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Prophet Amos Did Tea Parties

Anyone reading the prophet Amos knows that his anger at the economic injustices of his time was as incendiary as anything Glenn Beck can muster today.  In the political idiom of our day, “Prophet Amos did Tea Parties!” Well, where was Amos at last week’s health reform summit at Blair House?  “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”   I know our body politic can’t thrive in an environment that is constantly dominated by rage.  But a one-side rage against the civic virtues of this nation in the name of a self-serving and self-indulgent patriotism may be even more dangerous.

President Obama has been given good marks by conservative and liberal commentators alike for his health reform summit last week at Blair House.  By all accounts it was a civil, respectable affair.  Political points were scored in polite fashion, both sides carefully gauging the public’s tolerance for mean-spirited partisanship.  I suppose I should be grateful for the absence of rage.  But I am not.  The sight of forty mostly well-heeled and well-connected members of Congress debating the plight of the growing number of uninsured while probably connected by Blackberry to the army of health insurance lobbyists back on the Hill does little to assuage my anger.

Rather than convening this summit in the spacious and genteel rooms of Blair House, I wish Obama had gathered this summit in the middle of the crowded emergency room of one of our nation’s publicly funded hospitals.  I would have liked to see the Members of Congress struggling to be heard over the cries of children whose ear aches have gone dangerously untreated for days.  I would have liked to see these Members of Congress watching people who have put off urgent medical care because they simply can’t afford it, who can’t ask their administrative assistants to schedule a yearly physical that just might uncover a dangerous but treatable illness, who can’t order their medications on line without giving the co-payment a second thought, who rarely see the same doctor twice, and who know that a trip to this chaotic ER will probably cost them a day’s work and their children a day in school.  I would like to watch these Members of Congress face to face with a system of medical care far different from that offered by doctors who provide “boutique coverage” to elite patients who can afford a hefty surcharge.  That’s the health care summit I would have liked to see.

This past weekend the “Tea Party Movement” celebrated the first anniversary of its nationwide protests.  Fueled by demagoguery reminiscent of people like Father Charles Coughlin during the Great Depression, Tea Party leaders have harnessed the rage of a war weary and recession battered populace to a powerful “anti” campaign:  anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-poor.  Last Sunday’s New York Times’ profile of a young Tea Party activist in Washington State records her rhetoric at a congressional town-hall meeting on health care.  Waving a $20 bill in the face of Representative Norm Dicks, she said, “If you believe that it is absolutely moral to take my money and give it to someone else based on their supposed needs, then you come and take this $20 and use it as a down payment on this health care plan.”

The tens of millions of Americans denied meaningful access to adequate health care no doubt find the phrase, “supposed needs,” curious if not downright offensive.  At the very least it reveals a deep suspicion of people in need and an even deeper antipathy to the notion that public institutions should be encouraged to respond to those needs.  Tea Party loyalists claim the legacy of a group of Boston firebrands whose opposition to England’s colonial policies led them to dump a shipment of tea in Boston harbor.  “No taxation without representation” has now morphed into “No taxes and, if I can get rid of my Representative, so much the better!”

But their choice of heroes from among the United States’ founding generation is narrowly selective at best.  Far more typical of the Founders were people committed to the establishment of strong public institutions.  Benjamin Franklin is representative.  His finger prints can be found on public libraries, public fire companies, institutions and academies of higher learning, the postal system, public militias, and a national foreign policy.  Upon his death he left large bequests to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia.  Franklin and most of the Founders gathered around him are honored today for their commitment to protecting and expanding the common good, not the narrow preservation of personal gain.

Are we too polite, too nice, too respectable to raise our voices to reclaim the true legacy of the Founders, reminding this nation that we were created to be a commonwealth, not a private enterprise for the benefit of the few?  Rage shouldn’t be the sole possession of those who dress up in wigs and tri-corner hats, celebrating the patriotism of a few eccentrics masquerading as Indians to board and plunder an English merchant ship.  There is an Amos-like rage, as righteous as any, belonging to those who wonder what happened to the sense of personal sacrifice and civic responsibility at the founding of this nation that was less about public theater and more about the public good.  It’s high time for that rage to be heard as well.

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