San Francisco Chronicle: Is this about health care or spiritual care?

By the time this post appears, the Senate will probably have agreed on some kind of health care bill. I wanted to assess the hidden side of the bill, whatever emerges. It took five months for Congress to grind its way to a conclusion on this issue, and along the way we got to see an ugly side of the democratic process.

There was a shocking display of bad faith in both houses. A single pay solution, which most advanced countries already have, was never in the cards. Sen. Joe Lieberman will go down as the worst of the worst, living proof that one stubborn legislator can bring national reform to a halt if he is willing to put special interests and self interest ahead of the public interest. Many are understandably livid. But the problem goes far beyond him. A kind of spiritual malaise has set in. Ronald Reagan’s mantra, that government is the problem, not the solution, was never true. We made it true by the government we chose.

Trust, faith, honorable intentions, personal integrity, and basic morality are optional in Washington today, and as a result we find ourselves with an idealistic president who is on the right side of almost every issue being sabotaged by opponents, including some in his own party, who have lost touch with their conscience. As a wise cynic vividly remarked, it’s one thing to let the whores sit in the back pew on Sunday; it’s another to let them take over the church.

For thirty years the American public has been conditioned to accept reverse morality in politics. Certain core values — rooting for the underdog, taking care of the weak and poor, searching for the middle ground, judging politicians by their vision for the country — turned into their opposite: selfishness, class antagonism, intolerance, and demagogic manipulation. The victory of reactionary forces was made possible by a kind of spiritual corruption. The very fact that intolerant religious fundamentalists were given blanket power in a secular government was an enormous betrayal.

Unfortunately, people can be conditioned en masse. Eventually it became “normal” for lobbyists to write their own regulations, for regulatory commissions to passively allow any infringement of the law, for the rich to buy and sell legislators, and for politicians to run on bogus social issues while indulging in gross waste and misspending. In the age of Tom DeLay, their only interest was to get re-elected.

President Obama stepped into this situation with a clear-eyed view of the problem. A wave of “yes we can” idealism ran head-on into three decades of reactionary politics and a public that had long ago surrendered its power. Against that background, it was inevitable that healthcare reform would turn uglier than the fights over civil rights, Medicare, and Social Security. Even in the face of the obvious success of those programs, and the overwhelming need for healthcare reform, we are witnessing not a single Republican voting for healthcare legislation, while a handful of Democrats plus Lieberman hijack historic reform for the pettiest and most selfish of reasons.

I am not joining the chorus of condemnation from the left. My purpose is to offer a deeper diagnosis. We cannot expect much from a system that has become spiritually atrophied. Sadly, words like “values” and “morality” were co-opted for cynical reasons by the right and used to promote the very opposite of values and morality. A smiley face has been put on selfish, bigoted, narrow-minded reactionary politics. If the Iraq War had not caught the neocons in an outrageous act of overreaching, we would still be swamped in the same conditioning, which convinced the voting public that their worst instincts are worthy. Now those worst instincts have seats in Congress and a 90% chance of re-election.

As more than one astute observer has noted, the passage of healthcare reform is at once a huge step forward and an indication of just how crippled the legislative process has become. In many ways the reactionaries have won a twisted victory. They have hobbled all attempts to lower medical costs, throwing a massive boondoggle to the insurance companies, while all the while divorcing themselves from the entire debate. I hope the public sees through this kind of double-dealing, but even more, I hope the era of anti-morality is slowly being reversed. We need to take spiritual care of this country as a first priority. Compared to that, even health care comes second.

Published: San Francisco Chronicle