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Past and Present

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Let Them Eat Cake! and Other American Stories

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“Less Government! Am I Alone?” reads a yard sign in Bethel. Every time I pass it, I’m tempted to stop and invite the sign’s author to tell me more. I had the same reaction to the folks in August’s town hall meetings when angry constituents yelled at Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. According to a few at those meetings, the Constitution prohibits the government regulating health care because it isn’t in the Constitution. These citizens share an idea that seems increasingly common in our country, that we’d be pretty fine without government interference. Some argue that life would be better if we’d empower states, which they claim the Founding Fathers really intended in the Tenth Amendment.

Every time I hear these notions, I have to wonder if people are really thinking about all that government does in our daily lives. I teach in a public university, thanks to the good folks of Connecticut who think there’s some value in educating folks. The college kid in our family benefits from a federal loan. And when I ate dinner, I could assume that federal regulations kept all sorts of nasty things out of my ho-ho’s and Dr. Pepper. My car has safety features which are mandated by law, and I travel on roads that we all fund. Of course I hate paying taxes, but I know that I benefit from all sorts of things that come from them.

I wonder how the “less government” folks plan on doing those things, if they do. And I’ve been wondering what those Republican Congressional Representatives and Senators, sitting so cynically through President Obama’s health care speech, want to do for the millions without health care, or those who can’t get adequate coverage. Is it acceptable for the richest nation in the world to have over 40 million citizens without regular access to regular medical care, or for our neighbors to die from a lack of coverage? It seems that to some Americans, it is.

A few years ago, a friend’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer. The owner of his own business, he had health coverage through an expensive individual plan, and he realized that aggressive treatment of the cancer could bankrupt him. Rather than leave his wife with heavy debts, he chose to die — and he did. Many of us have stories like this, friends and family who have not received optimal treatment because of the expense or a lack of coverage. Republicans seem to be eager to abandon us to an insurance marketplace based on profit rather than humane treatment. They seem content to let Americans die — as some do — for their principles of party.

It is as cynical as the infamous “let them eat cake!” attributed to Marie Antoinette while the French people had no bread. And it reflects the worst, not the best, in our American history. In the Great Depression, the nation rallied to provide a hand up for those who were hungry and jobless. In the 1960s, we provided help so that kids (like me) could go to better schools, and to college. While some complained about the threat of big government and a slide to socialism, the majority of Americans seemed to know that a nation cannot thrive and prosper without a shared security. We cannot look at our neighbors and insist that they should go it alone, as if that’s the American way. Our best moments have been those of generousity, of keeping our promises of opportunity, and of working for all the people, not just a privileged few. (MM)

Categories: General

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