Sunday, October 7, 2012

Is "Obamacare" Racist?

In literary theory, there's the concept of subtext.  Subtext is a hidden concept, idea, or implication veiled beneath a narrative.  It is veiled by more neutral language, but the "hidden" understanding is clear to anyone who isn't suffering from autism or some other form of mental disability.  So, for example, when Ronald Reagan told his story about the "welfare queens" driving their Cadillacs and living off society, the hidden subtext was not of white soccer moms from the suburbs of Connecticut driving their children to practices.  It was a reference to the stereotype of the lazy, black welfare mother receiving food stamps, free housing, and refusing to work while receiving more and more benefits while having more and more children.  In reality, most welfare recipients are in fact, white.  Reagan didn't need to use the term "black" to make his point very clearly.

The health care reform legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the President in 2010 is called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  Since that time, Republicans have referred to it pejoratively as "Obamacare."  "Obamacare" is an interesting term, considering the general narrative about Obama shared by many in the Republican community.  The name speaks volumes:  "Obama"--a Muslim sounding name--i.e. foreign, scary, threatening, combined ironically with "care."  It implies that a foreign, scary, threatening dabbler has intervened in the most intimate and invasive of relations--that of one's medical care.  In fact, Republicans often refer to health care reform being "shoved down our throats."  Not surprisingly, this term has seemed to stick.  Why?  Because it implies that Obama, "the Other," who is considered by many Birthers to be not even an American citizen, has put his uppity hands where they shouldn't belong.  The entire "Birther" movement is dedicated to the notion that the President is so un-American, so foreign, so different from us that he cannot even be a legitimate citizen of the United States, even though this objective fact has been proven countless times and verified by all objective standards by the state of Hawaii.

It has been shown in studies that over 60% of conservative Republicans still believe that Obama is a Muslim, despite the whole Rev. Wright controversy during the campaign of 2008.  Somehow it was lost on these people that Rev. Wright was a Christian pastor in Chicago.  "Muslim" in America, thanks to the propaganda from the "War on Terror" now means foreign born, dangerous, scary guys who surely cannot be one of us that are hell bent on secretly planning to kill us every chance they get.

So is the demonizing of Obama caused by racism?  This becomes harder to clearly pin down.  History is instructive.  As you may remember from the Clinton presidency, he also faced charges by the Right of being "the other."  He was accused of being a communist, of murdering Vince Foster, and accused of financial fraud concerning the Whitewater Scandal.  Hell, the Republicans impeached him for fibbing about an affair when Ronald Reagan got away with selling weapons to the Contras and George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction which led to two illegitimate wars that cost thousands of American lives and nearly bankrupted the nation.

The interesting thing about Clinton, however, is that he was never considered un-American.  Birthers won't even grant that Obama is the most basic of Americans--a natural born citizen.  He is so different, so alien, that we cannot relate to him in any way, so he must be a Kenyan, and probably a Muslim, too.  Despite Clinton's failings, he isn't considered the Antichrist like Obama is.  Why is that?  Perhaps it has something to do with Obama's background--America is a notoriously anti-intellectual place.  It hates what it perceives to be effete, wonkish, liberal snobs.  Obama, as a Harvard educated lawyer, former instructor of Constitutional law, and community organizer, certainly fits this description.  He is also a city dweller, as opposed to coming from the "real America" as described by Sarah Palin--i.e. the country.  But Clinton had the similar "problematic" credentials--he was a Rhodes Scholar, lived abroad, protested the Vietnam War, was considered wonkish because he understood policy at something beyond a sophomoric level, etc.  So what is the difference?  Could it possibly be that Obama doesn't look like a majority of the population?  I will leave this for you to decide.  I can't say for certain that it is racism, but it very well may be.

Granted, there are some who dislike Obama for actual, genuine reasons on both sides of the political aisle.  There are liberals who feel betrayed by Obama's reversal on important policies--such as indefinite detention, drone killings, closing GITMO, the environment, etc.  There are conservatives who disagree with Obama on a variety of issues from social to economic that have nothing to do with his race or other personal characteristics.  These would be protests which come from reason, not fear.  And fear is the key difference.  Political disagreements based on reason and not fear of the unknown are legitimate.  The problems this country faces are too serious to be grounded in raw emotion.  Manipulation of public fear by greedy politicians leads to the destruction of our rights and the surrendering of our democracy.  The Bush inspired "War on Terror" is a prime example of fear mongering to boost the profits of the defense industry, strip away civil rights, and spy on ordinary Americans.

Someone can be conservative and opposed to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  There are legitimate reasons to be opposed to it on ideological grounds.  These would have nothing to do with racism.  Some have disagreements about the role of government and health care.  Others may have concerns about how health care is distributed.  These are all fine.  I don't agree with them, but these reasons have nothing to do with racism, and that is perfectly acceptable.  People can agree to disagree.

Finishing up, what we call something influences how we think about it.  A name has subconscious meanings embedded with it.  These affect how we mentally frame an issue.  So when I say "Don't think of an elephant," you can't help but imagine an elephant.  It's part of our cognitive structure to interact with language in this way.  In a similar manner, the words we use influence our ideas.  And these ideas have very real consequences.  Calling health care reform "Obamacare" isn't helpful because of the potential associations embedded within its subtext.  For this reason, I prefer to use "Affordable Care Act" or "health care reform act."

An excellent example of this is the attempt by the software industry to refer to file sharers as "pirates."  As RMS says, piracy is attacking ships.  You storm a ship, murder the entire crew, and then steal their loot.  People sharing Lady Ga Ga songs certainly aren't murdering anyone.  To equate the two is propaganda used to impose a false equivalency.  This serves the recording industry well, but for normal folks, not at all.  If you are looking to demonize people who share files by imposing a propagandized mental frame, this works quite well.

Regardless of how you feel about the health care issue, it would be helpful if people stopped saying "Obamacare."  It doesn't help anyone on either side.

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