Americans’ Phobia of Socialized Medicine

I am baffled by the people I encounter in this country who think that “socialized medicine” is evil. I’m not sure how they arrive at this conclusion. It seems that, for some, anything they can label “socialist” is automatically frightening. But we have state-run fire and police departments and military (among many other things), and the vast majority of Americans would agree that these areas of common human endeavor are best run by government.

Why, therefore, do so many instantly discard the idea that governments can effectively provide health care? Other countries’ governments are managing national health systems quite well. Do we have so little faith in the abilities of our own government?

I’ve seen socialized medicine working for my own family. I lived in Italy for 17 years (my Italian husband is still there), and have written about my (mostly positive) experiences with Italy’s national health system.

My father lives in England with his British wife, and the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has done very well by them. Just a few weeks ago, Dad had a $60,000 operation – paid for by the British government, and he’s not even a citizen! – to implant an electronic device which interrupts pain signals from his body to his brain: a last-ditch remedy for ten years of extreme, chronic pain due to arthritis. And it’s working.

In Italy, my mother-in-law had a mastectomy within days of a tumor being discovered, and her chemotherapy and related medications were free. When our daughter broke her arm, a compound fracture requiring surgery, the surgery, hospital stay, and follow-up care were free. When I had my own cancer scares, all the tests were done within days, and I paid less than 100 euros for the biopsy. I’ve been under treatment for glaucoma for years; with my doctor’s prescription in Italy, the medicine costs 2 euros a month.

Because health care is universal in these countries, medical privacy need not be a huge concern: you’re going to get treated, no matter what you’ve got. Whereas, in the US, you must jealously guard information about any chronic or genetic condition you may have, for fear that it will damage your chances for employment and insurance.

The Problem of Choice

Some Americans fear that a government-run health system would limit their choices, which is likely true. But is that such a bad thing? Too much choice can be as bad as too little, especially when it requires so much time and knowledge to understand what’s on offer and make an informed decision.

One of the most difficult transitions for me in moving back to the US has been precisely this. I’m an intelligent and highly-educated person, but simply comprehending my health insurance options (and, thank Sun, I have options!) has been largely beyond me so far. I have insurance, but that’s about all I know, pending further study that I haven’t had time for. I can imagine how overwhelming this must seem to someone much younger (or older) and/or less experienced than I.

In Italy, things are a lot simpler. You choose a family doctor from a limited list of local practitioners, most likely someone whose office is convenient to your home. When you’re sick, you visit that doctor during his/her office hours (some by appointment, some you just sit around and wait). If you need a specialist or tests, the family doctor writes an authorization and you schedule an appointment, which will be available later or sooner depending on how busy your local providers are and how urgent your medical situation is. I once scheduled a routine mammogram 8 or 10 months in advance, but when I needed one in a hurry for a suspicious lump, it was performed within 24 hours. (NB: Bi-annual mammograms are free for all women over 45. Socialized health systems are big on preventive medicine, because it makes economic sense.)

And if you want choice in Italy, you can pay out of your own pocket to go to whatever practitioner you like.

Of course, no system is perfect. Malpractice can happen anywhere. My father-in-law was probably killed in Italy by an anesthesiologist too old to be administering an epidural. My aunt’s botched hiatal hernia operation (in Austin, Texas) led to ten years of agony and, eventually, her death. Malpractice suits are rare in Texas, so she never got the money needed to help fix what the doctor screwed up. Penny-pinching by the Medicare system (America’s version of national health, available only to the elderly and used only by those who have no choice) likely exacerbated her problems and also contributed to her death. Being poor and uninsured limits your choices far more than a national health system does.

Given all this, I don’t understand why so many Americans have such a knee-jerk negative reaction to nationalizing health care. Can anyone explain this to me?

The Humanist Symposium

To my regular readers: Not too long ago, I (and thousands of others) stumbled across an article titled Atheists and Anger, an articulate, well-thought-out piece which I highly recommend. It had the welcome side effect of introducing me to the wonderful writing of Greta Christina. (Whose themes range far beyond atheism and are not for everybody… read at your own risk. In case you end up wondering: no, I am not into spanking.)

It was on Greta Christina’s blog that I learned about a new way to share love and traffic among like-minded blogs, called a BlogCarnival. My own piece on Raising a Non-Believer was hosted soon thereafter by The Humanist Symposium, and now I’m doing my bit in return.

The themes of the articles below may include (according to the guidelines):

  • The happiness and freedom of life as an atheist, or other positive aspects to living a life without religious belief
  • Efforts to evangelize for atheism, and stories of people who have recently deconverted from religion
  • How to find meaning and purpose in a godless life
  • How non-religious people deal with weddings, child-raising, deaths, and other significant life events
  • Posts that stir up the human sense of awe and wonder
  • The ethics and moral philosophy of the non-religious
  • How nonbelievers can foster and nourish a sense of community

Here, without further ado, are the articles. The quotes below each are their authors’ descriptions, where such were provided.

Greta Christina presents The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises posted at Greta Christina’s Blog:

“In a world with no God and no afterlife, death — like life — doesn’t have any purpose or meaning except the meaning we create. So what meaning can we create for it? Here is one idea: death as a deadline, for those of us who are deadline-driven.”

Phil for Humanity presents The Blame Game << Phil for Humanity posted at Phil for Humanity:

“Recently, I heard a racial slur against Jews because of what they
supposedly did to Jesus Christ. This insult was not against the Jews
that were alive two thousand years ago but against the Jews living

Samuel Bryson presents The Meaning of life (and other trivial concerns!)- An Existentialist Approach: posted at Total Wellbeing.

Alonzo Fyfe presents E2.0: David Sloan Wilson: New Atheism a Stealth Religion posted at Atheist Ethicist.

KC presents Speak now, speak loudly and speak often posted at Bligbi.

Chris Hallquist presents Review: On Truth posted at The Uncredible Hallq.

Albert Foong presents The life that has gone on before: The Perils of Compassion, Part 2 posted at Urban Monk.

The Sacred Slut presents Beside the Point, posted at A Whore in the Temple of Reason.

Ron Brown presents Finding meaning in wonder and well-being: An ex-fundamentalist’s tale « The Frame Problem posted at The Frame Problem.

vjack presents Atheist Spirituality posted at Atheist Revolution:

Can an atheist be a spiritual person, and if so, in what sense? Is it meaningful to talk of atheist spirituality, or should the term be reserved for religious believers?

Mike White presents How much Freedom do we Have? posted at Life According to Mike White.

An adventure into how much freedom as humans we actually have. How does religion affect our freedom, how morality is affected through our choices and attention taken to our inner self. I think this might be a long one!

plonkee presents violence and incompetence posted at the religious atheist:

It’s funny, but I’ve always heard that you get more conservative, traditional and right wing as you get older, whereas I seem to be getting more pacifist.

John Remy presents For Atheists and Agnostics Who Go To Church | Mind on Fire. posted at Mind on Fire..

From D: I haven’t had time to write anything new myself this week that fits the theme, but those who are new to my site can check out the links on the left for some older musings of mine on atheism.

Though it hasn’t been submitted as part of the Symposium, I strongly recommend that anyone interested in questions of morality and religion read Steven Pinker’s recent NYT article on The Moral Instinct.

The next Humanist Symposium will be Feb. 17 at Cafe Philos.

your thoughts?

The Lawsuit Society

Americans seem to have a very legalistic approach to life – the polar opposite of Italians’ very relaxed attitudes towards the actual law, let alone life in general.

Boarding the CalTrain to go back to San Francisco, I had no idea where to put my big suitcase. On the way down I had put it on a seat, and wondered if that was allowed, but there were many seats free at the time. This train was more crowded. This bag wouldn’t fit under the seats, and there are no overhead racks (I couldn’t have lifted it up there anyway).

The first car was marked as being capable of transporting bicycles, so I got on that one and found a big open space right at the front of the seating area, completely unoccupied. I wondered vaguely if this was where people were supposed to put bikes, but didn’t think too hard about it (it had been a long week, I wasn’t thinking or noticing much at all). I put my suitcase in one corner of that open space, and sat down in a nearby seat where I could keep an eye on it.

An old lady with a wheeled walker got on some time later, and the conductors very solicitously parked it alongside my case as they helped her on board.

Then one of them asked: "Whose luggage is this?"


"Well, ma’am , did you see this sign that says it’s against federal law?" (I hadn’t, though it was a large one – tired, remember?)

"We could get a big fine."

"Where would you like me to put it?" I said this as non-aggressively as I could, though I was thinking: "You could get a fine? That’s just weird."

"There’s a baggage car two cars back."

Unlike the accomodations for bicycles and ‘passengers in need of assistance,’ the fact that there was a car designated for baggage had not been clearly denoted along the platform. I would have had to walk back two cars, dragging the suitcase. The conductors did not insist on this, but I found it amusing – and somewhat irritating – that my wrongdoing was chided in terms of "we could get fined." Why not just say: "If this space is needed for a handicapped passenger, you’ll need to move your suitcase." Which of course I would, gladly and immediately – surely that would be the minimum of civilized behavior?

However, the way the rebuke was phrased made me feel that the assumption was that I would behave like a jerk unless bludgeoned by threat of a fine (though there was an interesting twist: they, the railway employees, would get fined. Was this supposed to engender sympathy?)

America lives by legal threats and lawsuits. An outdoor dinner was given for attendees of another event at the hotel where we were having a conference. One of the guests fell down somehow. A server rushed inside to a lobby phone and called security: "He’s not hurt, but I have to report it." Two security guys in dark suits, with walkie-talkies, converged on the scene, one carrying a clipboard with a questionnaire that he required the guest to answer. I suppose the point was to get an immediate statement and signature, before the guy had time to think about how to turn a minor accident into an opportunity to sue somebody. The Cover-Your-Ass nation: Whatever happens, make sure you can’t be blamed for it.

What do you think? am I reading this all wrong?

Raising a Non-Believer

A reader has just written to me:

“One was on an essay about Religion as a Cause of Strife in the World – you can bet she went to town on that!”

this is a comment you wrote on Ross’ India Diary and i have always wanted to ask you why you believe that Ross has arrived at an independent opinion/thought/decision regarding religion when it is the exact same opinion/insight you and your husband have. maybe mistakenly, but i’ve gotten this impression that you are very prideful that her belief is identical to yours and see it as a sign of her independent, intelligent thought. how much of a stretch is that really? how different is that to the child who grows up with the gospel every week at church and every day at home? how “independent” can that child’s outlook ever be due to that home conditioning?

It’s very true and completely unsurprising that Rossella, like most kids, shares her parents’ beliefs (or lack of). The more interesting question is: did how she arrive at those beliefs?

One of Richard Dawkins’ most provocative theses is that schools and even parents should not be allowed to proselytize children into religion at young ages. He points to lifelong traumas (both physical and mental) inflicted upon people (and cultures) from infancy, in the name of religion.

One might reasonably ask (many have) how Dawkins’ desire to promote atheism is any different from a religious person’s desire to promote religion. The logic here seems to be: “Atheism is just another belief. Why is it okay for you to preach what you believe, but not for religious people to do so?”

Here’s the “fundamental” difference: most religions teach their adherents – and particularly children – to accept certain strictures, norms, behaviors, etc. because someone in “authority” said so. Believers may be allowed to question up to a point, but sooner or later every religion comes down to “faith” – a necessarily blind (because unprovable) belief that there is some “higher power” out there which has an opinion about how you should think and act.

This is emphatically NOT how we raised our daughter.

My husband is a professional mathematician. This means that he thinks long and hard to come up with new hypotheses about how things behave in his particular realm of mathematics. When he can support his ideas with mathematical proofs, and those ideas are new, and important enough to be brought to the attention of his colleagues, he submits them (in the form of articles) to professional mathematical journals. There his ideas are judged by his peers for their truth and interestingness and worthiness of publication. If he gets something wrong, either he or one of his colleagues will figure that out. He thanks the people who point out his errors, and goes back to the drawing board.

The same thing happens in every scientific field. Ideas are developed, tested, and submitted to a jury of one’s peers. Sometimes an idea is proven wrong immediately, sometimes later, as more research is carried out. A few hypotheses survive the judgement of the scientific community and the test of time to become theories: which is to say, scientifically-proven facts.

All of this is done in a spirit of cooperative enquiry and (more or less) humility. No one can claim to know more than anyone else on the basis of some externally-granted “authority” – a scientist must be able to back his or her hypotheses with solid, provable facts.

I’m not a scientist, but I use the classic scientific method in my job every day: Does this work? If not, why not? What went wrong? Test one variable at a time til you find out where the problem is, then fix it. It’s a simple logic which can be usefully applied in many areas of life.

Given our professional and personal biases (and our penchant for arguing about EVERYTHING), Enrico and I have raised our daughter to prize inquiry, and not to grant authority blindly. We would be hypocrites if we had not encouraged Ross to think for herself and ask questions – to which we always gave grown-up answers.

This isn’t a totally easy way to raise a teenager: “Why do I have to be home at midnight?” In a family like ours, “Because I’m the mom and I said so!” doesn’t cut it. In Ross’ most exhausting, argumentative moments, I have gritted my teeth and consoled myself that: “At least I know she’s not going to do something stupid just because her friends are doing it.”

And, mostly, she hasn’t. We raised her to think for herself, and she does think – and, most of the time, she comes to very sensible conclusions.

If Ross called herself an atheist simply in imitation of me and her father, I’d have no reason to boast of her independence of mind. Perhaps at 18 she hasn’t put as much thought into her beliefs as we have, but I don’t think she’s merely parroting us. She knows that she is welcome – encouraged! – to explore what others believe (Woodstock is an excellent venue for that), and decide for herself what she thinks of it all. Her father and I remain open to discussion. Ross is no fool, and very likely someday she’ll persuade me to something I hadn’t previously agreed with. It wouldn’t be the first time.

My Potter Predictions

^ Hari Potter aur Paras Patthar
Harry Potter in Hindi

Like most of the reading world, I await with bated breath the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final Harry Potter book. In a moment of pure self-indulgence during my last US trip, I bought Mugglenet.Com’s What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Falls in Love and How Will the Adventure Finally End.

This recounted some details that had escaped me in my repeat readings of the books (or that had been let slip in J.K. Rowling’s closely-parsed interviews, lovingly recorded on, and is clearly the result of hundreds of people putting far too much mental energy into someone else’s fantasy world. As a work of collective escapism, it’s breathtaking. (NB: I have nothing against escapism!)

Literary Theory

But I don’t agree with many of Mugglenet’s conclusions, which are based on carefully-sifted clues logically extracted from what we know of Harry’s mythical, magical world, with little or no consideration for literary qualities. I’m not particularly good at (or interested in) literary analysis, but I have been reading an awful lot of all sorts of literature for about 40 years now. Following my instincts as a reader (and writer), I feel that certain things have to happen for reasons of literary symmetry or completeness or balance or something – not sure what to call it, but, well, that’s where the story is going, and any other outcome just won’t work as well. Mugglenet’s predictions don’t seem to take this literary dimension into account at all.

A clue that Mugglenet seem to have missed is the books’ biased viewpoint. Although the narrative voice in the books is the omniscient third person, this is (probably deliberately) misleading: the story is told almost exclusively from Harry’s point of view. There are very few scenes in the books to which Harry is not a witness, either directly or via the Pensieve. (Only two such scenes come to my mind right now: the one between the Minister for Magic and the British Prime Minister, and the one where Snape takes the Unbreakable Vow in the beginning of "The Half-Blood Prince.")

This means that everything we see in the books is interpreted through Harry, including his assumptions about people and their feelings and motivations. And he’s a teenage boy with a difficult past and his own points of view and prejudices – not a particularly reliable narrator.

The Filmic POV

I also wonder whether Mugglenet have taken into account the additional clues offered in the films. We cannot treat these as completely separate, Hollywood-ized renderings of the story, because Rowling herself has been so closely involved in all of them. We must therefore assume that she has had a lot to say about the cuts in scenes and even characters that have been necessary to bring her books to the screen. Any scenes or creatures from the books which have not appeared in the movies, we can assume to be non-essential to the final outcome.

The movies have added as well as removed elements. While the scenes themselves still mostly involve Harry, the film audience is outside of Harry’s head, able to observe for ourselves how others interact with him, and draw our own conclusions about their real feelings and motivations.

We know from other sources that some of what we see onscreen is based on information we may have not yet read in the books: while the first movie was being filmed, J.K. Rowling had private conversations with Alan Rickman (Snape) and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) in which she gave them key information about their characters which had not yet been published, which she felt should inform their performances. The public doesn’t know what she told them – Rickman and Coltrane were of course sworn to secrecy – but we can make some inferences from what we see on the screen.

My Theories

I herewith present my own theories about some of what’s going to happen in Harry Potter 7, primarily to document them publicly in advance so that later I can say: "I told you so!"

Harry Will Kill Snape

This will probably occur near the end of the book, after Harry spends hundreds of pages trying to track Snape down to exact revenge for the deaths of Dumbledore and Harry’s parents. Only when it’s too late will Harry realize that he was wrong: Snape, while not a pleasant person, has been acting in Harry’s best interests since Harry was a baby. Why? Well, he loved Harry’s mother, Lily. He may even have made an Unbreakable Vow to protect Harry after he discovered that the information he passed to Voldemort about the prophecy had put her in danger.

In the books it seems clear that Snape hates Harry and takes every opportunity to torment him. But keep in mind the biased point of view (Harry’s) mentioned above: it’s easy for a teenager to over-interpret everything he sees, especially with a teacher he hates. What I see on the screen is far more ambiguous: there are even flashes of affection in Rickman’s performance, though this goes unrecognized by Harry.

Ginny Will Be Important

…and not just as Harry’s girlfriend and dream of a possible happily-ever-after. She’s the seventh child – and only girl – in a powerful wizarding family, she has had six older brothers to deal with, and she’s a redhead. I can’t help feeling that all of this is significant. And the books, for balance, need a female character who is as strong and active magically (as a metaphor for physical strength and action) as the boys are. Hermione’s intelligence is critical to the story in many points, but intellectual strength is a different matter altogether.

It has been repeatedly stated throughout the books that Harry’s parents were both strong at magic, and were full partners in the fight against Voldemort. I suspect that Ginny is not going to be content with sitting on the sidelines for her own protection, and will prove that she can take care of herself while fighting beside Harry against the Death Eaters.

Ron Will Be Betrayed by His Hunger for Money

I don’t know exactly what will happen or how bad it will be, but there have been too many hints since Book 1 about Ron’s bitterness at his family’s relative poverty. Something’s got to come of that much foreshadowing.

Rowling Will Surprise Us All

I’m not certain of any of the above, of course. No matter how much I or others may imagine we know or have guessed, I am confident that Jo Rowling will outsmart us all. And I can’t wait to see how she does it.

What do you think will happen?