Someone Else’s Child

Terrance Heath

Before Andrew Leonard’s paean to paying taxes (inspired by his house catching fire) sparked me to write a different post on Friday, I’d intended to write a wrap-up post, comparing Mitt Romney’s NAACP speech to Joe Biden’s speech. Something Vice President Biden said in his speech reminded me of something else I heard from a speaker at the closing plenary of the Take Back the American Dream conference this year; something brings into focus the stark choice facing voters in November, and why the NAACP audience responded so differently to Romney and Biden.

Vice President Biden got to the meat of his speech right from the beginning.

This is about more than any other office in the land, the presidency is about character – the character of your convictions, whether you put country above politics.

Vice President Biden merely paraphrased what the president has spelled out more explicitly in his speech to Congress about health care reform, and his speech in Tucson, AZ, following he shooting there that left six people dead and thirteen injured, including Rep. Gabby Giffords (D, AZ-8). For that matter, Biden simply stated somewhat more eloquently for the NAACP audience what he said more plainly for the National Association of Black Journalists : that this election is really “about who the hell we are.”

Determining “who the hell we are” requires that there is a “we” to begin with.

Without a doubt, [Martin Luther] King understood that the civil rights movement and the efforts to end segregation were not just about African Americans. The brutality that segregation, lynching, Jim Crow, and slavery visited upon African Americans is well documented. But the man who said “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” understood that systems of brutality are a two way street. He saw that the system of segregation brutalized the bodies, minds and spirits of both blacks and whites, and was therefore harmful to both.

As progressives, we are working to change – to heal, actually – the disastrous results of 30 years of conservative failure and its consequences for everything from our economy to infrastructure to health care. In doing so, we can’t afford to ignore that these consequences have been particularly devastating for the very states which have come the strongest and most strident objections to health care reform, the stimulus and other progressive attempts to alleviate those consequences.

…We know the numbers. We’ve read the reports, and used the statistics – with a dash or two of snark – to point out the paradox of people supporting policies against their own interests, and opposing policies that would improve their lot.

But the man who dreamed that “sons of slaves and sons of slaveowners” would someday sit down together dreamed it for both the sons of slaves and the sons of slaveowners – even if the latter rejected that dream as passionately as the former desired it. He wanted to free both, when he said “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.”

It’s what progressivism has always been about: expanding “we” to ultimately include us all.

“Someone Else’s Child”

“Who the hell we are” is determined not by what or how much we seek for ourselves, but the degree to which we seek and work for fairness and justice for others besides ourselves. (“For all,” really.)

As NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen put it when she spoke to progressives at the closing plenary fo the Take Back the American Dream conference, “who the hell we are” is determined by the world we seek to build for “someone else’s child”

TakeBack 2012 - Power - It Takes A Movement

What’s our our common belief? I think I know. I think we’re united in our faith in the future of someone else’s child. There is not a person in this room who cannot describe their cause in terms of what it means to someone else’s child.

I’m a teacher. I’ve spent my life serving someone else’s child. And I know like you know what happens when we fail. But I like to focus on what we win if we succeed.

It’s my mission. It’s what the NEA does. It’s what’s in my soul and in my favorite poem.

… And you know that the American Dream has nothing to do with what you can buy. The American Dream is that we build a world where someone else’s child gets grow up safe, and healthy, and ready to pursue happiness.

We can do together what we cannot do alone.

Maybe, just maybe, our national character is determined by what we agree that we should do together for “someone else’s child.” It all depends on what you mean by “we.” “We” can be as small as a single nuclear family. “We” can be as big as a neighborhood, a church, a community, or a non-profit organization. “We” can mean something implied in Eskelsen’s remark, “We can do together what we cannot do alone,” and more explicitly in a quote often attributed to Barney Frank: “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

A few months ago, I bookmarked an Ezra Klein post about “what makes health care and education costs similar to each other — and different from anything else.”  

Like the health-care sector, the higher education sector is heavily subsidized by the government. Some take that commonality as a causality: Health-care and college costs are out of control because the government subsidizes them. I think the truth is closer to the reverse: The government subsidizes them because their costs are out of control.

Health-care and higher education are similar in another way, too: People don’t think they can responsibly say no to either expense. Families take out hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to pay medical bills and tuition costs. The only other cost that’s anything like that is housing — and it’s a much more optional expense. You can buy a house on your schedule. Health-care costs and your child’s 18th birthday tend to be somewhat less cooperative.

This inability to say no removes the ultimate form of market discipline: the consumer’s ability to simply walk out of the store. Oh, you can, at times, walk over to another store and try your luck there — though that’s not true if you’ve been brought into the ER in an ambulance, and it’s not true if your son only got into one decent college — but it tilts the power towards the sellers and away from the buyers.

There’s certainly more we could do to bring market pressures into play in both sectors, but the reason the government ends up involved in health care and education is that a real market would require us telling more people than we’re comfortable with that they can’t have the medical care or education that they need.

Maybe there’s some consensus on at least two things “we can do together,” and that we should do together.

But before we get to what we can do together, we have to determine what we believe we should do together, with the understanding that what we do for “someone else’s child” we also do for our communities and our country.

That’s got everything to do with determining “who the hell we are.”

 

 

 

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