I was in New Jersey this past weekend, and I heard a very animated conversation between two NJ Transit workers about Sicko: “So Hillary takes the money — Can you believe that??” And apparently, that’s happening in other equally unlikely places. This apparently non-political blog has an account of spontaneous citizen activism after a showing of Sicko in Dallas (ht: BoingBoing via Steve Benen of Washington Monthly) :
When the credits rolled the audience filed out and into the bathrooms. At the urinals, my redneck friend couldn’t stop talking about the film, and I kept listening. He struck up a conversation with a random black man in his 40s standing next to him, and soon everyone was peeing and talking about just how fucked everything is.
I kept my distance, as we all finished and exited at the same time. Outside the restroom doors? the theater was in chaos. The entire Sicko audience had somehow formed an impromptu town hall meeting in front of the ladies room. I’ve never seen anything like it. This is Texas goddammit, not France or some liberal college campus. But here these people were, complete strangers from every walk of life talking excitedly about the movie. It was as if they simply couldn’t go home without doing something drastic about what they’d just seen. My redneck compadre and his new friend found their wives at the center of the group, while I lingered in the background waiting for my spouse to emerge.
The talk gradually centered around a core of 10 or 12 strangers in a cluster while the rest of us stood around them listening intently to this thing that seemed to be happening out of nowhere. The black gentleman engaged by my redneck in the restroom shouted for everyone’s attention. The conversation stopped instantly as all eyes in this group of 30 or 40 people were now on him. “If we just see this and do nothing about it,” he said, “then what’s the point? Something has to change.” There was silence, then the redneck’s wife started calling for email addresses. Suddenly everyone was scribbling down everyone else’s email, promising to get together and do something — though no one seemed to know quite what.
It’s that last quote that really makes me nervous. Steve Benen points to this action by MoveOn, petitioning the presidential candidates to reject health insurers’ campaign cash … but geez, that’s not gonna cut it. Try getting 535 members of Congress to do the same thing, and then we’ll talk.
We’ve got a terrific moment here, and a real opportunity to change the debate entirely; but our health care activist infrastructure is really lacking. The leading Medicare lobbying group, Families USA, doesn’t even mention universal health care on its home page— how totally pathetic. And its very name is so vague it’s almost sleazy: What does a “Families USA” do? Is it a fundamentalist theme park?
Way over on the other side, Physicians for a National Health Program is the major pro-single payer group out there, and they’re fine people, but I don’t see that they or their fellow travelers have really reached out to the other heavy-hitters on the left — the progs-n’-blogs, SEIUs, think-tanks, etc. Hey, they’ve got Michael Moore and 75 co-sponsors in the House of Reps — and none in the Senate. What’s their plan to move beyond that? Their situation reminds me of the old dot-com era UPS commercial, where a small company’s delight at fielding its first few online orders quickly turns to dread when it realizes it has no capacity to actually fill them. I’m just not sure that PNHP, or their fellow travelers HealthCare-Now.org (warning: your eyeballs will hate you for visiting that link) are actually big-league enough activists to direct the firehose of popular reaction to the movie.
Oh, and PNHP doesn’t play well with others: “As a matter of policy, PNHP expressly opposes what are sold as “gradual” steps towards single-payer.” Translation: You’re either for us or against us. They may be right on the policy, but statements like that leave them on a political island. That’s not how you win anything that matters: One can express skepticism for incremental plans while engaging, rather than pushing away, those working in good faith on other proposals — these folks, for instance. Some retooling of that language — and more importantly, its underlying political strategy — is definitely in order.
The weak and fractured state of our activist infrastructure is a serious problem. But that doesn’t leave us with nothing to do — not by a long shot. You do what you can, when you can, as much as you can. As I’ve mentioned, what the public sphere needs from us is a strong and forthright statement of values: No one should be denied the medical care they need because of insurance or ability to pay. Ever. Start with the values, and the policy will follow.
So when you exchange emails with those random folks who saw Sicko with you, you know what to tell your elected officials — and what to expect of them.