A sideshow to the ongoing debate about healthcare reform is the fact that protestors have now begun to show up with guns. If you haven’t seen it, you need to watch Chris Matthews’ (Hardball) interview with William Costic [I believe that was his name, but am not sure], the man who started the gun-toting process by bringing an unconcealed weapon to the Obama town meeting in Portsmouth, NH last week. My good friend Bryan Miller of Ceasefire New Jersey wants us to consider such acts as just plain “craziness.” However, I don’t think we can so easily dismiss them, for as Bryan goes onto explain if they are crazy, they are a very well orchestrated and organized group of crazies. As I listened to Mr Costic explain his views to Chris Matthews,I heard a man with a world view informed by a hyper-vigilant, individualistic, libertarian logic. When asked if he thought Social Security or Medicare were mistakes, he said “yes.” He openly admitted to voting for Ron Paul in the last presidential election. He spoke out of a very well thought out and largely coherent perspective.
These are the folks (mostly unknowingly) indebted to and informed by the political philosophy of the late Robert Nozick, who saw the government’s role in maintaining justice as protecting basic individual rights, and otherwise staying out of people’s business. Nozick considered taxes “robbery” and paying them “forced labor.” However, Nozick was no dummy; he taught at Harvard throughout most of his career, and his ideas are deeply embedded in the American psyche especially when people talk about individual rights. Before we dismiss these gun-toters as a “lunatic fringe,” we need to recognize that they have a coherent worldview, however distant it may be from our own.
Behind and beneath all the rhetoric about health care, gun rights and the like is a struggle over what it means to be a citizen of this country. The fears are being stirred up the media and corporate manipulators, but at the same time they are more than simply fears about people’s financial future. I believe they are fears of a seismic shift in what it means to be an American citizen. I could not be further from the worldview of people like William Costic not only on the issue of guns, but also on what “rights” should be protected, and who gets to decide that. Yet, I have known people like him, and I sometimes despair of the widening chasm in our civic life between people like Mr. Costic and myself.
The fact that people can go to these town meetings, shout down the speakers, and then say it is their right to be “heard” in a democracy, seems bizarre to me. People don’t even know what they are talking about. For instance, I heard one protester berating his representative to keep the government away from my Medicare. Your Medicare comes from the government, dummy! Democracy relies on an informed public; that’s why the public education system is so vital to the health of a democracy. A democracy occurs when people can talk across their differences in a respectful manner. Democracy is not just about “being heard” but about hearing others as well.
Passing a meaningful health care reform bill will neither solve the dilemma nor end the tension. However, it raises again the fundamental questions about what it means to be citizens in a democracy, and even what a democracy truly is.
Democracy used to be defined by the old New England town hall meeting, where the citizens of the community would come together to discuss community issues, and then make decisions together. Today “democracy” has become a political weapon used to spread Western corporate interests around the globe. “Democracy” has become the media circus we have seen in these so called town hall meetings over the last month. Regardless of how the health care reform bill is resolved, the deeper questions remain as to what our “rights” are and should be, and what values and truths are worth fighting for, no matter how difficult and painful the struggle.