Channing Kennedy unearthed a little tidbit from 1982, in which President Ronald Reagan’s spokesperson Larry Speakes is asked about the disease which had been recently declared an epidemic by the CDC: AIDS. Amid much laughter from Mr. Speakes and the White House Press Corps, all parties participate in a callous back and forth on what the Reagan Administration’s position was on the new disease.
One part of the dialogue stuck out to me:
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—
MR. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
“There has been no personal experience here.”
No one in the White House, or among the White House Press Corps, knew anyone who was afflicted with AIDS. It hadn’t touched them. And the concerns of a despised minority reaping what they had sown were not their concerns.
Of course, I’m not saying that at 13 years old I was a paragon of tolerance and gay-friendliness. I was 13, and quite familiar with dropping the f-word when trash talking with my friends. But, at 13, I was a consumer of news, and AIDS stories dominated both locally in New York and nationally. I don’t remember participating in the fear stoked by the media; I do remember looking with pity upon those who were handed a death sentence. Again, I was 13 and part of the same homophobic culture of the time. And yet, flawed as I was, I could screw up more compassion for the afflicted than the good and great in the briefing room at the White House.
Barack Obama often refers to “expanding the circle of our concern”. What this missive from our recent history indicates is that doing so is not only difficult, but often unthinkable, unthinkable to the point where it’s a given that a large portion of our fellow-citizens are beyond our regard.
Look at the debates over the Affordable Care Act. It is a perfect example of expanding our circle of concern. Too many Americans were going bankrupt due to medical bills, even with insurance. Too many Americans were left out of the healthcare system due to lack of insurance. The ACA is a step in the direction of addressing those glaring fissures in the social fabric.
Yet. Many of those on the other side of the aisle still see those fissure as not the role of government or society to rectify. Erick Erickson, bete noire of the Right, is urging conservatives to not allow the law to be fixed. While Democrats want to keep and improve the law, Erickson and his allies want the law to fail. Oh, they bray about the idea that it’s a flawed piece of legislation. As Erickson says: “Conservatives need to keep their focus on the law overall. The website is a reflection of a terrible law. The law is causing millions to lose insurance, millions more to pay more for insurance, and the best the Democrats can do is claim it’d work well if the GOP didn’t think nasty thoughts about it.” Of course, this is a law which is the greatest expansion of Medicaid in the nation’s history. This is a law which does away with pre-existing conditions, and lifetime caps. This is a a law which allows parents to keep their children on their policies until age 26. When Erickson and his ilk say “the law is bad”, never forget that what they mean is that those provisions are bad as well. Which is something with which most Americans disagree. People like Erickson have no concern for the uninsured, the underinsured, those who have to choose between their homes and treating an illness. The paucity of their compassion speaks volumes as to their withered ideology. Democrats are perfectly willing to admit the ACA needs improvement; so did Social Security; so did Medicare. But those who oppose Obamacare also oppose Social Security, and Medicare, and Medicaid, and any hint of a state which strives to take care of the commonwealth. Their circle of concern extends solely to those they know, and even then that’s doubtful.
To the extent that an ideology cannot extend concern to soldiers on food stamps, it is a failed ideology.
To the extent that an ideology wants to send those brought here as children to their “home countries”, it is a failed ideology.
To the extent that an ideology wants to throw the health of a population onto the tender mercies of a mercenary insurance industry, it is a failed ideology.
To the extent that an ideology lionizes the rich and demonizes the poor, it is a failed and dastardly ideology.
If our opponents cannot extend their circle of concern, they will keep repeating the same mistakes.
If we cannot extend our circle of concern, we too will repeat the same mistakes.
I belong to no religion, but the teachings of the sages inform my life. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not a platitude. It is, essentially, the only way to lead a human life. Anything other than that is a life which promises nothing but strife and discord. Anything other than that is a life which will deliver disappointment and resentment.
We can “cluck cluck” at the myopia evident in that long-ago briefing at the White House. We say: “Oh, we’ve advanced so far from that.” Perhaps some of us have. But as the battles of the past five years have shown, too many of us have not.
The struggle of life is to become better than what we were, to become other than what we started out as. It is a struggle which never ends. The moment we become satisfied, we become like Erick Erickson, shut off to the world, withered into a shell of our own making.
Have we gotten better? For many of us, yes. For many of us, no. And thus the fight continues.