I just watched the passing of the American healthcare reform bill live on C-Span. As a Brit living in Japan, it couldn’t really have less of an impact on me and yet I have found the whole process endlessly fascinating and frustrating.
The reason I have got so caught up in it is because it shows the depths to which some people will sink to hold back progress if it is not in their own selfish interests. I watched with bemused amusement as Fox News spread lies and disinformation and Sarah Palin claimed that the healthcare reforms would lead to government “death panels”, and with horror as instead of laughing them out of the country, many people swallowed what they were told hook line and sinker.
This morning I have listened in confusion as caller after caller has phoned C-Span’s “oppose” phone-in line (there were also “agree” and “undecided” lines) to say things like “I am a Hispanic American living in Texas with no healthcare and I oppose this bill because it is against my human rights to be forced to have insurance” or (having watched over a year of previous debating and 5 hours of discussion and voting this evening that led to a narrow passing of the bill by democratic vote) “this bill is completely unfair, this country is a dictatorship!”.
It is this aspect of the whole thing that has caught my attention more than any other; it is the way the Republican party have been so effective in mobilizing exactly those people who have the most to gain from this bill to come out and campaign against it. And it has been the way in which such unwittingly exploited people have, with no sense of irony whatsoever, repeated messages of vitriol and hate fed to them in the name of freedom by people proven to be in the pockets of the insurance companies. I watched with disgust as, in a last ditch death-rattle, campaigners resorted to racist abuse and physical violence and, finally, with relief as the bill passed and America moved one step closer to a just society.
We owe it to ourselves to pay attention to this and to learn from it and apply those lessons to our own behaviour. Since its inception our political system has been moving slowly towards a fair and equal society but we still have very far to go and the pace of change is glacial. Since the beginning, change has been fraught with difficulties and hard won, when it has occurred. Until now, the real power has been in the hands of those with the money: the tobacco lobby held (and hold) back legislation that benefits thousands at the cost of far too many lives; we are watching now as the music industry pushes through unreasonable laws with the power to cause huge levels of harm in a desperate (and useless) attempt to claw back profit that is already far out of reach and the American insurance companies have today, finally, narrowly been defeated after a century of fighting.
We should be full of hope today, because, for the first time in human history we actually have a tool that gives us as much power as the lobbyists: we have the internet. Yet, I still watch with impotence as the lobbyists use their experience of the propaganda machine to take this weapon and turn it with immense skill on exactly those it should be empowering, and I am maddened by the apathy I see around me in those who, for the first time, have the ability to make a difference but who sit by and do nothing.
Now, we face the biggest and most important fight of not only our lives, but in the whole of human history. Once again, those with the money and the power are lobbying for the status quo. In an act of supreme short-sighted selfishness they are fighting to keep practices which, in their own lifetimes, will change the earth for the worse. The things we are fighting today do not just affect a few people who smoke, restrict internet access in one or two countries or prevent the poorest people in one nation from getting free healthcare; the things we are fighting for today affect every single living thing on this planet.
Once again, we are seeing the same old tactics; a few people with enough money to get their message heard in a small number of critical places are spreading lies and disinformation and, once again, they are successfully mobilizing those who do not know any better.
It is not the selfish few who frustrate me, nor is it the uneducated, gullible followers who innocently repeat the lies because they do not know any better. No. The people who frustrate me are you who DO know better and who DO understand the truth and yet who do nothing. 20, 10, even 5 years ago, I would have had some sympathy for the apathy. After all, when you are fighting a behemoth with such momentum, what difference can one voice make? But we aren’t one voice anymore. In the last 2 or 3 years a range of fantastic tools for making ourselves heard above the clamour of money have become available.
I am an activist. I am not ashamed that I am vocal about the campaigns I support. I don’t care if you find it irritating that every time you see a status update on Facebook it is me promoting my latest campaign, because everyone needs to understand that we do now have the power to change things, but only if we use it. It isn’t even difficult; you can set up a campaign in 5 minutes.
If you believe in any cause whatsoever and you do not fight for it, do not complain if the music industry manages to restrict your internet access.
If you believe in any cause, and you are too lazy to add your name to an internet petition to show the government that there is support for a measure, do not complain if your beloved BBC is destroyed by News Corp and other commercial organisations.
If you believe humans are behind global warming but you roll your eyes when someone sends you a template letter that you could email to your MP in under 20 seconds, do not expect sympathy because your home has been flooded by unusually heavy rain.
You have an opportunity that those who fought for an end to slavery, the emancipation of women or education for all would have wept to see.
If you are too apathetic to take advantage of that: Shame. On. You.
1. Or, in fact, 100 years if you include all the previous Presidents who have tried to get bills like this passed.
2. Sorry about the timezone thing, it’s been morning in Japan and nearly midnight yesterday in Washington DC