Healing Public Wounds


“Come, let us reason together,” is a quotation from the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah which was often cited by the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, a master of the legislative process. In the current, raucous “debate” over the health care proposals being drafted in Congress, both the wisdom of Isaiah and the legislative skills of Johnson are sorely lacking.


In the Jewish tradition, healthy but respectful debate has always been encouraged. The two great first-century rabbinic sages, Hillel and Shammai, are often mentioned as vigorously and passionately disagreeing on countless points and interpretations — but always with mutual respect, and never with ad hominem attacks. Hillel and Shammai are contrasted with the Levite rebels Korach and Dathan who attacked the leadership of Moses with disrespect and loshan hora (the “evil tongue” of slander and gossip).

In various “town meetings” across the nation since the start of the August Congressional recess, lawmakers have been greeted with overflow crowds of contending voices. Some support reform, others oppose, and still others are interested in gathering facts to develop an informed personal position.

But many have shown up at these meetings with a malevolent intent of stifling public debate. Missouri can be proud that its own U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, at her town meetings last week, managed to gain control of what was becoming an unruly and potentially violent group in attendance, and then opening up the floor to any and all questions.

Highly public voices, deliberately manipulating information, have contributed to fanning the health care flames. Sarah Palin speaks of the proposed legislation including “death panels” that would make end-of-life decisions, when she knows full well the provision in question simply assures coverage for patient-doctor counseling regarding such circumstances. (Palin herself has previously supported such a concept.)

Investors Business Daily issued the following outrageous proclamation in an editorial: “People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.” Not only is this shockingly insensitive, but, as Jay Bookman notes on his Atlanta Journal-Constitution blog, “Of course, that same Stephen Hawking who wouldn’t have a chance in the United Kingdom was in fact born in the United Kingdom, has lived his entire life in the United Kingdom and lives there still today, at the ripe old age of 67.”

The results of such distortions have sometimes been unintentionally humorous. President Barack Obama stated that, “I got a letter the other day from a woman. She said, ‘I don’t want government-run health care. I don’t want socialized medicine. And don’t touch my Medicare.'”

Whether you attribute the public furor to a serious grass roots movement, or to monied health industry interests, or to ideologues and talking heads, really doesn’t matter. The overt hostility and megaphone-like bashing detracts from a much-needed public debate on the merits of the presidential and congressional proposals.

We need health care reform in this country, without question. Millions are uninsured, costs are spiraling, and major components such as portability and denial of coverage remain flawed. To suggest everything is fine is ostrich-like; whether the plan finally presented to Congress represents the best approach, or the best compromise of competing interests, remains to be seen.

But the dust must settle from open debate, negotiation and compromise to weigh in on the details of the proposal. Even this week as we went to press, the Obama Administration was considering letting go of the “public-option” portion of the proposal, or of allowing community health cooperatives to take the place of a public option. The outcomes of these major substantive issues will be guided by sensible, diverse perspectives voiced by the public and their elected representatives.

The fact that the administration is hearing criticism from those on both the left and right suggests that no one will get everything they want, which is typically the sign of an effective mediative process. As the debate moves forward, we urge our elected leaders to listen carefully to the concerns of all of their constituents. We also encourage our fellow citizens to remain passionate, but to “lower our voices” so that our concerns can get the fair hearing that they deserve.