OPINION | Ozymandias and health care reform


How are we supposed to debate health care reform when conservatives are organizing shout-downs?

In a clear national trend, conservative public policy advocates are organizing congressional town hall meeting attendance. That’s wonderful. I’m all for people having regular contact with elected officials. But, conservatives aren’t interested in thoughtful discussion. Rather, they’re shouting down speakers.

This is not a memorable moment in the history of democracy.

To be fair, I haven’t heard of shout down reports from Minnesota congressional districts…yet. Given that the same conservative activists behind the tea party tax protests appear to be shouting down the health care reform debate, I expect we’ll see one or more as Members of Congress return home for the August recess.

Democratic public policy debate is tricky. Necessary detail and data all too frequently bog down the debate when people would just like to get to an issue’s meat. If policy seems complicated, it’s because it is complicated. My old boss, the late Congressman Bruce Vento, periodically reminded me that, regarding policy fights, “if there was an easy answer, we would’ve found it by now.”

I’m troubled by the shout-down strategy. I’m not surprised, mind you; I’ve engaged conservative public policy advocates for years and this latest form of bullying is completely in keeping with conservative tactics.

Forty-six years ago, for example, we witnessed a different, more overtly violent version of the shout-down. In Birmingham, Alabama, City Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor directed an aggressive response against growing peaceful civil rights protests. Connor released police dogs and opened fire hoses on reform advocates, unequivocally establishing himself as institutionalized bigotry’s national face.

It was a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement, just not the one Connor sought. President Kennedy later said “”The Civil Rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.” I suspect health care reform debate shout downs will achieve a similar, ignominious result.

Health care reform debates must be understood as discourse. In other words, it’s an on-going, fluid conversation regarding health care policy’s many complex facets. The debate correctly involves cost containment, quality measurements, and provider access along with the less openly acknowledged “it’s a business, after all; of course we want to make a profit” perspective. We need and expect all perspectives in this debate.

We don’t need a bunch of screaming yahoos angrily preventing anyone else from talking, including elected officials at their own town hall, constituency meetings.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, the 18th century English poet, gave us “Ozymandias,” an elegant reflection on human impermanence. The poem’s narrator shares a traveler’s story about encountering a half-destroyed statue in the middle of nowhere. “And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains.”

Shelley tells us little else of the sculpted king. We only have the inscription’s stern certainty, contrasted with an empty land. It suggests that a moment’s arrogance wears poorly over time, a lesson that conservative public policy advocates, shouting down town hall meetings, seen determined to repeat.

I don’t know that conservative health care reform opponents will shout down Minnesota town hall meetings. I certainly hope not but given conservative stridency on education and transportation investments or property tax fairness proposals, I won’t be surprised if I read about in the next week or two.

As Minnesotans, we know how to disagree and still work together. We’ve repeatedly demonstrated our capacity for civil discourse and exchange. Now, more than ever, we need cool heads as we work to move the public policy debate forward.

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