From the belly of the beast: Rightists use health-care debate to push racist anti-Obama line

By Barry Sheppard, in San Francisco

People around the world have seen images on TV of seemingly berserk crowds shouting down Democratic Party members of Congress at “town meetings” called to supposedly discuss health-care insurance reform. The targets of these protesters range far wider than opposition to the “socialised medicine” they see in President Barack Obama’s timid proposal for a public insurance plan alongside the private medical insurance corporations. Most causes championed by the far right are evident, from abortion, guns, opposition to people having some say over their end-of-life issues, immigration, to racist fury that a black family is in the White House.

Almost all the protesters I have seen on TV are older whites. Some have been organised by rightist groups, as is evidenced by their reading prepared scripts. Many more have been mobilised by populist right-wing talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and CNN’s Lou Dobbs. Moreover, their charges have been endorsed by many Republican elected officials. The capitalist media has given them a big play.

Some of the protesters have been brandishing loaded weapons, claiming they are fighting for their “right” to carry guns against Obama’s supposed plans to curtail them. One guy was shown with a pistol strapped to his thigh. When asked about it by a reporter, he said, “the question is why don’t people bear arms these days”. That is, “these days” of the Obama administration.

Another gun-toter carried a sign reading, “It is time to water the tree of liberty”, coyly substituting “water” for “blood” in a famous quote from Thomas Jefferson. This quote is: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Jefferson was alluding to the revolutionary patriots fighting for American independence from Britain, as opposed to the current crop of fascist-minded zealots who wrap themselves in the US flag.

One guy showed up to an Obama rally carrying an automatic military assault rifle. He wasn’t allowed into the rally itself, but stood outside with a like-minded crowd. Another fool was removed by police from a protest of a Congresswoman, when the gun he was carrying in a shoulder holster fell out and hit the ground. But the cops acted only because the gun could have fired. The only report of a gun-related arrest I’ve seen was of a creep lurking in the building where Obama was scheduled to appear.

When anyone tries to defend health-insurance reform at these meetings, they get shouted down by the rightist hooligans. The open carrying of firearms by these thugs is also meant to intimidate. Almost all Democrats from Obama on down have barely made a squeak about this gun toting — I for one haven’t heard one squeak. Gun dealers report their sales have spiked since Obama’s election. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such things, reports that the number of armed right-wing groups is sharply on the rise.

Some anti-abortion protesters proclaim that health-care insurance reform will mean the government paying for abortions. This echoes a Congressman who asserted that if Obama’s plan was in place at the time, Obama’s mother and the mother of African American Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas would have aborted them both. Racists have long had a good relationship with the anti-abortion folks.

Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate, got into the act charging that a plan under discussion in the House of Representatives would set up “death panels” to decide “when to pull the plug on grandma”. This charge is both absurd and false. What the bill actually proposes (and this was proposed by two Republicans) was that doctors should be reimbursed by insurance companies when they advise people on how to make sure their wishes are known about what kind of care they want if they become incapacitated and are unable to make those decisions themselves, when they have a terminal illness. This was Palin’s real target. So intimidated were the two Republicans and all the Democrats, that they have since stripped the bill of this provision.

The Catholic Church and the religious right are adamantly against any right for dying people to have a say about when or how to terminate their lives. Some years ago there was the case of Terry Schiavo, a woman whose body was kept alive by medical machines while she was brain dead, for 15 years — a truly grotesque and horrible case. The then Republican-dominated Congress tried to stop her husband from instructing her doctors to shut the machines off, and let her die with some dignity. He finally won in court against her freaks of parents, who also tried to stop him. An autopsy found that her brain had shriveled to half the normal size since her collapse into a coma in 1990.

Another thing raised at the “town meetings” is that the proposed reforms will give health insurance to undocumented immigrants. Sadly, this is also false. The whites in these crowds also reflect the “birther” movement. Tens of millions of people claim to believe that Obama is not a US citizen, but is a Kenyan national — because while Obama was born in Hawaii, his father was a Kenyan and his US-born mother was a teenager at the time of Obama’s birth.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see what is behind this. One “birther” I saw on TV confronting her Republican Congressman, after shouting that Obama is not an American, screamed “I want to take my country back!” to cheers and applause. Lou Dobbs has given a great deal of publicity to the birther’s charges day after day, as well as to the claim that reform would give undocumented immigrants health coverage. Dobbs has carved out his niche as an anti-immigrant, anti-Latino bigot on his hour-long daily show on CNN.

If you catch a whiff of fascist-like sentiment in all this, you are not alone. Sensing this, figures like Limbaugh have tried to turn the tables, hinting that Obama is a “National Socialist” like Adoph Hitler. Many signs in these crowds carry pictures of Obama with Hitler mustaches inked in.

With a very few exceptions, the Democrats under such attacks make no or little response. They stand there like wilting violets, silent, even though they command the microphone. This has emboldened the conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats to defy their own party and come out against any public health-insurance plan, even the timid one Obama proposes. In doing so, they are following Obama’s example. His defence of his own health-insurance proposal has been so weak and timid he has already lost the debate in Congress.

Business Week carried an article claiming that the “insurance companies have won” in any bill likely to pass, and will soak the public even more. The insurance companies’ argument, illogical as it is on its face, is that there can’t be any public plan, however tiny and restricted by regulations, because they couldn’t compete with it! And?

Recent polls show that over 50% of Americans now think that Obama has handled the health-insurance issue badly. But this doesn’t distinguish between those on the left from those on the right. People who call themselves progressives feel they have already compromised enough. They really would like to see national health insurance for everyone, cutting out the insurance companies, but have settled for a public plan that would compete with the big insurance companies.

But now that seems off the table too, and they are angry. Reflecting this anger, the Progressive Caucus among the Democratic members of the House of Representatives are threatening not to vote for any reform that does not include the public option. Whether in the end they turn out to be paper tigers too remains to be seen. While Obama’s support on health-care reform has dropped to 47% in opinion polls, only 21% of those surveyed think the Republicans in Congress are doing a good job on the issue.

I want to make clear that while there is a whiff of fascism coming from these right-wing crowds and their supporters in the media and Congress, they don’t represent a genuine fascist movement at this time. The armed right-wing groups are fascist, but they are small. However, the right-wing crowds at the “town meetings” do reflect the views of a large racist minority who are enraged that “their” country has been “taken over” by the election of an “African”.

[The title of this regular column, “From the belly of the beast”, was how the great Cuban fighter against US imperialism, Jose Marti, signed his letters to friends back in Cuba when he was in the US.]