Health Care and Huck Finn

03Apr10

Dear America: you’ve made some of the best films I’ve ever seen, and produced some great writers. With such heart-wrenchingly good stuff out there, I’m finding it odd one of your country’s major political parties doesn’t recognize social justice when it’s staring them in the face. Republican responses to health care reform in the States have frequently been both tasteless and hysterical, and it’s baffling to many Canadians. We’ve had heath care coverage for decades now. Trust us, the sky will not fall. Trust us, we aren’t communists. And listen, you’ve gone from a president who spends unfathomable amounts of money on an overseas war (where no weapons of mass destruction were found) to a president who wants to improve quality of life for you. Generally speaking, it’s hard for us to understand why any of you would regret making a switch like that, and if we can borrow your president sometime, we’re a bit stuck with a guy who seems to think the 1950s were a swell time, even though most of us don’t vote for him.

One of your essay writers, George Saunders, comments that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is in many ways the definitive American book, for having two characters that encapsulate the two warring sides of the American character. There’s the side that charges ahead aggressively and the side that takes more time to listen to its better instincts. If you’ll recall, Tom Sawyer is rough and tumble, and Huck Finn much more quietly reflective, finally deciding that helping his friend is the morally right thing to do even if he’s been told he’ll be punished, and concluding he’ll help his friend, even if it means going to hell. Saunders has such an interesting argument I’ll quote an entire paragraph from “The United States of Huck,” in his book The Braindead Megaphone:

“America is, and always has been, undecided about whether it will be the United States of Tom or the United States of Huck. The United States of Tom looks at misery and says: Hey, I didn’t do it. It looks at inequity and says: All my life I have busted my butt to get where I am, so don’t come crying to me. Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes… these two parts of the American psyche have been at war since the beginning of the nation, and come to think of it, these two parts of the World Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the world, and the hope of the nation and of the world is to embrace the Huck part, and send the Tom part back up the river where it belongs.”

The media has already noted that both parties have started campaigns to win the hearts and minds of Americans. And the mid-term elections later this year will do a lot to either help or hinder further efforts by your progressive president. But for the media to point this out cleverly overlooks that they’ll play a role in public opinion too, and I hope the media manages responsible journalism over shrill side-taking. From where I sit, that American flag fluttering in the breeze was always supposed to represent some notion of basic equality, that “all men are created equal,” and have a decent shot at life, which is exactly what extending health care coverage means.

It might be suggested that as a Canadian, this is none of my business. But here’s my argument for why it does matter to me, and everyone. You have a president that recognizes that the twenty-first century is going to be a different kind of struggle, a struggle to switch to renewable energy and live sustainably on this planet despite our greater and greater numbers. The century is going to require some innovative ideas, like forgiving countries portions of their debt if they invest in clean energy (which should interest both burdened poor nations and wealthy ones like America, now that trillions have been spent on recent wars). Change is difficult, but necessary for the long term. A more compassionate president that recognizes this isn’t a bonus, it’s a necessity, and the world needs American support for these kinds of changes. It’s my hope Americans will spend the next few months before the mid-term elections thinking long term, and trying to be as Huck Finn about everything as possible.

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One Response to “Health Care and Huck Finn”

  1. 1 bud

    Alex,

    that was superb.
    without wanting or seeming to denigrate any of your other essays that i’ve read, that was the best.

    thanks,

    bud


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