Naysayers deny reality of changed society


CONCERN BREEDS fear. Mix fear with ignorance and you get a truly perverse cocktail. Plato wrote that “Ignorance is not merely the lack of knowledge, but self-destructive turning away from truth...the ignorant person believes he knows what he actually doesn’t know. He becomes delusional. He is deranged.”, writes TONY KINSELLA

Some 2,400 years later his words ring chillingly true on both shores of the Atlantic.

The Obama administration is seeking to reform the US healthcare system. 47 million US citizens have no health insurance. A roughly similar number are inadequately insured and survive one serious illness away from bankruptcy.

The US spends over 16 per cent of its GDP on healthcare, compared to the just under 10 per cent France commits to what the WHO rates as the best healthcare system in the world. The administration’s efforts should therefore be generally welcomed. However, the delusional and deranging ignorance referred to by Plato has triggered an aggressive, and occasionally ugly, reaction.

Patently all the anti-reform protesters cannot work for the US health insurance industry’s Orwellian Health Maintenance Organisations (HMO) who spend much of their time finding ways to avoid paying for healthcare.

Joe Wilson, a Republican congressman from South Carolina, achieved considerable notoriety with his “You lie” outburst during Obama’s congressional address. Mr Wilson maintained that the administration’s proposals would offer health cover to illegal immigrants despite the proposed legislation specifically excluding such provision.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described Wilson’s yell as racist, suggesting that he had merely omitted the concluding “boy” pejorative. Jimmy Carter commented that Wilson’s outburst reflected “an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president”.

One anti-reform demonstrator in Washington last weekend carried a poster proclaiming that her local zoo had “an African lion” while the White House was occupied by “a lying African”.

The obvious racist element in such slogans blends with the “birther” argument which claims that Obama was really born in Africa and is thus ineligible to be president. He was, the argument runs, infiltrated into the US to undermine the country as an Islamic fundamentalist sleeper.

Since Barack Obama was born in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, the theory would suggest that the then almost non-existent Islamic fundamentalists were more far-sighted, organised and deadly than the USSR. Delusional and deranged?

There is probably less of a racist than a racial identity element to much of this protest. The traditional image of the USA is one of a white, Christian (largely Protestant), and significantly middle-class country. It is the kind of nostalgic America epitomised by the Donna Reed Show (1958-1966). It is the one Sarah Palin sought to encapsulate, mobilise and capture.

Sometime over the next three decades whites, in the narrow US definition of the term, will become a (large) minority in the rainbow patchwork quilt of US demography. This clashes with the nostalgic image and incites fear among some. Their protests are more driven by this fear than by opposition to healthcare reform.

On our own side of the ocean we are witnessing protests which echo some of this US displacement. Many opponents of the Lisbon Treaty are driven by a deeper angst, rather than opposition to any provisions of the treaty itself.

The Irish Catholic hierarchy says there are no religious or ethical grounds for voting No, yet the Catholic right fervently oppose Lisbon. The problem Cóir and others have is their revulsion at Europe’s multicultural, multi-faith and significantly secular societies. They seek not so much to turn the clock back as to deny that its hands have ever moved forward.

On the far left we find a truly eclectic mixture of Sinn Féin, various Trotskyites, the odd Stalinist and other revolutionaries warning of dire consequences should Lisbon be adopted. These groups and parties, despite their profound and often sectarian ideological differences, agree that our societies need revolutionary change and that Lisbon threatens us all.

Their real problem lies with the EU, rather than Lisbon as such – hence their consistent hostility since Ireland joined in 1972.

The effective, if boring, EU epitomises Europe’s mixed economies. This mixture of public provision, regulation and free enterprise works reasonably well. While many would agree that the public-private mixture has swung too far towards the private sector in recent years, there are hopeful signs of balance being restored.

The last thing a revolutionary wants to face is something that works fairly well. Failure and mayhem are far more propitious to revolutionary change. As an obstacle to revolution the EU must be opposed.

There are then those who believe that the nation state as we know it, a largely 19th-century creation, should be the ultimate human political development.

Finally some echo the “Little Englander” tendency which believes we are all “better off without foreigners”. Questionable as this might be, it is at least refreshingly honest.

Many who oppose Lisbon claim that they are dedicated internationalists, they just do not like the current Europe. Given that the EU has 27 members, with another 8 actively seeking to join, and that these are all democratic states, it is far from clear with whom such an alternative Europe might be constructed.

Individual opponents of Lisbon remind me of Geriatrix, the grumpy old warrior from the Astérix stories who remarked that he had “nothing against foreigners” as long as they stayed at home. Since we have neither magic potions nor Jedi knights, we must make do with knowledge and reason.

Something else Plato suggested two and a half millennia ago.