"In societies where Robbing Hoods are treated like a celebrity it is but natural to expect political parties to act like a Mafia syndicate" Political Jaywalker "In a nation where corruption is endemic people tend to confuse due process with aiding and abetting criminals" Political Jaywalker "War doesn't determine who is right, war determines who is left" Bertrand Russell "You have just one flash flood of money, you keep your people poor. It's like a time bomb and it's scary" Philippine Lawmaker

Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Ground zero of the health-care debate

As soon as the news broke that President Obama would be in a town-hall meeting at Portsmouth High School, which is just a few blocks from where I live, I registered online hoping to get picked in a lottery that would determine members of the audience. Unfortunately, luck was not on my side; the organizers could only accommodate 1,800 people, and tens of thousands must have registered throughout New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. However, I did get an invitation to join the pro-reform rally, ostensibly organized to counter right-wing protesters. While I didn't exactly feel I should be there to carry placards, I decided to go to the area hoping to get a glimpse of the president, before I went for my daily run.

It turned out the Secret Service decided to bring the president through the back door, not the front entrance where I, among a huge crowd, was waiting. Earlier in the day, Portsmouth police arrested a man for carrying a knife and for keeping an unlicensed and loaded gun in his truck. Another man was spotted with a gun strapped to his leg in the grounds of a nearby church. The gun was licensed and the church was considered private property, so he was left alone, carrying a placard that said, "It's time to water the tree of liberty," an apparent reference to Thomas Jefferson who said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Those security concerns plus the vociferous anti-Obama protesters made it logical to sneak in the president through some back entrance.

While I was disappointed that I didn't get a glimpse of the president, I was glad I came as I had perhaps an even rarer glimpse of, at that moment in time, the ground zero of the health-care debate.

Yes, I considered the entire strip of road leading to Portsmouth High School last Tuesday, not the actual town-hall meeting in the auditorium, as the epicenter of the national debate on health-care reform. I later watched on CNN the town-hall meeting, and while it was enlightening in terms of separating rumors from fact, the audience was too "nice" to be representative of the
general American public. Outside was an altogether different picture, not that it mirrored a deep and smoldering national fissure (I didn't think mainstream America was as hyper), but it captured the sharper edges of the opposing sides of the debate.

On the left side of the street were pro-reform supporters carrying placards that endorsed the president's agenda: Don't kill health care due to more scary lies; Reform NOW: Insure people, not profits; Stop health insurance companies; Public option shines for all. On the right side were anti-Obama protesters carrying mostly hand-written placards: I love America, land of liberty; Socialism sucks; Stop Obama; We are mad as hell; Obama-care makes me sick; Stop Obama health care, we can't afford it; Obama lies, grandma dies; Freedom or death; Obama's health-care plan is a death-care plan. One placard depicted Obama as Hitler, with the infamous moustache. I reckoned the pro-reform side outnumbered the anti-Obama protesters by two to one, but the latter, pound for pound, seemed more intense.

There were chanting and shouting from both sides of the street, but many actually seemed good natured about it all. From the pro-reform side, a band calling itself the Leftist Marching Band did nothing but play upbeat music as its members and clusters in the crowd danced, so there was a street-festival feel to the event. Most of the anger came from the anti-Obama side. Several people held megaphones lecturing people about the dangers of socialism and Marxism (even if nothing in the reform proposals made the issues relevant). One called the pro-reform group "parasites" (I suppose for supporting a government option that would allow more poor people to avail of health services). At one point a lady from the right side of the street grabbed a megaphone and yelled, "Shoot Obama!"

If you watch Fox News, listen to talk radio, and read all the chain e-mails, you'd understand the context of the anger. Many people seemed misinformed. For example, Sarah Palin recently helped spread the rumor that the government would create a "death panel" tasked to decide whether old people would live or die. It was a totally twisted interpretation of a proposal to require Medicare to pay for counseling for elderly people on issues surrounding end-of-life medical care(designating a health-care proxy, choosing a hospice, etc.). My sense was that others seemed upset still that a black man won the elections and were deeply resentful of the fact that America was no longer the white America that it used to be. The man who called people on the left side of the road "parasites" also went on and on lambasting illegal aliens. Another carried the American flag saying that it was all about "reclaiming" America. What I thought was particularly sad was the sight of kids carrying the same reactionary and hateful placards. For sure, the youngsters had no clue what the real issues were, but by birth and affinity they'll probably grow up holding the same sentiments.

The police while all this was happening were hardly noticeable, even if they were constantly ambling back a forth right in the middle of the road. At one point someone from the right side of the road said, "To all the policemen, thank you for all you do." Both sides burst into a unanimous applause.

As the Leftist Marching Band took a break, and vitriolic statements became more audible and flew like bullets (one pro-reform guy, in response to the megaphone brigade on the anti-Obama side, called them "rednecks" and "hillbillies"), I decided to leave, satisfied that I had witnessed a memorable piece of American democracy in action. As I walked by one cluster of pro-reform supporters, I finally heard what they were chanting; it was inaudible from where I was standing earlier: "Everybody in, nobody out!" Wow! It was a hammer hitting the nail on the head, and sinking it! For me it was the crux of the health-care debate in particular and of politics in general. It represented a worldview that's diametrically opposed to the political right's parochial and exclusionary mind-set. The sadness that blanketed me as I heard protesters regurgitate standard right-wing slogans was for one powerful moment lifted. Young and old, mostly white Americans chanting: "Everybody in, nobody out!" Hearing it firsthand in America's cantankerous political underbelly has reassured me that this is still the greatest democracy in the world, and while a segment of America may be hostile to "outsiders" and seem nostalgic of the social order of 1950s, most Americans are a great people and are still on the morally correct side of the road.

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Marvin Bionat is the creator of PhilippineUpdate.com, a news and views site that has served as a virtual platform that promotes various advocacies, including the political empowerment of overseas Filipinos and accountability in government. He wrote the National Bookstore bestseller How to Win (or Lose) in Philippine Elections (Anvil Publishing, 1998) and is now based in the U.S. working as an editor.

Read more articles by Marvin Bionat
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