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David Linzee

Wave Away The Golden Mist Of Soothing Half-Truths

November 16, 2011
It's time for that annual autumnal rite, falling usually between Halloween and Thanksgiving, when our employers ask us to make choices about next year's health insurance — assuming, of course, that we're lucky enough to have an employer and insurance. My luck is holding, and I've just received a glossy brochure from my employer (clarification: this is my full-time employer, not the West End Word). It's full of pictures of smiling employees and ebullient prose.

In quoting the brochure, I don't mean to mock its writer. I've done my share of anonymous writing for hire, and I'm sure that my fellow scribe was thinking, "I studied Shakespeare and Milton — for this?" The brochure states: "We've given the Choice plan a new name: myChoice Health plan. Why? Because it's really your plan to manage your health."

Translation: we'll be taking more out of your paycheck every month. A few lines below, you learn that we've raised your deductible, too. Not so we can save money — perish the thought – but so that you can "become a wiser health care consumer."

Now, I don't object to what my employer is doing. Everybody else is doing the same. Health care costs continue to rise steeply, and as long as we're stuck with the wretched insurance system we have, we'll all have to pay more and more. I'll swallow the pill. It's the sugar-coating I can't stand.

The brochure reminds me of something I read a while back. Three British reporters stationed in Washington noted that after a rash of stick-ups of drivers, the bus company had stopped making change. The reporters objected not to the decision, but to the signs that went up in the buses, saying drivers wouldn't give change "to speed your ride."

This was an example, they said, of how the soothing half-truths of advertising and public relations had seeped into every layer of American society and corrupted political discourse. The constant softening of hard facts "induces a peculiar mixture of gullibility and cynicism that is close to neurosis. It is not an attitude that is well adapted for distinguishing between bullshine and brass tacks, rhetoric and reality."

This critique is nothing new, you're probably thinking. And you're right. The quote comes from "An American Melodrama: the Presidential Campaign of 1968" by Lewis Chester, Geoffrey Hodgson and Bruce Page, published in 1969. That's how long the golden mist of mendacity has been thickening over our land. The authors said that nothing made them worry more about the future of America, and 1968, remember, was a year that saw war overseas and assassinations and riots at home, not to mention the election of Richard Nixon.

Forty-three years later, the authors would probably say their fears have been justified. The media permeate our lives more thoroughly, and the news they carry is more permeated with advertising and p.r. The American people have more problems than they're willing to face, or than the political system can handle. Probably the only thing our fractious politicians could agree on is that voters aren't ready to make tough choices, though the politicians would quickly fall to bickering over which issue is most urgent, the debt crisis, global warming or one of our other looming challenges.

This vision of the future can get us down, but I continue to believe it's worthwhile to grab hold of one slippery statement at a time and strip it down to the truth. Take that bit of costuming I quoted from my benefits brochure, with "you're independent and you have choices" covering "you'll pay more." It's a popular costume, which is also being used by Republicans against President Obama's health care reform bill.

The campaign is succeeding; polls show dropping support for the bill, and a challenge to the individual mandate is headed for the Supreme Court. If the challenge succeeds, pundits may well say that the reform bill had the same fatal flaw as Obama himself: it was too moderate. The requirement for individuals to buy health insurance exists to protect private insurance companies. If the companies had to pay for care of the sick, but didn't have a huge number of healthy people paying premiums, they'd go broke.

But Republicans denounce the individual mandate as "socialist," an intolerable invasion of Americans' freedom of choice and independence. Of course, Americans love to think of themselves as free and independent, as hardy frontiersman with Kentucky rifles. But let's wave away the golden mist and take a hard look at one of those "socialist" countries where totalitarian rulers have imposed national health insurance on the downtrodden populace. I'm talking about Canada, of course. There, health care is your right as a citizen. In America, it's a perk you enjoy only at your employer's pleasure. Republicans aren't protecting Americans' freedoms, they're protecting bosses' power over workers.

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