The outburst heard ’round the nation, at least until Kanye West co-opted the mike: South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson’s interjection during President Obama’s health care pitch to Congress. A million would-be pundits and chat show hosts have ruminated on it, the masses have reviled him as well as lauded him, backing their positions up with donations to electoral funds, and even former President Jimmy Carter has weighed in. Carter’s belief that “You lie!” was racially motivated seems genuine but, at the same time, heavily influenced by Maureen Dowd’s column on the subject, titled “Boy Oh Boy.”
I’m split down the middle on the racism of the comment. Standing alone, it bears zero indication of racial prejudice. It can be interpreted in a thousand ways, and has, but itself is not inflammatory. It’s all in how the listener interprets it that gives it the bulk of the controversy, and so there’s no way of crying racism beyond a shadow of doubt. As two words stitched together, intention is loaded with nothing but doubt. At the same time, though, the fact that the very white Congressman Wilson felt he could just blurt this out while the very black President was giving a speech, a disrespect he might not have shown were it a good-ol’-boy fellow in Obama’s stead, is one that would cause people to see prejudice.
I could go on for several more paragraphs about how George W. Bush was soundly boo’ed at the last few congressional speeches he made, but then I would have to weigh the emotional impact of the sound ‘boo’ versus implying the President is a liar. For some, they’re equally insulting; for others, the two hardly compare. I speculate that your take on it will depend on what side of the aisle you choose to sit on (and perhaps your willingness to reach across said aisle would play into the equation as well.)
But what exactly did Joe Wilson allege Barack Obama was lying about? It was the insinuation that under President Obama’s idealized health care plan, illegal immigrants would also get free health care and, in the twisted roadmap of who actually pays for all this free care for the undocumented, the American taxpayer would foot the bill. The President says it isn’t true. Well, knowing that I’m taking off my codpiece and inviting a solid kick in the groin, I have to say that we damned well better be making sure the illegal immigrants in this country are getting health care, for our own health depends on it.
Another subject that would invite a few hundred extra words is good old-fashioned American entitlement, even in the face of staggering unemployment. Don’t get me wrong — there are people who are ready, willing and more than able right now to get down to work, no matter how dirty it might be. This is to be commended, yet there is still a large contingent of unemployed folks out there who graduated college, worked up that ladder rung by rung, and they aren’t about to scrub a toilet, bus a table or flip those burgers. Never mind that they still have college loans to pay. Those menial jobs are still, in the face of it all, beneath them. This is why the illegal immigrant problem is so pervasive, so tangled and almost impossible to weave our way out of. If we’re not prepared to work hard for the money, and scrape a few turd skids off the head in the process, someone will have to.
It is no surprise, then, that the gears of our day-to-day lives are turned by folks from other countries. They clean up after us, they chop up food for us and they check out our groceries at our local stores. Their existences outside of work depend on the generosity of friends, often also illegals, as well as the blind eyes of landlords who simply want to make sure they get theirs at the first of the month. On the generosity side, you find families crammed into close quarters. On the other side, you find those families living in less than stellar conditions, but it’s affordable and nobody’s going to blow the whistle on them. In both examples, the breeding and spreading of germs such as our latest worry, the H1N1 or Swine Flu, is easily facilitated.
For those who can’t see where I’m going with this, and shame on you if you’re not two steps ahead of me, your response might be the knee-jerk, “Well, that’s one way of thinning the illegals population – they’ll get each other sick, won’t be able to afford health care, and they’ll just die off.” It’s a callous viewpoint, utterly flawed and downright ignorant. Sure they won’t go to doctors they can’t afford. That just means they’ll work extra hours to get the money to go to the doctors, if they choose to go at all versus toughing it out, cleaning your houses, preparing your sandwiches and bagging your groceries. If you feel your tower is so tall that the swine flu can’t reach you, you need to think again.
I’m reminded of the line from the White Stripes song “Icky Thump” where Jack sings (paraphrasing here,) “I went home and learned to clean up after myself.” Our illegal immigration issues have roots in the fact that for many years, Americans chose to have someone else clean up after them because doing it ourselves was just so gauche. It wasn’t a proper job for us. It didn’t appeal to our sense of civility. Let someone else do that. Now, having sown those seeds, we find that we might have to actually pay them what they’re worth, not a pittance under the table but enough to keep them and their families healthy through the same standards of health care we would reserve for ourselves. The price of not doing so is either having this secret workforce spreading pandemic via all those necessary tasks we no longer attend to, or…
…Learning to view all work as worthy, not just the work where we get to wear ties all day. We’d better get friendly with the concept of paying for health insurance for all, including illegals, because the price of not doing so may be far too dear. I know a family who are not here legally. Their apartment is immaculate, their work habits are fastidious without a hint of ego, and to almost everyone who knows them they’re ideal neighbors. They’ve been trying to get their citizenship for well over a decade but after a couple thousand dollars paid to fly-by-night immigration lawyers and agencies, as many promises from employers who say they will be above-board but end up shoving them below-deck, and the sudden chill that 9-11-01 put on the entire process, they’re still in a state of flux. They want to do right, but the system has said no. And if one comes down with illness, they must go to work anyway because their lives are funded on a day-to-day basis; a situation we have, in our one-dimensional way of thinking, created. And if that one happens to be stacking the meat in your Subway sandwich, or winds up going to daycare with your child, well, that’s a bridge we’ll cross when we get there, isn’t it?
Joe Wilson says to Barack Obama, “you lie!” I’m telling you the plain truth, however. We’re all crossing this bridge, together, whether we like it or not, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.