Friday, August 7, 2009

Keith Olbermann and Jonathan Alter on Health-Care Mobs: "Right on the Edge"

I didn’t know when I blogged earlier today re: parallels between the town-hall protest mobs and mobs protesting integration in the 1950s and 1960s that Keith Olbermann's “Countdown” featured clips from my home state of Arkansas last night. Someone at one of the two meetings I attended today brought this to my attention.

I’ve just watched this “Countdown” segment and found it fascinating. As Olbermann notes, the fear being stoked in these protests seems to have far more to do with anger over who won the last election than with who has or does not have health care insurance. Olbermann led into his story with bone-chilling footage of Missouri Republican representative Todd Akin recounting, to a cackling audience in St. Louis County, Missouri, how Democrats are being lynched at their town-hall meetings.

Lynchings? An interesting word to use here, isn’t it? And a highly charged one, with an historical resonance that would, one might think, make a representative from St. Louis County think twice about using it in this laudatory way, and would, one might hope, make a St. Louis County audience less inclined to laugh uproariously at the mention of lynchings.

Perhaps Rep. Akin and his audience have forgotten what happened in July 1917 in their county’s main city, which had significant national reverberations.* On 1 July 1917, in the midst of labor strife that had exacerbated racial tensions, a crowd of angry whites drove through East St. Louis, a largely black community, shooting guns to express their anger after it was alleged that black workers had broken a strike.

When two policemen were shot in the midst of these incidents and the black community was blamed, the white mob lynched and murdered thirty-five black citizens, mutilating many of them and throwing their bodies into the Mississippi River. At this point, the revulsion of one of Missouri’s then Congressional representatives, Leonidas C. Dyer, was so great that he introduced the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill to outlaw mob violence and lynchings.

Poor Leonidas Dyer. How badly his memory is now being served by the people of a district he served with such distinction. And how short the memory of those folks seems to be regarding what lynchings were really all about—something sane folks surely do not want to return to, that ugly period of racially-fueled mob violence in our society.

Olbermann’s segment then shifted to footage from the town-hall meeting held earlier this week at Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. Arkansas representatives Vic Snyder and Mike Ross hosted this event. The clip features a woman standing up to tell the audience that her America has been taken away. As she shakes and tears up, she shouts that she’s afraid!

At this point, Keith Olbermann asks Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, who joined him on the show, what he thinks about this clip. Olbermann asks if the fear and anger about health care reform exhibited by people like this Arkansas lady is really about who won the election and not about health care at all. As he notes, there’s an odd sense in such clips that we could be looking at what happened at the McCain-Palin rallies.

Alter agrees that the town-hall protests are reminiscent of the McCain-Palin rallies. He notes that these town-hall protests appear “right on the edge . . . of advocating violence.” In these protests, we’re watching a “crack [occur] in the commonsense of America.”

Olbermann confirms Alter’s analysis, noting that we seem to have come full circle, with these organized mob protests that are purportedly about health care reform but not about that at all. As he notes, “Paranoia and anger and my America: what happened to the debate about health care . . .?”

Alter concludes that social change creates anxiety. If people would only pay close attention to what’s being proposed in reform health care, they would recognize that the proposed reforms are “along the median strip of American politics.” They will not make a huge difference in most people’s lives. They will give people more choices, and, it’s hoped, lower health care costs over time.

In Alter’s view, if fear is apropos here, the fear on which we ought to be focused is the fear all of us should have about what will happen to us if we lose our jobs, and with them, health care coverage, and then get sick. As he maintains, the real outrage occupying us ought to be our failure as a society to address that issue. By not doing so, we discriminate against people who get sick.

This is a civil rights issue, Alter thinks. People facing serious illness ought not to have to worry as well about being unable to pay for medical care and/or losing everything they own to obtain decent health care. Addressing this issue is a way of completing the unfinished business of FDR’s program to assure all citizens a fundamental security of life, in which the basic human rights of all are addressed.

See Marilyn K. Howard, “Leonidas C. Dyer, 1871-1952,” in Encyclopedia of American Race Riots, ed. Walter C. Rucker and James N. Upton (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007), pp. 182-3.