Of kings, priests and tyrants
On health care, Obama needs to know his worth is reflected by his enemies
By Lionel Rolfe 06/18/2009
Dear Mr. Obama, please let me remind you that there are times you just can’t be bipartisan. Not with the priests and kings who you can always count on to stand against progress. In the midst of battle against these same foes, a couple of our nation’s Founding Fathers took strong note of that. “These are the times that try men’s soul,” Tom Paine wrote in “Common Sense.” Thomas Jefferson said that “the tree of liberty must be replenished every 10 to 20 years with the blood of patriots and the blood of tyrants.”
You couldn’t be bipartisan in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, when Hitler helped his pal Franco destroy the democratic Spanish Republic. And no one was talking bipartisanship with Hitler in Germany. Sometimes you have to fight.
There were concepts of enlightenment that the American and French revolutions both championed. It was no accident that some of the leaders of our revolution were also champions of the French Revolution. Think men such as Paine and Benjamin Franklin. The revolutionaries believed in the enlightenment of democracy and science over the kings and priests.
But don’t misunderstand. Some people still believe in kings and priests. We’re still a nation torn between the ideals of enlightenment and science and democracy on one side, and against the brutish ways of the powers that be on the other.
As the battle over health care evolves, remember it’s the same battle that has been fought and refought ever since 1776. Jefferson was right on. There are patriots and tyrants. And insurance companies come first to mind.
Health care is the most important domestic concern there is. You notice I said health care, not “health insurance.” The whole concept of a nation being healthy has little to do with odd business of insurance, where you’re betting against the house, which always wins. They are in business to sell policies to the healthy and make the taxpayers pay for the sick. It’s always been a good bargain for them, but it’s a lousy one for the rest of us.
That’s why we’ve been stuck paying nearly a fifth of our gross national production on health care.
I speak as one who spent a month at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. The great stone monolith rising above the freeways with its three stern towers used to fill me with that same sense of horror evoked by the dreary Dickensian workhouses that still dot grimmer parts of the green, gray English countryside.
But in the 1980s I came to have reason to change my view of the place. It became a house of life, not a house of death, which its appearance seemed to suggest.
I learned that my previous negative feelings about the place were unfounded. I knew that County-USC Hospital has always been the hospital of last resort, but when I developed chills and high fever and my privates swelled to twice their normal size, I was in such intense pain I hardly remember getting there.
What was surprising to me, right from the start, was the concern exhibited by nearly everyone who took care of me. I’ve been in hospitals before, so I had valid comparisons. Back in the ’60s, I spent nearly three weeks in traction in a San Joaquin Valley hospital after an automobile accident. And five years before that I had gone to Cedars-Sinai for something where I think the inferior care caused some of my later problems.
County was most definitely of another time and place. It was built when Los Angeles was substantial, serviceable and solid, in a Midwest kind of way. It was summer, and the evenings were hot, yet the high green walls stayed cool. Small fans here and there labored to keep patients and staff comfortable, and they succeeded, although perhaps not by modern standards.
I realized that in a way this country has always had rudiments of socialized medicine, and to that I owe my life. County Hospital was built in the spirit of the New Deal, with the kind of enlightenment that has too long been missing from the body politic ever since Ronald Reagan. What’s a society for, if not to provide everyone good medical care, even if they can’t afford it?
Construction of the old County Hospital was begun in the 1920s, financed by local bonds. By the 1930s, the bonds were kaput and the hospital was finished as a WPA project. By the 1980s, the building might have been a little down on its uppers, but the lobby still featured art and designs done in the grand public manner spawned by the Great Depression, with a quote of the Hippocratic Oath, reminding healers that the lives of the poor are just as valuable as the lives of the rich.
The Hippocratic Oath, written large in the hospital’s lobby, today sounds almost socialist in its implications, so it’s good that the old building still stands, reminding us that we are a nation that was born in revolution, against the kings and priests. Make no mistake. The tyrants — the insurance companies in this case — will try to destroy the dream, the necessity of health care for all the people. Patriots must stand firm. Take this to heart, Mr. Obama. Sometimes a person’s worth is reflected by his enemies.
Lionel Rolfe is a working journalist and author whose works are featured on boryanabooks.com.