Posted by: Randy Allgaier | November 14, 2009

Lulled out of my Life’s Paradigm

Recently mortality has weighed heavily on my mind. Not in a morose way, but not in a detached philosophical way either. I’ve become more in tune with the reality of my mortality and that of those around me and how the paradigm of mortality I have built for myself to feel safe in both my life and my death is not an objective or subjective reality but a contrived mechanism to compartmentalize my life and create a tolerable scenario so I do not have to face those things that scare me the most.

A few events over the course of the year have caused me to reflect on the tidy little world that I created for myself so that I wouldn’t have to face my worst fears- being alone, old and poor.

But for me, and all of us for that matter (with the exception of the Gates family and the Walton family and some of the former Wall Street masters of the universe who probably don’t have to worry about being poor), there is always the possibility that someday we may be alone, old and poor.

I was recently asked by a friend why I have the dedication I do as an HIV/AIDS advocate. It was a generous question because there are many with more dedication than I. My answer was that I am motivated by anger.

But it made me think about my life and my choices and the life paradigm that I have built and how that paradigm has shifted.

As I thought about that a little more- I recognized that my anger is always a very thin veneer for what lies underneath- fear and loss. Fear of my own mortality I suppose. But I am not afraid of death, not because I believe in heaven or have any conception of an afterlife, but because the idea of “dust to dust” is intriguing more than scary and it is one of the most natural parts of life. The fear surrounding my mortality has been more a fear of leaving those that I love. The thought of leaving them is unimaginable. So I mask that fear with anger and address all of that with activism.

It seems odd that the very illnesses that would usually make one confront one’s own mortality- the illnesses that I carry in my body- are the very illnesses that are central to my advocacy- AIDS and Hepatitis C. True advocacy is a way to deal with anger, but I realized that it has a more subtle context than that for me. I can no longer do the one on one, personal advocacy that I did when I was a Shanti volunteer 20 some years ago – I don’t have the emotional stamina, but I revel in public policy and planning. I have found the perfect way to address my fears through a veil of anger and then channel that anger into the least emotionally risky activity.

Advocacy at the public policy level allows me to deal with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C but to detach from the personal emotions about living with these diseases most of the time. I get to work on the issues- but in an intellectual way that is guided by compassion and passion but keeps it away from the inner most issues that I personally face with the diseases. I’ve found a comfortable little way to ensure that I feel like I am being emotionally honest (the compassion and passion part) but really I haven’t been that emotionally honest with my own personal issues.

A few things happened over the past number of months that made me confront the mortality of those who I love. My beloved beagle Darwin was attacked by a pit bull and although his wounds were not life threatening it put his mortality front and center. It had been lurking in the recesses of my mind for some months because he is getting older (11 ½ years old) but I brush those thoughts out of my head. I’m like the little boy sticking his fingers in his ears and saying “LALALALA- I can’t hear you” to my inner voice. But that event confronted me more with the knowledge that he will someday die. It was not comforting and I don’t think that there will ever be anything comforting about it.

More recently Lee who is the love of my life, my partner and best friend of 21 years was diagnosed with prostate cancer. For a while I dealt with this news by going through the motions of what a spouse does- making sure we take care of everything he needs and to be by his side as he went to doctors’ appointments and to give him the opportunity to talk to me, or not, about how he feels and what course of treatment he wanted to take. I focused on him and will continue to do so as he faces the next steps of his treatment.

But now as the second portion of the treatment is about to begin- radiation- cancer is more than a word to me now, it is a reality. Yes I knew Lee was diagnosed with cancer and that was hard, but as he starts radiation- that cancer is not as abstract- it has found a way into our everyday lives that cannot be ignored. My medications do the same, but I’ve gotten used to that and there is a big difference between throwing a handful of pills down your throat than radiation- even if those pills can have miserable side effects. Radiation therapy is another level of disease treatment and I am slowly coming to the terms that cancer is in our lives.

I have had many friends who have said- “Well if someone’s going to have cancer, it might as well be prostate cancer”.  I cannot think of a less sensitive thing to say so thanks a bunch for that support. He has cancer and 22,000 men die of prostate cancer every year in the United States. And every time doctors say that his cancer is aggressive I cringe. So now I am coming to terms with Lee’s mortality too.

For 21 years I’ve lived under the delusion that I would not have to be the one to eventually be left alone. After all I have HIV/AIDS and Hep C. It was comforting in a twisted way. I have abandonment issues; we all do. Maybe mine are a little more acute because of my mother’s suicide, but they are significant. Before I met Lee the way I dealt with those issues was to push people away before they would leave me- not the healthiest way to deal with one’s feelings. Through my love for Lee I have learned that pushing people away is selfish and led me to be alone which ironically is my darkest fear. Now I can’t dream of pushing people away. But maybe the paradigm that I have set up is exactly that. I can  begrudgingly accept living a life where I die first, but even contemplating one where I am left alone is intolerable. Isn’t my comfort with dying first analogous to pushing people away before they leave me?
So I no longer have the intellectual constructs in my life that I have built to protect my heart.

I don’t dwell on the possibility of my mortality, nor on Lee’s nor Darwin’s for that matter. But on drizzly, grey, chilly November San Francisco mornings at 5:30 before the sun comes up, those thoughts can take hold. That’s especially true when you look over at the man who has caused your soul to swoon and the dog who has captured your heart slumbering peacefully in bed and think about losing them.

I am less scared though. Oddly, by occasionally thinking about it, I am able to address it better both practically and emotionally and that is liberating. I’m not paralyzed by fear.

Too often we are motivated by fear. Clearly that is how the right wing has manipulated public policy debates for eons. I remember the resolve that I had when Lee and I travelled to Europe on September 20th, 2001- just 9 days after 9/11. Friends and family told me that I was nuts that they would be too afraid to travel. My retort was that ‘s what terrorist do- they terrorize you into paralysis and through fear cause you to act in ways that compromise your convictions, your integrity and your values (torture comes to mind)

Am I afraid of death? No, Am I afraid of life alone? Yes, but I am beginning to be less terrorized by it and I am no longer paralyzed by the possibility. In my own personal way, each and every day, I try to better understand myself- what motivates me, why I do the things that I do and have the feelings I have. I now feel that my soul knows what I knew intellectually – motivation by fear is toxic and that confronting that fear is oddly liberating.

Posted by: Randy Allgaier | November 1, 2009

The number 79

Since the boisterous town hall meetings with wall to wall media coverage in August, it seemed like the public option was on life support. That lopsided coverage sent moderate Democrats scurrying although poll after poll has shown that a majority of Americans support a public option. With so many on Capitol Hill running from the public option as if it were Ebola, you would think that public support was in the in single digits.

But was the industry report prepared by Pricewaterhouse Coopers the prescription the public option needed to move out of intensive care?

The report states that under the Baucus plan premiums would raise 111% by 2019 as opposed to 79%

The White House and many respected economists are calling out the report for being flawed. Pricewaterhouse Coopers has acknowledged that they failed to take into account government subsidies that would be provided to help moderate-income Americans purchase insurance. A minor point if one has a casual relationship with the facts.

The insurance industry is positing that the bill doesn’t have stiff enough penalties for people who do not agree to being fleeced through obscene premiums. The industry is afraid they will not have enough new customers to feed their insatiable greed and would be forced to pass the cost of that greed to the rest of us.

While everyone is shouting about the validity of the report and whether or not the Baucus plan will increase premiums by 111% or not, there is something here being lost in the debate- the number 79.

The insurance industry admits that left to their own devices, they would increase their premiums by 79% over 10 years, or an average of 7.9% each year. Inflation rates have mostly hovered around 3.5% between 2000 and 2009. We haven’t seen inflation rates near 7.9% since the early ‘80s.

Raising premiums twice the rate of inflation is acceptable? This rare honesty puts their hubris on display and makes the case for a public option. The debate about the cost of the Baucus bill is important because we like truth based policy debates. The real story is the industry’s outrageous admission that, unchecked, they intend to escalate their assault on the American’s pocketbook to the tune of 79%. Only a 79% increase? How magnanimous! This hubris is just what the doctor ordered for the public option. Let’s hope Congress takes notice.

Posted by: Randy Allgaier | September 20, 2009

Change: the concept is easier than the reality for Americans

I started reading Richard Wolffe’s book “Renegade” this weekend and I’m about a third through it. I was a political junkie throughout 2008 and reveled in every moment of the campaign but Wolffe’s book is bringing the campaign back with a rush of visceral memory. I feel what I felt as my excitement about Barack Obama grew during 2008. At the end of 2007 I was a strong Edwards supporter, but by January 2008, I was convinced that there was something about Obama that was special and after some careful thinking and doing some homework, I decided to vote for him during the California primary. That support translated into thousands of dollars of contributions over the year and I nearly went to Nevada for a month in October, but my health wouldn’t allow it. While “Renegade” tells of the world inside of the campaign it brings back the emotions and, step by step, takes me back to how I felt and how I became more and more convinced that Barack Obama was the President we needed.

It’s interesting to read a book about the campaign nearly a year after the campaign is over and eight months into the Obama administration. Has the country forgotten on what Obama campaigned? Change in health care, change in how we regulate financial institutions, change in how we deal with the environment, change in how the nation values public education, CHANGE!

After a summer of teabaggers and angry town halls- one might forget that President Obama ran on a platform of change; the very change he is attempting to put into place as President. Elections have consequences. President Obama and the Democrats, by sweeping the House and the Senate, were given a mandate for change.

We haven’t seen a mandate like the one President Obama was given since Ronald Reagan swept into office a generation ago. Maybe naively we thought that since the President and Congress were given a mandate, it would be easy to make the sweeping changes that the President promised during the campaign.

Clearly the Republicans in Congress are not interested in helping the President in his agenda for change. Are we surprised? It wasn’t their platform. Don’t forget this is the party that gave us the McCain /Palin ticket. Theirs was not a message of change. Sure there is a lot of politics to why the Republicans do not support the President; politics to the point where some would like to crush him- Senator DeMint and his Warterloo remark comes to mind. But there is also a real disagreement between liberals and conservatives on the role of government. Conservatives think smaller government allows the market to take care of everything and that this brings prosperity to all, offers choice, and in this world of prosperity, private charity will flow and thus there is no need for a government social service safety net.

That all sounds good, but we live in the real world. This capitalism of Adam Smith is an idealistic capitalism. It sounds good in concept, but it doesn’t take into account human flaws. For capitalism to work in the idealized way that true blue conservatives believe, it requires that we all have a sense of fair play and keep greed at bay. As has been seen time and time again- all of these social constructs sound great in the abstract but when the human element is added- they don’t work so well.

At the end of 2008 we experienced the result of unbridled greed and unfettered markets and we’re still paying the price. In the real world government and private enterprise need each other in order for the people to prosper. Government needs to curb the greed in markets and it also has a role to play in our social contract- how we care for one another. As a wealthy civilized nation we have the duty to care for those in need, to offer a road out of poverty and to ensure that our people are healthy and well educated and that the world we pass on to the next generation is one that is not damaged by toxins and greenhouse gasses.

President Obama inherited an economy in turmoil and had come into office to both fix the economy and with a mandate for change. He applied Keynesian principles to fixing the economy- principles that are working- we are moving out of the Great Recession earlier than many had forecast. But that wasn’t the only change he promised and now he plans on delivering those changes.

In this blog I have written on more than one occasion that race plays into the politics when it comes to Barack Obama. President Carter addressed this head on but his remarks are being skewed to suggest that all opposition to President Obama is raced based. That is not at all what he said- he said a lot of the animosity towards the President is raced based. Is all opposition to the President animosity? I don’t believe so. There is subtle and not so subtle use of race and portrayal of Obama as the other, to create a scary bogeyman and to engender fear. But change is what is feared the most. Obama’s race and the changing complexion of America is part of that change, but not all of it.

When I have written about the role that race plays in the current political landscape I have espoused the belief that race is ever present in our nation and it is hard wired into our national psyche. There is ugliness to some of the debate in our nation that is clearly raced based and there is a core group- most clearly exemplified by the “birthers” and their ilk- that question the President’s legitimacy.  It would be naïve to suggest that all of those opposing Obama do so based on race alone. Sure it is there and it is the deciding factor for some, but it diminishes the true horror of racism to cavalierly suggest it is the only motive of the President’s detractors.

Social change is the real problem. But why? Obama ran on a platform of change and, shockingly is attempting to keep his campaign promises. Should we be surprised that Obama is committed to change? But social change is scary- and leads to labels like fascist or communist.

Obama like FDR has been accused of being a communist.

In the 1930s, opponents of FDR used the same kind of rhetoric and false political labels when he proposed creating what is now the most popular government program: Social Security. Critics called FDR “Red Roosevelt” and “a czar/dictator.” The American Liberty League called him a fascist (of course Roosevelt would later lead the United States in a war against fascism). In a strange similarity with another bellicose talk radio host of today, Father Charles Coughlin spouted invectives on the radio airwaves against Roosevelt. He called Roosevelt “a Communist in the chair once occupied by Washington” and said the New Deal was mired “in the Red mud of Soviet communism.” Opponents of the new Social Security program used some of the same hyperbole we hear today. Some Republican congressmen said the proposal would “threaten the integrity of our institutions” and “lead to a fingerprint test” for millions of Americans. The American Medical Association ridiculed the Roosevelt administration’s “attempt to evolve a plan of socialized medicine” and labeled supporters of the bill as “un-American.”

FDR addressed these opponents directly in one of his fireside chats. “A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it ‘fascism,’ sometimes ‘communism,’ sometimes ‘regimentation,’ sometimes ‘socialism.’ But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and practical…I believe that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment of what Americans have always been doing – a fulfillment of old and tested American ideals.”

Sound familiar? Change is never easy- even when it is a necessity. The nation craves change but is also afraid of it. This is the conundrum that the President faces. Clearly without change we will be on a perilous road to irrelevancy. In our hearts we know this, but in our hearts we are terrified of changing the status quo. Unfortunately the minority with the most at stake in maintaining the status quo at the expense of the majority have no qualms about using that fear of change as a motivator.  After all fear is a great motivator.

History has a way of repeating itself. The first decade of the 21st century is not at all unlike the fourth decade of the 20th century. We need change if we are to survive. We voted for it, we knew it was what Barack Obama stood for and now we need to let him implement the mandate that we gave him.

Posted by: Randy Allgaier | September 14, 2009

Being gay at a Cornell fraternity in the 1970’s

About a month ago I got an email from the Alumni President of my college fraternity- Alpha Delta Phi at Cornell- asking me if I would be willing to write an article about what life was like for a gay brother at the fraternity. He has seen the item in the Cornell Alumni magazine about my marriage to my partner of 20 years last September and wrote:

“I am writing with a request: I am trying to be more inclusive as the president of the Cornell Alpha Delt alumni. One of our stupid family secrets is that we have gay brothers. I know that the Phi must have played some kind of formative role in the lives of young emerging gay men. I know it did for me as a straight man, how could it not for other horny undergraduates regardless of the sex of their mate?

Would you be willing to share an honest story from your undergraduate days that speaks to the role (hopefully supportive, but pointing out ignorance and homophobia is fair game too) that the brotherhood played in your development as a gay man?

I think that if your article opens one mind, or gives comfort to a confused undergrad, then it will have been more than worth the effort.”

I was wildly impressed with his initiative to be more inclusive and to recognize that gay brothers are part of our fraternity’s legacy and are valuable members of the Cornell Alpha Delta Phi brotherhood and I was exceedingly proud of  my fraternity.  For those reasons alone I would have agreed to write the article but because it spoke to my activist spirit I jumped on the opportunity and agreed immediately.

Here is the article that will appear in the next issue of the Cornell Alpha Delta Phi newsletter. I hope it does provoke some conversation among the brotherhood.

Being a gay brother at the Phi

When I got an email asking me to write about what it was like being gay at Alpha Delta Phi, I didn’t hesitate to agree , but I also began to wonder if my experience would resonate for any other gay brother or speak to any of my straight brothers. I came out as a gay man at Cornell but it was in the mid to late 1970’s. Never did I dream when I was living at the Phi that there would be an item in the March 2009 issue of the Cornell Alumni magazine about my recent marriage to my gay partner of 20 years at San Francisco City Hall officiated by a California State Assemblyman. Times have changed indeed.

The fear of being shunned and ostracized has no doubt waned in the 30 years since I left Cornell. But in the late 1970’s it was profound. Cornell, like most of the Ivies, has a profound progressive streak and was probably more “gay friendly” than most universities- there were regular gay dances at Willard Straight Hall. The irony was not lost on anyone- gay dances at the Straight. But still gay men and lesbians were the source of jokes, ridicule and disdain on campus and there was always a fear that the disdain could turn to violence.

How being a brother at Alpha Delta Phi weighed into my gay life at the time is a complicated story. When I rushed the Phi in my freshman year what appealed to me most were the literary tradition of the brotherhood and the camaraderie of smart men who seemed to possess a higher degree of emotional sensitivity than most. During my time living at 777 Stewart Avenue I never outright divulged my sexual orientation to the general brotherhood other than to a couple of brothers who were also gay. But I am sure that it was no great shock to my brothers when they read that I married a man.

Coming out in the 1970’s was indeed a complicated, difficult and often painful process; at least it was for me. In many ways I think I let my brothers down by not being honest about who I was. I wanted to; but I was petrified of losing friendships. Oddly enough I found ways to ensure that I lost those friendships anyway. But in the mind of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality at a time when it was rarely accepted, finding ways of distancing myself from my friends was easier than the prospect of losing them because of my homosexuality. In essence it was not a good time for me, but that was because of me, not my brothers. Yet as difficult as that time was- my best memories of Cornell were not about the men I dated, but instead centered around the Phi- “Rongo Runs” for an evening of inebriated camaraderie at the Rongovian Embassy, Victory Club events, Croquet on the Arts Quad on Spring Weekend and the Wednesday night dinners with guest faculty speakers.

Years later I can see that Alpha Delta Phi at Cornell paved a road for me as an activist for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community and for people living with HIV/AIDS. It was at Cornell’s chapter of Alpha Delta Phi where I began to develop the leadership skills that have been important in my work as an advocate. I don’t think I would have been an effective member of the board of the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organization- the Human Rights Campaign, a founder of California’s state LGBT advocacy group, or a participant in meetings on Capitol Hill and at the White House successfully advocating for the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS had it not been for the individual growth that came from being a brother at the Phi.

In the request I received from our alumni president to write this article he wrote that one of our family secrets is that we have gay brothers. Family secrets are always unhealthy and the brotherhood is indeed a family. By keeping that secret while I lived at the Phi I did myself and my brothers an injustice. I hope that my honest reflection will help open a dialogue between our gay and straight brothers and make the bonds of our brotherhood stronger.

Posted by: Randy Allgaier | September 11, 2009

Joe Wilson’s Outburst is indicative of an uglier truth

Joe Wilson (R-SC) is the embodiment of the right wing fringe. His ignorance of the truth, his fear mongering, and his lack of respect for the President have become standard fare for the extreme right. But what is the motivation behind Mr. Wilson’s remarks and is there a broader indictment to be made on our society writ large?

To say that Mr. Wilson’s history on race and racial sensitivity is troubling would be an understatement.

In mid-December 2003, when Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the illegitimate daughter of a black housekeeper and the white segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond came forward with the bombshell that she was the illegitimate daughter of the recently-deceased patriarch of South Carolina politics, Representative Wilson, a former page of Thurmond’s, immediately told The State newspaper that he didn’t believe Williams. He deemed the revelation “unseemly.” And he added that even if she was telling the truth, she should have kept the inconvenient facts to herself: “It’s a smear on the image that [Thurmond] has as a person of high integrity who has been so loyal to the people of South Carolina,” Wilson said. Of course, Williams’ story was entirely true — and never really in doubt. Thurmond was 22 and Williams’ mother, a black maid working in his family home, was 16 when Williams was born in 1925. Thurmond supported Williams financially for decades.

The State story continued with Wilson wondering aloud how anyone could dare “diminish” one of his personal heroes.Wilson said it is unfair to debate rumors about Thurmond when he can no longer defend himself. The same goes for discussion of an affair Thomas Jefferson is said to have had with a slave. “Sometimes these things just go on,” Wilson said. “These are heroes of mine. I really hope these would be heroes to future generations of Americans. (The stories) are … a way to diminish their contributions to our country’s existence.”

Six days and several furious letters to the editor later, Wilson was forced to apologize. But, amazingly, he maintained that Williams should not have gone public.

The truth diminishes us? I guess it does if it is an inconvenient truth that exposes the hypocrisy of an über-racist that gets under the skin of his racist acolytes. I won’t even discuss the absurdity of Wilson’s depiction of Thurmond as a person of high integrity who has been loyal to the people of South Carolina. Probably true if you are a white South Carolinian. The reality of an African American daughter and an affair with an African American housekeeper is a smear? Would it have been a smear if Thurmond had had an affair with a white descendant of Jefferson Davis?

Wilson is a member of the Southern heritage group, Sons of Confederate Veterans, which favors secession and defends slavery. As a state legislator, Wilson went against his own party and voted with seven lone right-wingers to keep the Dixie Rebel flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol building.

Stephen Maynard Caliendo, an associate professor of political science at North Central College, and Charlton McIlwain, an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University both fellows with The Project on Race in Political Communication, a nonprofit group with the mission to contribute to the state of knowledge in the field of political communication and share that information with the mass public in an accessible way, wrote in a recent editorial, “We do not assert that Joe Wilson is a bigot; his personal racial attitudes are, perhaps ironically, beyond the scope of this incident. Rather, the consistent branding of President Obama as “other” by his opponents has created a context within which it is perceived that Obama need not be treated as other presidents have been treated. The creation of that “otherness,” while possibly motivated by racial animosity is certainly rendered more effective as a result of deeply held negative predispositions about African Americans.”

Few would doubt this was a sign of disrespect that most Americans would find objectionable. But beyond Wilson’s callous disdain for the office of President, it is important to understand the racial connotations involved, and the climate that gave rise to them.

For at least two years, his political opponents – including Democratic opponents during the primary – have attempted to portray Barack Obama as “not one of us.” He has been, at various times, referred to as communist/socialist/Marxist, elitist, corrupt, a terrorist sympathizer, foreign-born, a thug, fascist and even racist. In short, he is everything that we believe America is not. He is not “one of us.” He is “other.”

It is no surprise, then, that some parents felt it dangerous to let this stranger talk to their children on Tuesday, and it is no surprise that at least one member of Congress believed that it was appropriate to hurl an insult at him during a formal address. Keeping in mind that there is a small but vocal group of Americans and conservative leaders who continue to perpetuate the story that Obama is not a legitimate president because of his birth status, perhaps we should not be surprised that this president, then, does not command even the most minimal level of respect from some of his elected political opponents.

By and large, Whites in America go out of their way to excuse such behavior as being impolite or unfortunate, but not at all related to race. If one believes that the threshold of what is to be considered to be “racist” is that an epithet must be hurled (e.g., if Wilson would have yelled, “You lying nigger!”), it is comfortable to believe that in a “post-racial” nation, such behavior is divorced from the nation’s rich history of oppression and White supremacy.

A more sophisticated understanding of the way racism works systemically and psychologically renders such comforting dismissals to be inappropriate. Contemporary racism is not largely about lynching or legalized segregation. Rather, we must be reflective about the myriad ways in which we are tacitly socialized to believe stereotypes about persons of color. Those beliefs reside in our subconscious and affect our attitudes and behaviors in ways that we often do not recognize. All Americans who are attentive to our potential for prejudice have been in situations where we “catch” ourselves with a racially insensitive thought that surprises and horrifies us. Other times, those thoughts drive our actions without our knowledge. If we only define “racism” as overt bigotry, we ignore the most important elements of a system that continues to perpetuate privilege for Whites.

Attacks on President Obama are not, in and of themselves, racist. They might be made without racist intent; they can even be made without racist effect if they do not find greater results because of ingrained stereotypes about African Americans. Criticizing the president for being willing to push for a clean energy bill, for example, is likely to be devoid of racial effects. However, arguing that he is lying, is corrupt, or has friends who are criminal does have a racist effect because it is easier for us to believe such claims about an African American, as they comprise the myth of the Black character.

So although Mr. Wilson’s history is troubling, to say the least, we need not know Congressman Wilson’s heart to know that his behavior is reflective of a broader racist criticism of President Obama. In effect, the outburst was not really about Joe Wilson. Some of the folks who make racist appeals may be aware that they are doing so, but others very well may not. Irrespective of intent, however, we must be aware that a context of “otherness” has been established around this president that set the stage for him to be treated differently than other presidents this week, first by the parents of schoolchildren and then by a member of Congress.

Congressman Wilson quickly apologized Wednesday evening for his behavior. Like with all apologies, we should be thoughtful about the context that facilitated the behavior while we forgive the act itself if we seek to prevent its recurrence.

Posted by: Randy Allgaier | August 29, 2009

The LGBT Community mourns the loss of Senator Edward Moore Kennedy

Today the San Francisco LGBT community lowered the rainbow flag in the Castro at Harvey Milk Plaza to half staff to honor our friend and champion in the Senate- the late Senator Edward Moore Kennedy.

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The Lion of the Senate roared his last roar. The tributes are flowing in from both sides of the aisle. He was the voice of liberals who was beloved by conservatives in the Senate. He was a defender of social justice. Senator Kennedy was a hero to me and was a hero to millions. As a man living with AIDS his leadership is responsible for me being alive- pure and simple. He is the father of the Ryan White programs. He and his Republican friend Orrin Hatch teamed up to pass this landmark legislation that has helped keep me and countless hundreds of thousands of people with HIV/AIDS alive.

While Mr. Kennedy was physically absent from the capital in recent months, his presence was deeply felt as Congress weighed the most sweeping revisions to America’s health care system in decades, an effort Mr. Kennedy called “the cause of my life.” Passing healthcare reform would complete the extraordinary man’s legacy.

On July 15, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, which Mr. Kennedy headed, passed health care legislation, and the battle over the proposed overhaul is now consuming Capitol Hill.

Mr. Kennedy was the last surviving brother of a generation of Kennedys that dominated American politics in the 1960s and that came to embody glamour, political idealism and untimely death. The Kennedy mystique — some call it the Kennedy myth — has held the imagination of the world for decades, and it came to rest on the shoulders of the brother known as Teddy.

Senator Kennedy was a complicated man with a life of tragedy and personal failings leading to redemption and ultimately heroic accomplishment. On the personal level Senator Kennedy showed his own flaws, they weren’t hidden. But he overcame those mistakes and his life is a story of redemption. He is the modern Greek mythological hero whose story is one of promise, tragedy, flaws and ultimately learning painful lessons from confronting those flaws and working through them to live a life of meaning and making an impact on humanity.

The long list of his legislative achievements touched the lives of so many people, particularly those who are less fortunate. He reached across party lines to improve healthcare, civil rights and education.

Mr. Kennedy left his mark on legislation concerning civil rights, health care, education, voting rights and labor. Although he was a leading spokesman for liberal issues and a favorite target of conservative fund-raising appeals, the hallmark of his legislative success was his ability to find Republican allies to get bills passed. Perhaps the last notable example was his work with President George W. Bush to pass No Child Left Behind, the education law pushed by Mr. Bush in 2001; good legislation without the appropriate funding requests from the President which mired the program. He also co-sponsored immigration legislation with Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. One of his greatest friends and collaborators in the Senate was Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican.

Sen. Orrin Hatch said that Senator Kennedy was “iconic, larger than life United States senator whose influence cannot be overstated.” In his remarks Hatch said, “Many have come before, and many will come after, but Ted Kennedy’s name will always be remembered as someone who lived and breathed the United States Senate and the work completed within its chamber,” Hatch said in a statement. “When I first came to the United States Senate I was filled with conservative fire in my belly and an itch to take on any and everyone who stood in my way, including Ted Kennedy. As I began working within the confines of my office I soon found out that while we almost always disagreed on most issues, once in a while we could actually get together and find the common ground, which is essential in passing legislation.” Hatch’s statement included a long list of measures he called “highlights of the Kennedy- Hatch legislative accomplishments,” including the Orphan Drug Act, the Ryan White Aids Act, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He led the fight for the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft, deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, and the post-Watergate campaign finance legislation. He was deeply involved in renewals of the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing law of 1968. He helped establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He built federal support for community health care centers, increased cancer research financing and helped create the Meals on Wheels program. He was a major proponent of a health and nutrition program for pregnant women and infants.

In addition to healthcare, Senator Kennedy’s most notable focus was civil rights, “still the unfinished business of America,” he often said. In 1982, he led a successful fight to defeat the Reagan administration’s effort to weaken the Voting Rights Act. In one of those bipartisan alliances that were hallmarks of his legislative successes, Mr. Kennedy worked with Senator Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, to secure passage of the voting rights measure, and Mr. Dole got most of the credit.

Perhaps his greatest success on civil rights came in 1990 with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required employers and public facilities to make “reasonable accommodation” for the disabled. When the law was finally passed, Mr. Kennedy and others told how their views on the bill had been shaped by having relatives with disabilities. Mr. Kennedy cited his mentally disabled sister, Rosemary, and his son who had lost a leg to cancer.

Senator Kennedy was always a friend to the LGBT community and fought hard for our rights.

It has been my great privilege to have worked in some small way on reauthorization of Senator Kennedy’s Ryan White CARE Act in 1996, 2000 and 2006. Senator Kennedy and his staff were key allies and for as long as I live I will have pride in knowing that I worked on this legislation. A key hallmark of the legislation is the component of local community planning for the use of federal resources. For more than 8 years I have been able to help serve people living with HIV/AIDS in San Francisco by having a seat on a local community planning body that was formed as a direct result of this legislation.

Affordable, accessible and universal healthcare was Senator Kennedy’s lifelong dream. His legacy will be complete once we pass healthcare reform. Let us remember Senator Kennedy by ensuring that legacy is complete. In lieu of flowers, please pass healthcare.

Posted by: Randy Allgaier | August 7, 2009

Healthcare Reform- Fact and Fiction

The healthcare reform debate has become ugly (see my post Town Hall Astroturf Protests and the “Birthers”: The ugliness of racism and hatred) and it is clear that the myths from those in the pockets of the health insurance industry and the racist hate based town hall protests are flying. 

 So let’s look at this rationally and objectively point by point.  Healthcare reform is a huge issue and it cannot, nor should it be, a campaign of bumper sticker slogans.  It is hard, it is nuanced, it is complicated and it deserves being analyzed with respect.

 AARP, hardly a radical left wing group has developed a site- Health Action Now!- which details the current situation and the tactics being used by those hell bent on derailing healthcare reform.  Here’s what they say:

 There are special interest groups trying to block progress on health care reform by using myths and scare tactics. Like the notion that health care reform would ration your care, hurt Medicare or be a government takeover. Actually, these are false statements.

 All of the health care reform plans currently being debated in Congress would ensure that you and your doctor are the ones making decisions about your health. The majority of working Americans will continue to receive their health care through their employer. In addition, health care reform will strengthen Medicare by eliminating billions of dollars in waste while lowering prescription drug prices.

 But of course AARP is one organization and this only addresses some of the issues that are out there.  Let’s look at the scary myths one by one:  Below I’ll look at the 16 most annoying myths out there, what the truth is and so you don’t have to take my word for it I have also cited the sources  I have used to research each myth and each truth. 

 Myth 1:

If the bill passes, approximately 114 million Americans are expected to leave private health insurance. Why?  Their  employers will drop the insurance because the taxpayer-subsidized plan will be 30 to 40 percent cheaper.

Fact: Employers will not be able to offer the public option exclusively. They will instead be able to buy into an exchange where they can offer employees more than one option, including the public option. This is what all Federal employees already have.

Source: Jacob S. Hacker: Co-director of the Center for Health, Economic, and Family Security at U.C. Berkeley; a fellow at the New America Foundation; and the editor of Health at Risk: America’s Ailing Health System–and How to Heal It.

Myth 2:

The public option will eliminate private insurance and erode employer-sponsored coverage.

 Fact:  The House bill actually increases the number of people who receive coverage through their employer by 2 million (in 2019) and shifts most of the uninsured into private coverage.

 Source:  Congressional Budget Office, July 2009, Coverage Tables

 Myth 3:

If you don’t have private insurance the year that this bill is passed, you can’t get that later on from your employer.

 Fact:   Section 311 of the tri-committee House health care reform bill allows employers to meet coverage requirements by offering employees “coverage under a qualified health benefits plan (or under a current employment-based health plan.

The bill defines a “qualified health benefits plan” as “a health benefits plan that meets the requirements for such a plan under title I and includes the public health insurance option.” Title I of the bill does not prohibit employers from enrolling employees in private plans.

 Source:  HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009

Myth 4:

 The Public Option with Drive private insurance out of business.

 Fact: The report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the public option proposed by Democrats would not drive private insurers out of business and most people would still choose to get their medical coverage through employers. Republicans often Site the Lewin Group as a source to propagate this myth.  Lewin Group, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of UnitedHealthCare.

Any individual insurance policy (as opposed to a group insurance policy) that is in effect today will be permitted to remain in effect; however, any new [individual] policies issued after the law becomes effective will be required to comply with the standards set out in the section relating to policies offered via the new Health Insurance Exchange. It’s grandfathering, not elimination.   The report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the public option proposed by Democrats would not drive private insurers out of business and most people would still choose to get their medical coverage through employers. Republicans often Site the Lewin Group as a source to propagate this myth.   The Lewin Groupis a wholly-owned subsidiary of UnitedHealthCare.

Any individual insurance policy (as opposed to a group insurance policy) that is in effect today will be permitted to remain in effect; however, any new [individual] policies issued after the law becomes effective will be required to comply with the standards set out in the section relating to policies offered via the new Health Insurance Exchange. It’s grandfathering, not elimination.

Source:  HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 and CBO Report, July 2009

Myth 5:

It will ban private health insurance for individuals. Those who currently have private individual coverage won’t be able to change it. Nor will those who leave a company to work for themselves be free to buy individual plans from private carriers.

Fact: It doesn’t outlaw private insurance. “There will be individual policies available, but people will buy those policies through the national health insurance exchange,” she said. The House bill allows for existing policies to be grandfathered in, so that people who currently have individual health insurance policies will not lose coverage. The line the editorial refers to is a clause that says the health insurance companies cannot enroll new people into the old plans.

Individual private health insurance means coverage that someone buys on his or her own from a private company. In other words, it’s for people who can’t get coverage through work or some other group, and the rates tend to be much higher.

Background: Page 16 defines what coverage will be considered “grandfathered coverage”; that is, coverage in existence today which would not be in compliance with new standards imposed by the law.
What it says: Any individual insurance policy (as opposed to a group insurance policy) that is in effect today will be permitted to remain in effect; however, any new policies issued after the law becomes effective will be required to comply with the standards set out in the section relating to policies offered via the new Health Insurance Exchange.
What it does: The purpose of the provision is to bring policy offerings into line with the minimum benefit tiers and provisions required under the new law

 Source:  HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009

Myth 6:

5.6 Million illegal immigrants will be covered by ObamaCare.  In another form: All non-US citizens, illegal or not, will be provided with free healthcare services 5.6 Million illegal immigrants will be covered by ObamaCare.   In another form: All non-US citizens, illegal or not, will be provided with free healthcare services

 Fact: Illegal immigrants are specifically excluded from coverage. Of course, this means that they will be continue to get their healthcare from expensive emergency rooms, so that may not actually be a good thing.

The section on page 50 of HR 3200 aligns Health Insurance Exchange policies with other laws currently in effect, such as the Public Health Service Act, State law, and ERISA. Health care cannot trump other laws already in effect.

According to America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, Page 143, Line 3, Section 246: “No Federal Payment for Undocumented Aliens. Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.”

 Source:  HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009

 Myth 7:

Some people won’t be covered. 

 Fact:  All people will have the opportunity to be covered, either via employer-provided plans or via the Health Insurance Exchange, which includes the public option. Those who opt out of coverage will be required to pay a penalty, which will be deposited to the general fund maintained for the public option. The penalty is intended to offset the cost of “adverse selection”; that is, those who opt out when healthy and later opt in at the point of illness or diagnosed chronic conditions. (Page 167 of HR3200, Title IV, Subtitle A, Part I, Sec. 401). The only group excluded will be illegal aliens.

 Source:  HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009

 Myth 8:

The Democrats propose “a government-controlled health care plan that will deprive roughly 120 million Americans of their current health care coverage.  Two out of three Americans who get their health care through their employer would lose it under the House Democrat plan.

 Fact:  This report is from the Lewin Group, a health care consulting firm which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of UnitedHealthCare, an insurance company that obviously has a vested interest in suppressing a public option.. The report ran a number of scenarios, including what would happen if the government offered a public option that was a Medicare-style plan open to everyone. Their model found that 118 million people would choose to drop their private coverage in favor of cheaper public coverage.

In addition, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that about 11 million people will end up enrolling in the public option.

 Source:  Congressional Budget Office, July 2009, Coverage Tables

Myth 9:

The American healthcare system is the best in the world.

Fact:  1 in 10 Americans can’t count on their healthcare coverage. America is ranked 37 in the world behind such countries As Columbia, Singapore and Morocco. France is rated at number one, followed by Italy.

Pew Research center did a study that said (among other things): Just 15% say health care in this country is the “best in the world,” while 23% rate it as “above average”; about six-in-ten (59%) view U.S. health care as either “average” (32%) or “below average” (27%).

Source: The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press’ May 2009

 Myth 10:

Under Obamacare there will be rationing of healthcare, which we don’t have now. or, in another form: YOUR HEALTHCARE IS RATIONED!!!

Fact:  Healthcare is rationed now. Insurance companies determine what procedures they will cover, and at what price. They deny payment on certain procedures, which means thay patients either go without, or they pay themselves. This is how rationing works in a capitalistic system.

Also: Referencing Pg 29, HR 3200, from Viral Emails Page 29 refers to co-payments and caps on out-of-pocket expenses as part of the minimum benefits package. It is not addressing treatment or approvals or anything of the sort.

“Private insurance companies ration care to Americans every single day. They reject applications based on pre-existing conditions and family history. They rescind coverage after an illness has been diagnosed. Their premiums and deductibles are so high that millions of Americans are forced to delay care or declare bankruptcy due to high costs:  – Media Matters Fact Check

Ezra Klein of the Los Angeles Times points out on his blog: “If you look at waiting times, you’ll see that relatively few Americans wait more than four months for surgery, which helps folks claim that America doesn’t ration care, and makes our system look pretty good on the waiting times metric. Here’s what they don’t tell you: When you look at who foregoes care, the international comparisons reverse themselves. About 23% of Americans report that they didn’t receive care, or get a test due to cost. In Canada, that number is 5.5%.”

Rather Than Waiting In Line, Americans Simply Do Not Get Care. As Ezra Klein argues in the Los Angeles Times, “although Britain and Canada have decided that no one will go without, even if some must occasionally wait, the U.S. has decided that most of us who can’t afford care simply won’t get it.

Source:  HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, Media Matters Fact Check, Los Angeles Times, April 2009

 Myth 11:

We will have long wait times for healthcare services if we end up with a public option.

 Fact:  This doesn’t even make sense. Are we suddenly going to have a shortage of doctors? Is everyone going to make a mad rush to the physician’s office? This is usually tied to an anecdotal report from Canada. The reality is that wait times vary from area to area, as well as from service to service in Canada, but it’s rarely as bad as reported. The most recent GOP claims of waits in Canada for treatment of life-threatening illnesses have been debunked as well.  An Aetna executive admitted in his 2007 report to investors that average wait times in the US to see a provider are 70 days, and up to 4 weeks for life-threatening conditions.

 Source: Deborah Burger, RN,  co-President of America’s RN Union, July 11, 2007

Myth 12:

Democrats are proposing a government controlled health insurance system, which will control care, treatments, medicines and even what doctors a patient may see.

 Fact:  Insurance companies already control treatments, medicines and what doctors a patient may see. The current healthcare bill prevents insurance companies from denying coverage or treatments because of pre-existing conditions. Health Care Reform is attempting to cover those who are being denied coverage under the current system, This is what is already happening with our current Health Care system. Republican Congressman Tim Murphy (PA) agrees:
MURPHY: Yeah and that brings up the point here that with regard to one of our big frustrations with insurance companies is they control the market place, they control what’s done, a lot of times doctors not making the decisions here. And you recognize the frustration.

Source: C-Span’s Washington Journal, Jul y 17th, 2009

Myth 13: 

There will be a Government Committee that decides what treatments and benefits you get.

Fact: Referencing Pg 30, Sec 123 of HR 3200- This section refers to the creation of an advisory panel for purposes of determining standards for the minimum, intermediate, and premium benefits packages. One of the most common myths out there is that benefits/treatments/etc will somehow be “rationed” by the government. In fact, the idea behind this commission is to bring together the different actors who are involved in provision of treatments and benefits to determine what should be deemed a “basic” benefit and what should fall into other tiers. Again, this section simply creates a panel who gives recommendations to the Secretary of HHS.

Source: HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009

Myth 14:

There will be a Government Committee that decides what treatments and benefits you get.

Fact: Referencing Pg 30, Sec 123 of HR 3200, This section refers to the creation of an advisory panel for purposes of determining standards for the minimum, intermediate, and premium benefits packages. One of the most common myths out there is that benefits/treatments/etc will somehow be “rationed” by the government. In fact, the idea behind this commission is to bring together the different actors who are involved in provision of treatments and benefits to determine what should be deemed a “basic” benefit and what should fall into other tiers. Again, this section simply creates a panel who gives recommendations to the Secretary of HHS.

 Source: HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009

Myth 15:

Health Care Reform will hurt Small Business

 Fact: The current draft bills also include a tax credit for small businesses that provide health care coverage for their workers. This benefit will make it easier for small businesses to provide coverage. Together with the exchange, these reforms will help small firms’ bottom line, allowing them to focus more of their attention on running their business and creating jobs.

 

The Senate’s HELP Bill also addressed this issue. From the July ’09 version:
Choice of public and private plan, for uninsured, small businesses with less than 25 employees, and those with a premium share over 12.5% of their income.

Small Business Credits – employers with 50 or fewer full-time workers who pay 60 percent or more of their employees’ health insurance premiums will be permitted to receive tax credits for subsidizing coverage. Credit amounts are based on the type of employee coverage, the size of the employer, and the proportion of time the employer paid employee health insurance expenses, and are available for up to 3 consecutive years.

Self-employed individuals who do not receive credits for purchasing coverage through the Gateway are eligible.

Small Business Program Credits. Beginning in 2010, eligible. Employers required to pay 60% of premiums or be assessed $750 for each full-time employee not covered and $375 for each part-time employee not covered.

Source:  HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, Senate HELP Committee Legislation 

Myth 16:

Health Care reform will pressure the elderly to end their lives prematurely.   Or in another form: It will allow for legalized physician-assisted suicide.

Fact:  The section of the bill this myth is referring to is SEC. 1233. ADVANCE CARE PLANNING CONSULTATION: It amends the Medicare Act to allow coverage for patients to receive counseling about end-of-life care options every five years if they so choose. Moreover, prominent medical societies have supported such counseling. Here is an analysis of this portion of the bill:   Provides coverage for consultation between enrollees and practitioners to discuss orders for life-sustaining treatment. Instructs CMS to modify ‘Medicare & You’ handbook to incorporate information on end-of-life planning resources and to incorporate measures on advance care planning into the physician’s quality reporting initiative.

The section of HR 3200 will require that doctors ask patients their preferences when it comes to end-of-life and critical emergency care situations. You get to choose whether you want doctors to perform life-saving treatments, or whether you want a Do-Not-Resuscitate order, or whether you want only palliative treatments and hospice. Under no circumstances would you be forced to sign away your rights or even answer when asked about your preferences, and under no circumstances would you be denied life-saving treatment if you wanted it.

Source: HR 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, CMA Analysis

Healthcare reform deserves an honest look at the facts.  Some folks may disagree with the proposals, but lies and myths and shouting out civil discourse is not the way to ensure a thoughtful national debate.  I hope that by carefully addressing some of the most volatile myths being circulated, this blog will help towards the goal of an appropriate policy debate.

The town hall protests that are occurring around the country have very little to do with healthcare reform – the subject of these town halls convened by members of Congress.  They are an intersection of high powered lobbyists for the insurance industry, ignorance and racism.

 Across the nation, the same conservative lobbying groups like FreedomWorks.com (the one run by Dick Armey of Jack Abramoff fame) that brought you the infamous teabagger protests are organizing to flood town hall meetings with outraged yokels shouting about socialism.  This is not grassroots, this is Astroturf.

 Some legislators have already faced the terrifying spectacle of bestickered mobs chanting “Just Say No!” or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (I really don’t think that  the Pledge was written to derail thoughtful discourse).    These are the same people who were showing up at Sarah Palin rallies calling Barack Obama a terrorist, a socialist, a Nazi, and crying over the direction of their country.    Now Congress members are receiving death threats and are being lynched in effigy.  These people are scary and are dangerous.  The rhetoric is getting increasingly violent and could, end up in acts of violence.  It is eerily reminiscent of some of the ugliest McCain / Palin rallies.

 Of course Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck are certifiable but they have an audience.  They have audiences of people who can be manipulated by fear and the health insurance lobbyists are using this audience in a campaign of misinformation and intimidation; a campaign that it meant to shut down civil discourse- the cornerstone of our nation’s democracy.   They are playing into their fears.

 When you hear people screaming that they don’t want government messing with their Medicare (the very essence of a government run single payer system that works well) you know that these people are not well informed and have no interest in being informed about the issues. 

 You have people screaming that the proposals in the House and the Senate are about nationalizing healthcare and forcing a single payer system on the nation.  While I am a supporter of single payer, I agree with the assessment of President Obama that the nation is not ready for it and in fact single payer was never on the table for the Obama administration. 

 Today in the news I saw some former Dick Armey aide who is involved with FreedomWorks.com say that these protests were organic and people truly understand the specifics of the proposals in Congress.  I’ve never heard something so laughable in my life.  If in fact these people understood the issues they wouldn’t be saying things so absurd and so, well, stupid. 

 More insidious to me is that the health insurance industry is playing with fire.  It is playing with the racist hatred of some white Americans who cannot accept that we have an African American president.  They are using the very same people who are the “birthers”.  When you consider that 58% of Republicans  and most  Southerners either do not believe that the President is a citizen or are unsure- you have a group of people who are deluded and do not want to accept the outcome of the election:  an African American holds the most powerful office in the land.  These people are desperately holding on to an America of the past not the future. 

 The future scares these people.  The rapidly changing face of the American people is revealed in new census projections that predict that groups that are now labeled minorities will form the greater part of the country’s population by 2042.  According to the US census bureau, the dominance of non-Hispanic white people, who today account for two-thirds of Americans, will be whittled away, falling steadily to less than half in 2042 and 46% by 2050.  This is a future that some white Americans, especially in the rural south cannot accept. 

 The people showing up to these rallies haven’t bothered to look at the legislation and have no interest in the truth or the facts, they want to hold on to a past that is no more.

 In a recent column Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote:

 “The curious Republican campaign of 2008 may have galvanized a conservative Southern base — including many who were mostly concerned with the direction Democrats would take the country — but it also repelled others who simply bolted and ran the other way. Whatever legitimate concerns the GOP may historically have represented were suddenly overshadowed by a sense of a resurgent Old South and all the attendant pathologies of festering hate and fear.

 What the GOP is experiencing now, one hopes, are the death throes of that 50-year spell that Johnson foretold. But before the party of the Great Emancipator can rise again, Republicans will have to face their inner Voinovich and drive a stake through the heart of old Dixie.”

 In a recent appearance on “Hardball” Parker talked about the reason the “birther” movement, the zealous and scary protests at healthcare reform town halls, and the racism on display in the Sotomayor hearings have taken hold in the South.  She said it can be summed up in two words:  The Confederacy.  States rights, secession, racism are all alive and well in the old Confederacy.

These town hall protests have nothing to do with healthcare.  Well they do for the corporate lobbyists that are organizing these poor ignorant racists who will lap up anything they are fed that feeds into their fears. But for those who are being manipulated, it is about expressing the fear and hatred for the multicultural future of this nation.

On July 17th I was waking up and was still groggy when I heard a short item reported on MSNBC that an African American Harvard professor had been arrested in his home after someone reported a possible burglary. It was a short item with few details; not even the name of the professor was reported. I went to the computer and read a Boston Globe article that gave some more detail, but not a lot.

It seemed that it was a story that would capture some air time on television news since racial issues tend to do that and this one in particular included a noted African American scholar and a white Cambridge police officer. This was not just any African American scholar but one of the preëminent African American intellectuals in the world who is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, and the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Then the story exploded and the media were obsessing- a good 48 hours before President Obama was asked about the situation at his press conference that was supposed to focus on healthcare. When I watched the press conference- I was actually surprised when right after it was over, Chris Matthews said that this question and answer would probably be the bigger new story. I wasn’t surprised by the President’s answer and it didn’t disturb me either. I agreed with the President that the Cambridge police acted stupidly. I still think that they acted stupidly. Do I think that they were profiling Professor Gates? Probably not. But they did act stupidly by arresting him for disorderly conduct.

I don’t know anyone, of any race, that would not be upset if the police came to their home and were asked to step outside and prove that they lived there. It would unnerve the best of us. How it feels for an African American- I cannot imagine since I am white. But I believe that it would evoke profoundly disturbing feelings based on our nation’s abysmal record on race; the election of an African American president notwithstanding. The election of our first African American president is truly a watershed but it doesn’t mean that we live in a post racial society- we do not and we do not like to talk about it either.

The national media reported this incident with their usual style of taking a nuanced complex situation where there are no heroes or villains and turning it into a bad theatre piece distilled to black and white not shades of gray. After the president’s comments the media salivated at the prospect of stoking the fire and feigning shock that he had commented so candidly and in doing so had offended white police officers across the country. The President hadn’t said that Officer Crowley acted out of a racist soul, he said he didn’t know, but he still thought that the police had acted stupidly- and they had. Even if Professor Gates was wildly disturbed and overreacted why could the police not have calmly told him that they had to follow up on the report of a break in, that they were sorry for the error and that they understood how disconcerting this incident must be for him. That could have deëscalated the situation but instead the cuffed him. If Officer Crowley indeed teaches other police officer on ways to control their impulse to racially profile, he is woefully lacking an understanding of the African American experience. Just because he wasn’t profiling Professor Gates doesn’t mean that for Professor Gates it wasn’t about racial profiling.

The national media did not  report on a lot of facts that are important to know. According to a report by Hillel Italie of AP, decades ago – Henry Louis Gates Jr. and some friends nearly set off a brawl trying to integrate a West Virginia club. Gates and the others were circled by a white mob. The owner screamed at the black students to leave, slamming one of them against a wall. The club was shut down, but Gates had been marked: West Virginia police, he would write in his memoir, placed him on a list of those who might be detained should race riots break out during election time. Could that incident have scarred him personally?

And while the reporting of media was sympathetic to the Cambridge and Harvard communities as enlightened and where race is not an issue for the city’s resident and police and the university’s students; nothing could be further from the truth.

The Harvard University newspaper “The Crimson” wrote the following:

“At Harvard, though, the Gates arrest is nothing new—it bears an uncanny resemblance to what has come before it. Last August, a black high school student was, like Gates, confronted by police for attempting to “steal” his own property while trying to unlock his bike. And in the spring of 2007, students called the police on the Black Men’s Forum and Association of Black Harvard Women barbeque in the Quad following a heated discussion on the Cabot House email list in which many expressed skepticism that the picnickers were actually Harvard students”

Harvard and its home of Cambridge Massachusetts is a place where racial tension exists but it is impolite to bring it up. Harvard is too enlightened and Cambridge is too filled with liberal intellectuals to ever brook racism. Sorry that is a myth. Harvard has many students, especially undergraduates and Law students, that have little experience with people outside their sphere of white and privileged and have no interes in having that experience. Cambridge is an upper middle class world where black people are not the norm and they stand out.

All of Professor Gates’ personal experiences and the local racial tensions played out in a nation where race permeates virtually every part of our national life. Should it surprise anyone that Professor Gates “over reacted”?

Many white people in America would like to believe that race is no longer an issue. They are tired of people of color bringing up the past. “Slavery and Jim Crowe are over now”, they often say with irritation, “Can’t we move on? I’m not racist!   See some of my best friends are (insert race, ethnicity of choice).”

In a survey done in early 2009, 44 percent of blacks and 22 percent of whites continue to see racism as a large societal problem. In 1996, 70 percent of blacks and 52 percent of whites held that view.  Conversely, 28 percent of whites and 15 percent of blacks in the new survey said they see racism as a small problem or no problem at all. Racial disparities are also apparent when people were asked whether African Americans have achieved or will achieve racial equality in this country. Seventy-three percent of all those surveyed said African Americans have reached or will soon reach equality, including three-quarters of whites and just over half of blacks. Overall, 47 percent of Americans — including nearly two-thirds of blacks and 43 percent of whites — said they think blacks in their communities experience racial discrimination. Meanwhile, more than four in 10 Americans said they have been discriminated against. Nearly three-quarters of blacks said that was the case, as did three in 10 whites.

Clearly African Americans and White Americans do not have the same American experience and those of us in White America had better look at that and try to understand just how indelibly etched race is into our live.  It dictates how we perceive the world and how the world perceives us.

Of course it isn’t just an African American issue. Just think back a couple of weeks ago to the confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor in the Senate Judicial Committee and you can see the embarrassment of how old Southern white guys don’t know how to deal with a wise Latina. I won’t go into how the press and the Republican Senators conveniently took many of her comments they deemed “troubling” out of context. If they would have read the entire text of these articles and speeches, they might have been less troubled. But that would mean that they had the ability to think outside their own narrow prism.

They didn’t focus on her extensive canon of decisions on the federal bench because there was nothing there to make their case that she was an activist judge with a race bias against whites. Of course the exception was focusing on Ricci v. DeStefano (The New Haven Firemen case). In Ricci, the 2nd Court of Appeals Panel, which included Judge Sotomayor, based their opinion on precedent in that circuit; they were hardly being activist. In her dissenting opinion Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the point that in actuality the Supreme Court was being activist in its decision and was establishing new law.

Every time that Senators Hatch, Sessions, Graham and Coburn would bring up how Jose Cabranes had a different opinion than she did in Ricci and how they would have been happy to have seen Miguel Estrada confirmed to the federal bench- I would cringe. “Hey we like some Latinos!” How white of them. I won’t even go into Senator Coburn’s “you got some ‘splainin’ to do” comment.

Of course the most surreal part of the hearing was Senator Jeff Sessions. This is the same Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III who had once said that he thought the NAACP – the organization formed to fight lynchings – was a “Anti-American/Communist” association. He also called a fellow white lawyer who defended black people a “Traitor to his Race” and said that the Ku Klux Klan was not so bad until he found out that some of them smoked marijuana. And this is a man who has the temerity to be concerned about Sonia Sotomayor’s racism?

It was an embarrassment to watch these white men question the Judge. Their condescending and arrogant lecturing bounced from racist to sexist and I honestly do not believe that they recognized how egregious their behavior was.

Race is an omnipresent issue in our country. We all would like to believe we live in a post racial society, we even have the election of President Obama to rationalize that fantasy. Race is our original sin and our fatal flaw. Racism was written into our Constitution – the very document that is also a beacon of liberty and freedom- in the form of the 3/5 clause in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 which counted blacks as 3/5 of 1 human being. Our history haunts us because we are afraid of it.

Both the Gates arrest and the Sotomayor hearings can be used as teaching moments about race in this nation. The President artfully talked about race in both his impromptu appearance in the White House press room to “clean up” his answer to the question about Professor Gates and his speech in Philadelphia during the campaign about race after the Reverend Wright brouhaha. But can we as a nation talk about race honestly?

In a speech Attorney General Eric Holder made in honor of black history month in February 2009, he eloquently stated the importance of an honest conversation about race and confronted us with our reluctance to do so.

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us. But we must do more- and we in this room bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must – and will – lead the nation to the “new birth of freedom” so long ago promised by our greatest President. This is our duty and our solemn obligation. “

I hope someday we all take on our duty and solemn obligation. Mr. Holder is correct; we are cowards when it comes to talking about race. If we do not learn to overcome that cowardice we will have more arrests like Professor Gates and more embarrassments like the Sotomayor hearing.

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