Sick to Death

The Great Paradox of the American Psyche is How Little We Feel We Deserve

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | September 2007

The release of Michael Moore’s new film Sicko, opening in Vienna Oct. 10, has given the issue of the failed American health care system a hefty shove to the middle of the political debate. As usual, Moore is heavily criticised for incompleteness, posturing and bias. Perhaps. Still, he will certainly help widen the discussion from the circle of industry lobbyists and so-called policy wonks that have monopolised it so far and invite much a wider comment.

If nothing else, Moore, as a wild-cat populist, can introduce to a broad American public the idea that there are many other countries where health care is at least as good or better than it is in the U.S., and available at affordable cost to the entire population.

For this, Americans should be grateful. Because one of the great paradoxes of the American psyche is how little Americans think they deserve.

This was brought home in a June 20th "Letter to the Editor" in The New York Times from a pediatrician in Philadelphia who recognised that her patients don’t see health care as a right. "They are ashamed when they say they have no insurance, as if it were a failing on their part," Dr. Barbara Gold wrote. "When I mention that the United States is the only first-world country that doesn’t provide universal health insurance of some kind, they seem stunned. Where is their anger?"

Safe to say, their acquiescence is the result of ignorance, and a lifetime of hearing the mantra of American Exceptionalism, In the greatest country in the world, with all its flaws (they always add, this "with all its flaws") everything is, by definition, way ahead of everyone else. So no need to look farther.

Thus most Americans have scaled back further and further over 30 years of declining household income, dwindling pensions and vanishing job security, while continuing to believe that if they just worked a little harder, or found the right angle, they could still make the American dream come true.

In reality, the dream has been drifting farther and farther out of reach – through no fault of theirs, as British historian Tony Judt made clear at the IWM in Vienna on the same day Dr. Gold’s letter was published. While since the 1960s, it "seemed as if the United States were the future of Europe," today, "this is clearly no longer true," Judt told the Fellows Meeting.

"America," Judt said, "is no longer the measure of modernity." And even next to the obscene wealth gap between rich and poor, it is perhaps the lack of universal health care that is perhaps the most disturbing

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