Forget their poverty

As Easter approaches, thoughts on why the health care bill is a good American thing.

click to enlarge Forget their poverty - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
Forget their poverty

The horse that comes from the road,

The rider, the birds that range

From cloud to tumbling cloud,

Minute by minute they change...

A terrible beauty is born.

(from "Easter, 1916" by Wm. Butler Yeats)

Four of us were having breakfast at La Croisette in St. Pete Beach, two old couples (we worry what the waitresses think when they see us coming: we not only split the checks, we split the breakfasts) talking about the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. We agree that in times like this, American generosity bubbles up and translates into action and money.

"What I wonder," said the husband, "is why we're so moved by foreign disasters and so antagonistic to the tragedies right here?" Recently, Harvard Medical School reported that 45,000 Americans die each year for lack of health insurance and decent medical care. Forty million live below the poverty line; 46 million don't have health insurance. That's million.

Later that week, hired to read some poems, I had lunch at a country club, and the subject of President Obama's health care bill came up, and one handsome woman blurted out, "Well, I sure hope that never passes!" I was surprised at the quick unanimity at our prosperous table, as everyone nodded or murmured agreement. Then they looked at me.

I was their guest, and didn't want to pee on the crabcakes. "I think we have to do something," I offered.

The woman who spoke almost hissed. "I don't want my taxes paying for other people's troubles, even immigrants!"

"Well, that's the problem, isn't it?" I said, mildly, though it seemed to kill the conversation until the actual program began.

America moves slowly, but inexorably, toward doing the right thing. Free public education spread through the States during the 19th century. Women got the right to vote in 1920; old people got Social Security in 1935; blacks and other minorities took a big step toward equality with the Civil Rights Act in 1964; and now in 2010 it looks like all of us, including the poor, will finally receive health care as one of our rights as Americans, like the longer-living citizens of Europe and Scandinavia.

No one likes taxes, but many Americans especially object to paying taxes for "other people's" health care (paying for wars seems OK). They paraphrase Cain: "Are we our brothers' keeper?" The health care summit was revelatory: the Democrats would say Yes — As Americans, we share the benefits and sacrifices; the Republicans say No — This is our money, we earned it (complete with bonuses), and no one can take it from us.

Watching Obama lead the health care debate made it easy to see how he was a winner in his presidential run, when he was seen and heard head-on, his speeches and debates covered live by all major stations, and most minor ones. Back then, unfiltered by the various talking heads, he was light years ahead of John McCain and Sarah Palin in vision, intellect and sheer gravitas (and still is).

But since elected, Obama's been seen in bits, muffled by commentary; his opponents both blocked and blurred him. When he's not seen complete, as in the health care summit or his State of the Union — the conservative media manages, through sound bites, to convince millions of Americans, who should know better, that he's a Socialist Arab trying to destroy America. Death panels! Impeach Obama!

Many have been brave (and many cowardly) on this issue, but the Presidential Medal for Valor should go the wide coalition of Catholic nuns who registered their support of the health care bill against the Republicans and their own male bishops. They understand that with this bill, the test isn't whether America will be healthy: it's whether or not it has a heart at all. In the future, Republicans like John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Michelle Bachmann will be remembered for their mad-dog fight against health care the way that Democrats Bull Connor, Lester Maddox and George Wallace are remembered for their raging battle against integration. The vote on the health care bill can be looked on as a symbolic Easter present. If it holds up, America will join the rest of the civilized world in providing health protection for all its citizens, including the poorest.

As Easter approaches, we might remember the Biblical sayings we loved, learned and forgot, including this one from Proverbs (31:6-9):

Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty. Open your mouth for the dumb, for the rights of all who are left desolate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, maintain the rights of the poor and needy.

We don't have to be Catholic nuns to understand the truth of those words.

Although our own children have gone (we miss their raucous jelly bean hunts), the return of Easter and spring, along with — at last — a possible health care law, is a joyful occasion. Happy Easter, everyone.

—St. Petersburg Poet Laureate Peter Meinke's next reading will be at the Safety Harbor Library, at 6 p.m., April 14.

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