On the U.S. version of The Office, tasked with picking a health care plan for Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Dwight Schrute, assistant to the regional manager, prided himself on slashing benefits “to the bone” in an effort to save the company money. He rationalized his decision-making with the following thought: “In the wild, there is no health care. In the wild, health care is, ‘Ow, I hurt my leg. I can’t run. A lion eats me and I’m dead’.”
Dwight Schrute is, of course, a fictional character, and his attitude is an extreme one. Nevertheless, his mentality reflecting the notion that health care is no guarantee and the idea he needs to select a plan for his Scranton office at all are indicative of a very real issue facing Americans to this day. If health care is a right, why does it feel more like a jungle out here?
To this point, the Declaration speaks against discrimination based on any identifying characteristic. It opposes slavery, torture, and unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the courts. It asserts that all persons have the right to a nationality and to seek asylum from persecution. They also possess the right to marry, the right to their property, freedom of expression/thought and religion, and freedom to peaceably assemble and participate in government. Other stated liberties include the right to work for equal pay, the right to leisure, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to appreciate culture.
What is striking to Gjelten and others is how the UDHR is designed to be applicable across cultures, political systems, and religions. It is truly meant as a universal set of standards, one with secular appeal. That is, it is a human document, not a God-given list of commandments.
Then again, in some contexts, this last point might be a bone of contention. As Gjelten explains, Saudi Arabia abstained from the original unanimous United Nations Assembly vote because of issues with the Declaration’s views on family, marriage, and religious freedom, in particular the idea that one can freely change religions, which can be considered a crime. In general, some of the strongest objections to the language of the UDHR have come from the Islamic world, though this does not imply that Islamic law and these rights are incompatible.
There were others who abstained from the vote in 1948 as well, though. The Soviet Union and its bloc states were part of the eight abstentions, presumably because of the stipulation about people’s right to freely expatriate. South Africa, a country then predicated on racial segregation, was also part of the eight. Even some American conservatives at the time had their qualms about the UDHR’s wording, convinced the sentiments about economic rights sounded too socialist. Actually, that probably hasn’t changed all that much. In certain circles, socialism is indeed a dirty word.
The thrust of Gjelten’s piece is more than just admiration for the Declaration’s principles and the work of Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the UN commission responsible for drafting the document, though, deserved as that admiration is. 70 years after the fact, America’s commitment to upholding its articles is not above reproach. Furthermore, in an era when a growing sense of nationalism and resistance to “globalism” pervades politics here and abroad, the UDHR’s spirit of universality and international fraternity is seriously put to the test.
Gjelten cites two areas in which the country “still falls short” as a subset of the “struggles for civil and political rights that were yet to come” subsequent to the UDHR’s approval vote. One is equal pay for equal work, a topic which deserves its own separate analysis and, as such, I’m not about to litigate it at length here. Suffice it to say, however, that I—alongside many others—believe the gender gap is very real. It also disproportionately affects women of color, occurs across occupations and industries, and is frequently mediated by employer practices that rely on prior salary history as well as policies enforced in individual states designed to specifically disenfranchise female earners. Do with these thoughts as you will.
The other area in which the U.S. has fallen short, as alluded to earlier, is universal health care. Article 25 of the Declaration states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”
As a fact sheet on the right to health from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization elaborates, the right to health includes access to health care and hospitals, but it’s more than that. It includes safe drinking water, food, and adequate sanitation. It includes adequate housing and nutrition. It includes gender equality, healthy environmental and working conditions, and health-related education and information.
But yes—it does include the “right to a system of health protection providing equality of opportunity for everyone to enjoy the highest attainable level of health.” It doesn’t say this is a privilege only for those who can afford it.
This is an essential point in the health care “debate.” Should health care be a right for all? While you’re entitled to your opinion, Mr. or Ms. Schrute, if you say no, it’s hard to know how to continue the conversation beyond that. This applies both for naysayers on the left and on the right. Don’t hide behind the idea “we can’t afford it.” Don’t hide behind the Affordable Care Act, which is no guarantee to survive given repeated attempts to sabotage it. If you believe health care is a human right, let’s work backward from there. I mean, all these other countries have some form of single-payer health care. Why shouldn’t we—and don’t tell me it’s because we spend too much on our iPhones.
Tom Gjelten’s piece is more concerned with the history behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its formation. Like any good historian, though, he’s got a mind for the Declaration’s larger implications and its potential impact in the years and decades to come. Getting back to that whole growing nationalism thing, Gjelten notes how playing identity politics often draws strength from ethnic or religious conflict.
To be clear, this trend in increasing strife between different groups isn’t just an American phenomenon. Around the world, political leaders have risen to power by aggressively promoting division and/or appealing to a sense of national pride through brutality and curtailing human rights. Rodrigo Duterte. Xi Jinping. Narendra Modi. Viktor Orban. Vladimir Putin. Mohammed bin Salman. The list goes on. There will be more to come, too. Jair Bolsonaro was recently elected president in Brazil. His mindset carries with it a promise for a regressive shift in his country’s politics.
Still, even if we’re not the only ones coping with societal change, if America is truly the greatest country in the world, we should be setting the best example in terms of adherence to the UDHR’s principles. Meanwhile, even before Trump, our country’s commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been uneven.
Criminal sentencing/policing disparities and states’ insistence on use of the death penalty. The lack of a universal health care infrastructure. Failure to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, including women/girls, people with disabilities, and the LGBT+ community. War crimes overseas and at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Surveillance of global communications. And since Trump has taken office, our performance on these fronts has only gotten worse, notably in categories like foreign policy, the rights of non-citizens, and safeguarding First Amendment rights. If this is “America First” and “making America great again,” there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.
A lot of this may sound a bit too SJW for some. We should all respect one another’s rights. Everyone should be afforded the same opportunities to succeed. Let’s all hold hands and sing songs together around the campfire. I get it. There are practical considerations which complicate implementing solutions to global ills as well. Agencies and nations have to be willing to work together to achieve common goals, and who pays what is always a bother. On the latter note, I tend to think some cases are overstated or represented in a misleading way by politicians and the media. Cue the myriad “Bernie/AOC doesn’t know what he’s/she’s talking about” articles. Let’s all move closer to the center because it has worked so well for us until now.
The thing is that many of the principles covered by the UDHR reflect policy directions voters want and can agree on. When Republicans came to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, they were unsuccessful in part because of the public outcry in support of the ACA. Turns out people like being able to afford health care—who knew? Regarding equal pay for equal work, that shortfall for working women is one that whole families could use if given a fairer salary or wage. Not to mention it’s, you know, the morally right thing to do.
Though we may be susceptible to the words of political figures that would keep us at odds with each other (and secretly may even like it that way), we must continually put the onus on our elected officials to authentically represent all the people within their jurisdiction. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good place to start. As suggested before, let’s consider the change we hope to see before capitulating or saying “no” outright. A more equal America is one which will benefit all its inhabitants—from top to bottom and over the long term.
When Barack Obama stepped into office in 2009 and began signing executive orders, he was criticized vociferously by conservatives, Republicans, and the combination therein. Never mind that they were primed to look for any reason to hate on Obama—Sean Hannity even took time out to assail #44 for his choice of condiments on his burger, of all things—but the suggestion was that Barack Obama was content to rule by fiat rather than work with Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike. Not one to hold his feelings and opinions back, Donald Trump was among these vocal critics, regularly attacking the man who would eventually hand him the keys to the White House, so to speak, on matters of playing golf and issuing executive orders. Of course, now that “the Donald” is President, he spends more than a quarter of his time golfing—usually at one of his resorts and thereby costing the taxpayer while lining his own pockets. As for executive orders, Trump’s pace thus far is likewise hypocritical. As of this writing, Trump’s 49 executive orders puts him on pace to sign the most orders in 50 years. Now if only he could fill his Cabinet with this much alacrity and zeal!
This most recent Trump executive order is especially notable in the context of the apparent war waged by the GOP on affordable health care in the United States of America, as it specifically addresses the Affordable Care Act. Broadly speaking, the executive order is aimed at allowing small businesses skirt some of the requirements currently imposed by the ACA. One of its major functions is to ease the rules that govern the creation of “association health plans,” which are plans that can be created by small businesses across state lines through trade groups, theoretically designed to drive down insurance rates by increasing competition. As Bruce Japsen, a Forbes contributor, tells, however, AHPs don’t have a track record of great success. The idea of association health plans has existed for decades, but according to Japsen via those who have studied interstate insurance sales over time, these plans have not met with much efficacy. AHPs have been prone to cost-cutting methods which have also meant cutting the quality of service, not to mention they’ve been subject to their fair share of fraud and insolvency. As critics have outlined, there is increased risk of “essential health benefits” no longer being covered by these new plans, as well as fewer options and higher premiums on the individual market. In addition, in states where buying insurance across state lines already exists, plans that make use of this provision are sparse to nonexistent. As Japsen details, this “hasn’t worked in large part because plans haven’t wanted to spend the money contracting with more doctors and hospitals in areas they have no enrollees.” For consumers and insurers alike, the prospect of association health plans has been a losing proposition.
The other major function of President Trump’s executive order is to increase the limits by which insurance plans can be considered short-term insurance plans. Effectively, it would be undoing an Obama-era provision that narrowed the window to three months of eligibility for these plans—which are intended for people expected to be out of work only for a limited period of time. By expanding the period of time that these plans can be used by employers, which tend to offer fewer essential benefits and involve higher out-of-pocket costs, it is that much more likely that healthier people will use short-term plans to circumvent the ACA. With respect to the ACA plans, this likely will lead to higher premiums, fewer insurers, and thus, less competition and stability. Other than that, though, a great idea, eh?
Overall, the theme is one of offering less expansive health coverage while at the same time increasing premiums for the most vulnerable Americans, namely the elderly, the poor, and the sick—often one and the same given a previous inability to accrue savings or the simple fact of not having a steady source of income beyond supplemental avenues—and decreasing the number of available insurance options, all under the guise of cutting costs and creating competition among insurers. In other words, Trump’s executive order is not all it’s cracked up to be, which explains why opposition to it is so widespread, including from consumer groups, physicians groups, policy analysts, and state officials. While the very legality of this executive order has yet to be decided, as with a number of Pres. Trump’s directives in their original form, and while the order merely provides direction to government agencies with respect to how they should interpret elements of health care touched by the Affordable Care Act to alleviate financial burdens, it seems apparent that Trump is not altogether concerned with the long and short of what his own authorization contains, but rather merely that this will eat away at a significant portion of Barack Obama’s legacy as POTUS. This is to say that Donald Trump evidently is OK with ending the so-called “mess” that is ObamaCare whether it works or not, Tweeting as Americans threaten to slide down into the abyss.
And this is before we even get to the issue of ending Affordable Care Act subsidies. President Trump stated that he plans to end federal payments to insurers as part of cost-sharing reductions that allow consumers to manage their deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses. The timetable for this shift is—surprise!—unclear, although some believe the cutoff will arrive next month. Coincidentally—though likely not coincidentally—open enrollment for coverage through ACA marketplaces is set to begin in a few weeks. Accordingly, Trump has been charged with figuratively “throwing a bomb” into these marketplaces, the fallout of which would stand to disproportionately affect Americans in the states that voted him for in the presidential election. Thanks for your support, guys, but it’s time for you to pay more or die! It’s telling when Democrats are on the same side as health insurance companies on an issue, and when congressional Republicans are urging the President to continue these subsidies despite them being challenged in court by House GOP members. Speaking of the courts, a number of states have sued to stop the removal of these subsidies, and more lawsuits are apt to come from insurers and other concerned parties. Donald Trump’s move to essentially “gut” the Affordable Care Act may be his way of trying to push responsibility onto Congress and various federal agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, but it comes with real consequences. Might these consequences also come in the form of political damage for Trump and the rest of the GOP? Though his popularity has steadily declined, Trump has yet to really feel the brunt of strong criticism for his poor decision-making, especially among his supporters. Then again, if he f**ks with their health care, all bets might be off.
On the specific subject of these ACA subsidies—the main reason for the furor over Pres. Trump’s decision, at that—the debate seems to be a striking example of what is technically correct and what is morally correct. I alluded to the notion earlier that House Republicans have challenged the legitimacy of the subsidy payments. As a federal court decided, this challenge has merit. The Obama administration approved Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies that go directly to insurers in an effort to reduce the bottom line of the consumer. As the court found, however, this violates the Constitution because it involves the executive branch making appropriations and bypassing Congress to do it, a violation of the separation of powers doctrine fundamental to the idea of checks and balances. Additionally, by giving money to insurance companies, this, in theory, materially benefits them, though the companies allege consumers are the primary beneficiaries. It’s no small potatoes, either—we’re talking billions of dollars here. This is the aspect of the subsidies that Donald Trump, friend of the American people and of the little guy, has latched onto in explaining why he is choosing to end these subsidies so abruptly and why now. You know, because if this were truly a principle-of-the-thing kind of thing, wouldn’t you have ended the subsidy payments when you first got into office? Unless you were convinced that you and your Republican cronies were going to ram a repeal of the Affordable Care Act down our throats before it even got this far? I mean, did you even think about the matter this hard?
So, yes, CSR subsidies may not be technically constitutionally correct, and conservative publications and thinkers which shamelessly defend the President have already hailed this directive as a defense of law and order in these United States. Never mind his myriad potential other constitutional offenses and conflicts of interests—in the arena of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, Trump is A-OK. On the other hand—and this is the critical point in all this discussion of the Affordable Care Act, subsidies, and making affordable health care less a luxury and more a right (as it should be)—to yank away these subsidies suddenly like a rug under the feet of average Americans, as many would argue, is not the morally advisable course of action. Even Trump’s boasting on Twitter about hurting the stocks of health insurers smacks of an emotional disconnect with the consumer. While few would or should feel bad for corporations, which do not have feelings and don’t exist outside of the world of legal entities, having share prices dive affects shareholders, and could even result in employees within these companies losing jobs. There are real people behind the dollars and cents that go up and down. It’s not a game.
Of course, Donald Trump’s moral compass has long been suspect in its utility as a guide, if not completely broken. As such, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised he would put himself at odds with the needs of his constituents, let alone the wishes of his Republican comrades in his adopted party, many of whom are likely to face stiff contests in 2018 in midterm elections, let alone GOP primaries leading up to the big shebang. Already, if Roy Moore’s defeat of Luther Strange in Alabama to fill the vacancy left by Jeff Sessions when he became Attorney General is any indication, “establishment” candidates/incumbents are facing a voting public that has soured on Congress’s well-established tradition of being inefficient and ineffectual in representing the needs of the working class and middle-class America, demographics on the seeming decline as they are. Thus, while Trump himself may be safe given that incumbent Presidents seeking re-election tend to be victorious and that Democrats seem unlikely to unite behind a sufficiently progressive candidate, if voters connect the dots between failures in health care and a faulty GOP health care strategy, contested seats may not be as secure as Republican congressional leaders might otherwise be led to believe.
Donald Trump, in his usual grandiose style, stated that there is no more such thing as ObamaCare, that it is “dead” and “gone.” Also as usual, his rhetoric is misleading. Trump’s executive order and his intended end to subsidized lower insurance costs through the Affordable Care Act would be devastating to insurance marketplaces, an effect exacerbated by the timing of this decision/its proximity to open enrollment. However, without a satisfactory plan waiting in the wings, #45 is invoking the name of congressional Democrats and Republicans and insisting that the two sides work together for the sake of a “short-term fix.” This is not how good political leaders operate: by coercing lawmakers into action, including those of his own adopted party, and encouraging a standoff between the executive and the legislature. It’s bullying, and it’s a refusal to own his own failure in being unable to negotiate a deal that would see a credible surrogate for the ACA. Meanwhile, at least 18 states are suing to block a halt to the CSR subsidies, with insurance premiums and federal budget deficits set to increase significantly if Trump’s plan—if you can even call it a plan—comes to fruition. That’s not just bad for insurance companies and the senators who have counted them among their biggest donors. That’s bad for the entire nation.
In the name of his own vanity, President Donald Trump aims to throw a wrench into the workings of the Affordable Care Act as a means of somehow erasing Barack Obama’s legacy. Obama’s historic presidency, however, is more than just the sum of the legislation he signed into law, and while Obama was far from perfect as leader of the country, he is light-years ahead of Trump in intellect, moral fiber, and professionalism. As aforementioned, thus far, not much in the way of negative associations have stuck with Teflon Don, during his tenure as POTUS or, for that matter, in light of his overrated track record as a businessman and entrepreneur. Perhaps through the lens of TrumpCare, though, the shine on his unnaturally orange visage will begin to fade.
In a March 2016 town hall event in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Donald Trump expressed the belief that women should be punished for having an abortion. The due outrage was swift to follow, as were Trump’s attempts to modify or recant on his remarks. No, he meant that doctors should be punished for performing these procedures. No, wait—women were punishing themselves for getting abortions. Yes—that’s the ticket! Actually, hold on—are the evangelicals listening? Then women definitely should be punished in some way for aborting their baby. Absolutely. I’ve believed this all of my life—except in 1999 when I said that I was “very pro-choice.” Trump’s expressed opinions on this subject may as well as have been a magic 8-ball. Wait a few minutes and shake—you were liable to get a different answer depending on his mood and his audience.
Trump may have waffled on the issue of abortion as he did on the issue of support of the Iraq War—he claims he didn’t support it, but he totally f**king did—but as far as his pandering to conservative interests went, like a lawyer who makes an extreme allusion only to have his or her line of questioning instructed by the judge of the jury to be disregarded, he got his point across. For the Christians who hold a deep distaste for abortion as a sin and tantamount to murder, and who are yet more resolute than he, Donald Trump was their man. Bringing Mike Pence along as his choice for Vice President only affirmed his commitment to the religious right. Despite his dearth of knowledge of the Bible (or, for that matter, most books intended to be read by adults), and despite his decidedly un-Christian remarks about various minority groups and particularly lewd comments about women, on this issue and perhaps other choice topics (e.g. bringing jobs back to America, immigration, terrorism), Trump’s supporters evidently could forgive and forget. After all, if some of these individuals would be willing to do something as crazy as firebomb a Planned Parenthood center over their antipathy toward abortion—a small portion, granted, but still—then voting for Trump was, if not less crazy, then certainly eminently more legal.
Republican politicians, when not precisely enunciating their views on abortion, will frequently defer to one of two stock positions so as not to alienate voters and yet still communicate a satisfactory enough answer to the desired constituency. The first is something to the effect of, “Roe v. Wade is the law of the land (presumably, they would throw their hands up at this point), but I would support the Supreme Court overturning that decision.” Never mind that a majority of Americans oppose such a reversal, including a majority of moderate and liberal Republicans (apparently, they do exist) who disagree with a complete overturning of this decision. The other standard response: “Well, Anderson, I feel abortion and reproductive rights are a matter best left to the states.” Beautiful. Not only does this raise the possibility of abortion being banned by law in the individual’s jurisdiction, but it specifically sticks it to the federal government. Tell me what kind of meat I can and can’t eat! A pox on your standards, I say! Besides, going back to Roe v. Wade, seeing as this landmark decision has survived for decades without being reversed, the more prudent move for GOP politicians and supporters may be to try their luck at the state level.
Unfortunately for the pro-choice crowd, Republican pro-life forces have more than just simple luck at their disposal, controlling as many state legislatures and governor seats as they do. With this in mind, it’s no wonder some scary pieces of legislation have and continue to be advanced in red states across America. In Texas, Senate Bill 8 would, if passed, allow those who drive women seeking abortions to clinics as effective accessories to a crime. In Oklahoma, legislators passed a non-binding resolution to force officials to equate abortion with murder, and one particular Oklahoma representative dared to insinuate as part of his anti-abortion agenda that cases of pregnancy by rape and incest could be considered “God’s will.” Kansas Republicans, in requiring doctors to provide additional information to women considering abortions, even specified what font, size, and color of paper and ink must be used in furnishing this information. The list goes on. In particular, minors seeking abortions are heavy targets of these kinds of provisions, such that if the potential embarrassment of an unintended pregnancy or having to receive permission from one’s parents is not bad enough, additional legal hurdles and the threat of jail time exacerbate the situation. Apparently, it’s worth it to make young people feel like shit and risk them taking matters into their own hands. Thanks for the life lessons, GOP.
The hardline stance of those on the right against abortion and even access to contraceptives is nothing new. For that matter, it speaks to a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist attitude that equates babies being born out of wedlock or even sex without the express purpose of procreation as sinful. With Roe v. Wade serving as established legal precedent, meanwhile, as much as overt maneuvers to all but outlaw abortion in name bear scrutiny for their relentless advancement of a pro-life cause, policies which seem more benign and would even superficially seem to show genuine concern for women’s reproductive health also deserve to be analyzed. In Florida, Governor Rick Scott recently signed into law the Grieving Families Act, which provides for issuance of a birth certificate of sorts upon request for women who have miscarriages between nine and 20 weeks of gestation starting July 1. The measure had support from both Democratic and Republican state legislators. OK, you’re thinking, this is good, right? Bilateral political support, recognition of the intensity of emotion surrounding pregnancy, especially one that ends early—no problem here.
Not so fast. This is Rick Scott we’re talking about here, a man who, as governor of the state of Florida, has signed bills that have eliminated funding for Planned Parenthood and imposed additional restrictions on abortions, as well as a measure that requires women to wait 24 hours and visit a doctor before going through with the procedure. Also, the Grieving Families Act was vocally opposed by the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women, who, you would suppose, would tend to have women and their best interests in mind. Might there be a hidden abortion-related subtext to this legislation? You bet your “certificate of nonviable birth,” there is. Without mentioning abortion, the Act suggests that life starts at nine weeks, while at the same time obliquely referencing the 20-week threshold by which right-oriented politicians have sought to cap abortions nationwide.
This is why Florida’s iteration of NOW chose to voice their opposition to the bill: it is a stepping stone to legally defining when life begins and thereby reducing lawful abortions. According to a report for Associated Press by Brendan Farrington, Planned Parenthood was neutral on the Grieving Families Act before being signed by Gov. Scott, and between Democrats and Republicans, only one “no” vote was recorded between the state Senate and House. It’s disturbing, because it’s not hard to connect the dots between awarding “birth” certificates for miscarriages and trying to change the law on abortion. Sure, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Cortes, claims there is no anti-abortion aspect and that he worked with Democrats to make sure they were “comfortable” with the language of the bill. In my mind, however, this only makes the construction of this legislation more suspect, and of the Democrats who voted “yes” on the Grieving Families Act, at best, they appear easily duped, and at worst, complacent or complicit with what Florida GOP members are trying to achieve with respect to curtailing women’s reproductive rights.
Supporters of the Grieving Families Act maintain that there is no mandate regarding issuance of these certificates of nonviable birth, hence there should be no need for such a fuss over the provisions effected by this legislation. If you want a certificate to help you grieve over the loss of a child, then get one. If you don’t, don’t. Quit your bitching, am I right? Again, not so fast. While likewise unstated, there is another level of implication to the Act that makes you believe there is more to the story than altruistically helping women and their families cope. Danielle Campoamor, writing for the website Romper, also has issues with the mentality behind Florida’s new law. Aside from her belief that the law is just one in an ongoing line of the kind of legislation created by Republicans nationwide to try to restrict women’s choices—like attempts elsewhere to mandate burials for aborted fetuses or to bar women and the clinics they attend from donating fetal tissue for medical research—Campoamor draws from her own personal experiences as someone who has suffered a miscarriage to offer her viewpoint that grief is but one emotion experienced by women like her, and as such, Bob Cortes and others who think like him are really projecting certain feelings onto the female portion of their electorate. She explains:
Issuing a birth certificate to a miscarried fetus that was never born might help some women grieve. But it also poses a threat to women’s reproductive rights by establishing personhood at the early stages of gestation. Perhaps more importantly, the bill is predicated on the belief that women can and should only have one emotion related to pregnancy loss, and that emotion should be grief. But the reality is so much more complicated than that.
As a woman who has had an abortion, lost multiple pregnancies, and given birth, I can say with the utmost certainty that there is no “one way” to respond to pregnancy, pregnancy loss, or childbirth. With a positive pregnancy test in my shaking hands, I was both excited and terrified, unsure and steadfast in my decision to be a mother. And during my miscarriage, I felt both sad and relieved that even though I wanted to have another child, that time wouldn’t be now. I wouldn’t have to navigate the difficulties of parenting two children while working, and I wouldn’t have to go through another potentially high-risk pregnancy. My life would stay the same.
As Danielle Campoamor goes on to write about, not only do women who have miscarriages often not suffer from grief, but they frequently are made to feel guilty as part of some sort of odd stigma, as if they are “shitty human beings” for not being able to “keep a pregnancy.” To some, it may even sound absurd, but then again, our President, en route to the White House, suggested the moderator of a Republican debate (Megyn Kelly, then with FOX News) was going after him on matters of policy especially hard because she was menstruating, not merely because she was doing her job. If stigma about women’s periods, a normal biological function, still exists in this day and age, it is perhaps no wonder that women are made to feel inadequate for miscarrying, or for feeling like a cold-blooded killer for daring to end their pregnancy on their terms. Besides, and to stress, if naysayers on the right want to limit abortions, they should insist on the use of contraceptives and other forms of healthy sexual activity. Then again, that brings up the whole “sex is wrong even though it made you and it feels really good and you should hate yourself for liking it so much” argument, and we just end up talking in circles. Let’s just have men and women limit their physicality to holding hands and force them to sleep in separate beds. That’ll do the trick.
Campoamor closes her post with musings on the larger societal attitudes behind pregnancy, miscarriages, and abortions, as well as the implicit sexist bias that marks creations like the Grieving Families Act:
The Grieving Families Act, and other like-minded bills, establishes a narrow, prescribed relationship women should have with their pregnancies. It perpetuates the sexist trope that all women want to be mothers first, foremost, and always. It fortifies the notion that every woman will face the loss of a pregnancy the very same way, stumbling through the stages of grief and in need of some sort of reprieve. It positions motherhood as less of a choice and more of an inevitability, telling women that if they are not devastated by a miscarriage, they’re intrinsically defunct, all the while attempting to establish legal personhood that would give a fetus more rights than the mother.
Women are more than [their] ability to reproduce, and while we must continue to support those women who do suffer through miscarriage, we must also be willing to support those women who do not see a pregnancy loss as cause for suffering, but as a welcomed grace. If we are to champion motherhood as a worthwhile life choice, we must also be willing to celebrate those who choose not to become mothers, or those who want to become mothers but are unable to do so. Most importantly, we must remind women that any time they see a positive pregnancy test, or any time they are faced with the loss of a pregnancy, there’s no one “right” way to feel about it.
Agreed, Danielle, in particular because human beings are so complex, not to mention that they should have control over their life choices and should not have fewer rights than, say, a fetus or someone who rapes or abuses them. As referenced before, the conservative agenda against abortion and a woman’s right to choose is well apparent, especially as it turns confrontational and even violent. Less obvious attempts to define life and the sentiments surrounding pregnancy for women right down to how they should feel, however, also must be guarded against. The Grieving Families Act and its supporters would have you believe it exists only to aid women and families in dealing with the unexpected loss of a child. Those of us who can look past the palatable language of the law, on the other hand, know better, and see only the greasing of an already-slippery slope to punishing women for having abortions. As with Donald Trump and his myriad positions on the subject, and once more invoking the image of the attorney advancing an idea only to have it be stricken from the official record, you don’t actually have to spell it out to get the point across.
What if I told you there were a way for the United States of America to save, up front, tens of billions of dollars? Access to health care would drastically improve. Individuals, families, and businesses alike would experience less of a financial and logistical burden, and doctors and patients would be empowered regarding the decisions made in the interest of the latter. Other areas tied to health care would also stand to benefit from the reduced complexity of the new system and the relief over who is and who isn’t insured or otherwise cannot afford critical procedures. On top of all this, such a framework is already being used to great success elsewhere in the world. Sounds great, right? We should be jumping at the chance as a nation to implement such a system, no?
In case it were not already apparent, I’m referring to a single-payer health insurance system, which, in this country, would take the form of a Medicare-for-all paradigm. Hmm, are you still as enthusiastic?
I’m guessing there are those of who you aren’t, whether you’re a staunch Republican, a Democratic loyalist, or none of the above. Advocacy for a single-payer public insurance system was one of the cornerstones of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, but it was one of the most commonly assailed elements of his platform alongside the notion of free college tuition for public schools. As was the running theme from his detractors, the idea sounded great, but practically speaking, it had no chance of becoming reality. On some level, I tend to think the plausibility of Bernie’s proposed policies got and still does get conflated with the likelihood of him becoming a finalist, if you will, in a presidential race. However you slice it, Sanders was fighting an uphill battle in capturing the Democratic Party nomination ahead of Clinton. Still, for all those convinced a Medicare-for-all system in the U.S. would be a disaster in the making, might there be more to the story than even these self-professed experts realize? That is, could the concept of a single-payer insurance plan not only have merit, but also be exactly what this country needs?
First things first, let’s discuss what a single-payer health insurance system involves at its most elemental, and then we can better explore the case for implementing such a system nationwide. To do that, we’ll consult Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), an organization devoted explicitly to advocacy for a universal, single-payer national healthcare program. PNHP, as part of its work, strives to furnish a more informed debate on how to address health care in the United States, and it offers a wealth of information and resources to this point. According to the organization, single-payer national health insurance is a system in which a single public or quasi-public agency organizes health financing, but delivery of care remains largely private. For those of you who hear “public agency” and start frothing at the mouth, yes, the government would be involved in the administration of a Medicare-for-all program. Before you get carried away, however, let’s directly and immediately address what this entails, and what it does not.
1. Single-payer health insurance does not require steep tax hikes.
As Physicians for a National Health Program explains, indeed, an additional tax will be needed to cover the costs of a national single-payer system, one described as “modest” and based on ability to pay. Now, I see you breaking out your pitchforks and torches there, but hold on a minute, would you? An estimated 95% of households—what I consider to be a significant majority—would ultimately save owing to not having to pay premiums (including co-pays and deductibles), as they do under private insurance plans. In other words, you’d give a little, but get a lot in return.
2. Single-payer is not socialized medicine.
Republican politicians often like to dangle the specter of socialism and vague notions of government overreach to scare voters away from a superior policy option. In this instance, arguments against Medicare-for-all or even the Affordable Care Act are designed to distract from scrutiny of the American Health Care Act, the intended GOP replacement for the ACA and a piece of legislation so flawed no Republican—not even Donald Trump—wants to be associated with by name. Which is, ahem, exactly why it should be referred to as TrumpCare or RyanCare.
With specific regard to a single-payer program, the association with socialized medicine is one that is used to obscure and deflect. Socialized medicine is when facilities are owned by the government, and health professionals are on the public payroll. This is how it works in England, or even with the VA in the States. A Medicare-for-all, national health insurance system only socializes the administration of this insurance, not the care itself. Patients would be able to choose their doctor and hospital, and doctors would be afforded greater autonomy in their own right.
3. Medicare-for-all is not unaffordable.
Double negative, apologies, but I’m most concerned with the underlying concept here. I noted earlier how individuals and companies would benefit by no longer having to fuss around with co-pays and the like, but the American economy stands to gain at large from a single-payer framework. Nearly a third of current health spending in the United States today belongs to administrative expenses. As President Trump has learned the hard way, health care is complicated, and the price tag for billing, marketing, underwriting and other overhead activities is estimated to cost us some $400 billion. A year. Recouping that money alone would be sufficient to cover a Medicare-for-all health care system. So much waste—and so much of it preventable, too.
4. Single-payer insurance does not result in rationed care.
One of the biggest points of the hit piece regularly levied against universal health care is that it rations care. Unbearable wait times! You’ll die before you get to see a doctor! You mean as opposed to the current system in the United States, where you basically have insurance only if you can afford it? That’s rationing too, bruh! Some 30,000 Americans die every year because they can’t afford health insurance, and still more forgo procedures and treatments because of refusals of insurers to cover them. The extent to which delays are experienced in any single-payer system is a function of that system’s capacity and the ability of the associated government to manage the patient load, and as such, long waits are not an inherent condition of universal health care. Besides, and I don’t know about you, but I would rather wait a little longer to be seen by a doctor than, um, die.
5. Approval for a national health care system is not a minority opinion.
Establishment politicians on both sides of the aisle would try to convince you that a national health program isn’t desirable, or in the case of the more conservative ones, bad for business. Poppycock and hogwash, I say! For starters, on the dimension of business, a single-payer system would actually be a boon, as employers would no longer be burdened by administrative tasks related to health care and health insurance, and would thus be better able to focus on their core functions. Irrespective of what a Medicare-for-all program would stand to do for companies and their management, though, doctors and their patients alike see the writing on the wall when it comes to the merits of universal health care. Nearly 60% of Americans support a single-payer health insurance program in the United States, and four in ten Republicans also favor such an approach. This complements a similar percentage of doctors who have been, for close to a decade now, calling for a national health insurance system. This polling data begs the question: if Medicare-for-all/single-payer is so bad, why do so many of us want it?
In trumpeting the support of a majority of Americans who favor a single-payer health insurance format in the United States, it should be duly noted that a good portion of the constituency does not. For some, notably on the Democratic Party side of things and ever mindful of the legacy of Barack Obama, upholding the Affordable Care Act seems to be sufficient. To be sure, in the short term, resisting attempts by Donald Trump and Co. to eviscerate the ACA and elements of the social safety net is important—bigly important, at that. Still, a side-by-side comparison of a proposed Medicare-for-all plan and the current legislation in place regarding health care/health insurance makes the flaws in ObamaCare stand out, and arguably gives Republicans more fodder in trying to convince the public to get behind repealing and replacing it. Once again, Physicians for a National Health Program has a handy guide as to why the Affordable Care Act, though leaps and bounds ahead of the AHCA, yet falls short of being, ahem, what the doctor ordered when it comes to what is ailing health care in the U.S. Here are the salient points from this study of contrasts:
1. The Affordable Care Act still leaves millions of Americans without coverage.
An estimated 30 million Americans will go without health insurance by 2022 if current projections and trends hold. For a nation as affluent as the United States, that’s appalling, and this figure doesn’t even begin to consider the tens of millions who remain underinsured, and as alluded to earlier, intentionally bypass recommended medically necessary procedures because they can’t afford them, or otherwise believe they can’t. Medicare-for-all, meanwhile, offers health care for everyone, as the name implies.
2. Under the ACA, patients are not offered a full range of benefits.
In a seemingly very backward state of affairs, employers and other insurers tend to offer fewer health benefits and yet require higher co-pays and deductibles as we go along. That’s borderline insane. Under Medicare-for-all, all medical necessary services would be covered.
3. In a single-payer system, the country would save money. With what is currently in place, costs would only skyrocket.
To reiterate, with Medicare-for-all, we’d be saving about $400 billion with no net increase in health spending. Over the next ten years, if health care in America remains unchanged, costs would increase by more than $1 trillion. Trillion. Again, craziness, especially if plans offered by insurers are getting more draconian with each passing year.
4. In a single-payer system, patients would be allowed free choice of doctor and hospital. In the current system, denials and limitations of service abound, and networks continue to be restricted.
How often have you heard or experienced situations in which an individual wants to see a specialist or undergo a procedure, but that function or professional is not covered by his or her health insurance plan? Or worse, what about a situation in which a patient, unbeknownst to him or her, is attended by a doctor not included in his or insurer’s network, and is hit with a disproportionate charge on his or her bill as a consequence of this care, the likes of which may be nominal attention at best? These are all-too-common scenarios under the current health care framework, which disempowers both doctor and patient. Within a Medicare-for-all paradigm, patients would be afforded their choice of facility and physician.
5. The Affordable Care Act does not rectify inequality in costs between the wealthy and lower-to-middle classes.
Because funding for a Medicare-for-all system would be based on a progressive tax system that draws revenue from income and wealth taxes, and because premiums and out-of-pocket costs are replaced by these taxes, not only would 19 out of 20 Americans pay less than they do now, but health care administration would run more smoothly and fairly. Currently, health care costs are disproportionately paid by poorer Americans, especially those facing or suffering from acute and chronic illness. Which, honestly, if you’re surprised about, you perhaps suffer from some form of break with reality or a particular condition that yields delusions.
So, single-payer health insurance would save Americans time, money, energy, and grief. It is loads better than the American Health Care Act, and it surpasses the Affordable Care Act, a well-intentioned but structurally flawed bit of policy. Moreover, internationally, there are plenty of successful models from which to choose, including those of Australia, Canada, France, Spain, and Taiwan. A majority of Americans supports it. Why aren’t we progressing faster and further on this issue even at the state level? Well, the potential answers are manifold, but as is so frequently the case, it helps to follow the money. Indeed, understanding resistance becomes that much easier when we consider who stands to lose from the implementation of a Medicare-for-all system, or better yet, who has been profiting handsomely from today’s confusing and fragmented market. The following are some of the key players in the opposition of universal health care:
When you stop to think about it, it’s kind of a shitty thing for insurance companies to make such heavy profits on something that could very well mean life or death for the health care seeker. And yet they do, and where this revenue stream exists, you’ll usually find a voice against single-payer. Take AARP. You might think an organization devoted to the well-being and empowerment of retirees would support a program that would stand to help a population worth the advocacy and extra protection. You’d be wrong. AARP makes about a quarter of its money via UnitedHealthcare, the largest for-profit insurance company in the nation, and so its support for the Affordable Care Act is about all the Association can muster. Public insurance would almost certainly rein in the health insurance industry to a considerable extent, and to this end, the private insurance lobby has devoted a commensurately large amount of resources to try to keep it down.
Not our pharmaceutical companies, forever motivated by the highest ethical and moral standards! That’s right, kids: Big Pharma doesn’t like the idea of Americans importing prescription drugs from Canada at reduced rates, and they certainly do not like the idea of the government negotiating drug prices on behalf of the consumer and buying in bulk so as to make their products more affordable. The entrenchment of the pharmaceutical industry in our everyday lives is apparent from anyone who has watched television for, like, an hour. “Moderate to severe” illnesses. “Possible side effects” include. Shit, that you probably know what to do in case of a four-hour erection just speaks to the tight grip Big Pharma has on this country, as does your likely familiarity with who Martin Shkreli is and the absurd practice of jacking up prices of drugs like EpiPen at a moment’s notice. In the Wild West of the prescription drug market, drug makers see a no-nonsense sheriff looming in Medicare-for-all—and make no mistake, they ain’t fixin’ to stand by and let it try to restore order. No siree.
Conservatives in business and government who bank on “free-market” economics
Conservative Republicans love the theory behind the power of the free market, and hate what they perceive to be government interference in the due course of business. What has aided the GOP in their electoral aspirations and their attempts to dismantle the ACA is the American people’s own distrust of government and pursuit of wealth. As you might expect, there are serious problems with simply allowing health care to take care of itself under the premise that allowing people to make choices without the federal government interceding always leaves consumers better off. Critical to understanding this debate is realizing visions of a “free” market in health care are all but illusions. The peculiarities of this industry are such that consumers rarely possess the sort of content knowledge adequate enough to participate in an informed negotiation with the seller, be that the facility performing the requested service, the pharmaceutical company selling the drugs, the medical equipment company selling the paraphernalia, the private insurance company selling the plan, or some combination therein.
Even assuming end users can reasonably close this knowledge gap, however, there is still the matter of prices being less than transparent and subject to change, not to mention subject to variance across states and dependent on whether people/families can afford to pay. On top of all this, and perhaps most importantly, so much of health care is not based on want, but need. If you need a reasonably complicated form of treatment, or a prescription drug that is fairly expensive to manufacture, you need health insurance, or else you are paying exorbitant amounts out of pocket—and even then you might be out of luck if supply is on the short side and prices shoot up with demand. Breaking this whole situation down to its essential point, we, the consumers, have little bargaining power when it comes to trying to negotiate a fair deal, and as costs get shifted to out-of-pocket expenses, those who genuine lack the ability to pay are more frequently disadvantaged, and the companies and wealthy individuals that have a vested interest in generating profit from health care and health insurance tend to benefit. In other words, free-market principles applied to health care in the United States are fundamentally about redistribution of costs—and in a way that is pretty much guaranteed not to be in your favor.
So far, a number of states have tried to pass some form of single-payer legislation, and in the case of the state of Vermont, it actually went into effect before being repealed a few short years later. In terms of current attempts to enact a public health insurance system on a state level, perhaps the most notable examples are those of California and New York, if for no other reason than they are big states, electorally speaking. As you might expect, though, these initiatives have been targeted by more than their fair share of hit pieces and smear campaigns. In the Golden State, there are scare-tactic specials such as a piece in the Sacramento Bee entitled “The price tag on universal health care is in, and it’s bigger than California’s budget.” Which, technically, is true, but still lower than the current price tag, as author, radio host, and one-time Green Party vice presidential candidate Pat LaMarche explains. In the Empire State, meanwhile, you have the likes of Bill Hammond, director of health policy at the conservative think tank Empire Center, being given a platform by the New York Post to deride New York Democrats’ push for single-payer health care as a “lunatic” endeavor. Well, Gerald Friedman, economics professor and department chair at UMass – Amherst says the Dems’ proposed plan would not only save lives and money over time, but create some 200,000 jobs. Dude’s got a PhD, too, so suck on that, Hammond!
Noting the hurdles faced in individual states to get single-payer plans approved and sustained, maybe it’s just as well that we think bigger as a country and fully get behind Medicare-for-all health care. After all, the legislation is ready and waiting. In the House of Representatives, H.R. 676, the Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act, was introduced by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan’s 13th District (the Fightin’ 13th!) and referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce back in January. Since that time, it has also been referred to the House Ways and Means and House Natural Resources Committees, and 112 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors, a record-breaking number. As for the Senate, three guesses as to who plans to introduce a version of this bill. If you aren’t thinking about a certain senator and unabashed democratic socialist from Vermont, well, you very well may not know your ass from a hole in the ground.
Granted, in the very short term, this means little without Republican support, and to be clear, not one GOP legislator has signed on as a co-sponsor of H.R. 676. We would expect similar treatment in the Senate; if Tom Price’s confirmation as Secretary of Health and Human Services is any indication, Republican legislators will actively try to rig health care to the benefit of moneyed interests. This does not mean that the effort is an unworthy one, however. The more that GOP leaders push a more deeply flawed replacement (AHCA) for an already-flawed health care system (ACA), the more that people understand that single-payer national insurance exists and is effective the world over, and the more single-payer legislation is advanced on a state-by-state basis, the more momentum builds for a credible solution to our health care crisis and politicians who will rise to the challenge of meeting the needs of their constituents. Because it is a crisis. Try telling the families of the people who have died as a result of not having health insurance it’s not.
So, seriously—it’s time for Medicare-for-all/single-payer health insurance in this country. We’ve waited long enough, and in truth, we the people can’t afford to wait any longer.
This just in: the Liberal government in charge of Canada is set to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana nationwide by Canada Day, 2018. According to David Cochrane, senior reporter for CBC News, the move comes after a recommendation by a federally appointed task force, and while it will be the job of the Canadian government to make sure the substance is safe and secure as well as to issue licenses to producers, the individual Canadian provinces will have the right to decide how the marijuana is distributed, priced, and sold, and may increase the minimum age limit of 18 if they wish.
This intended policy shift is significant for a number of reasons. For one, if ratified, it would take effect in less than a year-and-a-half. Secondly, Canada would be one of the few countries to legalize marijuana, as opposed to merely just decriminalizing it. There are, of course, limits on how much marijuana one can cultivate, and again, there may be additional constraints imposed by provincial governments, but this is a critical distinction. Thirdly, that this change would occur so close to home makes for an intriguing juxtaposition next to the state of drug laws in the United States and the perpetuation of the so-called “war on drugs.” Marijuana is a linchpin in the drug war in America, with nearly half of all drug-related arrests relating to this substance. I’m sure you don’t need me to enumerate the points of rhetoric on the dangers of marijuana. It’s a “gateway drug.” It’s as bad as cocaine or heroin. If you use it, you will do nothing but stay in your parents’ basement all day, playing video games and eating cheese curls. OK, so the last one, at least, is distinctly possible, but chances are you were going to end up like that—pot or not.
As with any established system of beliefs at the intersection of health, medicine, and morality, though, the veracity of these ideas merits scrutiny, especially considering how lives may be negatively impacted by enforcement of existing statutes. In 2016, Adam Conover, host of the show Adam Ruins Everything and regular author of content for the website CollegeHumor, produced a segment on marijuana, as he has done with a number of varied subjects, debunking associated myths and largely bumming out people with his revelations, at least in the context of the fictional encounters depicted in the program. Within the segment, Conover and his team of researchers provide counterarguments to the kind of rhetoric referenced above, averring:
1. For most people, weed is essentially harmless.
Do note the qualifier “essentially.” Adam Conover suggests that for individuals under the age of 25, marijuana can impact cognitive function and negatively impact memory, but once one’s brain is fully formed, this risk is all but negated. And next to alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is nowhere near as lethal—if at all.
2. Marijuana isn’t a gateway drug.
As Conover explains, most people who smoke weed don’t even continue to do so. In other words, cannabis isn’t even a gateway to more cannabis, let alone a gateway to hard drugs.
3. Marijuana has been used by people for millennia, and in America, was available for many years as part of over-the-counter medications.
Conover and Co. cite records detailing cannabis being grown some 8,000 years ago, as well as the writings of Herodotus back in 440 BCE in reference to cannabis steam baths. Here in the US of A, marijuana was legal for much of the country’s history, and was even advertised and used in medicines sold over the counter. To put it, ahem, bluntly, weed has been socially acceptable for longer than it hasn’t. So, ahem, put that it in your pipe and smoke it. OK—I’m done with the bad marijuana jokes. Maybe.
So, what gives? Why all the bluster and vilification of marijuana and the people who would legally smoke it? There’s a sordid history here, and a lot of it has to do with deliberate attempts to marginalize specific groups of people. The key events in U.S. history relating to the criminalization of cannabis, as highlighted by Adam Conover:
Facing a looming funding shortage to his agency, Henry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, decided to use marijuana as the centerpiece of a smear campaign of the drug itself and of people who could be used as political capital in helping influence drug policy. Anslinger published findings and testified before Congress, declaring marijuana a drug that causes insanity and violent rage in its users, and pointed to its use by Mexicans, a group already disliked by the jingoists among us. (Some 75+ years later, it appears not much has changed.) The seeds were planted for a crusade against cannabis—the wrong kind of seeds indeed, from the marijuana-smoker’s perspective, anyway.
With the assassination of marijuana as a dangerous drug and of certain “undesirables” well underway, Congress passed a bill to prohibit the use of marijuana as illegal, and later, with Anslinger’s help, established mandatory minimum sentencing laws that could land first-time users in jail to the tune of two to 10 years. Ouch.
By this point, it was well known by the federal government that marijuana was not the danger it had been made out to be. A bipartisan commission actually recommended to President Richard Nixon that marijuana be decriminalized, i.e. that offenders, especially first-time offenders, be given fines or otherwise be free from arrest or prison time. Ol’ Tricky Dick, though, apparently would have none of it, or as the video terms it, “had no chill.” Instead, marijuana became a top focus of what is known as the “war on drugs.”
What is most significant is not what Nixon decided, but why he did. Was his refusal to decriminalize marijuana really just designed to curb the deleterious effects of drugs on the American people, or did something more decidedly sinister motivate his actions? If what former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman says is true, the latter condition holds. Conover points to this quote from 1994 from an interview with Ehrlichman by writer Dan Baum on the war on drugs:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
The devil’s advocate argument here is that John Erlichman could have fabricated this justification for the war on drugs merely because he was salty about President Nixon’s apparent betrayal and having to serve time related to the Watergate scandal. Others might suggest that Richard Nixon really did hate drugs, and that Nixon’s drug czar, Jerome Jaffe, pushed for recognition of the drug problem as a health issue, not a criminal issue. Still, noting the effects the war on drugs has had on certain communities—and not necessarily good effects, mind you—an inference along these lines isn’t unreasonable either. As Adam Conover mentions, despite smoking at the same rate, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. And we’re just talking about weed here. This doesn’t even begin to consider, for instance, sentencing disparities for cocaine and crack that have fallen largely along racial lines, as well as the large inequities of the criminal justice system facing people of color at large. Thus, even if Nixon didn’t really mean for the war on drugs to become an attack on liberals and/or minorities, a view to which Conover, Baum and others clearly subscribe, to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter. The damage has already been done.
President Nixon began the war on drugs in the 1970s. Additional news flash: it is 2017. More than thirty years later, by looking at today’s criminal statutes on marijuana buying and selling, cultivation, possession, and use, this war is being fought as hard as ever. True, some states have made it legal, and still others make distinctions for decriminalization and medicinal use, but as Adam Conover offers at the end of his segment, minimum mandatory sentencing still is in effect across the country, and there’s that, you know, whole nagging black-people-get-arrested-more-than-white-people-problem in effect. Once again, I ask: what gives? If we knew about the relative harmlessness of cannabis back in the 30s and 40s, why are we still filling jails with low-level drug offenders, and why is marijuana still a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act—in spite of its legalization for medical use in many jurisdictions? The question I would argue we need to ask to help bring us closer to an understanding is not merely, “What gives?” but “Who stands to gain from the perpetuation of the drug war?”
As it should be abundantly clear by now, where there’s policy, especially the kind backed by a strong moral component (at least superficially), there’s usually money to be made, and in the case of the war on drugs in the United States, the apparent loss of the majority-minority benefits a few core groups within the minority-majority. So, who potentially is stunting the growth of cannabis in America, both figuratively and literally?
What good are prisons without the inmates to fill them? And how better to help fill jails and prisons than with arrests related to drug crimes, including those related to marijuana? In one sense, prisons as a whole stand to lose from the continuation or even acceleration of the war on drugs, with concerns about overcrowding, not to mention the cost of needing to build, maintain, and staff correctional facilities. In another sense, however, private prisons, particularly those that house federal inmates, are seeing their stock rise on the heels of fairly recent news that the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions will reverse a planned phase-out of private prisons based on a vague notion that crime is on the rise in this country.
On one hand, Sessions, like Richard Nixon, probably does legitimately think drugs are bad and that smoking weed has a deleterious effect on the nation and its people. As a U.S. Senator, he was critical of President Barack Obama’s lack of vocalization about the supposed dangers of marijuana, and has insisted in the past that legalization would be a “mistake” and that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” On the other hand, private prisons are a big business and effective duopoly between the companies CoreCivic and The Geo Group, two companies that just happened to donate bigly to a PAC supporting Donald Trump, if for no other reason than to improve their own fortunes with policies such as the expansion of private prisons and stronger enforcement of drug and immigration laws. If Trump values one thing, it’s loyalty to him, and Jeff Sessions has been about as loyal as they come, so based on this alone, it makes sense that Sessions would toe the line, even if he didn’t subscribe to the belief that the country is going to Hell in a proverbial hand-basket. Regardless, the pay-for-play aspect of this relationship is unsettling, as are reports of poor conditions, substandard care, and violence within private prison walls, and advocates of drug policy reform and prison reform alike are left to wonder whether or not we are regressing on both fronts.
What are prisons without inmates, and who brings offenders to jail but the police? Of particular concern regarding trends in policing of our communities is the militarization of police forces. The ACLU sets the scene thusly on its official website:
The images on the news of police wearing helmets and masks, toting assault rifles, and riding in mine-resistant armored vehicles are not isolated incidents—they represent a nationwide trend of police militarization. Federal programs providing surplus military equipment, along with departments’ own purchases, have outfitted officers with firepower that is often far beyond what is necessary for their jobs as protectors of their communities. Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform “normal” police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence. Yet the ACLU’s recent report on police militarization, “War Comes Home,” found that SWAT teams, which were originally devised as special responders for emergency situations, are deployed for drug searches more than they are for all other purposes combined.
The change in equipment is too often paralleled by a corresponding change in attitude whereby police conceive of themselves as “at war” with communities rather than as public servants concerned with keeping their communities safe. We advocate for a return to a less dangerous, more collaborative style of policing. We should not be able to mistake our officers for soldiers.
Within this conversation about militarization of police forces, there is an acknowledged tug-of-war between what is deemed essential to do needed police work without risk to the officers involved, and what is deemed excessive and a threat to personal civil liberties. For those on the side of the men and women with the badges, the knee-jerk reaction may be one of questioning just what the ACLU knows about police work anyhow. Getting past this defensive attitude, however, scrutiny of police conduct and of how forces marshal their resources is warranted, and this is before we even get to considerations about fatal shootings of suspects and police brutality. I recognize my own liberal bias herein, but I think the above synopsis correctly assesses the shift in mindset among police from “to serve and protect” to “open, flash, and clear.” At any rate, and at the end of the day, the money invested in equipping police forces in the style of bomb squads is significant. Now five years old, but in all probability still relevant, an article by Stephen Salisbury, cultural writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, delves into the material economic costs of arming the nation’s police forces to the teeth and of fighting the war on drugs. Here is a critical excerpt from Salisbury’s article:
So much money has gone into armoring and arming local law-enforcement since 9/11 that the federal government could have rebuilt post-Katrina New Orleans five times over and had enough money left in the kitty to provide job training and housing for every one of the record 41,000-plus homeless people in New York City. It could have added in the growing population of 15,000 homeless in Philadelphia, my hometown, and still have had money to spare. Add disintegrating Detroit, Newark, and Camden to the list. Throw in some crumbling bridges and roads, too.
But why drone on? We all know that addressing acute social and economic issues here in the homeland was the road not taken. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security alone has doled out somewhere between $30 billion and $40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, as well as other first responders. At the same time, defense contractors have proven endlessly inventive in adapting sales pitches originally honed for the military on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the desires of police on the streets of San Francisco and lower Manhattan. Oakland may not be Basra but (as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld liked to say) there are always the unknown unknowns: best be prepared.
All told, the federal government has appropriated about $635 billion, accounting for inflation, for homeland security-related activities and equipment since the 9/11 attacks. To conclude, though, that “the police” have become increasingly militarized casts too narrow a net. The truth is that virtually the entire apparatus of government has been mobilized and militarized right down to the university campus.
Again, one is reticent to tell the police how to do their jobs, if for no reason than to avoid a diatribe about such matters. This notwithstanding, if important aspects of community infrastructure including affordable housing, job training, and, well, actual physical infrastructure are being neglected to accommodate camera systems, drones, and police surveillance, that’s a problem, and one that seems to pervade all levels of government. Why else would President Trump earmark an additional $54 billion in spending on defense for the proposed 2018 budget with only tepid disagreement from political leaders in the House and Senate? Whether it be for the sake of our national Armed Forces or our city police forces, we have a real problem in America about throwing money at community policing and terrorism, and to the extent the war or drugs and, specifically, attempts to curb the influence of marijuana fuel this phenomenon, the legality of cannabis remains an issue.
Do pharmaceutical companies stand to benefit more from the prohibition of marijuana or its legalization? The answer is, perhaps unfortunately, a complicated one, as much depends on how the substance is procured and what forms of the drug, if any, are deemed legal. Joel Warner explores this topic in a remarkably nuanced August 2016 piece for VICE. There are a handful of drug companies who have made investments in cannabis-based drugs who would appear to stand to benefit from the legalization of weed outright, or at least an OK from the U.S. government with respect to medical marijuana. By the same token, though, manufacturers of synthetic marijuana, a variant which may be fraught with peril next to the genuine article, likely have skin in the game to try to ensure that they are one of the few, if not the only, players at the table, and therefore would tend to resist more permissive reforms that extend to all forms of cannabis. This is in addition to traditional pharmaceutical giants who aren’t dabbling in marijuana at all, and would, in theory, oppose legalization if and when they have a major seller in the realm of, say, antidepressants or painkillers. It’s an uncertain mix of competing interests, made even more tenuous by differences in laws across states and changing attitudes within the public and at federal levels of government.
If a recent development concerning DEA approval of a synthetic marijuana drug for a company based in Phoenix is any indication, however, a trend of approval for pharmaceutical companies at the expense of drug law reform and natural weed sellers could be in the making. Insys Therapeutics, producer of the synthetic marijuana Syndros, helped fund a campaign which opposed recreational marijuana in the state of Arizona. It’s a seemingly perplexing contradiction until we get to the part where we realize the power of the pharmaceutical lobby on today’s lawmakers and their relevant policy stances. As is often the case, it helps to follow the money.
Of course, legalization of marijuana is not the only way drug law reform on this dimension could shake out, and even with the abuses of the war on drugs, statistics likely bear out a reduction in the rate of drug use, even if it isn’t a very substantial one. The obvious alternative is decriminalization of marijuana, which is in place in a number of states, aside from additional statutes specific to the use of medical marijuana. This raises the follow-up question about the merits of decriminalization vs. legalization when it comes to reducing drug use and associated crimes. Though this line of thinking merits its own post, some critics would aver that anything short of legalization still lends itself to criminality on the supply side, and particularly violent crime at that. In the Americas alone, corruption and death follow the drug trade and cartels/gangs—this is no secret. As long as there is a black market and a demand for the product, intimidation and worse can be used to drive up prices and to eliminate competition for a share of the market. In other words, when the market isn’t free, considerations of free-market economics more or less go out the window.
Another matter of import tied to legalization of marijuana is the opportunity cost of not legalizing, as is visible through the benefits realized by jurisdictions where the drug is legal. Colorado is an example of a state in which, assuming the industry is properly regulated, over a billion dollars in sales can be earned in just one year between that sold for medical use and that sold for recreational use. That’s useful tax revenue that otherwise would be forsaken on principle alone—$150 million in Colorado’s case, a third of which is derived from an excise tax which specifically funds school construction projects. This is not to say that just any project should necessarily be green-lighted if it means more dollars for states. Moreover, while some view these kinds of things in a vacuum—marijuana is plain wrong, no matter if it’s better or worse than heroin—again thinking in relative terms, next to alcohol, tobacco, or even opioids, the dangers are realistically not even close to their representation by purported authorities on the matter within state and federal governments. For those individuals who are developmentally mature enough to handle using marijuana, one of the biggest health risks that evidently exists with its use is gum disease. Not that gum disease isn’t potentially serious, mind you, but we don’t go around arresting people for failing to floss, if you catch my drift.
If a handful of states can legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use without completely falling to pieces, I would say it’s—gulp—high time we talk about legalization on a nationwide basis. Yes, marijuana isn’t exactly benign. Yes, you shouldn’t be smoking it while at work, or while driving or operating heavy machinery. All the doom and gloom about its perils, however, not only distort reality, if not completely subvert it, but—dare I say it—really bum people out, man. The war on drugs, as it is currently being fought, is more failure than success, with tangible costs for our country, our communities, and for the lives it negatively impacts, and furthermore, the positions taken by Jeff Sessions and his lot are dangerously out of touch with the views of a growing segment of the American people, and only perpetuate feelings of conflict. Seriously, though—let’s legalize marijuana. Unless we’re just going to let Canada one-up us on this. Judging purely on a side-by-side comparison of Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump, it appears they already may be lengths ahead of us—and growing.
In social politics today, there seems to be an additional “F-word” that people dare not speak without looking around nervously or others getting downright angry. I’m talking about “feminism,” a term which conjures up some powerful imagery both for its supporters and for those who resist its use and its underlying motivations. Part of the strong reactions a dialog about feminism, gender, and “women’s issues” provokes, I believe, is related to the confusion about what this decades-old—if not centuries-old—movement entails. That is, different groups and individuals tend to define feminism differently. Kellyanne Conway, who, like so many members of the Trump administration, evidently can’t help but put her foot in her mouth—you know, when she’s not putting her feet on the couch in the Oval Office—and gave her own definition of feminism that invited due criticism. Conway, when interviewed recently at CPAC 2017, this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, said she rejected calling herself a “feminist” because the term has been tainted by the left and because the nature of the movement has become exclusionary and anti-conservative. The counselor to the President had this to say when prompted about feminism:
It’s difficult for me to call myself a “feminist” in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion in this context and I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion. So there’s an “individual feminism,” if you will, where you make your own choices. I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances, and that’s really what “conservative feminism,” if you will, is all about.
Wow. As self-professed intellectuals like myself would put forth, there’s a lot to unpack here. Kellyanne Conway’s makes a number of suppositions that require one’s assent or tacit agreement. Let us first enumerate them, and subsequently address their potential veracity.
1. Feminism is anti-male.
This is a persistent criticism of the feminist movement: that those who subscribe are a bunch of man-haters who wish for the advancement of women at the expense of men who work very hard and are just minding their own business. This is not merely an oversimplification of feminist positions, however, but skewed to the point of absurdity. Might some feminists see patterns of patriarchal oppression and sexism where perhaps they don’t exist? It’s possible. Not all revolutionaries wave their banners for the same reasons, after all, and some might do so for the wrong ones. To a large extent, though, feminist arguments would appear to hit the mark given the pervasiveness of gender inequality across continents. At any rate, calling feminists “anti-male” makes about as much sense as calling Black Lives Matter activists “anti-police.” Feminists are not calling for violence against or abuse of men. It’s about equality, and addressing institutionalized forms of prejudice against women. Criticism does not necessarily equate to hate, and if those targets of criticism are indeed wrong, to defend them puts the defender at fault also.
Often, rejection of feminist views betrays a defensive attitude on the part of he or she expressing the rejection. For example, how many times have you heard “feminism” and “shrill” in the same sentence? Breitbart’s readership, for one, seems to dine on this stereotype like Garfield the cat dines on lasagna. Here’s a gem from the unholy pseudo-informative spawn Stephen Bannon helped nurture: “License to Shrill: Feminists Can’t Stop Whining about Their Fake Problems.” In this piece, the author suggests that feminists fret and whine about their “frivolous” problems like “the Democrats talking about climate change as a security threat when the country is under attack by illegal immigrants and radical Islamic terrorists.” And this from a female writer, no less!
2. Feminism is very pro-abortion.
It is, in fact, possible to have a nuanced set of views on abortion. I personally wish there were fewer unplanned pregnancies in the world, and I certainly don’t encourage men and women to be reckless in their sexual activity. However, I wouldn’t tell a pregnant woman not to have an abortion in deference to my beliefs, because I believe the matter of choice is sacrosanct. I’m sure many card-carrying feminists share these sentiments, at least to an extent. An abortion is not a procedure to go about willy-nilly, but to make a value judgment about someone else’s situation and to thrust those values upon the other person unsolicited is a sin in its own right, and can make what may very well be an emotional and stressful decision that much more difficult. People who vilify the “godless left” for being pro-abortion might just as well look at themselves and their aversion to a woman’s right to choose.
3. There is an individual feminism where you make your own choices.
Yes, there is. It’s called feminism. I just talked about it. You make your own choices. Like, say, those involving your body.
4. Liberal feminists view themselves as victims of their circumstances.
Bear in mind that Conway is making a distinction between feminism and “conservative feminism” in the first place. And they call us liberals the ones who are divisive! The “liberals play the victim card” charge is one that has been made numerous times before irrespective of gender and circumstances. Those college students who want an affordable education? Playing the victim. They’re just asking someone else to foot the bill. Those protestors going after police officers for doing their job? Playing the victim. It’s the fault of those resisting. Blacks upset about slavery? Hey, that was a long time ago—quit your bitching! Are you overweight? Get on a treadmill already, fatty! And I’m sure we can think of any number of barbs to throw at women and the issues they care about. Need an abortion? You should’ve learned to keep your legs closed in the first place, slut! Want to be taken seriously as a professional? Don’t dress in such provocatively tight clothing, provoking lustful eyes, OK? Upset about y0ur pay? Get a better job! Stop crying. Get over it. Welcome to the real world.
Let me say a few things about these things—chiefly with respect to how wrong-headed they are. On the subject of sexuality, specifically women’s sexuality, I would argue it is incredibly unrealistic to insist on all or even a majority of sexually mature women to adhere to an abstinence-only lifestyle. This is not a commentary on females’ lack of control of their bodily impulses, mind you—I would say the same thing for men, too. Especially men. It’s not that they can’t choose not to have to sex, but they shouldn’t be expected to, and that there is a profound double standard in our society concerning moral judgments of others’ sexual activity—men tend to be lauded for their sexual prowess, while women are shamed for their lasciviousness—speaks to a normalized attitude, once again, of dictating to women what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
On the subject of women in the workplace, um, the glass ceiling is pretty well documented by now. In the United States, women, on the whole, make less than men, and once more, there is a gender-based disparity in perception at work under the subheading of leadership. A male taskmaster is a strong, determined leader. A female in this same role is labeled a bitch, a cunt, is on her period, or needs to get laid. It’s boorish, quite frankly, and incredibly unfair. Moreover, on the literal subject of “victimhood,” women are disproportionate targets of physical and sexual assault, with college campuses across the U.S., in particular, seeing exceedingly high levels of violence against women and men. What is perhaps worst of all herein is the idea that with too many college and universities, there is neither an established environment of acceptance for victims of sexual violence nor a tone at the top which signifies a demand for justice in all cases. In some cases, these institutions charged with safeguarding the well-being of their student body appear more interested in protecting the school’s image. After all, donors are less liable to open up their purse strings or wallets if their would-be donee is regarded as a proverbial viper’s nest of danger and iniquity. Better to make young women jump through hoops to report cases of rape/sexual assault and slut-shame them to the back pages of the newspaper.
So, yeah, feel free to opine on the liberal victim mentality. But conservatives play the victim, too, especially when taken to task for blatant sexism and other forms of prejudice. If anything, it’s a pot-kettle sort of situation.
At the very least, Kellyanne Conway’s understanding of feminism as an abstract concept seems incomplete. So much so that Merriam-Webster’s official Twitter feed took to defining “feminism” for her and others’ benefit: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Nothing about hating men. Nothing about separating one feminist from another based on ability to choose for oneself. Nothing about viewing oneself as a victim or blaming others for one’s position in life and set of circumstances. And certainly nothing about the Women’s March, undoubtedly awash with feminists, being proof that those involved and many women in general have an issue with women in power, as Conway herself suggested. Unless Donald Trump is, in fact, a woman, and let me say that he doesn’t make a particularly fetching one if that’s the case.
Suffice it to say, though, that both men and women may misconstrue what feminism entails and what does or does not constitute a violation of feminist principles. Recently, Emma Watson caught flak for wearing an outfit for a Vanity Fair photo shoot that featured her wearing no bra and very little else covering her breasts. The argument from her online detractors was that Watson, a self-identifying feminist, is a hypocrite for decrying the objectification by men on one hand and dressing in a way that, as they would describe it, encourages objectification. As these critics see things, her revealing garb is a betrayal of her principles and sends mixed messages. Emma Watson, for her part, was taken aback by the negativity, mostly because she expressed a sense of frustration about these critics misunderstanding feminism to begin with. Or, in her words, from an interview with the BBC:
Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it. It’s very confusing.
Very confusing indeed. Some might philosophize that by dressing sexy, Watson is no better than the the male behavior she discourages, but a key difference here is the matter of choice. Whether or not you agree with it from a moral standpoint, Emma Watson is choosing to dress this way, a notion she herself reinforces. As if she were making a choice about whether or not to have an abortion, it’s her body, and furthermore, one might argue that by exercising her free will, she is disempowering those who would seek to objectify her without her consent. In this context, control is everything. Otherwise, Beyoncé fans have taken to pointing out Watson’s reversal on this position. About three years ago, Emma Watson noted she felt conflicted about Beyoncé referring to herself as a “feminist” and having her (Beyoncé’s) 2013 visual album appear as if shot through a voyeuristic lens and from the perspective of the heterosexual male libido. First of all, um, that was three years ago. People’s opinions can change a lot in that span, especially for someone of Watson’s age. Second of all, Watson acknowledges her opinions about the subject matter were not really “formulated” at the time. Call her a hypocrite or “flip-flopper” if you want, but regardless of what she said then, she has the right attitude about it now. The woman has breasts—what do you want her to do about it?
The “if she didn’t want to be objectified, she wouldn’t be leaving her flesh so exposed” argument, by the by, is a logically weak one, akin to the idea that women are “asking” to be raped or otherwise assaulted based on how they dress. What’s more, this is not the first time Emma Watson’s feminist credentials or even her use of the term has been questioned. Watson was invited to deliver a speech on the fight for gender equality worldwide for the launch of the HeForShe initiative at the United Nations, and reportedly, was asked not to use the “F-word.” As in “feminism.” She did anyway. Even for an occasion designed to mark a movement for men to advocate for and support women in the fight for gender equality, that Watson received this “friendly advice” signifies the overall discomfort both women and men have in using the term based on its negative connotations. Emma Watson noted in an interview with the London Evening Standard that she debated whether or not to comply with this request, but that she ultimately chose in favor of using the term, explaining herself thusly:
I was encouraged not to use the word feminism because people felt that it was alienating and separating and the whole idea of the speech was to include as many people as possible. But I thought long and hard and ultimately felt that it was just the right thing to do. If women are terrified to use the word, how on Earth are men supposed to start using it?
Watson makes an excellent point. If feminists themselves are afraid to use the term and extol the virtues of their worldview, this risks dissuading men who are more amenable to the feminist cause from lending their support, and moreover, gives those who reject feminist ideals, chief among them conservatives and males who reflexively view any pro-female movement as a threat to their way of life and therefore in need of neutralization (see also alt-right, Gamergate) ammunition in further weakening their (the feminists’) resolve. Though not to equate the two movements and the struggle for mainstream acceptance they face, democratic socialism is another term which is assailed by its opponents to the extent people who might otherwise be sympathetic to its cause are alienated from the theory. Democratic socialists believe in a democratic form of government alongside a socialist economic system, rather simply.
As author and journalist Dan Arel explains, democratic socialism is, in many ways, not what you think it is. It is not Marxism, in that democratic socialism does not advocate for workers controlling the means of production. It is not communism as we would commonly understand it, that is, as manifested in China and the USSR. It is not a replacement for capitalism, but rather a more responsible, one might argue, version of capitalism that would restrict the excesses of corporations and their owners and would act to safeguard employee rights. It is not pure socialism, as democratic socialism believes that consumer goods/services and certain societal elements should be approached democratically rather than from a central government. Perhaps most importantly, it is not incompatible with modern American economic and political structures. As Arel suggests, democratic socialism already exists within the Democratic Party—it just isn’t embraced by all its members. Universal health care, free college tuition, a stronger social safety net—these are not pipe dreams for many developed countries around the world, especially in Europe. Yet people hear “socialism,” and either because they conflate it with communism or simply believe that industry in the United States is overregulated as it is, condemn democratic socialism in a reactionary way. Bernie Sanders and his crazy ideas! Why doesn’t he just move to Sweden if he loves it so much? Never mind that benefits such as community development block grants, the Earned Income Credit, educational grants, family planning services, food stamps/SNAP, the Head Start program, Job Corps, Medicare, public housing, Social Security, and weatherization services for low-income households are all social programs used by Americans of all different economic backgrounds and political affiliations. Um, you’re welcome.
Back to the role of feminism in America and in the world today, though. Feminism, at its most basic and essential, speaks to equality of opportunities and rights irrespective of gender. As suggested earlier, some men, notably those dyed-in-the-wool, old-fashioned sexists—whether they are conscious of it or not—view the advancement of women as a threat to them and their way of life. Feminists also face obstacles from institutions primed to favor men, chief among them the world of business, rigid standards of morality and religious conservatism, and even censure from other women who view their lot as whiny man-haters. In the discussion of not wanting to give the haters more fodder, though, certainly, card-carrying feminists must stick by their principles and do so without concern for excluding those uncomfortable with calling feminism by its rightful name. They should not have to fight this fight alone, however, and with a new generation of young men more sensitively attuned to ideas related to female sexuality, gender equality, and women’s issues, it would appear necessary that they recognize women’s struggle for equality as one which affects them as it does the women advocating for greater autonomy of self, and without concern for their (the men’s) immediate personal benefit. Their mission is our mission. Their losses and gains ours as well.
Now more than ever, with a man in the White House who identifies as pro-life to court religious conservatives despite expressing support for a woman’s right to choose in the past—not to mention boasting about being able to grab women “by the pussy” and defending his words as “locker-room talk”—and a Republican-led Congress which has targeted Planned Parenthood’s federal funding despite it not being used for abortions, already a small portion of the organization’s total services, men must support women’s rights as part of a unified front against others who would seek to abrogate these liberties. Accordingly, the following points should be considered non-negotiable, and let it be stressed that the feminist/women’s rights agenda is not limited to just these items:
Constitutional equality. I’ll speak briefly about equality in pay in a bit, but for women across demographic lines, constitutional guarantees to educational opportunities, full Social Security benefits, and job opportunities and political opportunities/power, are lacking. The Equal Rights Amendment, passed by Congress in 1972, has yet to be ratified in a three-fourths majority of states (only 35 of the 50 have ratified it), but efforts continue at the grassroots level to get its language specifically into the U.S. Constitution.
Control over reproductive rights. This includes access to safe abortions and available, affordable birth control and reproductive health services. I know I specified earlier that men should advocate for these points irrespective of any immediate benefits, but as they stand to, ahem, benefit from women’s healthy expression of their sexuality, right off the bat, this should be an easy sell.
Ending violence against women. Domestic violence and violence against women in college settings jumps to mind, but across international and cultural borders, there unfortunately are too many instances of the subjugation of women by physical and other means. Female genital mutilation sticks out in this regard, being inflicted on upwards of 200 million women and girls worldwide, chiefly in the regions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It is deemed by the World Health Organization as unnecessary and dangerous, and by the United Nations and other international bodies as a human rights violation. Violence against women in its various forms is a serious problem in our world today, a reality that is made all the more disturbing by all the underage females who are targeted because they can’t protect themselves and/or to satisfy some illicit trade, as in the sex trafficking of young girls. This should not be considered a remote problem for distant continents either. This is a human problem and one that affects all of us.
Equal pay for equal work. Seems fair, right? Arguing against equal pay for women on the basis of their supposed inferiority is outmoded and foolish thinking, plain and simple.
Freedom from stigmatization of normal bodily functions. Earth to Donald Trump and some other men—women menstruate. This is uncontrollable, and symptoms of PMS shouldn’t be assumed against them when they dare to show emotion or, you know, do their job as female reporters/news personalities (what up, Megyn Kelly?) Also, women breastfeed. They shouldn’t have to hide this fact, especially given the idea babies need sustenance to survive and thrive. Stop, ahem, being such babies about this.
Justice for women of color and for the LGBTQ community. In the pursuit of gender equality, those who champion women’s rights are usually not provincial in their focus. Though they might frame their discussion of job discrimination, pay equity, Social Security and pension reform, and what constitutes a “living wage” in terms of women’s issues, these topics are applicable to the larger conversation about income and wealth inequality that pervades societal problems in the United States and elsewhere. Part of the women’s rights movement is addressing opportunities for women of color in all areas, especially education, employment, and health care, and for the LGBTQ community, notably with respect to child custody, employment, health services, and housing.
Again, these are not strictly “women’s issues,” but ones that affect all of us, considering how they impact and have impacted the lives of the women around us—our mothers, our grandmothers, our wives, our daughters, other female family members, our female teachers, our female nurses, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, despite the progress we have made in this regard, there is much work to do, and realistically, we should be further along than we are. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when asked two years ago about why gender parity in his Cabinet is so important to him, responded simply with the line, “Because it’s 2015.” It’s 2017 now, and the vast majority of us—women and men, men and women—should be proud to say we are feminists. I certainly am, and you should be too.
Months ago, before the election, I saw that Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, was trending on social media. As I’m sure you can speak to this phenomenon, the first thing I thought when reading his name was this: “Oh, shit—he didn’t die, did he?” As it turns out, no, it was not his death being reported, nor even false rumors of his death, but news of him switching his allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. At first glance, this seemed like an immediate and egregious betrayal of principles. How could someone switch from one extreme to the other like that? Et tu, Scott? As a supporter of neither Clinton nor Trump, however, and as someone who doesn’t read Dilbert religiously but has enjoyed it on occasion, I figured I would give Adams the benefit of the doubt. Adams explained his reversal of support in an open letter on his blog back in September. He had a number of different reasons for flipping his endorsement, which I would argue varied in their merit. At any rate, here they are, in summation:
1. “Things I Don’t Know”: Scott Adams begins by saying he doesn’t know much about politics, including how to defeat ISIS, how to negotiate trade policies, and what tax policy would be most effective, and on the subject of abortion, he feels men should “follow the lead of women on that topic.” In this respect, he doesn’t know enough to make a decision—and argues that neither do you. To this end, he can’t claim either would make the better president, and thus, based solely on matters of domestic and foreign policy, Adams is effectively neutral on who is, was, or will be the better choice for President of the United States.
2. “Confiscation of Property”: Given his neutrality on large-scale issues, where Adams does seem to possess a particular ax to grind is the estate tax. Scott Adams hates the estate tax, and he particularly disagreed with Clinton’s stance on it as well as her representation of the issue, which he characterized as worse than Trump’s because, rather than offering no details, as he claims, it intentionally tried to mislead people based on outmoded or manipulated data. Essentially, Adams argues, the estate tax is a “confiscation” tax because it taxes payers on income that already has been taxed. He explains further:
You can argue whether an estate tax is fair or unfair, but fairness is an argument for idiots and children. Fairness isn’t an objective quality of the universe. I oppose the estate tax because I was born to modest means and worked 7-days a week for most of my life to be in my current position. (I’m working today, Sunday, as per usual.) And I don’t want to give 75% of my earnings to the government. (Would you?)
3. “Party or Wake”: #3 and #4 in Scott Adams’ list, if you ask me, are his weakest reasons, as they seem highly capricious. With Number Three, he opines that he’d rather ride the Trump Train and plan for a party; in other words; he wants to be “invited to the event that doesn’t involve crying and moving to Canada.” Adams admits straight-up this is not his biggest reason, but regardless, even in jest, it assumes a pre-determined outcome, when prior to the election, the final result seemed like a toss-up at best.
4. “Clinton’s Health”: I’ll let Adams explain himself here:
To my untrained eyes and ears, Hillary Clinton doesn’t look sufficiently healthy – mentally or otherwise – to be leading the country. If you disagree, take a look at the now-famous “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” video clip. Likewise, Bill Clinton seems to be in bad shape too, and Hillary wouldn’t be much use to the country if she is taking care of a dying husband on the side.
OK, I’m just going to call it out here—this is a stupid argument. If Hillary Clinton, like any number of establishment Democrats, is deluded and out of touch with voters on important issues, this is not a sign of mental illness, and it’s vaguely insulting to the millions of Americans who do suffer from mental illness, at that. It’s like with amateur psychoanalysis of Donald Trump in the early days of his presidency. Forget his being emotionally or mentally ill-equipped to handle the job of President. Forget any diagnosis of “narcissistic personality disorder” or referring to him as “unhinged.” The major issues with Trump is that he is deficient in policy knowledge, he is severely ethically compromised, and he is—and these are technical terms—an idiot and a jerk. He shouldn’t have been a legitimate presidential candidate, but he was elected, and here we are. But yes, he has the capacity to lead, even if we don’t like his executive orders, and what’s more, he has the likes of Stephen Bannon the Skeleton King to advise him. Unfortunately.
5. “Pacing and Leading”: Back to the better arguments for switching sides, IMHO. Scott Adams explains in great detail why he thinks Donald Trump isn’t nearly as dangerous as so many of his critics, including myself, feel he is:
Trump always takes the extreme position on matters of safety and security for the country, even if those positions are unconstitutional, impractical, evil, or something that the military would refuse to do. Normal people see this as a dangerous situation. Trained persuaders like me see this as something called pacing and leading. Trump “paces” the public – meaning he matches them in their emotional state, and then some. He does that with his extreme responses on immigration, fighting ISIS, stop-and-frisk, etc. Once Trump has established himself as the biggest bad-ass on the topic, he is free to “lead,” which we see him do by softening his deportation stand, limiting his stop-and-frisk comment to Chicago, reversing his first answer on penalties for abortion, and so on. If you are not trained in persuasion, Trump looks scary. If you understand pacing and leading, you might see him as the safest candidate who has ever gotten this close to the presidency. That’s how I see him.
Adams’ notion is buoyed by the notion that Trump’s stance on Vladimir Putin is one of intended closeness, while Clinton’s approach to Putin was/is one of “insult[ing] Putin into doing what we want.” The latter, in his view, is patently more dangerous. Ol’ Vladdy aside, Scott Adams’ point is that Trump doesn’t really believe all the crazy things he says, but says them to set a tone and to make the actual policies he intends to effect seem more palatable by comparison. Let’s just assume Adams is correct in this respect, because his final bit of reasoning is highly related to this one which precedes it.
6. “Persuasion”: Even if his logic seems flawed, especially noting his earlier admission that he doesn’t know much about politics, Adams has a logic regarding the power of persuasion, and why Donald Trump’s identity as a “trained persuader” makes him superior to Clinton on this dimension. From the man himself:
Economies are driven by psychology. If you expect things to go well tomorrow, you invest today, which causes things to go well tomorrow, as long as others are doing the same. The best kind of president for managing the psychology of citizens – and therefore the economy – is a trained persuader. You can call that persuader a con man, a snake oil salesman, a carnival barker, or full of shit. It’s all persuasion. And Trump simply does it better than I have ever seen anyone do it.
The battle with ISIS is also a persuasion problem. The entire purpose of military action against ISIS is to persuade them to stop, not to kill every single one of them. We need military-grade persuasion to get at the root of the problem. Trump understands persuasion, so he is likely to put more emphasis in that area.
Most of the job of president is persuasion. Presidents don’t need to understand policy minutia. They need to listen to experts and then help sell the best expert solutions to the public. Trump sells better than anyone you have ever seen, even if you haven’t personally bought into him yet. You can’t deny his persuasion talents that have gotten him this far.
Again, I say his logic may be flawed. Economics based purely on confidence, I would submit, risks producing a bubble that will collapse when the realization comes that the economy doesn’t rest on sound fundamentals. As for ISIS, you can try persuading them to stop all you want, but for an organization that views its conflict as a prophesied war between good and evil, the time and avenue for persuasion may be all but closed, if it were ever open in the first place. All this notwithstanding, confidence and persuasion can have a positive effect on upward mobility, economic or otherwise, and as Adams would stress, Trump is not really as extreme or fascistic as he comes across. Clearly, if nothing else, Donald Trump convinced enough voters that he was the better choice, or that Hillary Clinton was a poorer one. Accordingly, if Scott Adams seems to be making these comments from his position way out in left field, nearly 63 million other Trump voters suggests his views were, to a large extent, shared by those casting their ballot in November.
Why do I bring up an almost-five-month-old blog post by the creator of Dilbert about his endorsement of Donald Trump? Because I can—that’s why! OK—you’re looking for something more substantial than that. Scott Adams’ observations, especially the discussion of pacing and leading, are relevant to the larger discussion of President Trump’s leadership style and the evolution of his administration’s policymaking. One apparent strategy used by Trump and American politicians in general is leading with an extreme proposal to facilitate the acceptance of a slightly-less-extreme version of that proposal. It’s along the lines of what car dealerships and their sales representatives do, as detailed by Ben DeMeter in this post about common sales techniques on Investopedia. Referring to this method as the “discounted markup” technique, DeMeter explains it with the following:
Many times, a store will dramatically mark up the price of its merchandise just so it can offer a convincing discount when it comes time to make a sale. This occurs most commonly at car dealerships, where the sticker price on some vehicles can be more than $2,000 above the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). This way, the dealership can allow customers to talk down the price of the car to the MSRP so that they think they’re getting a good deal when really they’re just paying exactly what the dealership had hoped for all along.
Let’s extend this metaphor to Donald Trump, viewed through the lens of the media’s attempts to reckon with the three-ring circus that is his White House. Jason Linkins, editor of Huffington Post’s “Eat the Press,” a feature section devoted to commentary and criticism about politics, the media, and culture, and co-host of HuffPost Politics’ podcast “So, That Happened,” recently penned an essay on the virtues of discretion, patience and refraining from overreacting for members of the media in the Trump era. The specific genesis for this article comes after a recent Associated Press report that it had obtained a memo suggesting the Department of Homeland Security was considering using the National Guard to round up undocumented immigrants across several states in deportation raids. The White House, of course, denied it, which you’d imagine they’d do even if it were true, but in this instance, as with other cited rush-to-judgment breaking news stories, Linkins points to a skittishness of the mainstream media, or as he terms it, a “primed for freakout” condition. By failing to recognize this phenomenon, members of the press not only give the White House ammunition and undermine their own credibility, but they risk the overall inability of their audience and of themselves to recognize bad policy when they see it. Here’s Linkins’ description of the situation:
The AP reported it attempted to get clarification from the White House several times before it went to press, affording the administration the opportunity to disown the policy entirely. That means the White House could have nipped this story in the bud, but opted not to. What does the White House gain from that? Well, additional ammunition to make the case that the media is being unfair, for a start. But even if this is what’s happening — and the White House says it’s definitely not — this game is not new. It’s basic as hell, and used in American politics all the time. Why does anyone propose a six-week abortion ban? To make it more palatable to pass a 20-week abortion ban.
Considering an extreme policy to make political room for a slightly less-extreme policy isn’t some crazy-new innovation that Trump and his cabal of super-geniuses came up with, nor is it something they’ve imported from the Kremlin. As much as it might feel right to believe that, the assumption that you are forever tunneling through a Twilight Zone is going to lead you to paint everything with a paranoid brush and make you more likely to equate the truly extreme ideas of Trump’s White House with every other trivial action the administration undertakes. All things cannot be equally momentous or pernicious. If you can’t make that differentiation, you’ll harm your readership ― training them to either panic at the drop of a hat, or to disregard the dire import of bad policy.
Politics as usual. Pacing and leading. “Discounted markup.” Whatever you call it, the idea is familiar: start incredibly high, move down to a more agreeable position, make the consumers think they got away with something, laugh to yourself when they leave because you really came out ahead in that you wanted to propose that less-extreme position in the first place. It’s sales and persuasion at its most elemental, and yet, it’s effective across contexts. The media may view itself as morally superior or highly informed and intelligent, but with tactics like these that play on our human emotions of dread and outrage, any of us are susceptible to the their trickery.
When not baiting and switching, if you will, President Trump and a largely sympathetic Republican Congress (“sympathetic” as in “sympathetic nervous system”; many Republican lawmakers seem devoid of sympathy and other genuine feelings) evidently like to engage in a bit of sleight-of-hand in terms of putting forth policy. Even if this is an unconscious force, though, the effect is very real. Donald Trump recently had a press conference announcing his pick of lawyer, dean of Florida International University School of Law, and former member of the National Labor Relations Board Alexander Acosta to replace Andrew Puzder as nominee for Secretary for Labor after the fast-food company CEO withdrew his name from consideration. You, um, may have heard about it. The press conference, in short, was baffling to those in attendance, as it was for much of the international community. Tessa Stuart details the shock value of the event with a recap entitled “18 WTF Moments from Trump’s Unhinged Press Conference.” (Here we go again with calling Donald Trump “unhinged.”) As Stuart explains, the press conference, at least in name, was meant to announce Acosta as the replacement risk, but quickly went off topic and off the rails as Pres. Trump went off-script, largely to attack the media, ever-embattled since the beginning of Trump’s tenure. Some of the moments of the press conference which produced a pronounced sense of wonderment from the onlookers:
Trump saying that the leaks leading to Michael Flynn’s resignation were real, but that “the news is fake because so much of the news is fake.” These two concepts should be mutually exclusive, and yet, this is Donald Trump.
Trump insisting the travel ban had a “smooth rollout,” despite it being very un-smooth and struck down by multiple courts of law.
Trump making it clear he’s a nice person, and that he gets good ratings—as if the latter proves the former.
Trump offering up this gem: “We’re becoming a drug-infested nation. Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy cars.” Clearly, I’ve been spending my money in the wrong places.
Trump trying to state that his electoral victory was the biggest since Ronald Reagan, though it wasn’t. Wait, he meant for Republicans. Um, nope—still not the biggest.
Trump bashing Hillary Clinton. You know, despite already winning the election over her more than three months ago. I guess it never gets old, huh?
Trump extolling the virtues of the First Lady, in that Melania feels “very, very strongly about women’s issues.” Like, um, lighter hair?
Trump berating Jewish reporter Jake Turx after a question about how to handle the rise in anti-Semitism in this country, and explaining that he is the least anti-Semitic and least racist person you will ever see in your life. On a related note, I have the power to fly and can move small objects with my mind. I mean, while we’re making outrageous claims and all.
Trump asking April Ryan, an African-American White House reporter, to set up a meeting between him and the Congressional Black Caucus. Because all black people are “tight” like that. And they all look alike. Because Trump.
The sum of this garbage is troubling for those of us with developed consciences, and besides, acting as if President Trump’s behavior is normal is a self-defeating principle. It becomes yet worse when we consider Trump’s Tweets the day after, particularly the one that reads as follows:
The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
Needless to say, this is a dangerous position to take, and I’m not even necessarily talking about for Trump himself. To label certain news organizations as fake because they represent him in a critical light, and to paint the press as an adversary of the average American, is disturbing because it invites an escalation of the concept of the state of affairs in U.S. politics and culture beyond a mere “divide,” and into the realm of all-out “war.” For those who agree with Donald Trump’s sentiments, the very future of the country depends on their resistance to what they see as bastions of liberal fascism. “We” must resist. “They” must falter. This is an ideological conflict with huge implications for the United States of America, one with the makings of a civil war, not fought with bayonets, bullets and cannon fire, but with hashtags, live streams, and memes. Furthermore, like the American Civil War of our history books, the aftershocks of this seismic event stand to be felt for generations after. The resentment. The hate.
Pretty bad, huh? Wait—we’re still not done. Really. While we may poke fun at Trump’s outlandish statements and while labeling the press the enemy of the American people is a serious charge with potentially destructive consequences, to add another layer to this shit sandwich we’re being forced to digest, let’s also consider that the President’s wackiness may act as a smokescreen for other likely deleterious moves by members of his adopted party. While the lot of us were consumed with his antics at the Acosta announcement press conference, Trump’s GOP mates were at work unveiling a broad blueprint for a possible replacement to the Affordable Care Act, and it’s pretty terrible, if you ask me and other critics. Robert Pear and Thomas Kaplan, reporting for The New York Times, provide a synopsis of what this schematic entails—and what it does not. As Pear and Kaplan put forth, the yet-nameless theoretical successor to the ACA does not account for how many people may lose coverage that now have it under ObamaCare, nor does it explain how it all would be paid for. Details, shmetails, amirite?
As for what we know, for starters, Medicaid payments to the states as a function of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion would stand to be greatly reduced, in all likelihood putting a strain on state budgets and putting Americans at risk of losing coverage. Subsidies under the current law designed to help those with needs based on income would be supplanted by a fixed tax credit scheme which negates benefits based on income, instead increasing them with age. The new plan would eliminate tax penalties on those who fail to secure health coverage, and would also get rid of taxes and fees on the health insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical equipment industries, benefitting big corporations and reducing the funding pool for entitlement program benefits. Plus, there’s still nothing about preventing insurers from dropping people based on pre-existing conditions, an important and popular aspect of the Affordable Care Act. Figuratively and literally speaking, this all is, in a word, sketchy, such that average Americans—both Republican and Democrat, Trump supporters and not—stand to be hurt by a repeal. No wonder they went about this reveal relatively quietly.
There’s a word for this technique: misdirection. It’s commonly used in football, especially on trick plays. The defense keys in on the man with the ball—except he just tossed it to the wide receiver running in the backfield the opposite way! In case my analogy is unclear, Trump is the man with the ball, Republican lawmakers are the receiver who actually has the ball, and the ball is not actually a ball, but rather a deeply and intentionally flawed replacement for the ACA. Keeping with this theme, a “touchdown” is the Republican Party paying huge dividends to Big Pharma and other related industries who don’t need them, and shafting the little guy in the process. Um, yay, GO TEAM?
Conceiving of this tactic in a slightly different way, Donald Trump’s role is that of the distraction. He is free to tell obvious lies, boast about himself and his brand, and look tough as Commander-in-Chief—all while Paul Ryan and Republicans in Congress threaten to pull the proverbial rug out from under us. In a piece for ELLE Magazine, Rachel Sklar muses on this very subject, invoking the time Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway, the cast addressed him after the show, and Trump had a hissy-fit on Twitter saying those performers were being so gosh-darn mean to him. Amid this political kerfuffle which Pres. Trump himself to a considerable extent engineered, meanwhile, major shit was going on which suddenly became less visible and none the less important. Jeff “Black People Don’t Really Like to Vote, Do They?” Sessions was nominated as Attorney General. Michael “Islam Is the Devil” Flynn was appointed to be Trump’s National Security Advisor. And last but not least, the Trump Organization settled a fraud case against Trump University to the tune of $25 million. These were no small potatoes, and particular with respect to the settlement, raised serious concerns about Trump’s credibility and ethics. What a lot of people heard, however, was just the blather about Hamilton being overrated (it isn’t) and the cast being nasty to Mike Pence (they weren’t). Flash forward to today, and Sessions, despite serious concerns from Democrats about his judicial record, has been confirmed, Flynn, in light of serious concerns with his and the administration’s ties to Russia, has resigned, and talk of Trump University has been all but shelved. Are you upset yet? If not, you should be.
Lies. Misdirection. Pacing. All of this makes for a morass of manipulation on the part of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, a reality made ten times more troubling by the White House’s attempts to demonize and delegitimize the press. If it seems like one big game, the real and potentially devastating fallout from what is decided but ultimately obscured by these sales techniques should convey the sense the sum of these things should not be taken as fun and light-hearted. So, what’s the takeaway from these thoughts, other than perhaps the newfound notion that the creator of Dilbert seems like kind of a dick?
Well, let me tell you what I take away from them. First, much as the media should do their part not to rush to judgment or rush to print in the interest of journalistic integrity, we should likewise do our part to examine what we see and hear is credible, and to correct the record when we know it to be demonstrably false. You know, lest we end up like Trump claiming to be the best thing since sliced Ronald Reagan, electorally speaking. Second, we should give Trump’s antics the attention they merit as a warning of his dictatorial aspirations, but not get lost in the GOP’s shell game of disastrous policymaking. Republican lawmakers should be held accountable, and as reports are growing of Republicans ducking their constituents at scheduled town halls and other forums, the demand that they not be let of the hook becomes that more serious accordingly. Lastly, and perhaps I am in the minority in thinking this way, but stop giving Trump and the Republicans so much g-d credit. As Jason Linkins and others suggest, their parlor tricks are nothing new, and are more evocative of snake oil salesmen than masters of the media. Anyone can lie, cheat, and steal their way through life—apparently right into the Oval Office, at that. They should be admonished for this, not commended.
From what I’ve seen, confidence in Donald Trump’s brand of leadership and his ability to elevate the position of working-class America is yet quite high. But don’t be deceived or distracted. Trump and the Republican lawmakers who aid and abet his hijinks are out to f**k you over at the behest and to the benefit of the industries and wealthy individuals who help fill their coffers, and if you still don’t believe it, then I’ve got some lovely beachfront property in Nebraska with your name on it.
After a Democratic Party primary season which saw nine debates and 13 candidate forums held, and a Republican Party campaign season which saw 12 debates and nine forums held, many Americans may be justifiably and understandably “debated out.” Half-truths and outright lies. Pandering to prospective voters along demographic lines. Constant interruptions. The rambling attempts to answer questions from the person of Dr. Ben Carson. For these reasons and more, it is no wonder people may not only become disengaged from political discourse in the weeks and months following any presidential election and into the inauguration, but may actively distance themselves from anything of a political nature. Especially if you find yourself on the liberal end of the political spectrum, the executive actions taken by President Trump and the partisan rancor which has marked the confirmation process for a number of his Cabinet nominees has made tuning in to the news these days almost somewhat of an act of masochism. Either that or you want to take out your frustrations on the nearest object. In the latter case, make sure the consistency of said object is closer to that of a pillow than, say, a brick wall.
While the nature of politics today and President Trump’s victory have helped alienate scores of Americans, others have taken recent events as a call to action and a reason to stay informed and involved. Though the workings of Congress may remain arcane to many of us, a notion buttressed by the crushing boredom of House and Senate proceedings, through News Feeds and trending topics on social media, as well as dedicated accounts whereby average citizens can interact with their elected representatives, political figures have never been more accessible than they are today. Why, I interact every day with President Trump via Twitter! OK, so maybe it’s a bit one-sided, and it consists of me Tweeting to his preferred account each time that he lost the popular vote, according to the most recent count, by 2,868,519 votes—but hey, I get to speak to him directly! (He seems very concerned with the results of the popular vote, so I figured he should be apprised of the status of the count, you know, just in case anything were to change.) It’s an exciting time in American history to be so close to those with our best interests in mind!
It is with this dichotomy that I offer the news, in the event you were unaware, that CNN aired a televised debate on the subject of health care recently, with periodic updates on social media featuring snippets of the proceedings. Wait—you’re saying—this is February 2017. We just had an election, and the 2018 mid-terms aren’t until November of next year. Why are we having a debate at this very early point in the campaign? Well, for starters, both of the participants are, in fact, running for re-election in 2018, and as a matter of fact, made it pretty darn far in the presidential race before conceding to the eventual party nominees. Besides this possible means to an end, though, the topic of conversation is an important one for Americans across income level, age level and other identifying characteristics. The subject of health care in the United States is a pressing one for individuals and businesses alike, and yet more so in the wake of the GOP’s announced plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Based on what our leaders and policymakers decide in the near future, large swaths of the population stand to be impacted one way or another, and noting the costs involved, generations to come may likewise be affected by the actions of the present. So, yeah, while we’re a way’s away from November 2018, it makes sense to have a debate now when so much is at stake.
Have I sufficiently set the scene? Even if I haven’t, let us press onward, for we have much to discuss, grasshopper.
UNITED STATES OF JOE RECAPS THE CNN HEALTH CARE DEBATE
For a weeknight debate in the campaign off-season, CNN and the powers-that-be for each “side” of the affair could have trotted out your run-of-the-mill, rank-and-file members of Congress. As it turned out, though, this debate brought the heat in the form of two heavyweight contenders in the political scene. Your, ahem, “fighters” in this bout:
In the red corner, the U.S. Senator everyone loves to hate, the Tea Partier from Texas, the Canadian-born, half-Cuban aficionado of the government shutdown, ladies and gentlemen—give it up for Rafael “The Zodiac Killer” Cruz!
Annnnnd in the blue corner, he’s an independent senator but he caucuses with the Democrats, he lives in Vermont but he’s Brooklyn through and through, he’s a fan of democratic socialism and he’s not afraid to show it—”let me be clear” who I am talking about: the one, the only, Bernard “It’s Not about Me, It’s About Our Revolution” Sanders!
Round One: The Opening Statements
Bernie Sanders was first to go in the opening segment, and per the boxing metaphor, he came out swinging. According to Sanders, the Republicans’ intended repeal of the Affordable Care Act would mean 20 million Americans finally able to have health insurance would lose it, the 10 million seniors struggling to pay for prescription drugs would see their costs go up by an average of $2,000, and people with serious diseases/illnesses could be refused insurance for having pre-existing conditions. In making these arguments, Bernie acknowledged the ACA isn’t perfect, but indicated a majority of Americans want better than a repeal without an improved replacement. Then, he dusted off his old line from the campaign trail: that the United States is the only major country on Earth not to offer health care as a fundamental right. It doesn’t make it any less true, of course, but ahem, we’ve heard this before.
Ted Cruz, when he was on for his two minutes, talked about how his colleague in the Senate and the Democrats want government to control health care, and therefore want to wrest control away from you and your family. Cruz then proceeded to engage in the GOP’s new favorite tradition—dragging the legacy of Barack Obama—specifically by alleging Obama made promises about Americans being able to keep their own plans and that families’ premiums wouldn’t rise, and didn’t keep them, and capped these arguments off by saying the election was a referendum on ObamaCare. Actually, it seemed like the election was a referendum on establishment politics in general and/or Barack Obama and “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, but sure, go nuts with that story, Ted.
Round Two: So When Exactly Do We Repeal, Again?
To start off the actual debate portion of the debate, Jake “Please Don’t Put Me on with Kellyanne Conway Again” Tapper, co-moderator of CNN’s prime-time event alongside Dana “Admit It, You’re Glad I’m Not Don Lemon, Aren’t You?” Bash, engaged Ted Cruz about a timeline for a repeal of ObamaCare. After all, Paul Ryan had said a full repeal would get done by the end of 2017, but President Trump recently suggested a repeal and replacement might not come to pass until 2018. So, wouldn’t anything less than a substantive change by the end of this year be tantamount to a broken promise? Cruz was quick to reject this assertion, though, returning to his line about recent elections between a referendum on ObamaCare, saying “the people” wanted lower deductibles and premiums and more choices, not less, when it comes to their health care providers. Don’t we all, Ted. Don’t we all. Cruz closed his thoughts on this particular question by saying we need “common-sense” reform on health care and health insurance in America (“common-sense Republican reform”—bit of an oxymoron, no?), and attacked Democrats for resisting all changes to the Affordable Care Act. It’s not necessarily true, mind you, but it plays well in sound bites and video clips.
Given the opportunity to respond, Bernie Sanders replied by saying the Republicans don’t have a credible substitute for the ACA, and accordingly, are in a state of “panic.” He was all, like, oh, you want a choice under the GOP’s plan? How about if you have cancer, then you either have affordable health care, or if you are refused coverage because you have a “pre-existing condition,” you—wait for it—die? What kind of a choice is that? OK, so he didn’t say it exactly like that per se, but he may as well have. As Sanders views things, it is the nature of private insurance that drives these no-win situations for the consumer, and in a rebuttal to the notion ObamaCare has driven up premiums, remarked that it was under the Bush administration that rates really began to soar. So chew on that for a while, you whipper-snapper!
In a rebuttal to the rebuttal, Ted Cruz pointed out that insurance companies’ profits increased during Obama’s tenure, which doesn’t really prove anything, but the correlation is there. Bernie made a counter-offer that we should just bypass the insurance companies altogether and institute a Medicare-for-all system. Cruz then pivoted to a verbal assault on Big Pharma and the cost of prescription drugs, which Sanders admittedly got baited into joining because he loves him some Big Pharma bashing. Sheesh—one question in, and this thing was already threatening to go off the rails.
Round Three: Ponder This
Round Three marked the introduction of audience member questions into the fray. The first of these came from a woman named Neosho Ponder, someone diagnosed with breast cancer and currently undergoing treatment because of ObamaCare. She wanted to know of Ted Cruz: if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, what guarantee will I have that I’ll be able to afford health insurance given my “pre-existing condition” of cancer? To which Cruz essentially was all, like, um, well, we can pray for you? Bernie Sanders first asked for Jake Tapper to “cut him a switch.” Then he proceeded to lambaste his political rival for wanting to repeal every word of the ACA without maintaining the ability to protect those with pre-existing conditions from the machinations of the insurance industry. Cruz responded by saying what about the 6 million people who lost their coverage as a result of ObamaCare? (By the way, not really close to being accurate.) Dana Bash interceded to ask him when, exactly, he planned on answering Ponder’s question. And Ted Cruz was all, like, I already did a bunch of times. And Bash was all, like, seriously, though, what about those pre-existing conditions? And Cruz then offered to do everyone in attendance a magic trick to lighten the mood. No—you’re right—he didn’t, but it would’ve been just about as effective. Because he and the Republicans can’t promise Americans like Neosho Ponder will be able to find coverage, and in the spirit of illusions, would only excel at making affordable health insurance disappear.
Round Four: The, Er, Abnormal Pap Smear Round
No one involved in the actual debate had an abnormal pap smear, whether we’re talking about the participants or the moderators. That is, that we know of. I mean, Ted Cruz could secretly be a hermaphrodite or something. Not that I’m alleging he is one, by the way. Just saying you never know. No, that revelation came from audience member Melissa Borkowski, a nurse practitioner from Florida with a husband, four kids, and, oh, just a tiny little insignificant $13,000 deductible. Bernie Sanders was asked, um, what gives, old man? Sen. Sanders replied by saying, well, Pam, we shouldn’t be paying that much, and if this were France, Germany, Scandinavia or the U.K., you wouldn’t. She-He Cruz, meanwhile, contended we pay more because we get better and more frequent care. What happens when the government controls health care is that it rations that care. So there, Bernie. Then he stuck his tongue out and made antlers with his hands to his head.
Piggybacking off Borkowski’s question and her, well, candid medical information, Jake Tapper directed a follow-up at Bernie, asking him about a state like Florida that now has less insurance choices to offer through ObamaCare and through the public exchange. How do we manage affordability for the consumer while still offering a fair number of choices? First, responding to Melissa’s question and Ted Cruz’s comments, because he’ll answer your question when he’s good and ready, Mr. Tapper!, Bernie Sanders noted that when people can’t afford health insurance and proper health care, that is effectively a form of rationing as well. The solution, as Sanders sees it, is to, as an extension of a Medicare-for-all single-payer program, provide a public option in all 50 states and offer the kind of competition needed against the private sector. Ted Cruz, in his reply, brought a visual aid in the form of a map of this insurance coverage—or lack thereof—and criticized the public option as the government controlling your health care, also known as—gasp!—socialism. Besides, as much as Sen. Sanders might extol the public option, what about all those Canadians and Scandinavians who come to the United States for superior health care?
Quick to jump back in, Bernie refuted the notion that the government option was the government telling people what to do. After all, it’s an option, not a mandate. Regardless, you don’t see leaders of these countries that offer the public option, even the conservative ones, choosing to get rid of this avenue for insurance. Mr. Zodiac Killer, in response, threw out some horror stories about rationing and waiting periods for patients as a justification for why there shouldn’t be a public option or even a Medicare-for-all program. Bernie, however, wasn’t having any of it, and threw out not his own horror stories, but rather an estimate that tens of thousands of Americans die each year because they don’t seek medical treatment, or as Big Pharma would refer to it within the context of possible side effects for prescription drugs, there are tens of thousands of “fatal events.” Ooh—Bernie Sanders with the haymaker, right before the commercial break!
Round Five: Help Me, LaRonda!
Actually, it was LaRonda who needs the help, although, unfortunately for her, she probably was never going to a satisfactory answer from either debater. The question, first directed at Sen. Sanders, was posed by LaRonda Hunter, an owner of five Fantastic Sams hair salons who would like to expand and hire more employees, but this would put her over the 50-employee threshold, and under ObamaCare, she would need to start providing health insurance to her employees. So, how could she meet this regulatory requirement and grow her business without raising prices or lowering wages? (Side note: I have never heard of Fantastic Sams, but evidently, they have locations all over the damn place. They also evidently don’t like using apostrophes. I mean, it should be “Fantastic Sam’s,” right? Unless the founder has the last name Sams? Either way, their distinction of being “fantastic” seems suspect.) And Bernie was all, like, well, Ronda. And Ms. Hunter replied, it’s LaRonda. And Sanders was all, like, dammit, you people have to stop changing your names on me! As to your question, though, um, you don’t? That is, if you have that many employees, they should be getting health insurance. Sen. Ted Cruz, given the floor, took the opportunity to portray ObamaCare as the nemesis of small business, and identified two piteous classes of people created by the Affordable Care Act. The first is the 29ers, those forced to work part-time jobs because ObamaCare kicks in at 30 hours a week. The other is the 49ers, who suffer the plight of being a terrible football franchise. Kidding—sort of! The 49ers, in Cruz’s context, are people like LaRonda Hunter that stop short of hiring 50 employees or else be subject to needing to meet the insurance requirement under the ACA. So, thanks, Democrats, thanks, Barack Obama—this is the Hell you’ve wrought in the United States of America.
Bernie Sanders, of course, was not about to take this line of thinking from Sen. Cruz lying down. On the contrary, he made a few key points. First, he acknowledged that premiums are way too high, but again, they’ve been on the incline since the days of Dubya. Second, Sanders explained that there are actually fewer part-time workers now than there were before the passage of the ACA. Third, and reiterating his point from earlier, from the campaign trail, and from much of his adult life, the U.S. should enact a Medicare-for-all program—that is, unless Ted Cruz and the Republicans don’t kill it off first. Ooh—a body blow from the people’s champ! Cruz hadn’t lost his fighting spirit either, however. He asked his competitor, you know, Bernie, President Obama said premiums would go down. Wasn’t he a liar-liar-pants-on-fire? Ouch—a right hook from the challenger of his own!
The older fighter, though, proved he can still take a punch. Bernie conceded it turned out that Obama’s promise turned out not to be true, though he probably thought it was true at the time. (Second side note: if we’re calling Barack Obama a liar on this front, what does that make Donald Trump, who has already unrepentantly broken scores of campaign promises in less than a month on the job? Oh, that’s right—that would make Trump a “fraud.”) At any rate, the only way a scenario like LaRonda Hunter’s would work, he reasoned, is if we cut through the administration and bureaucracy and guarantee health care for all. Cruz, perhaps surprisingly, agreed. There’s too much paperwork. It’s all the government’s fault. Sanders replied, wait a second, Mr. Looks Like the Lead Singer of Stryper—government is part of the reason, but so are insurance companies. Sen. Cruz, once more, agreed, saying they should agree on some sort of alternative. Sen. Sanders, putting his hand to his face and shaking his head back and forth, was all, like, I’ve already said it, like, five times—Medicare-for-all, single-payer. What, do you not believe health care is a right? And Ted Cruz was all, like, I like rights. Religious freedom, that’s a good one. The Second Amendment—I enjoy that one as well. Bernie Sanders was, at this point, growing tired of his rival’s rope-a-dope. The ensuing dialog went a little something like this, and I’m paraphrasing, obviously:
BERNIE: Do you believe health care is a right?
TED CRUZ: I believe access to health care is a right.
BERNIE: WHAT THE HELL GOOD IS “ACCESS” IF YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT? THERE’D BE 20 MILLION MORE PEOPLE WITHOUT INSURANCE IF NOT FOR OBAMACARE! AM I SPEAKING ANOTHER LANGUAGE HERE?
Damn, Bernie! Don’t hurt him! Ted Cruz, in this round, may just have been saved by the bell, er, commercial break.
Round Six: The “Congratulations on Your MS” Round
The next audience question from the debate came from the person of Carol Hardaway, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Because her state did not expand Medicaid coverage under the ACA (and what state is that? Hint: it rhymes with “Shmexas”!), she was forced to move to one that did in Maryland. So, if the Affordable Care Act is to be repealed, can she still have her coverage or a replacement that is at least on par with it? Ted Cruz, in his response, first said this—and I wish I was making this up:
Well, Carol, thank you for sharing your story. And congratulations on dealing with MS. It’s a terrible disease. And congratulations on your struggles dealing with it.
As I often do with these debates, I follow people’s comments on Twitter as they air live, and after this line from Cruz, the immediate response from most of the users was, “Wait—did this guy just f**king congratulate her on having MS?” Yes, he f**king did. This is the problem Ted Cruz faces when he has to express an actual human emotion: it often comes across as extremely awkward. When he was done applauding Ms. Hardaway for having a debilitating illness, Sen. Cruz then basically said, gee, I’m glad Medicaid is working for you, but it’s a terrible program and should be replaced with private insurance. Bernie Sanders, in rebuttal, once more conceded Medicaid, like the ACA, is not perfect, but for those governors who have refused federal funds on principle, he hopes they can sleep at night knowing some of their constituents probably died as a result of refusing the Medicaid expansion. Cruz fired back by saying Medicaid is rationed care. Sanders replied by saying that slashing funding for Medicaid is only making things worse, and what’s more, this fabled access to quality health care that the Republicans and others tout is lacking in urban and rural areas, begging the expansion of programs like the National Health Service Corps to help meet the needs of the primary care crisis.
Throughout all of this, meanwhile, Carol Hardaway’s question remained unanswered, such that Jake Tapper actually cut in to let her speak again when he noticed her shaking her head because Ted Cruz did not adequately address her concerns. Given the chance to respond, Sen. Cruz professed that there is “widespread agreement” on replacement plans, and cited three hallmarks of something that would theoretically fill the void of ObamaCare if it were repealed: 1) allowing Americans to purchase plans across state lines, 2) expanding health savings accounts (HSAs), and 3) making health insurance portable so it travels with you from job to job. He also cited his home state’s passage of tort reform laws to address lawsuit abuse and medical malpractice suits. Some notes on these “widely agreeable” solutions:
Across-state plans sound good in theory, but the primary obstacle, as this New York Times piece written by Margot Sanger-Katz details, is not regulatory, but financial and of insurer network difficulties. Insurers don’t like them, by and large, and besides, the states like to regulate these matters themselves. Not to mention it takes time to establish relationships between insurance companies and health care providers. In other words, it’s not that simple, Ted.
HSAs offer possible advantages in that plans with lower premiums but higher deductibles may cause people to be more cognizant of what they’re spending. However, a potential drawback is that consumers may not be willing to seek out more expensive procedures—even when they really need them. It’s a disturbing thought, but a reality of these types of accounts.
Portable health insurance is, in theory, a great idea. In practice, though, logistical difficulties often loom herein related to an inability to find comparable plans when changing insurers, or otherwise failure by the insured to adequately suss out whether a plan is truly beneficial to them. At any rate, the big picture issue would seem to be keeping insurance costs low regardless of insurer, and this seems to be at odds with how many health insurance giants operate. As quick as Sen. Cruz and others are to point to “big government,” the insurance industry bears as much, if not more, responsibility.
Ted Cruz touts his state’s commitment to tort reform as a success, but studies suggest that health care costs did not decrease as a result of Prop 12, which passed in Texas in 2003 and was advocated for by Gov. Rick Perry and other GOP members within the state. Often, malpractice suits and the costs of litigation are blamed for the rising cost of medical care, but it is the economics of the health care industry and errors which primarily drive the upward trend. Moreover, capping the possible damages for victims of malpractice risks denying them the monies they need, or otherwise shifting the burden to programs like Medicare and Medicaid. You know, the same programs Republicans are trying to gut. But, go ahead, Senator Cruz—pat yourself on the back.
The “round” concluded with Sanders pointing out that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents by far—and in the process, casually dropping the notion his state, Vermont, has the second-lowest rate of insured in the nation—and Cruz defending the Lone Star State as a job producer and drastically more diverse than Vermont. Then Sanders said Cruz was ugly. Then Cruz said Sanders’ accent is stupid. If Jake Tapper didn’t intercede, the two senators might literally have gotten into a slap fight—forget my boxing analogy. Oh, it was so on now!
Round Seven: Womanhood—The Pre-existing Condition
On the debate pressed. Next to pose a query was Maria Shahid Rowe, a nursing student at the Medical University of North Carolina, pregnant with her second child, who wanted to know of Ted Cruz what any plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act would mean for pregnant women, who were at risk of being dropped before ObamaCare passed due to being considered to have a pre-existing condition, or for women in general for that matter, in that they could be charged higher premiums than men. Cruz went on for a while, eventually settling on the issue of mandated coverage for ObamaCare, such as the example of a 101-year-old being forced to have maternity coverage. Sanders was more succinct in his reply, and translating for his colleague in the Senate, explained the Republican Party could make no such guarantees. Cruz, in his follow-up, threw out a lot of stats about how young people, in particular, have been hurt by ObamaCare. They could be true. Then again, they could be misleading or just made up. Suffice it to say, though, that despite the myth-making of Republicans about the ACA, many millennials have actually been able to better afford health insurance as a result of subsidies, or have been protected against unexpected events such as getting laid off by virtue of the provision that allows them to stay on their parents’ plans until the age of 26. If nothing else, this muddies the proverbial waters on Ted Cruz’s “facts.” Man, does that guy love “facts.”
Dana Bash stepped in at this point to redirect the conversation a bit. First, she circled back to the notion of women over the age of 60, and asked Bernie Sanders whether or not he believed they should be paying for maternity coverage. Sanders acknowledged it was a problem, but something that could be looked at going forward, before stressing the idea that pregnancy should not be considered a pre-existing condition. Bash then turned to Ted Cruz, and inquired whether or not a replacement for the Affordable Care Act would maintain the provision that women do not have to pay out-of-pocket for birth control. Uh-oh, Ted—it’s a question with religious undertones! Sen. Cruz stuck to his playbook, assailing government mandates, and making some weird analogy about driving a Lamborghini. Sen. Sanders, in his answer, while questioning the merits of the fancy car metaphor (“I think it’s a bit disingenuous to talk about driving a fancy car with getting access to healthcare when you’re sick”) raised perhaps the most significant point: that the GOP has incentive to repeal the ACA to give the top 2% sizable tax breaks, much as they would abolish the estate tax. Then Cruz started talking about a flat tax, and once more, the debate threatened to go off the rails. Jake Tapper really couldn’t have called for a commercial break any sooner than he did.
Round Eight: Possible Side Effects of Listening to Ted Cruz Include Nausea and Suicidal Thoughts
With the final audience question of the night, Colorado resident Cole Gelrod, whose daughter was diagnosed with a heart defect and who can’t pay for her prescription drugs with his employer-provided insurance, but can do so under the auspices of ObamaCare and his state’s Medicaid expansion, asked Ted Cruz what the plan was to address the rising cost of prescription drugs and how to deal with insurance plans in which companies can choose not to cover life-saving drugs. Sen. Cruz basically said it’s the FDA’s fault, because these drugs are getting approved in other countries. Ted Cruz should just make his motto, “When in doubt, blame the government.” Bernie Sanders, while he agreed with his colleague to the extent that FDA-approved drugs should be affordable and available to Americans to re-import at cheaper rates, and vowed to re-introduce legislation to facilitate this function, also said we as a nation should be negotiating lower prices through Medicare. Cruz once again—wait for it—blamed the government. Sanders—wait for it—blamed pharmaceutical companies and corporate greed, and professed the belief that these corporations and exorbitant executive pay should be reined in. Sen. Cruz was all, like, well, I don’t think the government should dictating who gets paid what. This is America, not some socialist nation. Sen. Sanders was all, like, you know, places like Denmark, Finland and Sweden aren’t that bad. Even if they do put pickled herring in mustard sauce.
Dana Bash then broke out an air horn and pressed it loudly for several seconds before redirecting the two debaters to the subject of taxes, whereupon she asked Bernie, if he is opposed to taxes going up on the middle class, why should those individuals and families who go without some form of health insurance be subject to a tax penalty? Bernie was all, like, well, they shouldn’t. The rich should be paying more, but in the meantime, we have to try to get needed revenue for benefits somehow. Ted Cruz was then all, like, well, if you don’t like the tax penalty, why did you help write ObamaCare? Your health care plan is going to cost us trillions of dollars. And Bernie Sanders was all, like, yeah, well, your tax plan gives the top 1% most of the benefits, as does doing away with the estate tax. Now, if we were to enact the Sanders plan—
And that’s when CNN cut to commercial to fulfill its obligation to its corporate overlords. Buy more cars! And more prescription drugs! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!?
Round Nine: Closing Statements
I’m going to breeze through this final section, because I’m sure by now you know where each of the debaters are headed. Sen. Bernie Sanders sees major problems in Congress being beholden to the wants of the insurance, medical equipment, and pharmaceutical industries, and the United States being the wealthiest nation in the world and lagging behind other developed nations with respect to health care. Sen. Ted Cruz sees ObamaCare as a failure as evidenced by high premiums and deductibles, canceled insurance policies, and lies, lies, lies! from Barack Obama, and wonders why we would give yet more power to government to mediate health care. That’s basically all you need to know from this exercise. Oh, and DON’T F**KING CONGRATULATE SOMEONE WITH MS! I’M TALKING TO YOU, TED CRUZ!
And the winner was? CNN? Listen—who you think “won” the debate probably depends on whose point of view most closely resembles your own. To that end, I’m not all that interested. I personally think Bernie Sanders made the more compelling arguments, but as a self-identifying progressive, I naturally would. Others watching or reading the transcript might believe Ted Cruz mopped the floor with the senator from Vermont, and furthermore, that Democrats are bringing down this country. Seemingly more and more these days, Americans, buoyed by the news they absorb through cable news channels and social media echo chambers, hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe. Still, that so many people are engaged on these issues and others even after the election signals to me that Americans are understanding the importance of continued involvement with political news, if not the merits of volunteering in campaigns or running for public office themselves. Accordingly, I hope events of this sort are scheduled in the future. Maybe a debate on commercial banking regulation between Elizabeth Warren and Steve Mnuchin, or, say, a debate on education practices between Betsy DeVos, and—I don’t know—a freaking fifth-grader. Average Americans should have a way to be exposed to the major parties’ stances on a variety of issues in a highly accessible, comprehensible way.
It’s the dawning of a new age in U.S. politics. More power to the people, I say! And more debates! You know, provided they don’t involve Don Lemon.
When someone blows up a physical embodiment of the year “2016” and encourages people to tell that year to go f**k itself, you know it’s been an abnormally bad one. John Oliver took the opportunity to give 2016 this proper send-off (a report on this event was equally properly filed under the category “F**K 2016” by Aimée Lutkin and Jezebel), and that HBO agreed to afford Oliver the chance to explode something of that magnitude likewise speaks to the horror that was this past 366 days. That’s right—in case you had forgotten, 2016 was a leap year, so all-too-appropriately, we were given one extra day to protract the misery. The Julian and Gregorian calendars can eat a collective dick on that front.
I only started this blog in the middle of June of this year, so I missed the chance to comment on some things that happened earlier in 2016. With over 50 posts under my belt on United States of Joe, however, there’s still enough topics to revisit to make reflecting on the year that was worthwhile. Well, at least as far as I’m concerned. And since, despite my overall belief in fair and democratic principles, this blog is not a democracy but a Joe-ocracy, that’s the agenda for this session. You’re welcome. So, kick back. Get plenty of champagne ready—noting how awful the past year has been, it may take quite a bit of alcohol to get into the spirit. And get ready to count down to 2017. It’s time to give our own send-off to 2016, middle fingers in the air and all.
Well, before we take the plunge into the abjectly negative, let’s go back to the app-based sensation that was Pokémon Go. Since its initial breakthrough success which had critics saying the smartphone game had ushered in a new era of augmented reality and had fundamentally changed the way we look at mobile gaming, downloads and use of the title have understandably cooled. In light of the downward trend, members of the media are now looking at Pokémon Go altogether as a disappointment, especially in light of some updates which failed to impress. You need to walk 3 KM just for one stinking Charmander candy? I’m never going to get that Charizard! NEVER, I SAY!
Now that I’m done being dramatic, not only do I find these charges against the game and its maker Niantic overblown (although, seriously, those Buddy System ratios are pretty shitty), but expectations, buttressed by the app’s initial success, were probably always too high. Though Niantic did its part to make the game palatable to people of all ages and ability levels by making gameplay largely based around throwing Poké Balls and by simplifying battles, the players who are most likely to find the experience rewarding are fans of the original game, who are used to grinding for experience, completing the game as completely as possible, and overall, staying in it for the long haul. It’s not Angry Birds. It’s not Candy Crush Saga. It’s not Fruit freaking Ninja. You have to walk and work for your rewards. You know, when you can’t pay money for some of them. Either way, you still have to walk!
When Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in July and formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, it admittedly felt like a punch to the gut. For all the mental preparation made, when the moment actually arrived, it still hurt. What made Sanders’ decision and the associated feelings yet worse, though, was the reception his standing behind Clinton received and the accusations that got hurled around in the wake of the announcement. Con-man. Sell-out. Traitor. Looking at Bernie’s endorsement in a purely ideological vacuum, it is easy to assess this move as a betrayal of his principles and what he stands for. In this instance, however, context is everything, and with Donald Trump having sewn up the Republican Party nomination, Sanders saw greater merit in trying to unite Democrats and other prospective voters in an effort to defeat Trump. Ultimately, the orange one shocked the world and scored an electoral victory, but Bernie Sanders did his best to avoid this eventuality. That not enough Americans either came out to vote or otherwise didn’t buy what Hillary was selling is largely on her, not Bernie.
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the remaining candidates looked to capitalize. Even with the bulk of Sanders supporters presumed to be going over to Hillary Clinton’s camp, Donald Trump himself made an instantaneous pitch to those “feeling the Bern,” trying to tap into their fervent and justifiable anger at the political establishment. Third-party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, too, though, made a play for these suddenly available votes, rationalizing that there was no better time than now than to tell the two major parties to shove it. In endorsing Clinton, Bernie repeatedly tried to communicate the danger and inadequacies of Trump as a presidential candidate first and foremost, even though he may have largely been preaching to the choir, as younger voters by and large detested “the Donald.” He also, meanwhile, cautioned against a “protest vote” for someone like Johnson, Stein, or even Harambe (and yes, he would’ve loved to follow this election), realizing, as did all these newfound suitors for Bernie backers’ affections, that the votes of his faithful could swing the election by helping to decide key swing states. To reiterate, it didn’t work all that well, but the effort on Sanders’ part was there.
Ultimately, as Bernie Sanders himself will insist, his run for President, while important, was always more concerned with starting a revolution and getting more Americans, especially younger voters and working-class individuals, involved with the political process, even at the local level. Whether the energy behind his campaign and the urge for progressive grass-roots activism is sustainable in the United States is yet to be seen, but either way, there is yet room for optimism that people will want to keep active and informed as a means of exerting greater control over their own destiny. Thus, you may call Bernie any name you want, but I choose to label him an inspiration, and I feel history will bear out this sentiment as well.
As we Bernie Sanders supporters worked our way through the Five Stages of Grief and Loss, eventually, we had to come to accept that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was going to be our next President. In fact, even the non-Berners were forced to do the same, in all likelihood ensuring many who were on the fence—that is, on whether or not they would vote at all—would choose the latter option and just stay home. In my piece referenced in the title of this section, I mused about the notion that maybe we, as a collective electorate, did not deserve better than these choices that a significant portion of said electorate neither trusted nor cared for much. Ever since 2000, when Ralph Nader was accused of costing Al Gore the election (even though Gore lost that shit on his own, with an admitted probable helping from electoral shenanigans down in Florida), Americans have been highly critical of parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, with the usual refrain being some combination of “they could play spoiler to a legitimate candidate” or “you’re throwing away your vote” if you opt for one of them.
However, to invoke the words of Mr. Nader himself, not only is this attitude politically bigoted, as it negates the will of the individual to make an informed choice in accordance with his or her conscience, but it nullifies our bargaining power with the two major parties. After all, if we blindly vote either Democratic or Republican, beyond losing the election, what motivation does either party have to institute reform that better reflects the needs and wants of the voting public? Especially for members of the working class, both Democrats and Republicans have seemed to take them for granted, which at least partially explains why the Dems lost this election and why Trump and Sanders achieved the levels of popularity they did this election cycle.
In the end, though, despite the increased visibility of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the lead-up to the election, most Americans who voted (and there was a good portion of the country who could’ve voted which didn’t) cast their ballots for either Hillary or Donald. As historically unfavorable as these two candidates were, and for all their flaws—Trump as an idiot and professional con-man stoking the flames of fear and hatred, Clinton as an out-of-touch elitist with a penchant for pandering and expensive Giorgio Armani jackets—better than nine-tenths of voters decided they had to pick one of the two, if for no other reason than to block the other candidate they liked even less. Which is pretty shitty, if you ask me. Personally, even with the knowledge that she wouldn’t win, I voted for Jill Stein, as I felt neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton had earned my vote. That relative few other Americans opted out of the two-party paradigm, however, signals to me that we, as a nation, are not ready to demand political change as strongly as we should. It’s either red and blue in these United States, and if you don’t like either color, the present message, unfortunately, is to get the f**k out.
Holy f**k, indeed. In retrospect, I’m not sure why the pollsters were so surprised that Donald Trump scored the “upset” victory, or why we were so easily convinced that Hillary Clinton was such a strong favorite to win the presidency, when their models were consistently wrong or failed to predict the magnitudes of certain results throughout the primary season. At any rate, as must be reiterated for anyone who sees Trump’s win as a mandate, the man who considers himself a master of “The Art of the Deal” won the presidency on the strength of electoral votes, not because he had a resounding victory in the popular vote (in fact, he lost by more than 2 million votes, and it apparently tears him up inside)—and certainly not because he ran a stellar campaign.
So, how did Trump win? Looking at the exit poll data, certain trends do tend to stick out. Regionally, Donald Trump fared much better in the Midwest and the South, and of course, he carried key swing states, notably those in the Rust Belt (e.g. Ohio, Wisconsin). In terms of demographic data, Trump had an easy advantage among male voters and voters 45 and above, not to mention he held an appeal among less educated individuals and the wealthiest earners (a seeming paradox, though as evidenced by how they spend their money, rich people aren’t necessarily all that smart—look at Trump himself!), as well as evangelicals and married people, but perhaps most notable of all, whites voted at almost a 60% clip for Donald Trump, while close to three of four non-whites went for Hillary Clinton. CNN commentator Van Jones referred to this aspect of the results as a “white-lash”, as in “white backlash” after eight years of a black president the Republicans have characterized as a cause of America’s problems and someone with a secret Muslim agenda, and it’s hard to argue otherwise, really. When the former head of the Ku Klux Klan is cheering you on and citing you as an inspiration, you know white supremacist beliefs, racism and xenophobia helped you to victory.
On a somewhat related note, the thematic reasons why Trump voters chose the way did are also significant. Speaking of racism and xenophobia, supporters of Donald Trump rated immigration trends and terrorism the most important issues facing the United States. Screw the economy and foreign relations—let’s worry some more about brown people. As for the quality that best drew voters to Trump, it wasn’t whether the candidate cares about them, exhibits good judgment, or has the right experience—those voters tended to go for Clinton—but whether he or she could bring about “change.” Whatever the heck that means.
In a nutshell, that’s why Donald Trump is set to be our next President. As for who we can blame for this, besides the obvious in Trump himself and his supporters, there are three core enablers for the man’s political success. Certainly, the Republican Party let him waltz right in and secure the nomination after a barrage of similarly weak candidates failed to stand in his way, and after the GOP at large sowed the seeds of fear and hate he exploited. The media, too, acted irresponsibly and selfishly, chasing ratings while failing to challenge Trump on his lack of defined policy, his factual inaccuracies, his reckless language, or even his refusal to publish his tax returns. In addition, the Democratic Party, in its own right bears some responsibility. Among its most damning sins are its failure to stand up for the working class, its inability to protect jobs and wages, its support for disastrous trade deals like NAFTA and TPP, its complicity with corporations and wealthy donors, and its allowing antitrust laws to lapse or otherwise become weaker, thereby consolidating power into fewer and fewer hands. The failure to stop Donald Trump is a collective one, and though it probably won’t happen, these enablers should do some serious soul-searching for fear of endangering their long-term prospects.
Should anything happen to Donald Trump, whether in terms of his health (not that I’m wishing for the man to pull a William Henry Harrison or anything) or impeachment, the next man in line may not be all that much of an improvement. Mike Pence, who has been governing the proud state of Indiana, has arguably made a number of shitty choices during his tenure. He vetoed a refund of a tax overcharge on the basis it would have cost too much to administer. Before he got too much (warranted) negative feedback, he proposed JustIN, a state-run news service some likened to Pravda in the Soviet era. He rejected Medicaid expansion in his state under the Affordable Care Act on principle, to the detriment of his constituents. He insisted on a ban against a needle exchange program that was effective in limiting the spread of HIV related to a particular drug injection, and later reversed his position, but refused to use state funding to provide for such exchanges. Perhaps most notably, he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, which allowed for discrimination against the LGBT community and cost Indiana some $60 million in revenue before its reversal. An opponent of gay marriage and women controlling their own reproductive rights, Mike Pence is one of a seemingly increasingly long line of conservative Republican leaders who puts evangelical beliefs ahead of his state’s and the nation’s best interests. He’s not Trump, but he’s no rose either.
In terms of what damage he may do in terms of signing legislation into law and what damage he likely already is doing in his appointees for key positions (Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy—are you f**king serious?), that Donald Trump has been thrust into a position of immense power is bad enough, but his association with the far-right and his inspiration to the likes of David Duke makes for some shitty ripple effects just the same, let me tell you. I said earlier that Trump’s electoral victory should not be seen as a mandate given how he lost the popular vote and in light of how divided we are as a nation. And yet, the Breitbart crowd and members of the so-called “alt-right” have taken it as such, viewing themselves as fighters in a culture war they are winning, standing against political correctness and other liberal “absurdities.” They also apparently like boycotting companies who don’t stand for their white supremacist agenda. You know, even though they probably don’t use their products anyway. But boycott it is! TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP!
When Hillary Clinton formally acknowledged the alt-right in a speech during the campaign, though I feel it needed to be said, it further legitimized this loosely-constructed movement that coincides with the likes of Gamergate’s sexist perpetuators. That Stephen Bannon has been given a prominent advisory role in Trump’s administration, though, should concern us more conscientious Americans. Donald Trump is not normal, and those who sanction his misdeeds and try to normalize his objectionable behavior are standing in the way of progress. Furthermore, the gang mentality with which many of them operate, encouraging online attacks on and/or death threats against individuals whose values clash with theirs, is troubling, as is the unwillingness of social media services to more aggressively pursue those accounts which violate their terms of service for fear of losing traffic. In short, the alt-right has arrived, as much as many of us might not like to dignify them with a response, and it is incumbent upon those of us who have respect for others—not just respect for white males who refuse to admit to their privilege—to speak out against their behavior and words as dangerous and wrong.
Before Donald Trump swooped in to save the day and stop the threat of taco trucks on every corner in the United States, the United Kingdom gave us a teaser trailer for the U.S. presidential election with a referendum vote on whether or not to remain in the European Union. As with the election in the States, the experts predicted voters would do the sensible thing; if this were an analogy in the vein of the old SATs: UNITED STATES: ELECT HILLARY CLINTON :: UNITED KINGDOM: VOTE REMAIN. And, as with the election in the States, voters did the exact opposite.
The parallels are uncanny. The decision to leave the EU was, as it was in the United States, mediated by a greater incidence of older voters opting to do the wrong thing. Like with Trump’s anti-immigrant appeals and vague notions of “making America great again,” Leave voters were swayed by visions of “securing the nation’s borders” and “taking back control” of the country’s economy, not to mention equally empty promises of the UK Independence Party. Additionally, voters seemed to be making choices that were a direct rejection of existing politics. Barack Obama, David Cameron—either way you slice it, the public clamored for change, no matter who would bring it or what it would entail. The fallout from both votes is still being assessed, but the discontentment of the working-class voter and upward trends in outspokenness among white nationalists worldwide suggest the U.S. and UK votes are not isolated incidents, and in turn, that the risk of other Brexit-like events occurring in the future in other countries is all-too-real. The winds of change are blowing, and one can only hope our houses don’t get knocked over when the gusts have subsided.
Contrary to the apparent beliefs of some, black people don’t enjoy getting mowed down by police at routine traffic stops. While police shootings may not have been any more numerous in 2016 than in years past, through the advent of cellphones and other camera-based technologies, violence involving police certainly has become more visible. Whatever the precise rates of deaths related to encounters between civilians and police, it would seem as though we have a lot of progress to make regarding recognition of the disparity of treatment people of color receive at the hands of police and that which is received by whites, regardless of whether the person accosted by one or more officers has a gun or not.
A perfect illustration of the failure of much of white America to confront its privilege in this regard comes in arguments about the very name and nature of black activism in the United States which exists in large part due to documented police brutality. In response to hearing the moniker Black Lives Matter, or merely even the phrase “black lives matter,” some people are too quick to “correct” the original speaker with the phrase “all lives matter,” or counter with their own version (i.e. “blue lives matter”) that serves to negate the critical recognition of blackness inherent in the initial figure of speech. To me, however, this falls prey to a fairly obvious logical trap: if all lives matter, then black lives, as a subset of all lives, should matter too, and there should be no problem accepting that terminology. “Black lives matter” does not mean black lives should matter more than other lives, but simply that they should matter as much as white lives, blue lives, or any other color lives of which one can think. Clearly, though, they don’t, or else there wouldn’t be a need for organizations such as Black Lives Matter.
The need to scrutinize adherence by individual officers to specified protocol when engaging possible suspects, as well as the systems which serve to shield “rogue” cops from criticism and/or prosecution, is undermined by two key strategies of those who react to protests with knee-jerk defenses of our uniformed police. The first is to question the integrity of the victim—yes, victim—who, because he or she is labeled a “thug” or has a history with the law, evidently deserves to be effectively lynched by the police who intercede him or her. The second is to de-legitimize efforts of black activists wholesale, conflating them unfairly with those who loot and otherwise take advantage of violence and associated protests for their own gain, likening them to terrorists, or wrongly insisting they are advocating for the slaughter of police. In both cases, this is counterproductive, regressive thinking.
As some have argued, those cops who are too nervous not to shoot someone at a routine encounter shouldn’t be placed in such a highly leveraged situation, and either way, good police—which comprise the majority of forces around the nation, let’s be clear—should be appreciative of efforts to root out bad actors from their ranks. As for the protests against police brutality, this doesn’t equate to disrespect for the police, nor does kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem constitute an affront to our military, as Colin Kaepernick’s example reminds us. Black Lives Matter et al. don’t want to see law and order dissolved. They just want to see police officers and officials who wear the badge held accountable when they do wrong, and at a very basic level, not to be utterly afraid they might die when getting pulled over by a squad car. It’s 2016. We need to do better as a country in addressing racial inequality, especially within the purview of criminal justice.
There have been too many mass shootings in the United States of late, but the Orlando nightclub shooting, in particular, was particularly devastating for many of us. Not only was it a tremendous loss of life, but that the LGBT community was apparently the specific target of the violence made this brutality that much worse for a population that regularly faces hatred and persecution. Speaking for myself, it is difficult to comprehend how someone could harbor such hate for themselves and others that they would wish to walk into a building and start firing indiscriminately. Perhaps this idea gets the tiniest bit easier to understand when we understand this hate works both ways. As jihadists would seek to inspire terror in the West through bombings and mass shootings, white nationalism encountered in Austria, France, Holland, the United Kingdom and the United States, among other nations, has created an environment that has often proved hostile to Muslims, and has made the prospect of accepting more refugees from war-torn countries like Syria decidedly poor. I mean, Donald Trump ran on a platform of which one of the key tenets was a temporary ban on travel to the U.S. for all Muslims. It’s incredible, and incredibly shameful, at that.
Never mind the idea that all this bluster about “bombing the shit out of ISIS” may actually be good for the Islamic State’s ability to recruit and strengthening its resolve. The jingoists among us would have everyone believe that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the laws of the United States, that it is a “cancer” to be snuffed out, and that American Muslims who don’t do enough to help discover would-be terrorists in their midst (which, evidently, is quite easy) are guilty in their own right, and regardless, likely merit surveillance of their homes/places of worship and tests administered to gauge their love for and commitment to the U-S-of-A. This conflation of Islam, a religion which preaches peace at its core, and the bastardized religion ISIS and other jihadists/”radical Islamists” practice, is a patently false equivalency.
For the sake of an analogy—one for which I can’t take credit, let me stress—ISIS is to everyday Muslims what the Ku Klux Klan is to white people who aren’t unabashed racists. In both cases, the majority disavows the hate and violence these groups perpetuate. This is by no means saying we shouldn’t be vigilant against individuals who would wish to do us harm. As bad as the Orlando massacre was, though, and as unforgivable as the actions of an organization like ISIS/ISIL have proven, our responses and the negative feelings that accompany some of these reactions reveal an ugly side to our patriotism as well. In the demonization and the pursuit of “the other,” we run the clear risk of losing ourselves.
I didn’t originally write about it, but the Chicago Cubs actually won the World Series. To wit, I have neither observed nor heard any stories about swarms of locusts descending on fields or rivers of blood forming, but I’m not ruling them out just yet. The apocalypse takes time to develop, you know?
Wells Fargo was forced to fire thousands of mid-level managers for directing employees to create fake accounts and sign up customers for services without their knowledge, essentially making them scapegoats for the company’s aggressive sales model. The company eventually apologized—sort of—and John Stumpf was eventually removed from the role of CEO, but the big bank largely closed the book on this sordid chapter of its history without really admitting wrongdoing, and Stumpf had a nice golden parachute on which to drift to security. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo has apparently learned absolutely nothing from this fiasco, as new CEO Tim Sloan has expressed the belief that the company and the banking industry as a whole could actually do with less regulation. Evidently, it’s all fun and games when you get to play with other people’s money.
FBI director James Comey, despite finding that Hillary Clinton and her aides were extremely careless in their handling of E-mail while Clinton was Secretary of State, that Clinton should’ve known certain E-mails were classified and didn’t belong on an unsecured server in the first place, that the State Department was generally lacking in security protocol for classified E-mails, and that Hillary used multiple unsecured devices in locations where American adversaries could have exploited this vulnerability, held a press conference to announce he was not recommending charges be filed against the Democratic Party nominee. Then, a week before the general election, he announced that the Bureau was looking anew into Clinton’s E-mails, which she and her campaign cite as a factor in why she lost. So, nice going, Director Comey! You’ve undermined confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and perhaps swayed the election! Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard!
Chris Christie not only failed to capture the Republican Party nomination, but he was overlooked by Donald Trump for vice president despite being, more or less, his manservant. Oh, and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, two key figures in “Bridge-gate,” were found guilty on all counts in a trial related to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, and a separate criminal trial is set to take place for Christie himself. Congratulations, Chris. You played yourself.
Puerto Rico defaulted on its debt, a result fueled by a combination of fiscal and economic factors, including the repeal of tax breaks for businesses, the creation and sale of triple tax-exempt municipal bonds, the inability of the commonwealth to declare for bankruptcy, exempting wealthy investors and businesses from paying capital gains taxes, “vulture” hedge funds buying up bonds and demanding a full payday, and institutions like UBS selling risky bonds they themselves underwrote to unsuspecting customers. Today, Puerto Rico’s financial future is yet in peril with individuals who are alleged to have helped the island along the path to crisis serving on its appointed oversight board, and with Donald Trump being a crazy mofo. Also, the U.S. Virgin Islands may be on the way to its own debt crisis. Um, huzzah?
In some good news, the Trans-Pacific Partnership seems to be all but dead, being disliked on both sides of the political aisle. Also, the Dakota Access Pipeline is on indefinite hold, as the Army Corps of Engineers found more research needed to be done regarding the environmental effects of its intended route through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Of course, supporters of these canceled or postponed initiatives may yet redouble their efforts, so we concerned progressives can’t really relax. At least we can enjoy a short breather before the ball drops, eh?
In the title of this piece (remember back that far?), I reference the notion that 2017 has to be better than 2016. I’m not sure it amounts to much, though, beyond wishful thinking. If the best qualification for improvement which comes to mind is that we won’t be electing Donald Trump, it’s cold comfort in light of the fact he’ll already be President. Going back to his appointees, if they are any evidence, the country is set upon a bumpy path for the next four years, or until the man gets impeached—whichever comes first. His Defense and National Security Cabinet leaders view Islam as a threat to America. His Education Secretary is an opponent of public schools, despite never having attended one. His Energy Secretary infamously once forgot the name of the department he has been tapped to helm. His Health and Human Services director wants to privatize everything and largely gut social programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. His HUD Secretary knows nothing about housing administration.
Wait, I’m not done yet! His head of the Justice Department failed to be confirmed as a federal judge once upon a time because he was an out-and-out racist. His Labor Secretary opposes raising the minimum wage. His Secretary of State has likely financial ties to Vladimir Putin. His Transportation Secretary is married to Mitch McConnell—and that’s evidence enough of poor judgment. His Treasury Secretary oversaw 50,000 or so foreclosures from his position within OneWest Bank, an entity which was accused of unethical practices and discrimination against minorities. His EPA head is a climate change denier. His Small Business Administration director is former CEO of a fake wrestling empire. And his United Nations representative has no foreign policy experience. Irresponsible does not begin to describe these selections, and fingers are crossed that one or more of them fail to get confirmed by the Senate.
So, yeah, I’m not incredibly optimistic about the United States’ prospects right now. The silver lining, as I see it, is that more and more Americans are waking up to the realization that our system is broken and that it doesn’t work for everyone, and with luck, that number will grow as the sheen wears off the shiny promises Trump has made and can’t hope to keep. I wouldn’t have wished for a Donald Trump presidency in a thousand years, but if this hastens the movement of the nation in a more progressive direction, so be it. For those of us who refuse to accept Trump and the America he has envisioned as normal, and who insist that we’ve come too far as a country to simply put the train in reverse, the resistance starts now. 2017, we look to you in strengthening our resolve. And 2016, once more, you can go f**k yourself.
One of my favorite lines—and I mean this wholly facetiously—from opponents of restrictions on firearm ownership in the wake of some mass shooting is the notion the problem is not a gun control issue, but rather a mental health concern. It’s not the gun’s fault—it’s the crazy people who decide to shoot up a classroom, movie theater, or office. This is like when a jihadist invokes Allah when firing upon innocent bystanders, and suddenly, the fact that he or she is carrying an assault rifle is unimportant—it’s “radical Islam” that’s to blame. And presumably Barack Obama and/or Hillary Clinton. If the GOP had their way, they’d blame those two for AIDS, ISIS, swarms of locusts, and any number of deleterious phenomena observed in the world today. For members of the NRA and like-minded staunch defenders of the Second Amendment, there is always some way to argue or excuse away the role guns play in mass shootings and homicides, and thus resist the call for sensible gun law reform. Guns don’t kill people—people kill people. If the killer wanted to, he could have gotten that gun illegally anyway. Maybe if the victims all had guns, this crisis could have been averted. Yes, more guns! Guns, guns, guns! Let’s make sure we put the safety on while we jerk off to the sight of our precious, wonderful guns!
Now that I’ve shaken an angry fist at gun apologists, let’s revisit the whole mental health angle. Why I hate this mention of mental illness in relation to violence—you know, besides the free pass given to the gun lobby amid all the misdirection—is that the desire of those who point to mental health to do something substantive about the pervasiveness of suffering in adults and children in the U.S. is dubious, at best. These mass shootings are about mental illness, huh? Well, do you want to do something about mental health and mental illness in this country, then? You’ll volunteer your time to work with and interact with at-risk individuals? No? How come you only talk about mental health after someone terrorizes a college campus, or walks into a church and starts unloading? Maybe we’re all just not praying hard enough for all this gun violence to end. Gee, golly gosh!
If those naysayers who jump at the chance to throw mental illness under the proverbial bus and stand in the way of common-sense gun law reform were to legitimately consider how much of a mental health crisis the good ol’ U.S. of A. realistically faces, they would stand to be astounded by the numbers behind the trends. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, on its official website, cites several statistics that hint at how severe and widespread mental illness is in America in this day and age:
Close to 44 million adults in the United States experience mental illness at some point in a given year, with 10 million of them suffering from a “serious” mental illness that “interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
More than 20% of people aged 13 to 18 experience a severe mental disorder at some point.
Roughly 18% of American adults suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.
About half of all American adults with some form of substance abuse disorder also experience some kind of mental illness. Mental illness is also prevalent among the homeless, as well as juvenile and adult criminal offenders.
Last year, just over half of children between the ages of 8 and 15 received mental health services.
These are clearly not insignificant figures. Additional statistics cited by NAMI highlight the implications of the high incidence of mental illness in the United States:
Serious mental illness costs us close to $200 billion in “lost earnings” annually.
In terms of human cost, on average, people with serious mental illness die 25 years earlier than their counterparts without it.
For adults aged 18 to 44, mood disorders such as depression are the third-most common cause of hospitalization.
Suicide is the 10th-most common cause of death among Americans, and for people from age 10 to age 24, it is the third-most common.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program, around 20 veterans die each day as a result of suicide.
You can accuse the National Alliance on Mental Illness of fabricating or skewing these tallies all you want, but at face value, the data are staggering. Indeed, based on the prevalence of mental illness in the United States, whether moderate or severe, chances are you know someone in your personal life who suffers from some sort of anxiety disorder, mood disorder, or both. I could say I don’t, but I’d be lying. Not only do I know a number of people who suffer from some sort of mental illness, or playing the amateur psychologist, suspect some do, but I’d have to ignore my own hand being raised.
About six or seven years ago, I was formally diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). In some ways, I feel as if this should not be surprising to those who know me personally, though maybe it is only obvious to me because a) naturally, it involves me, and b) I tend to dwell on these kinds of matters, perhaps more than the average person would. On the anxiety front, I often feel that by the end of the day, the cumulative sum of the situations that cause me stress have me outright exhausted. When I’m driving somewhere unfamiliar or a place that tends to be crowded, I obsess over how and where I’m going to park my car long before I get to my destination. Direct eye contact with people is a challenge, and I’m often so consumed with fear about saying something that will offend the other person or even anticipation of what the other person will say that I find it hard to engage with people in the first place. The act of public speaking is enough to turn my throat into the Sahara Desert and choke my interior train of thought such that getting through a 10-minute speech is a chore. Sometimes, my leg or foot will shake because I’m nervous just thinking about something—and I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I worry about the future. I sweat it when items in public spaces at work are not where they’re supposed to be. I could go on, because the circumstances that cause me anxiety in a given day are myriad and limitless, and it’s at times a struggle to focus on the task at hand and to remind myself there’s only so much I can control. You’re probably exhausted now just reading about this!
As for the depression aspect, I’m not about to tell you a sob story about how I wasn’t hugged enough as a child, or how Daddy didn’t tell me he loves me, or how I had no friends, or how hard I’ve had it growing up. Truth be told, I’ve probably had it better than most. I’m very fortunate to have lived in a town that’s relatively safe (knock on wood), with parents that support me, a job, an education, a car, a roof over my head. I’m grateful for the things I have. And I think because of these things, some people will think that I have no reason to be depressed. Right then and there, though, I feel like this sentiment taps into misconceptions and misunderstanding about depression. Through my Internet search, I came across a number of lists of “myths about depression.” Five myths about depression. Seven myths about depression. Nine myths. Ten myths. That there are so many of these mythical lists is vaguely depressing in it of itself, but I digress. Here are some of the more common ones:
1. “Depression isn’t a real illness.”
F**k off, it isn’t real! If we’re having to argue to get past this point, we already might be at an impasse, but depression is, um, an actual thing. It just so happens the causes behind depression are potentially complex, so while it may be tempting to write off the whole illness just because it’s harder to understand, it doesn’t necessarily make it correct.
2. “Depression is purely emotional/mental.”
Except that it’s not. Just ask someone with symptoms of depression and you’re likely to hear about any number of physical symptoms that manifest as a result of suffering from this mental illness. including aches and pains, fatigue, and insomnia. Besides the notion that antidepressants target specific parts of the brain and neurotransmitters. But forget about it. It’s all in people’s head.
3. “Depression is a sign of weakness.”
You know, for a long time, I actually believed this. Depression is not the result of some weakness of character. Often times, depression is mediated by some traumatic event or specific set of circumstances, but not always, and either way, on behalf of those who suffer from depression or depressive symptoms, this much should inspire sympathy, not criticism. In fact, for people like myself who are able to live with depression—albeit with a lot of help and not without occasional lapses, if you will—the ability to cope makes us stronger, not weaker.
4. “Depression is just a fancy word for ‘sadness.'”
Wrong. Sadness is a symptom of depression, but like any emotion, is temporary. Depression, meanwhile, is a chronic condition often marked by sadness, but in other cases, there are feelings of apathy or emptiness, and since anxiety and depression have a tendency to co-occur, some people who suffer from depression simply live in a state of constant tension. It’s not just a shade of blue with people who deal with depression. It’s a permanent coat of paint that weighs on those it affects.
5. “Depression is always related to a traumatic event.”
Much as not all traumatic events lead to depression, not all depression is caused by the death of a loved one, a divorce, a serious injury, or some other watershed moment. Depression and its symptoms, by definition, occur over a prolonged period of time, and they tend to recur among people who struggle with this illness. In other words, as often tends to be the case, people do not “snap into” depression, so the idea they can simply “snap out” of it would seem likewise ill-conceived.
6. “Antidepressants cure depression.”
Do pain pills cure headaches and other maladies? No, they block the pain. The underlying cause or causes of the discomfort are still there. The same concept applies with antidepressants. They may alleviate symptoms of depression, but owing to the complexity of this mental illness, the root of the problem must be dealt with at more than just a physical level. What is typically recommended in treatment is a combination of prescribed medication OK’d by a psychiatrist and regular therapy sessions with this same professional or by a licensed psychologist. Of course, this means of combatting depression tends not to run cheap, which is why, in large part, so many Americans eschew treatment. When the stigma of mental illness is not enough to deter those individuals who might benefit from professional help, the cost factor might instead be the deal-breaker.
As is a trope of ubiquitous advertisements for prescription medicines, all too commonly, the possible side effects are numerous and potentially worse than the problem being treated. Returning to the example of pain pills, a risk of extended use not talked about enough in today’s climate of healthcare is the chance the user will become hooked on this class of drugs. As for antidepressants, the list of common side effects from prolonged use includes agitation, anxiety, blurred vision, constipation, dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue/sleepiness, insomnia, irritability, nausea, sexual dysfunction, and weight loss. And worst of all, suicidal thoughts and urges may increase as a result of taking antidepressants, which is bad enough, but all the more troublesome when you consider THIS IS THE MAIN F**KING REASON YOU’RE TAKING THESE DRUGS IN THE FIRST PLACE. To die in a terrible way, and a terribly ironic way, at that, seems especially tragic.
For me, these side effects are nothing compared to what happens when I don’t take my meds. Because they have such a short half-life, necessitating a daily dose, forgetting to take a scheduled pill produces some noticeable physiological effects. First, I start getting headaches and stomach aches, and swing more easily between happy and irritable moods. Then, the vertigo sets in. If I somehow were to run out or miss on back-to-back days, it starts feeling as if some sort of electric pulse is continuously moving through my head, making it that much harder to get to sleep, and even when I do finally get there, my dreams will often be so scarily strange I’ll end up waking up in the middle of the night anyway, reluctant to go back to sleep and risk another bizarre nightmare. There’s nothing that says one has to be on medication for as long as he or she lives if he or she suffers from a mood disorder like depression (bonus myth!), but I am not about to start lessening my prescription for fear of what might happen. I understand I may be a lifelong taker of antidepressants, as much as I might wish otherwise.
Why the public service announcement on mental illness and the personal reflections? Do I want your pity, or something? Like I said, there was a time when I thought my depression was a weakness of mine, but now I understand it is not only more common than I once believed, but something that is a part of who I am—without letting it totally define me and how I live my life. So, no, it’s not pity I seek. Rather, part of the reason I bring this all up is trying to help in some small way reverse the stigma placed on mental illness in our society. The late Mitch Hedberg had a funny joke about alcoholism being the only disease you can get in trouble for, contrasting the normality of the sound of “Dammit, Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” with the absurdity of the comment, “Dammit, Otto, you have lupus!” But I think mental illness should be viewed the same way as the latter, rather than that of the former, which, too frequently, it is. After all, if you have trouble seeing, you see one or more vision specialists. If you have allergies, maybe you see an allergist or try some over-the-counter remedy. Why should be it different with depression, anxiety, and the like? There’s no shame about it—or at least there shouldn’t be.
The other big idea with this whole post here is to promote awareness of, well, awareness. It turns out October 2 through October 8th is Mental Illness Awareness Week. I just happened to hear about it in passing; otherwise, I wouldn’t know myself. And I’m guessing you were probably oblivious of this fact, too—through no fault of your own. The state of healthcare in the United States is a larger concern, but mental illness, as pervasive as it is among both the adult and youth populations in America, deserves to be at the forefront of the conversation of improving this aspect of life in the U.S., and internationally, as well. Mental health should be more than a throwaway reference after mass shootings, and we need to strive as a society to speak against the various misconceptions that dog and stigmatize depression, in particular, and those who suffer from it. Depression is real. It is not all in people’s heads. It is not a problem at which to throw drugs and fix just that simply. The more we as a country ignore this fact, the longer it will take to find an authentic solution to the high incidence of people with mental illness, and the longer those who suffer from it are at risk of severe health problems or suicide. From someone treated for anxiety and depression, it’s time to shine a light on mental health and mental illness. For those of you who may be in the dark yourselves, it may make all the difference.
For more information on Mental Illness Awareness Week and how you can help spread the word on this event and on mental health awareness in general, please click here. Thank you.