupid. My doctor in Denmark could prescribe for me as many doses of Imitrex per month as I needed, and I could afford to pay for as many doses as he prescribed, whereas my doctor in the U.S. bemoans that her patients cannot get more than six doses per month.

In Philadelphia, I used to have these really long waits in my gynecologist’s office. I waited almost two hours once. I don’t go to that gynecologist anymore. It wasn’t my choice though. The cost of malpractice insurance in Pennsylvania drove the good doctor into early retirement. When I went back to my primary care physician for a referral to a new gynecologist, she just threw up her hands. Everyone was leaving PA, she told me, because of the cost of malpractice insurance. She did know of one doctor who was very good and who might be willing to take me on as a new patient. “She doesn’t take insurance though,” my doctor explained apologetically. So even though I am fully insured by my university employer, I have to pay through the nose for my annual gynecology exams. And no, I can’t get reimbursed because the cost doesn’t exceed my “out-of-network deductible.” And I have to drive to New Jersey for my exams, because this doctor too has now left PA.

Oh how I long for the days when if I did not choose my own physician, the Danish government would simply appoint one for me within a four block radius of my residence, when I never waited more than a few minutes for first-class care, never paid even a small “co-pay” for it and when I could get as much medicine as my doctor felt I needed at a price I could afford even when I was still a student.

Americans don’t want to hear these stories though. I’ve had people become so angry with me when I explained how positive was my experience of two different government run healthcare systems that I actually feared they might spit on me. In a way, I don’t blame them. Hearing how the rest of the economically developed world lives is, for Americans, like hearing that everyone else is riding around in shiny new cars while we are having to make do with our broken-down bicycles. This, coupled with the knowledge that the U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries, per capita, in the world–well, it’s just too much to handle. Smoke begins to come out of people’s ears like the robot in “Lost in Space.” “Can’t compute, can’t compute” our little underdeveloped intellects scream until we begin to fear that our brains might actually explode. And they probably would explode if information about how other country’s health care systems work actually begins to filter through the Neanderthal-like layers of ignorance, prejudice and chauvinism that constitute the American skull.

Yes, it’s true. I have become an America hater. When I lived in Denmark, I used to long nostalgically for the open-minded, socially egalitarian culture of my forefathers. I felt a deep connection to the country where my ancestors had come before it even was a country. It actually took being back here to turn me off of it. I think we Americans have to look the facts squarely in the face and admit that we are hopeless losers. No matter that other countries’ governments can provide their citizens with quality health care–WE will not be able to do it. Someone in the halls of power would figure out a way to siphon off all the money for him or herself so that we would be left with a system that is just as bad as the one we have to endure now. No matter that other peoples would not accept such a system from their governments–WE would accept it.

We would accept a wretchedly bad government-run healthcare system because we will accept anything from the government. Poul Schlüter had to resign as prime minister of Denmark in 1993 after it was revealed that someone in his administration had conspired to keep political refuges from bringing their families to Denmark, as Danish immigration law clearly stated they could. Schlüter wasn’t even directly involved, but it happened on his watch. Someone in his government had broken the rules. Danes don’t like it when their politicians break the rules–so Schlüter was forced to resign.

Americans don’t mind when politicians break the rules though. We’ll accept election fraud, torture, the violations of our civil rights. A president, or other elected official, can even tell outright lies to trick us into a war that by conservative estimates has killed tens of thousands of completely innocent people, not only without losing office, but without even losing face!

Yes, we’d accept a completely dysfunctional system of government-run healthcare. We’d accept it and with characteristic fatalism tell ourselves that, after all, that was all one could expect from a government-run system. No matter that other governments can run such systems effectively–we would not be able to do it … because we are complete losers!

Look at what we have already accepted: hours-long waits at the doctor’s office, insurance companies telling us they will not cover our “pre-existing conditions” and will allow us only so much medicine, even for conditions that are covered. No matter that it wasn’t always this bad. We’ve accepted a long, and apparently inexorable, diminution in the quality of healthcare in the U.S. It doesn’t matter that, for example, the Canadian system and the Danish system are far superior to the system we have now in the U.S.–even for the fully insured .

We are going to hell in a hand basket and we know it. Things can only get worse. Any change, our experience of the last twenty-five years tells us, can only be for the worse, so we resist change. We know things can only get worse because we know, on some level, that the entire rest of lthe economically developed world left us in the dust long ago. Mention the French, high-speed trains and see what kind of reaction you get out of people. It might be wise, however, to check for the location of the nearest exist before you mention that they can reach speeds of almost 200mph miles per hour and get you from Paris to Frankfurt in four hours (Amtrak would take about 14 hours to go the equivalent distance).

(An earlier version of this piece was published in the 14 September, 2009 edition of Counterpunch )

The Rhetoric of Entitlement

Portrait caricatureThis piece was originally published in CounterPunch on March 27, 2013. Given the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold a Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in college admissions, however, I thought it was appropriate to post the piece to this blog.

There’s been a lot about affirmative action in the media recently because the Supreme Court is considering a case that challenges the constitutionality of any consideration of race in university admissions decisions. The poster girl for the case is 23-year old Abigail Noel Fisher who charges that she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin because she was white. No matter that her GPA (3.59) and SAT scores (1180 out of 1600) were not particularly distinguished and that there were black and Latino applicants with even better SATs and GPAs who were also denied admission. Ms. Fisher and the conservative nonprofit Project on Fair Representation, which is funding the lawsuit, believe she was effectively punished by the admissions committee for being white.

Well that is just it! I cannot take any more whiney white people arguing that they are “victims” of reverse discrimination. Aren’t the conservatives behind the Project on Fair Representation the same ideological group as contemporary social Darwinists? Don’t they think we’re all just supposed to be duking it out without any protections whatever in order to ensure that the fittest of us survive? So what if life is sometimes unfair? That’s just part of the old Hobbesian state of nature, the situation into which we’ve all been thrust. Aren’t we just supposed to learn how to deal with it?

Babies can’t help being born to poor parents, but conservatives have no problem condemning these “innocent lives” to overcrowded and underfunded schools. Poor kids are supposed to find some way out of that situation without any help from the government.

Conservatives have never cared economic unfairness, so why this sudden concern about racial “unfairness”? Are legions of exceptionally well qualified white people being denied entrance to the university of their choice by crazed liberals who are giving unjustified preference to less qualified minorities? Now that would be a frightening thought, wouldn’t it! Fortunately, it’s a myth. How do I know this? Because Abigail Noel Fisher is the best example of purported reverse discrimination conservatives have produced.

A 3.59 GPA-are you kidding me? I know a kid with a 4.9 GPA who’s hired a college admissions consultant to help improve his chances of getting into the institution of his choice. I’ll bet you didn’t know there was such a thing as a 4.9 GPA (apparently made possible by advanced placement and/or honors courses). Obviously neither did Ms. Fisher, or she might have thought twice about parading herself before the public as a victim because her 3.59 GPA failed to get her into one of the top universities in the country.

Since the Project of Fair Representation is interested in issues of fairness that relate to race, how come they’re not concerned about the over-representation of blacks in U.S. prisons? There’s a much higher proportion of blacks in prison than in the general population. There’s actual documentation that shows that when juries are white, blacks are more likely than whites to be convicted of a crime even when the evidence that points to their respective “guilt” is effectively the same, and that when convicted, blacks receive harsher sentences than whites convicted of the same crimes. That doesn’t seem very “fair.” How come the folks over at the PFR aren’t fuming about that?

Oh yeah, conservatives aren’t really concerned about racial unfairness in general. They’re concerned that WHITE people might be being treated unfairly. They don’t care if other races are being treated unfairly, but WHITE people should never have to suffer “unfair” treatment!

As a white person, I have to say that I find this pathetic display of white entitlement disgusting. I hope that I speak on behalf of decent reasonable white people everywhere when I say that white people do not necessarily expect that life will always be fair. Government should address gross injustices–I think most of us agree on that–but it is ludicrous to suggest that the government step in to correct the situation every time life is less than ideally “fair.”

I think it is unfair that I don’t look like Demi Moore, that I don’t have long legs, and that I was not raised in a bilingual household. I think it is unfair that my husband and I are forced to live in different cities if we wish to practice our chosen professions. It is unfair that I do not make enough money to be able to pursue all my interests, and indeed that I don’t have enough time to pursue them all.

There are things the government could do to redress at least some of these “injustices.” Obamacare could cover plastic surgery. The government could mandate higher salaries and lighter work loads. There could be all kinds of federal incentives for employers to hire spouses, etc., etc. I’m not holding my breath, though. Those things simply aren’t important enough to warrant government action, and neither, I submit, is failing to get into the college of your choice when you are only a moderately qualified applicant.

Show me the bona fide genius who can’t get into Harvard because her spot was taken by some academically unqualified minority and I’ll start to become concerned. I haven’t seen that yet, and I’m not going to see it, because it doesn’t happen. White people who are deluding themselves that it does are simply looking around for someone else to blame for their own mediocrity.

When did white people become so pathetic? Black people have had to live for generations under a system that is demonstrably unfair to them. There’s plenty of documentation for that. Where do white people get off thinking that they are entitled to ask the government to redress a “wrong” done to them that would appear to be no more than a figment of their fevered imaginations?

Where has this sense of white entitlement come from? When Jeil 2 Savings Bank of South Korea came under investigation for alleged irregularities by its executives and major shareholders, its president, Jeong Gu-Haeng, committed suicide. When white guys in the U.S. run their banks into the ground, not only do they take no responsibility, they expect the government bail them out. That is no more, nor less than they feel they are entitled to. White people can’t handle having to deal with the consequences of our own actions. We can’t handle anything that is really difficult. Difficulties are “unfair”!

This sense of white entitlement is increasing. Even as our achievements are diminishing, our sense of entitlement is growing. It’s not just an unattractive character trait (nobody, after all, likes a whiner); it’s morally offensive. It’s also dangerous. It’s making us stupid. It’s making us lazy–dare I say shiftless? It’s part of the reason, I would argue, for the precipitous descent of the U.S. from its former position of world economic dominance.

White people have benefitted from the handicaps placed–both intentionally and unintentionally–on minorities for as long as the country has existed. Unfortunately, this is now coming back to bite us, and by that I’m not referring to reverse discrimination. You know how you make somebody strong, how you make them smart? You handicap them, put a lot of obstacles in their path. Many minorities have had so many obstacles in their paths for so long that they’ve become smarter and stronger than we are.

This situation puts me in mind of a remark by Chinese-American comedian Joe Wong when he learned about child labor practices in the U.S. while studying for his citizenship test:

“Hang on–those kids got PAID?”

That’s the kind of mettle we wimpy white people are up against in this cold new world. We’re on our way to becoming a minority in all but the least skilled and least demanding of occupations and institutions of higher learning, and not because of the phantom menace of reverse discrimination, but because we’ve made ourselves too damn stupid and lazy for anything else.

White people better hope the Supreme Court doesn’t decide in favor of a “colorblind” constitution–we’re going to need affirmative action!