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The great health care debate: Petty skirmish or a battle of ideas?

By Gena Gorlin

The Undercurrent

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 2 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Are those who oppose health care reform simply racist? Or perhaps just trying to fill their unemployment-related free time? Two articles recently appearing in the New York Times offer just such accounts of what motivates the Tea Party protesters and other vocal opponents of the new health care legislation.

In "The Rage is not about Health Care," columnist Frank Rich argues that racism and white conservatives' "fear of disenfranchisement" are the real motivators behind this recent upsurge in opposition. In "With No Jobs, Plenty of Time for Tea Party," Kate Zernike blames economic adversity.

At a glance, the two arguments share little in common. But they are identical in one important respect: both explanations divert our attention away from the content of the dissenters' objections concerning the new law. The arguments avoid any reference to protesters' concerns, for instance, about the government's encroachment upon individual liberty, its coercion of insurance companies to offer financially crippling policies, or the moral indecency of subordinating individual choice to collective will — and point, instead, to whatever ulterior motives or in-group biases they can scrape up to explain the protesters' opposition.

Unfortunately, many conservatives resort to similar tactics — from Republican Sen. John Boehner's argument against the health care bill primarily on the grounds that it "def(ies) the will of the American people" (an argument that can just as easily, and just as meaninglessly, be countered by President Obama's claim that the health care bill is "a victory for the American people"), to Tea Party activists' emotionally charged appeals to "time-honored" tradition and even, in a few cases, incitements of mob-like violence and vandalism amongst their fellow protesters.

These unreasoning, argument-by-pressure-group tactics, which equally characterize both sides of the debate, shrink what should be a battle of epic moral and philosophical proportions down to the size of a petty tribal skirmish. That is, rather than engage in a battle of ideas, the opposing sides often sidestep the task of providing intellectual support for their claims, focusing instead on irrelevant features of their opponents' respective demographic groups.

A properly-reasoned debate, on the other hand, would be primarily concerned with asking and answering the basic philosophical, moral questions upon which any legitimate policy would rest. Questions like: should health care be considered a right, like freedom of speech and the right to the ownership of property? On what factual basis? Should the government be allowed to restrict the freedom of individuals to benefit the "public good"? Is there even such a thing? Do companies, as groups of individuals, have the right to offer services at a profit as they judge best, or are they properly considered servants of the public?

Amid the intellectually hollow group-think of today's rivaling political parties, there exists an opportunity as well as a desperate need: questioning minds are starved for answers grounded in objective, independently observable evidence. This need became palpable as multitudes of indignant Americans spoke out in furious (but, for the most part, intellectually empty) protest against the passage of the health care law.

If those enraged Americans would speak out, not in blind fury, but in clear-sighted, solidly reasoned intellectual protest against the health care law and all it implies, they would be unstoppable — for they would have no real opposition.

The Undercurrent is a newspaper for students distributed on college campuses across North America.

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