My Life as a Thief

Lessons From a Town Hall Meeting

Last Thursday, I took a field trip to Lake Elmo’s Oakland Junior High in order to see democracy in action. If Michele Bachmann was courageous enough to enter Washington County, which she lost to Elwyn Tinklenburg by 3,000 votes in 2006 and which McCain lost to Obama by 13,000 votes, I could certainly pluck up the courage to wade into an auditorium populated largely with conservatives. I was even prepared for there to be people who would hate me merely for the fact that I’m a liberal.

I had joked at work and on Facebook that I might even take a squirt gun with me, to protest the impending loss of my 2½ Amendment rights.  I considered mocking the teabaggers and wingnuts who were showing up at the town halls of Democratic congresspeople and senators bearing signs reading the “Tree of Liberty Must Be Watered” and other such platitudes from people who have no clue as to what tyranny really is.  The president we have now is certainly more engaged democratically than the previous one; it was only three years ago that as a minority party in the House, the Democrats were excluded from committee meetings, which were not announced so the Republicans could call quorum and debate bills.

I decided not to take the water pistol because while the joke would be cute for a minute or two, I was more interested in trying to speak with one of the lockstep Republicans.  I wanted to find out how they had arrived at their conclusion that if some sort of health care reform is passed, the very foundations of American Freedom would crumble.  I wanted to find out whether they were truly caught up in teabaggism.  I would leave the mocking to other people.

I met up early with a group of Democrats who had been invited to the event through Organizing for America.  OFA is a continuation of the Obama presidential campaign focused on drumming up support for a reform of the health insurance system in the United States.  We came prepared with signs.  Some signs said, “People, not Profits,”  “Health Care for All,” and,  “We Want the Same Coverage That The Congresswoman and Her Staff Enjoy.”

I was expecting a big crowd of people chanting back and forth at each other, but found a small group of like-minded Democrats gathering together to plan our attack on the Representative’s presentation.  We planned to laugh at her misstatements and her anticipated stupidities until I pointed out that I just didn’t think that I would be able to laugh for an entire two hours.  We decided to sit close to microphones so that we would be ready for the Q&A.

I went inside the school and signed in.  One of my co-conspirators demanded to know why we were having to sign in, as though he were going to be tracked and his movements followed by the Bachmann Brownshirts, but I assured him it was okay to put his name on the list of attendees.  I pointed out that we were not being excluded as we would have been from a Bush Social Security privatization event four years ago.

The line inside the building was rather long, and there was a heavy turnout.  We waited for 30 minutes for entry into the auditorium.  Conservatives mixed with liberals. There were no fistfights and no threats.  We were polite to each other, moving out of the way if someone needed to access either bathroom.  We eavesdropped on each other’s conversations.  There was some back and forth between people, and some anger was hidden below the surface as people disagreed on what socialism is and is not.  It remained below the surface, as people waited for anticipated fireworks inside the show hall.

Finally, we were admitted and the auditorium filled up.  I sat next to a couple I had just met, a pair of liberals.  Their son was outside holding up signs to greet the people who were still filing in.  No signs were being allowed inside the building, but a brave crew had held back and dared confrontation with placards that demanded, “Health Coverage for All,” “People not Profits,” “Health Care for Children,” and so forth.

I went outside. I was feeling a bit too crowded and wasn’t really all that interested in what Bachman was going to say. I have heard it all before and didn’t see much opportunity to ask a question. I held up a sign that said I want for everyone the same care the Representative has, and in truth was yelling slogans as people filed in. I asked people whether the roads they drove on to get to the event were toll roads or examples of socialism, whether the school was a socialist school, whether fire departments are socialism.

A pair of older ladies walked by with little signs that simply said, “Enough.” I asked them, because I sincerely didn’t know what the signs meant, “Enough what?” They just looked at me and walked on by. Later, I saw that the signs had the web address of printed at the bottom. Later another woman walked towards the entrance with two children in a stroller. She furrowed her brow when she read our signs and yelled out “You are stealing our money!” I asked her how, in a Republic, we were stealing? She gave us a thumbs down and walked in, frightened to engage with liberal, socialist thieves.

The crowd had mostly moved inside, and I decided to remain outside. It was a very nice day, and I really couldn’t see the value on a warm, sunny day of being trapped inside a crowded auditorium having to listen to Michele Bachmann. There were other people to do that. I wanted to try to engage outside with some of her supporters to find out how and why they had come to the conclusion that a democratically elected president, one who had been trying to wrangle support from the opposition in order to pass a health care reform bill, can be compared to a Nazi dictator.

No one, unfortunately, was willing to engage me in a discussion. Sure, I talked to several people with whom I was in agreement. While self-affirming, it wasn’t satisfying for me on this particular occasion. One of the problems that I ran into was that when I had started to engage in a discussion with someone, people from my own side interrupted my conversation.

I saw a man who was holding up a sign that said, “Don’t Take Away My Freedom to Choose.” I went up to talk to him about choice, and how important his freedom is to him when he was also supporting a congresswoman who has made her name trying to prevent gays from having the choice to marry who they wish to marry. I wanted to ask him how much freedom matters to him when he knows that there are millions of people who have no choice in what doctors they go to because they can’t afford insurance under the current system. I wanted to ask him how much he valued the freedom to choose, knowing that the congresswoman he supports doesn’t allow women to choose how to manage their own bodies.

But I was interrupted by someone who saw a target for their own arguments. “Erv,” I said, “I was talking to him.” Erv put up a finger to signify he would only be a moment. So, I politely waited while he finished his point. Then as he walked away, I started to talk to the other man again. Erv again interrupted me. I finally walked away, disappointed at Erv’s rudeness.

I was boiling by the time I got to my car. Not at Bachmann’s supporters, though. I had expected rudeness from them. I was disappointed in my own co-conspirators against insurance company hegemony. I had been on several occasions cut off in conversation, and I got in my car and shifted into gear and was ready to pull out of my parking spot to go home.

Erv came up to me car and knocked on the window. He said “There are times when ageism’s claims about the elderly are justified. I was rude to you, and I sincerely apologize. I shouldn’t have been interrupting you.” I thanked him for apologizing and we shook hands. I left, not quite so angry, but still a bit frustrated that I hadn’t had a chance to engage with someone at the event.

I still think that there is an awful lot of dysfunction in American politics in this debate over what to do about health insurance reform. I can say that nothing was resolved at this particular town hall. I don’t think that people are hearing the problems that arise from the way we handle care right now, instead wrapping themselves in an American Flag to protect their current situation and what they see as The Greatest Health Care System The World Has Ever Known.

Their view ranges from “I am not responsible for my neighbor’s problems” to “The deficit is just too big to add on to it with a national health care system.” They aren’t seeing that they are just one pink slip away from losing their health insurance, or one claim away from finding that a knee surgery they had five years ago will be justification used to deny their claim for coverage of their newly discovered melanoma.

We’re trying to tell them they are placing false trust in large corporations whose purpose is more to make money than cover their customers’ needs. But they like their American Way. Anyone who seeks to change that with a public option, or the now “off the table” single payer plan is a thief trying to steal their money. My life as a thief consists of asking them why they are so willing to entrust their health and financial future with companies that are charging full price for premiums, but providing discount service in exchange.

On Monday, August 31st, I went to a Town Hall Meeting run by Betty McCollum who is in fact my representative. That went a bit differently, but will need to be continued in a separate post.

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9 Responses to “My Life as a Thief”

  1. September 1st, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    I wish I had been there.

  2. September 1st, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I was thinking the same thing.

  3. September 2nd, 2009 at 12:21 am

    Abstruse says:

    Difficult to engage when you’re sloganeering. Just sayin.

  4. September 2nd, 2009 at 12:51 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Oh, I know. But it was a long afternoon, and if I had been sloganeering the whole time I would have gone hoarse. I had reserved plenty of time for engagement. They were just afraid to talk to me because I was wearing an “Al Franken (Finally)” button.

  5. September 2nd, 2009 at 1:07 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Abstruse: It depends. Back in the day when these astroturfers were busy semi-violently closing down clinics, we would try to engage and of course it woudl not work at all . But other groups would show up now and then, like the “Christians Against Abortion but Willing To Engage in Conversation About It” and we could talk to them.

    This kind of engagement is a kind of specialty of Mike’s, actually.

  6. September 2nd, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Joshua Zelinsky says:

    Got confused for a second thinking that “Erv” was “ERV.” What name would Erv be a nickname for?

  7. September 2nd, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    It’s usually Ervin or something very similar.

  8. September 2nd, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    It would have been cool to have ERV and her doggy with us.

  9. September 2nd, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Dan J says:

    It’s frustrating when people won’t engage in conversation about the issue. It’s still my contention that the biggest reason is that the bulk of the conservatives still don’t understand the issue. They know the talking points. They know the word “socialism”. That’s about it. They know they’re opposed to health care reform because someone they trust told them they should be against it.

    Don’t get me wrong. I know that there are intelligent people out there who are not afraid to engage in conversation about the issue, and they do have their own arguments about why they’re against a single-payer system (or even a public option!), but those people are few and far between.

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