June 2012

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Dear Greta: You Are Being Lied To

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The following is a letter to an imaginary recipient, Greta, a 39-year old woman in Fort Myers, Florida who has always voted Republican, as did her parents before her. She is divorced, greets and seats the guests at a Tex-Mex restaurant at Fort Myers airport, and is raising a son with Aspergers' syndrome who just turned fifteen.

Dear Greta:

We are all surrounded by people who tell us things in loud voices they proclaim with dreadful certainty to be absolute truth. I am writing to you as a voice who doesn't know anything for certain, but is hoping to chat with you about some questions it may be worth asking the people who claim to know truth. I think they are lying to you about some very important things, but my goal is not for you to believe me, but to interrogate them yourself and come to your own conclusion.

First, let me introduce myself, so there can be no misunderstandings or surprises. Although I do not stick to any single political line, nor let anyone tell me what to think, you would probably understand me to be a man of the left, maybe even the far left from where you sit. I hope my saying so will not cause you to stop reading. If I was trying to trick or fool you, or even persuade you to think differently, why would I start by admitting the truth about myself?

I voted for President Obama and plan to do so again. Seventeen years of my thoughts and writing on politics, morals and other issues can be found on my web site, The Ethical Spectacle. I am fascinated by the intersection of, and collision of, ethics, law and politics in this country. I believe in democracy, but I question what anyone tells me, even President Obama--and especially him, because he is the president, just as I questioned anything George Bush told me before.

By browsing my web site, you will know what I believe on any issue (there is a search window on the top page which will help you find out my opinions on anything which interests you).

The reason I am reaching out to you, to get a conversation going, is because I believe that we have much more in common than you might think--and we are more similar to each other than we are to the people who actually run the country. I believe that over time, the best thing we can do to ameliorate our own lives is to stand together on certain issues of importance to both of us. But again, I am not asking you to believe anything I am saying, but only to think about it. I hope, as you read, you will at least trust my sincerity, that I believe the things I am saying.

I have chosen three topics on which we are probably divided right now, to suggest some questions we can ask our leaders. But before I get to them, I wanted to speak of the significance of language itself.

Language was invented as a means for us to communicate with each other, but all too often serves as the exact opposite, a way to end all communication.

The use of language at its best can ease our way, allow us to live together in peace. One of the things I do regularly in my day job is to look for a middle ground between two people who are angry at each other, separated by pride and likely to fight it out in court or business. My job in these circumstances is to overcome pride, make them see clearly the costs of conflict, and look for innovative ways to bring them together. The best way I can perform this role is not to judge anyone, but to see both as humans who have arrived at a rigid outlook through emotion. Usually its possible to find an agreement they can make to resolve their issues while keeping their pride intact. A big part of the work I do in these situations is to use language carefully, to illustrate a way of thinking that will allow them to settle their differences rather than perpetuate them. In a sense, I am trying to do the same with you.

Language at its worst is a kind of stop-sign. When a child keeps asking a tiresome question, and you finally answer "Because" or "Because I'm the mom, that's why," what you are really saying is: "Stop asking questions." There is no actual content in your words that communicates any other answer. Similarly, coming from politicians, we hear a lot of judgmental label-words which sound like they mean something but of which the only content is "My adversary is a bad person" or even more simply, "I win".

A particularly clear example in recent years has been the use of the word "socialist". If you look it up on Wikipedia:

Socialism refers to various theories of economic organisation advocating public or direct worker ownership and administration of the means of production and allocation of resources, and a society characterised by equal access to resources for all individuals with an egalitarian method of compensation.

There are very few people in America today--probably not more than a few thousand--who believe in direct worker ownership of factories and businesses. President Obama is not one of them. I am far to the left of President Obama, and I don't even believe socialism is a workable economic system, based on the gross failure of all attempts to institute socialist systems in Russia, China and elsewhere.

So why do Republican politicians accuse the President and other Democrats of being socialists so often? The word doesn't really mean anything when they use it, except "I don't like him". But its an insidious choice of words, because it suggests that it means a lot more than it really does.

By the way, to the few actual socialists in America, President Obama looks almost indistinguishable from his opponent Mitt Romney: both take political contributions from billionaires, both have (despite varying rhetoric) a belief that Wall Street is the cornerstone of America, etc.

In your daily life, at meetings at your son's school, your neighborhood association, at your church and at work, I think you have become familiar with a particular type of participant: the blow hard. At these meetings, you treat other people with respect, and you wish to be treated the same way. You have no patence for the guy (its usually a guy) who thinks he knows it all, gets angry in a second when people disagree, and then starts calling them names. If you can't tolerate this individual in your private life, why tolerate him in politics? Its the same type of person, whether he's calling you "selfish" in a school meeting or calling the President a "socialist" in a political meeting.

Before we start discussing particular controversies, let's also focus on a philosophical underpinning of all politics. We all have a right to take care of ourselves and our families within certain social and legal limits, right? You're not allowed to rob a bank to feed your family, but you can seek any kind of job you can find, start a business, demand particular resources at the school, ask them not to feed your son unhealthy crap in the cafeteria, ask for a remedial math class or a social worker who can help your son through some of the difficulties of group interaction. You can ask your employer for a more sympathetic family leave policy, and at church, if you thought the men were disrespecting the women, you would want to say something about it.

Every once in a while, you may find that an absolute rule stated loudly by a blow-hard conflicts with your personal beliefs and goals. If you pursue a conversation about this, instead of deflecting away from it or meekly giving in, you will place the blowhard under a difficult obligation. He must either persuade you that the apparent conflict in your goals is not real, that your interests, despite appearances, are best served by doing things his way--or he must undertake the much more difficult obligation of explaining to you why you lose--why it is your moral or religious duty to give in, and be harmed by his rule. This last is the single most difficult argument to make, so politicians stay away from this one as much as they can.

Here's an example of how this might come up in your life. You go to a school meeting outraged that the cafeteria is selling 1000 calorie super-Slurpees to the children. You believe these have no nutritional value and may contribute to obesity and eventual diabetes in your son. Your local city councilman stands up at the meeting and says, "This is an example of government trying to intervene in a free market. If the city or school can tell your son not to drink a slurpee, it will order him to eat brussels sprouts next. Since government is very bad at this kind of role and you can't trust it to make the right decisions for you or your son, the best solution is a completely free market and an informed consumer. In a completely free market, it is your job to educate your child to buy healthy drinks. If nobody ever bought slurpees any more, the cafeteria would stop offering them."

Politicians (and I don't mean only Republicans) specialize in statements which are grammatical and appear to make sense, but which don't really stand up to much examination. One thing you'd be very likely to discover, in this scenario, is that the slurpee manufacturer has contributed thousands of dollars to the councilman's re-election fund. But, putting that aside, here are some ways you might test the validity of the statement above.

Try deleting the word "slurpee" from the sentence and substituting another product, like "cigarettes". You will find in this case that the argument can be made, in defense of free markets, that cigarettes should also be sold in the school cafeteria. Politicians--and all other blowhards--rely on you to save their logic by not questioning their assumptions, and by assuming differences between things that should not be assumed, but must be proven. The politician might indignantly say, "Slurpees are not cigarettes". But for the purposes of this conversation, is there any real difference between them? They are both things which may harm the health of your child, and which you don't want sold in the cafeteria.

In this case, the councilman is also arguing that government should not protect your child against himself. But you know from your experience as a single mom, that not just your child but almost every child ever born, needs some protection against his or her own wishes and impulses at some point.

Here's another thought experiment I find very helpful in thinking about these kinds of problems. Imagine that hundreds of empty earth-like planets are discovered in a nearby galaxy and that anyone who wants one can recruit a few hundred of her closest friends and found a new civilization. It is the second night on your new planet, and all three hundred citizens are meeting on a hilltop to set the rules of your lives together. The conversation turns to the schools you will found, and after talking about the classes offered, schoolteacher salaries, what will be taught in gymn, etc., someone says, "Lets not offer sugary, unhealthy drinks in cafeteria". Is that a practical rule you would be happy to make on your new planet, or is there some obvious moral or practical obstacle which should prevent it? If someone at that meeting said, "No, we have to sell slurpees in cafeteria, otherwise we have socialism", wouldn't you look at him as if he were mad?

Health coverage

Let's now turn to the first of our specific cases. President Obama passed a very complicated and difficult law with the objective of offering health coverage to millions of Americans who don't have it. Republicans seeking repeal of the law have concentrated on that same "brussels sprouts" argument I mentioned in my slurpee example: If the government can make you buy health insurance, why can't it order you to buy a Honda Civic or brussels sprouts?

Its important to mention here that, in creating the so-called "mandate", the President was already giving in to a strong Republican demand that health services should be paid for by private insurance. In Canada, our peaceful, stable neighbor to the North, the government pays for all health services--a system which the Republicans claim is even more socialistic--and, afraid that that won't be enough to talk you out of it, also loudly describe as being badly broken.

You work at the airport. Canadians look and sound so much like us that we often can't tell them apart. Listen carefully and when you detect a Canadian party at your airport restaurant, ask them how they feel about health coverage in their country. They will tell you it has some flaws, but works pretty well to make sure that when someone gets a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease, everything is paid for. Nobody in Canada ever goes broke, loses their house or spends their children's college money paying for health care--something which happens to people every day in our country.

Since Canadians are reasonably satisfied with a system which Republican politicians claim is a nonworking, murderous travesty, that should tell you right there something is happening which does not make sense, which warrants further inquiry on your part.

President Obama instead of "single payer", which is politically untenable in this country even though it works for Canadians, chose to require everyone to have private health insurance. Certainly, this appears to be a situation in which the government is requiring you to spend money. Is that a shocking interference with your liberty?

However, a very common approach the blowhards take is to ask you to look at something which is very disturbing taken out of context. A search of your handbag may seem very invasive--if the cops came into your house unbidden and did it. At a security checkpoint in the airport, it may seem very normal. Everything depends on context.

Asking you to be shocked by a forced health insurance premium is like asking you to be shocked by a handbag search. Its important to know the context. Here, the most important question which the Republicans attacking the health care plan want you to ignore, is: what are your expectations as an uninsured person when you go to the emergency room?

When Eric, your son, cut himself, you rushed him to the ER and they took him immediately and stopped the bleeding even though you had no insurance. They did not delay treating him for an instant while they asked if you had coverage. If they had turned you away, you would have been shocked and frightened-- and Eric would have been endangered.

Yet the Republicans are seeking to perpetuate a system which makes no sense. A right to refuse to have insurance only would be logical if anyone who declined insurance had no expectation of being treated at the ER (unless he or she could pay out of pocket, of course). Conversely, anyone who wants the right to refuse insurance, while continuing to receive treatment at the ER, is a selfish free rider--because in that case, he is refusing to contribute to the cost of his own treatment, while expecting you and me to pay for it, via our taxes and (higher) health insurance premiums.

Some Republicans (those who have good health insurance or enough money to pay for health care) are quite happy with the idea that others would be turned away at the ER. But how would you make that system workable? What if someone was shot or assaulted when they didn't have their insurance card with them? What if someone arrives at the ER comatose and can't even be identified? Even if you are happy to have a pile of dying people in the street outside every ER, how will you avoid placing people into that pile who actually have coverage, but couldn't prove it in the crucial moments after they arrived at the ER?

To add to the irony, Republican Congresspeople have amazingly great single payer health insurance, the kind of government plan they want to protect everyone else against. The last time you saw a man on television telling you that Obamacare must be rolled back to protect you, the chances are fair to good that his last heart check up and even his Viagra are all paid for by a federal plan he has no thought of renouncing in solidarity with you. He in fact does not want you ever to have what he has.

Remember my analogy or thought experiment above regarding your brand new planet? If you founded one and invited me and we were talking about how to spend the last million dollars we had been given to finance our new world, I would argue that we spend it on health care rather than defense. (Lets assume that there is another planet next door founded by video game enthusiasts, and we have a valid concern they may attack us one day, just for the fun of it.) I would make that choice because my chances of having heart disease or cancer one day are almost 100%, while my chances of dying by an enemy bullet or terrorist bomb are much smaller than that. If I proposed spending our money on health reimbursement, some of the others might argue that defense is more important, a better expenditure. But would anyone really stand up and argue that I have a moral obligation to suffer and die without health care, or to go bankrupt paying for it, to protect the liberty of all?

Any discussion of health insurance as an infringement of liberty, is incomplete, and really involves some gross lying, if it doesn't deal with the issue of what happens next time you take Eric to the ER. This is a very real problem. From 2002 to 2007, I worked on New York City ambulances. Between a third and a half of all the emergency rooms I took people to, no longer exist, including some big important ones like St. Vincents' in downtown Manhattan. The reason they have all closed: they were required to treat people who were shot or had heart attacks and had no coverage. So they went bankrupt. Single payer or Obama's mandate would have saved these hospitals.


Your Republican politicians have also conditioned you to distrust and dislike unions. You don't belong to one and see unions as a selfish, far left, corrupt special interest group that potentially threatens the rights of others who simply want to work.

There have been a lot of problems with unions--with corruption in particular. Like many human inventions, however, there is a distinction between criticism of the idea and the implementation. Democracy itself all too often involves corruption--both the illegal kind, when a politician goes to jail for taking a bribe, and the kind that is perfectly legal, like the city councilman defending soda in the lunchroom after receiving a campaign contribution from the manufacturer. Yet every politician, every school teacher, everyone we know professes to idolize democracy, to think it is the best possible system of government, despite the flaws. Yet the politicians who represent you vilify the idea of unions, not just the implementation. Why?

This is particularly interesting because the cornerstone of Republican free market thinking is that we all have a right to be selfish. A businessman who founds a company to sell a product is (as Republican economists will be the first to tell you) acting out of a kind of enlightened selfishness: his goal is to get rich, but along the way he will help everyone elese by creating jobs and paying (at least some) taxes. The enlightened selfishness of businesspeople often involves making agreements with each other: acting in groups to lobby politicians, set standards which will avoid government intervention, to resolve disputes among themselves and sometimes even to set prices and define markets. This last can break antitrust laws--a form of government regulation that Republicans don't think should exist, or should be greatly scaled back.

If, in a world of free markets, it is acceptable for the businessmen to act from enlightened selfishness and even to act together sometimes, why wouldn't it be acceptable for the workers to protect themselves by doing the same? The worker also acts out of a form of enlightened selfishness; he takes a job not for the good of the businessperson or the public, but for his own sake and that of his family, to buy groceries, rent or buy a home, to pay other bills. Just as the businessman in his selfishness creates jobs, the worker in his selfishness creates value: he manufactures the products the businessman wants to sell, or manages their sale to the public, or runs the business. The businessman and worker need each other, and each needs to protect and care for himself as an independent, respected person in the equation.

The Republican campaign against unions involves a never-stated belief that the only enlightened selfishness that must be given free reign in the system is that of the businessperson, while the workers' actions alone must be restrained. If free markets were really based on the freedom of all of us, then everyone in the market, businessperson and worker, would have the right to be selfish within limits. When only one party to the transaction is restrained, we are creating what appears to be a class system, and in fact class warfare, in which one class--that of the businesspeople-- is superior to the other, and has more rights. It is therefore ironic that whenever anyone tries to protect the worker, he or she is accused of starting a class war--an accusation made in complete and deliberate disregard of the fact that war already was started long ago, by the other side. It is as if a bully slapping your son accused him of starting a fight, when he attempted to defend himself.

Greta, do you regard yourself as a member of the business class or as a worker? As a hostess at an airport restaurant, my guess is you see yourself as part of the working class. You have no benefits, no health insurance, no job security and you make less on a bad day than the waitresses who get generous tips. When you go through a period in which Eric is having a lot of emergencies at school, you are fearful that you will lose your job if you are absent to much, and you also find yourself using up all of your five days' vacation every year just dealing with Eric's problems. You haven't had a day off, or gone anywhere out of town, since your marriage ended. You don't much like your boss, who is inappropriate sometimes, and when things are bad there is noone you can turn to for help, as the other employees are all afraid of losing their jobs too.

Why is it normal or acceptable that your boss can attend a meeting of a restaurant association, or of a group of businesses looking to negotiate with the airport, but you and your co-workers are terrified of the idea of getting together to discuss your jobs or your wish for more vacation, shorter or different shifts, or a family leave policy? In order to justify the status quo, the politicians would have to explain to you why you have a legal or moral obligation not to take steps to protect yourself. What could that possibly be? If someone attempted to tell you that your boss is a higher life form and deserves better treatment than you, has a moral right to live at your expense, would you listen?

Because most Americans would respond by saying, we all have a right to protect ourselves, Republicans rarely make this argument, though the system they love and thrive in is based on it. Instead, they spend most of their time telling you they are protecting your freedom, even when they are making sure caloric sodas are available in the lunchroom, or that you have no health insurance or job security.


This is the touchiest of my three topics, and again I am afraid you will simply stop reading or get angry at me. For your entire life, you have believed that abortion is immoral, that it is murder. I am not really trying to get you to drop this belief, but again, in ways similar to our talk about health insurance and unions, to look at some of its underpinnings.

Many of the people who have attempted to argue with you about abortion have tried to use various scientific evidence to convince you that a one celled or twelve celled or more complex fish-like foetus can't possibly be a person. I am going to simplify things by agreeing with you, for the sake of the conversation, that life begins at conception. This is not because I really believe this, but because the things I want to say appear to me to remain true even if life does begin at that moment.

As you've probably already figured out, I love conducting what I call "thought experiments". Here's a wild one: imagine that there is a species of vampire which look like beautiful children with curly blonde hair. They attach themselves to the necks of unsuspecting passersby and want to ride around on their backs, drinking their blood, for nine months.

That same goodlooking male Congressman whose Viagra is paid for by your taxes would be the first to grab his Second Amendment-protected Glock and blow that vampire right off his neck--and in doing so he would be exercising his ancient and universally accepted right of self defense. By the way, I know you were an NRA member for a while, when you were married, kept guns and enjoyed going to the shooting range. I also know you sensibly haven't kept a gun in your house since you've been alone with Eric.

Let's imagine now a group of people who rose up to argue that anyone bitten by a vampire had the moral obligation to allow it to stay there. What could they possibly base that viewpoint on, what argument could they make? It would have to be that somehow that vampire was a superior form of life (like the businessman in our union discussion) that through its very superiority, had the right, without your permission, to make use of your bloodstream.

I know you don't like vampire movies. Neither do I; they are creepy. They contain a barely-revealed idea that because vampires eat us, the rest of us are really just a kind of prey, are as obligated as the cows we keep for slaughter to permit others to feed upon us. Vampire movies have an aura of sadomasochism in fact.

Pardon me for saying I detect a strong tinge of sadism in the minds of anyone arguing a complete ban on abortion. Before you hate me for this, if you haven't already stopped reading because of the vampire metaphor, let's never forget that the abortion absolutists don't want a woman (or girl) to be able to get an abortion even in the case of rape or incest. I know this stand has always made you uncomfortable, that you don't like to think about it too much.

Carrying and then giving birth to a wanted baby is of course a wondrous thing, one of the most amazing, intense and life-affirming experiences a woman can have. But imagine for a second a fifteen year old girl raped by her uncle or a stranger who is required to bear that child, risking her own health and even her life in the process as you chose to do freely when you had Eric. On what basis can anyone tell her that she has a moral or legal obligation to take that risk? It can only be based on her inferiority in some way. In this case, she can be said to be obligated to bear any child violently implanted in her without her consent because she is female. Looked at this way, she has a moral obligation, because a girl, to give birth, because her womb apparently is not hers to dispose of, but a public resource.

Now, remember, a moment ago I acknowledged for the sake of argument, that the fetus is alive, is a person, from the moment of conception. But in the rest of life, we are constantly making decisions that one person has a right to live at another's expense. You can shoot someone who invades your house, or pulls a gun on you. Nobody would ever dream of ordering you to donate a kidney, even if it was absolutely "necessary" to save your brother's life, or that of the Viagra-buying politician. So what is the import, the real meaning, of a law which orders you to donate your body, your health and possibly your life to a rapist's child? It is the only example I can think of in American life or law where anyone is deemed to have an obligation to give up their life for another.


Like my examples above, about the poor, those without health care, the workers, the abortion example fits into the same narrative of a class society, in which your Republican representatives are really arguing that someone else has more rights than you--someone else who is wealthy, male, has great health coverage, and is a higher life form with a right to exploit you, to dispose of you and even of your body, because you are poorer, a worker, and female. Someone could believe he was superior to you and still be an honest man--if he told you, out loud, with no equivocation, "I am better than you." But the saddest, and most disgusting aspect of the behavior of your Republican politicians is the Big Lie: the bag of wind they are selling you that, even as they adopt policies which harm you, they are doing so to protect you, to ensure your liberty.

America is still a democracy, and they need your vote in order to be re-elected. But they are getting it by making promises-- to protect and take care of you--they have no intention to keep.

And they are dividing us from each other--the people who really do share interests. When you vote Republican, you are not just harming yourself, but other single moms trying to raise kids alone, and working families trying to keep a roof over their heads and afford to go to the doctor. So I want to start a conversation with you about how we might all stand together, and not with the blow-hards.