This weekend I was in Berlin for a Democrats Abroad regional meeting which was held (only semi-coincidentally) on the same weekend that the city is celebrating the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the wall.
Meanwhile, in the US Congress, the House narrowly passed its version of Health Insurance reform – after an uncomfortable compromise with the Anti-Abortion faction with the Party.
Both events, the historic and the contemporary, are likely to profoundly shape the respective countries for years to come.
Watching again on video the images – so often repeated, but never stale – of East Germans streaming through the Brandenburg Gate, climbing over the wall, taking pickaxes and hammers to the 10 feet high concrete... who could fail to be moved.
Meanwhile, only a couple of days ago in the US Congress, furious right wingers took over the halls of Congress bearing despicable images of Dachau victims, with text explicitly comparing President Obama’s desire to provide minimal health protections to all America’s citizens with the Nazi’s determined effort to slaughter a large number of theirs. The juxtaposition of these images with those from Berlin made me wonder if these radical right wingers even understand the meaning of the Freedom that they claim to be fighting for. The freedom that those ecstatic Germans peaceful won for themselves 20 years ago.
After all, ugly propaganda and politically expedient lies were more or less exactly what they were fleeing. And of course they were not fleeing the hell of a totalitarian state for the right to go bankrupt for lack of sufficient health insurance.
It may sound absurd to say that - but that is, quite literally, the argument that the right has always made about any attempt to improve the availability of health care for Americans. Listen to Ronald Reagan telling us how Medicare expansion will mean the end of a free America.
But the people who peacefully revolted in Germany 20 years ago didn’t see it that way.
Reunification for them didn’t mean the right to be “free” of all government attempts to improve their lives. Indeed, East Germany and its citizens received mass quantities of direct subsidies from the West for decades – and until this day. The citizens of the West made a collective decision that they were willing to make a massive investment of their taxes in support of their strongly held value that the people of the East should be offered a higher standard of living.
And of course, West Germany did also have high quality, near universal health care for all its citizens. If this had not been the case, I doubt very much if the newly liberated East Germans would have very excited to be congratulated by the Right for entering a country in which they would be free of the totalitarian free health care they had been burdened with all these years. To the extent that people in the former Soviet bloc had objections to nationalised health care it was because they wanted MORE OF IT – a better managed system that would provide more drugs and services. Not because they wanted to pay twice as much on the private market as what they would theoretically be paying in taxes.
Would they have chosen free health care over a free Democracy? Who knows. I wouldn’t. But fortunately, that is not the choice we are presented with here.
In a free society, free citizens can decide to improve the way that important things such as health care are run. They can chose to spend more in taxation, or to spend the same amount overall but reallocate how it is spent, or to intervene in the free market when it fails the public good. Free citizens in a free society can choose to punish their leaders if they don’t like how they manage this.
With health insurance reform passed through the House, all eyes will now be on the Senate to see if they can pass a similarly strong package. If they do, we’ll still need to await reconciliation of the two approved bills, and passage of the final package before the President can sign something into law.
But when he does, that will be a great day. For freedom.