Health reform with one angry mob

Americans love dissent as much as they love freedom, and half as much as they love gravy

Americans have a way of achieving the impossible. They unlocked the power of the atom. They put a man on the moon. They convinced the world that Sarah Jessica Parker is attractive. And now they’ve topped themselves: they’ve found a way to take the staid, tedious political town hall meeting and make it interesting. The secret ingredient? Angry, angry people.

Forty years after hippies, peace and Woodstock, the United States is experiencing its Summer of Shove—a debate over health care reform characterized by vitriol, physical confrontation and thoughtful exchanges along the lines of “Up yours” and “No, up yours.” And then everyone calls everyone else a Nazi and goes home.

(You can see how the Hitler comparison holds together. The Nazis were an evil regime bent on territorial expansion, global domination and the annihilation of the Jews. Supporters of health care reform would like poor babies to be able to see a doctor. Tomato, to-mah-to.)

Nothing makes an American feel more like an American than telling other Americans that America is going to hell if the Americans in power have their way with America. It is a nation of people in love with dissent. They love it as much as they love freedom, and almost half as much as they love gravy.

At town hall meetings across America, members of Congress (especially those who support Barack Obama’s proposed reforms) are being assailed, criticized, shouted at and shouted down. Some elected officials have even been hanged in effigy, an honour usually reserved for heads of state and—at Kate’s house—Jon. One woman, attired in a “Proud Member of the Angry Mob” T-shirt, laid into Senator Ben Cardin with a vigour that by comparison made the final 10 minutes of The Exorcist seem like a romantic comedy. I’m telling you: I haven’t seen anyone this angry since I looked in the mirror after they stopped selling Apple Jacks in Canada.

If Grant Wood were to paint his American Gothic today, the farmer’s iconic pitchfork would be jabbed into a congressman’s backside. Senators and representatives have spent the summer being called liars and idiots, fascists and communists, sellouts and traitors. Some have responded by suspending town halls and instead meeting with constituents over the telephone. Others have nobly endured the abuse, including the high-profile senator Arlen Specter, who spent much of his town hall looking as though he wished he were somewhere less ferocious, such as in the teeth of a wood chipper.

Watching TV coverage of these town halls can be tremendous fun if you enjoy seeing people’s faces turn a variety of colours, such as “red” and “redder.” One man in Florida worked himself into the most fetching shade of crimson as he railed against “socialized medicine.” He seemed pretty set in his ways, though perhaps his perspective on universal care changed when he was rushed to the hospital with Exploding Head syndrome.

The quality of the fury on display has only been enhanced by the intervention of Sarah Palin, who famously vowed to fight against Obama’s “death panel” and stop it from killing off “my baby with Down syndrome.” (In retrospect, the clues were all there in Obama’s campaign slogan: Putting Those With Developmental Disabilities to Death You Can Believe In. People, we have only ourselves to blame.)

The whole “death panel” angle has really caught on, sweeping America like Cabbage Patch Kids in the ’80s or chlamydia in the ’90s. People at town halls have been chanting: “No death panels!” A company is selling T-shirts that declare, “Be nice to me—I’m on the Death Panel.” But frankly, it’s hard to grasp what American conservatives are so worried about. If government truly is as clueless and inefficient as they believe it is, the death panel will never reach a ruling and we’ll all live forever. Yay, bureaucracy!

Even some conservative commentators think Palin has gone too far. In the New York Times, Ross Douhat wrote, “Obviously, the Democratic plans wouldn’t euthanize your grandmother.” But why not? Culling the elderly would help strengthen the economy (by reducing health care costs) and protect the environment (by reducing wasteful clumps of stuck-together hard candies). More important, it would make for must-see reality TV—Survivor: Grandma’s House.

All of which leads me to wonder: is it too early to submit my application for Death Czar? There’s been a czar for everything else in the Obama White House—a car czar, a pay czar, a cheese czar (I’m assuming—after all, nothing needs a wholesale rethink more than Gorgonzola). America requires a person of purpose and ethics to wield supreme authority over who lives and who dies. I’m confident that members of Congress will rally behind my comprehensive platform, which consists of the following priorities in alphabetical order:

John Mayer must die.