Expansion of health care is not only morally compelling but also in the interest of our health – both as individuals and as a society.
I made a slam-dunk argument in part one of this two-part series. The slam-dunk aspect has nothing to do with skillful argument, but it has everything to do with the sheer facts on the ground.
And this begs the question, why? Why don’t we get it? Why isn’t there more pressure to do it?
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Heather McGhee asks why can’t Americans have nice things?
By this she doesn’t mean why can’t we have flying cars, even smarter smartphones or even larger homes, but “well-funded schools, reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty, or … public health system equipped to handle pandemics – things that equally developed but less wealthy nations seem to have.”
As a resident for some years in other nation states, I too have had to ask this very question. Why is it that our rich and innovative nation chooses to get by with so many second-rate things?
McGhee’s answer: “The anti-government stinginess of traditional conservatism, along with the fear of losing social status held by many white people … have long been connected. Both have sapped American society’s strength for generations, causing a majority of white Americans to rally behind the draining of public resources and investments.”
What McGee calls “anti-government stinginess” and “fear of losing social status” are, I think, better understood as: 1) pathological individualism and 2) structural racism based on conscious and unconscious commitment to caste.
The pathological nature of our individualism is manifest in our cowboy mythology.
I grew up in rural Oklahoma. We had cows, wheat, blue corduroy jackets and heroes who wore large brim hats and boots and sometimes spurs. “Cowboys” we called them, but we knew they were men.
Men embodied – better word incarnated – by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and John Ford. Men who epitomized absolute independence and easy justice with a gun. Riding off into any sunset – completely self-sufficient.
It was embarrassingly well into adulthood when I realized that the cowboy is a fraud. He’s not an autonomous man. He is as dependent as any boy on the society from which he is supposedly distant.
The cowboy’s boots were made by a cobbler in some Texas town, his denim made from cotton picked by slaves or sharecroppers in Mississippi, his gun created from ore mined by the poor in the upper Midwest and fashioned by skilled metal-working Yankees in Massachusetts. And those bullets were dependent on the creation of gun powder from China.
Of course, this is but an exaggerated illustration, but one that throws a light on a kind of pathological belief in individualism that drives a “boot-straps” mentality.
From internet commerce to interstate trade, our economy is built on infrastructure that we the people helped create by a functioning government.
This hyper commitment to individualism is bad enough but when combined with a society that has embraced a caste hierarchy, it’s deadly.
I’ve become convinced that the very best model for understanding our entrenched structural racism (the under-investment in public schools, the white flight from inner cities, the mass incarceration of black men) is that of caste.
Caste is a division of society based on differences of wealth, inherited rank or privilege, profession, occupation or race. The term is usually used in reference to India where caste determines so much of an individual’s life.
In 2020, Isabelle Wilkerson published Caste: The Origins of our Discontents in which she writes, “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste … is about power – which groups have it and which do not.”
It strikes me as very odd that in our nation’s history two of the most horrific terrorist incidents took place in my home state, in this “heartland” right in the middle of our country.
Both are connected to the individualism and the racism that keep us from having nicer things – and, in these cases, helped to provoke horrific violence.
On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up a government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people – three of whom I knew personally.
At the time, I remember hearing how this was the greatest terrorist attack on American soil – 9/11 was yet to come and the Tulsa Massacre was still intentionally and unintentionally forgotten.
On May 31, 1921, mobs of white Tulsans, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black citizens.
The rampage was carried out on the ground and from airplanes. The two-day event destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district – at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States, sometimes known as Black Wall Street.
More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals, and as many as 6,000 Black residents were interned in large facilities. Some estimates put the dead at 300.
You might have seen 107-year-old Victoria Fletcher testify before Congress on the recent 100th anniversary.
Her words, “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire,” Fletcher testified. “I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.”
An orchestrated effort to suppress the history of the Tulsa Massacre followed the tragedy. Newspaper articles in libraries across the state were literally cut out and destroyed. In spite of having ninth-grade Oklahoma history, and family from Tulsa, I only heard of the Tulsa Massacre as an adult.
While I have very little doubt about these two negative forces (hyper individualism and structural racism) being at the root of our rotten national tree, I can’t say I have much of a clue as to how we go about healing.
I believe in being a voice for the voiceless – writing such articles, going to the capital with 300 clergy letters asking for change and so on.
It doesn’t seem enough. But maybe if all of us see the stranger bleeding on our path as our neighbor who needs health care, we’ll begin to put aside the things that hinder us from being the nice people we all want to be.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two part series. Part one is available here.
For three decades, Stearman has served as a pastor in the Christian (Baptist) tradition. His experience includes congregations in Athens, Greece and Paris, France. Most recently, he has been a pastor in New York City where he represents the Baptist global body at the United Nations (supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance). He is active in helping to lead NGO committees related to human rights and the freedom of religion and belief, has been active in civil societies advocacy at the High Level Political Forum around the UN’s Agenda 2030 (SDGs), and is a trustee on the board of the Parliament of World Religions.