Friday, October 2, 2015

Liberty and health reform in America

Since 2007, I've participated in about a dozen American Civil War battlefield tours sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates. Even though a handful of Chinese Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War, none of my ancestors did, and friends and family are often perplexed by my endless fascination with this conflict. In Civil War museums and sites thronged by overwhelmingly white tourists, I'm even more of an oddity than the rare African American. This realization got me wondering why so few African Americans are passionate about the history of the war that freed so many of their ancestors from slavery. To Atlantic columnist and fellow Civil War buff Ta-Nehisi Coates, this antipathy stems from the efforts of white Americans over the past 150 years to write them out of the story:

For my community, the message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people’s terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props. We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative, for to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative. Having been tendered such a conditional invitation, we have elected—as most sane people would—to decline.

As the campaigns gear up for the Presidential election of 2016, economic and racial divisions seem to be resurfacing, with the perennial Republican versus Democratic contest being portrayed in the media as a battle between the "rich" and the "poor," or white citizens versus those of every other color. But these stereotypes ignore the inconvenient facts that plenty of low-income white people who bear no racial grudges and a few minority voters in heavily Democratic states and the District of Columbia dependably vote Republican.

In his most recent book, subtitled "Why the Civil War Still Matters," historian James McPherson shed some light on this present-day paradox by explaining that liberty meant two different things to Southern and Northern leaders in 1861. To white Democrats in the pre-Civil War South (slaveholders or not - and the vast majority were not), liberty meant "freedom from" interference by a distant federal government. Historical figures such as Confederate general Robert E. Lee traced their cause back to the Virginian Founding Fathers and slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose Revolutionary War was fought to break away from a distant British ruler whose arbitrary actions offended colonial sensibilities.

On the other hand, the Republican Party in the North viewed liberty as "freedom to," arguing that it's hard to achieve anything noteworthy when one is penniless, starving, or a slave. Even though the North won the Civil War, achieving full citizenship for African Americans took nearly a century after passage of the the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Only after the hard-won passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibited poll taxes and gave the federal government the power to end various discriminatory practices that prevented most Black citizens in Southern states from registering to vote, did African Americans finally gain freedom to participate in the political process.

The more recent history of how and why African Americans turned away from the party of Lincoln to embrace the party of their former oppressors is too long to recount here, but these differing views of personal liberty - "freedom from" versus "freedom to" - go a long way toward explaining the two political parties' diametrically opposed views of the Affordable Care Act. For the most part, Republican governors have resisted health insurance exchanges and rejected Medicaid expansions because they and their constituents have perceived these provisions of the law as encroachments on freedom by the Washington bureaucracy, while Democratic governors have recognized that it's hard to have freedom to achieve personal success if one is too ill, or too worried about the financial implications of unexpected illness or injury, to plan confidently for the future.

So you heard it here first: not only can you find the roots of modern medicine in the American Civil War, but the roots of our national health policy debate, too.

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