Health, lies, and videotape

On August 17, approximately two dozen health-care activists met in front of U.S. Representative Ciro Rodriguez’s office on DeZavala street. I counted 13 pro-reform, 12 against.

I watched the demonstration for an hour and a half, but the passing motorists didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the debate over the President’s proposed health-care overhaul: Out of only six that honked, four appeared to be against Obama’s plan, two in favor. Members from each side of the sidewalk confrontation would sometimes pay short visits to the enemy, argue for a few minutes, and return to their respective camps.

Then came the morning’s only true disruptor, a guy calling himself “Ben” (“I’m not going to give you my last name,” he told me). His main argument was that people live beyond their means, and that’s why they often end up broke — a variation on the usual “people want to be poor” routine.

I mentioned how pleasurable it is to have two opposing sides disagreeing in peace, unlike the hysterics reported at town-hall meetings across the nation, and when he said, “Those people are mad … ” I thought we had found some common ground. I was wrong.

“These people are mad … at being told what to do and when to do it,” Ben said. “They’re mad that for years they got up in the morning and did for themselves, and were happy with the consequences and the choices that they made. But now, because the New America … ,” he said, pointing at the pro-health-reform crowd, “these people right here, the way they lead their lives ... ”

A young woman waving a pro-reform sign at the passing motorists immediately turned around and screamed at Ben:

“You don’t know anything about how I live my life, so shut the fuck up!!”

“I sure do!”

“You don’t know, so shut the fuck up! You don’t know me or any of us! Shut the fuck up!”

“You got an iPhone? You got a new car?”

“Shut the fuck up!”

The woman was so pissed that she left before I could get her name, but before and after that incident, the demonstration had no altercations.

Why can’t we see that atmosphere in the town-hall meetings? These people didn’t seem “mad as hell” to me, but were simply voicing their disagreements and concerns over a plan that, whether you favor it or not, gets more complex the more you look into it.

I had my own questions for Congressman Rodriguez, but he was too busy to speak to the Current. His press secretary, Rebeca Chapa, agreed to speak but only strayed from sound bites when I asked her to name one, just one, compromise Republicans had made during the recent negotiations on Capitol Hill. She asked to speak off-the-record first, and then she sent me her answer by email. 

“In answer to your question about whether Republicans have given on any issues regarding healthcare, all I can say is that I’m not aware of anything,” she wrote. “However, bear in mind that what matters is getting out a good bill that meets the needs of everyday, working Americans. If that means dialoguing and considering new options, that’s what Congressman Rodriguez is committed to doing.” 

Since June, according to Gallup, Obama’s popularity has dipped to its lowest level yet, 52 percent. What happened? Not too long ago, CBS and other media outlets reported that 72 percent of regular Americans (defined by AlterNet as “the ones who don’t want to own an AK-47, or who do accept the president’s citizenship status”) favored a public-plan option, but the President’s ratings drop has been credited in large part to his plan’s call for a public health-insurance option. And despite a fast and bold start out of the gate, as of right now it looks like whatever legislation Congress passes will be a far cry from the President’s original promise: publicly funded health care for all who want it. Obama’s obsession with bipartisanship, the political pressure of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and in no small part the borderline violent dissent at public forums has turned “change we can believe in” into “I can’t believe you’re changing.” As I write this, the Huffington Post is reporting on Wall Street’s celebration of the “death” of Obama’s public option. But don’t congratulate the town-hall disruptors — the credit goes to those who sent them.

Unlike bottom-up organizations such as that take no corporate donations, most of the organizations behind this right-wing “grassroots” movement are directly or indirectly related to the guys poised to lose big bucks if Obama’s plan passes. Take, for example, FreedomWorks, headed by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. Until Friday, August 14, Armey was senior policy advisor for the lobbying firm DLA Piper, which according to so far this year has received $830,000 from big-pharma corporation The Medicines Co. In 2008, it received $1.5 million.

Like many of his colleagues in the public-opinion trenches, Armey is a master of “throw the stone, hide the hand.” Confronted by Rachel Maddow on Meet the Press August 16 about a video produced by a Tea Party organization affiliated with FreedomWorks, in which town-hall-meeting violence is praised and encouraged, Armey laughed it off as a case of blaming FreedomWorks for others’ misdeeds.

“`The Tea Party movement` is an enormously impressive uprising across the country, loosely affiliated people,” he said. “ … these things happen. … People get blamed for what other people do.”

“Other people” like Heather Blish, from Green Bay, Wisconsin. At an August 6 town-hall meeting, Blish introduced herself as just “a mom from a few blocks away … not affiliated with any party.” But NBC’s local Channel 26 station exposed her as the vice-chair of the Republican Party in Kewaunee County from 2006 to 2008.

Modeled after, Grassfire is another nonprofit that supposedly grew out of “popular rage.” Only that, according to SourceWatch and Public Citizen, Grassfire, which was started by self-styled “internet communications specialist” Steve Elliott, has been represented by the PR firm Shirley & Banister. And who is Shirley? None other than Craig Shirley, the man behind the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad and the Stolen Honor movie that helped destroy John Kerry’s 2004 presidential hopes.

The firm, whose clients include Ann Coulter and the National Rifle Association, among others, strongly denies any current relationship with Grassfire. “We haven’t had any connection with Grassfire since 2004,” said Shirley & Banister VP Diana Banister. “I don’t even remember what we worked on. I think it was a few press releases when they were starting up, and something related to the Pledge of Allegiance. ... Yes, we are a conservative firm, but we have nothing to do with the town-hall meetings.”

What about Randall Terry, founder of infamous anti-abortion league Operation Rescue? He’s back in the so-called freedom fight with a new organization: Operation Rescue Insurrecta Nex, from which he sends emails to followers encouraging them to “Stir up some dust! Be ‘unreasonable’!” and “be ‘a little noisier than what you might normally be.” At a press conference in July, Terry warned of “random acts of violence” if the Obama health-care plan passed, and violent “reprisals against those deemed guilty.”

“Yes, yes, yes, absolutely,” Terry told the Current in a phone interview. “If the government of the United States forces people to pay for the murder of babies, there will be some people who will react. It’s inevitable.”

Never mind that the Obama health-care plan doesn’t force anyone to perform or pay for abortions.

According to AlterNet, U.S. Taxpayers Party founder Howard Phillips “advanced the career of Randall Terry … At one point, it seemed that his Taxpayers Party was to Operation Rescue what Sinn Fein is to the Irish Republican Army — the political wing of a movement steeped in violence.”

If you don’t know what the Taxpayers Party is, perhaps its new name, the Constitution Party, sounds more familiar. Sarah “death panel” Palin addressed the convention of the CP’s Alaska branch (the secessionist Alaska Independence Party) via video last year, and her husband Todd Palin was a member for seven years.

But not all of the Christian right is on board with the effort to hijack the health-care debate. Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer (both credited by many scholars as ideological founders of the Christian right), is a vocal opponent of the recent town-hall disruptions. He left the Republican party in 2000 and is now an independent who voted for Obama.

“The Glenn Becks of this world are literally responsible for unleashing what I regard as an anti-democratic, anti-American movement in this country that is trying to shut down legitimate debate and replace it with straight-out intimidation,” Schaeffer said on MSNBC.

Of course, when pro-reform activists or media challenge the disruptors’ hyperbole or point out that Nazi references could be potentially deadly in a country famous for its political assassinations, they cry oppression and censorship and spit out soundbites about “people’s frustrations and anger for Obama’s Socialist policies” (as said to me by several protesters on DeZavala street) or claim “there will always be extremists that resort to violence, but we don’t mean assassinations.” Even Terry told the Current “God forbid” anything happens to Obama.

“B.S! They mean it!” said Schaeffer on MSNBC. “These people are hatemongers and they’re distributing their information on two levels: One, the lies about the health-care system, ‘euthanasia’ and all this nonsense, and on another level, leaving a loaded gun on the table, calling our president Hitler. They’re shutting down these meetings and making debate impossible.”

In their superb 2000 book, Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyon make a case that these reactionary movements are nothing new, but the present link in a long history of organized mobs determined not to debate the issues, but to shut down the opposing side. In the book, the authors place the militant Christian Right, the Buchananites, and the militias in a straight line going back to Father Coughlin’s movement in the ’30s, the anti-Chinese crusade of the 1880s, and the Ku Klux Klan.

“Right-wing populist movements often borrow political slogans, tactics, and forms of organization from the Left, but harness them to rightist goals,” they write. “They attract people who often have genuine grievances ... but channel such resentments in ways that reinforce social, cultural, political, or economic power, and privilege.”

I asked Berlet to shed some light on the present health-care debate, or lack of it.

“We have to distinguish between the people that are genuinely very angry because they’re misinformed, and the people who are there trained to just disrupt,” he told the Current on the phone from Summerville, Massachusetts. “Anger in a democratic society is commonplace and acceptable. Disruption is not.”

What about guns at rallies? The loaded gun Schaeffer was talking about is no longer at the table, but right outside of Obama’s town-hall meetings.

“If a whole bunch of black people or undocumented aliens showed up with guns at a meeting of white elected officials, there would be a very different response,” Berlet said.

“I’ve been an angry protester at meetings, but I haven’t tried to shout people down,” Berlet added. “I’ve protested outside, but I’ve never carried a gun. It’s OK for people to be angry and ask questions, but not anger that is rage, that’s bitter, and nasty, and vicious. Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t make up information, but right now we see the Republicans and insurance companies making up information, and that’s not acceptable. There is a difference between a legitimate angry question that expects an answer, and staged confrontations with people so full of rage that they stop listening. That’s not what democracy is about.”

Monday night at Edgewood Independent School District’s Theatre of Performing Arts, Democratic Congressman Charles González held his town-hall meeting. The 1,000-seat-plus auditorium was packed.

“I’m against a single-payer system,” the Congressman said while answering a question (as if that option were even seriously on the table), even though, he acknowledged, 62 percent of personal bankruptcies are health-related, and 78 percent of those happen to people who already have coverage. In his own 20th district, he added, “10,000 people lose insurance every day.”

“We’ll eventually have a bill that will address all of our different ideas,” he continued, “but without a public option it will be very difficult to cover the uninsured.” But, he added, echoing Congressman Ciro Rodriguez’s office, he stills wants “to get more details about the nonprofit co-op option.”

The clapping of the pro-reform crowd — and the Congressman’s own moderating skills — didn’t allow disruptors to take over the meeting, which “had a lot of visitors from the rich neighborhoods,” observed one well-connected source. “This is a poor district; those white guys don’t live here.”

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