Back in the day — if “the day” means six years ago, in a bygone era when each hour wasn’t punctuated by absurd breaking news — Steve Krause and Matthew Paull in The New Republic lamented the loss of ties that bind us as Americans. “It would be ironic for our generation, which has profoundly influenced social change for the greater good, to leave a legacy of self-centeredness that leads our nation to financial and social ruin” (September 4, 2011).
I don’t know if it was just the family in which I was raised — my father was a doctor, my mother a drama teacher — but the notion of caring about something greater than oneself was front and center in my upbringing. This is especially impressive given that our parents were of limited means in their childhoods, and they would have well been forgiven for focusing more on self than on others. As a result of our parents’ values, my sisters and I pay forward the goal of finding and building commonality with others in our community, state, country and world. In our various professional and lay efforts, we’ve given back through work and volunteering in the arts, education, environment, mental health, women’s rights, Judaism, journalism, and beyond.
The scale of one’s commitment — whether local or global — really is less important than just doing it. For my sisters and me, the focus has often been on building local bridges. For those enveloped by World War II, the choice of a world stage was made for them. Tom Brokaw, in both his written and oral musings about “The Greatest Generation,” has reflected upon the shared sacrifice and personal responsibility of those who grew up and ultimately parented the Baby Boomers. Their call of duty to the world, their nation, and their children set a high bar for those of us who benefited from their moral and life commitments.
Yet as Krause and Paull point out, the elements of shared sacrifice have weakened considerably in our society. And the concept of personal responsibility has in many ways been turned on its head, used as a sword to condemn others rather than to hold oneself to a higher standard.
Nowhere is this dual lack more evident than in the American Health Care Act (AHCA) adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives and endorsed by President Donald Trump. How we choose to approach the healthcare sector—economically a sector comprising one-sixth of the economy—will provide a value statement into our collective aspirations as Americans.
The many aspects of the AHCA that deviate from ACA (more commonly referred to as Obamacare) make an exceptionally strong symbolic statement that belies shared sacrifice: namely, that those who are rich, young, and healthy need not feel a moral obligation to support a common plan that helps those less able to help themselves. Think this is exaggerated? Here are some of the awful things that defenders of the AHCA have said:
“Move to another state if you have a pre-existing condition”
“Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn’t obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else’s health care.”
“Healthy people shouldn’t pay for sick people.”
That’s only on the shared sacrifice side. Some of those who voted for this bill also took the immoral position that less healthy people must somehow bring their plight all onto themselves, thus turning the personal responsibility paradigm on its head. Rep. Mo Brooks gave perhaps the most pernicious example of this notion when CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed him on CNN (May 1, 2017):
“It will allow insurance companies to require people who have higher healthcare costs to contribute more to the insurance pool that helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives. They’re healthy; they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy. And right now, those are the people who have done things the right way that are seeing their costs skyrocketing.”
Even if one accepts Brooks’ supposition as to those whose behavior impacts their health — for instance, those who smoke, use drugs or alcohol to excess, eat unhealthily or fail to exercise — his cruel analysis clearly falls apart regarding those afflicted with genetic or hereditary disorders. Take just one of countless examples, that of Cystic Fibrosis. Its victims inherit the disease from parents who have recessive genes for it and have a one-in-four chance of giving birth to a CF-inflicted baby. The physical and financial consequences are hardly the stuff of which personal fault is made.
The social Darwinism inherent in Brooks’ misguided comments and in AHCA itself — finding the most blatant ways to divide us rather than unite us, in this case on the basis of health — is tragic. And ironically, the bill calls to question the alleged nationalism that our president posits as his motivating force. Why? Because nationalism is at its best supposed to bring us together in common cause for things that reflect our collective good. The AHCA instead devolves health care to states and segregates the healthy from the sick, as though the former are more “American” than the latter.
As we know, AHCA is only one instance of the self-absorption that underlies the current administration’s policies. Early discussions on tax cuts show a pointed disposition toward favoring the wealthy. The administration wants to do away with most funding for arts and culture, thus disabling our highest aspirations. And on and on.
Even the massive additional yearly expenditures required for providing security for Trump’s various manses — an amount estimated at 40 percent of the National Endowment for the Arts that the president would prefer to chop — show on their selfish face a “we’re all in this apart”-attitude. “Make America Great Again” really means “Make Me Great Again”: Three hundred million points of light, all scrambling not for each other but for themselves; this is parallel play of the worst kind.
If we want to do medical care, or taxes, or culture, or whatever, the right way in this country, we had better figure out how to find a confluence in that which binds us to who we are as Americans. The policies we’re witnessing at the highest levels of government today instead comprise a Venn diagram in which the circles are drifting further and further apart, leaving only a small overlap that instead of pulling us together, renders benefit to the most privileged few.
My parents would be saddened, if not sickened, by these failures of collective spirit and the manipulation of “personal responsibility” to mean something quite the opposite of its original meaning. I know I am.