Editor’s Note: Ketan Ramakrishnan is one of five finalists in The Nation‘s 2007 Student Writing Contest. Read more about the competition on StudentNation.com.
We live today immersed in a culture concerned with, above all other things, what is the American thing to do. In arguing for their positions, politicians constantly appeal to our great American ideals and traditions. We must ban gays from marrying because marriage is a sacred American institution, and we must invade Iraq because we, as Americans, value freedom. Very rarely do they look at us and tell us that we should adopt a policy because it is the right and decent thing to do, rather than mandated by some nebulous American ideal. The result is that when we come across an issue that cannot be hyped as an extension of sacred American duty, or institutions, or values, or whatever, we are content to shove it aside.
Take healthcare. There are those who care passionately about the healthcare debate. But given the scope of the problem, our legislatures and media are largely content to ignore it in favor of other dilemmas. We are bombarded with pundits expounding on sealing the border, gays marrying, Iraq, professorial misconduct, a possible war with Iran. All are momentous issues, no doubt, but what could possibly be more momentous, or more pressing, than the plight of those we see ragged and sick outside the grocery store, those with diabetic children who cannot get any insulin, those neighbors of ours who are devastated by disease but poor, denied any medical help until the last possible second, when they are rushed to hospital and it is often too late?
In terms of human importance, few conceivable issues compare, and in terms of feasibility, the solution is not fantastical–helping these people and saving these lives does not require remodeling the state, or building a nation, only providing some drugs. Even if we eventually decide that there are good, compelling reasons to reject a system of universal healthcare, why do we deny it the attention that such an issue deserves?
Because when faced with the specter of American defeat in Iraq, or the erosion of the American institution of marriage, we are content to deflect our eyes and let that diabetic child rot. Universal healthcare is not a particularly American issue. Several nations already provide healthcare for all their citizens, and thus, there is no uniquely American imperative to do so. In making the case for healthcare, there is no American ideal we can invoke–not justice (which we associate with punishing criminals) nor freedom (which means for us overthrowing dictators). Indeed, given our nation’s traditional emphasis on property rights, there is not much of a great American tradition to appeal to in justifying the tax hike that would be necessary for such a program. Saturated by unrelenting invocations of our American heritage and the courses of action it prescribes, we are content to pay attention to those issues that concern us as Americans, rather than that one behemoth of an issue that concerns us foremost as humans, which confronts us every time we see the wretched sick on the street.
This is why, among all the issues at play in the upcoming election, healthcare is most important to me. As citizens concerned with matters pertaining to American values and institutions, other issues may take precedence, but as humans concerned with what is right, and what we can do to further what is right, no conceivable issue is more important than the preventable death and disease that stares us in the face.
The emphasis candidates place on healthcare is supremely reflective of what, as leaders of our nation, they intend to do–that which is most American, or that which is most right. Especially now, in the aftermath of blunders largely resulting from an extreme emphasis on our role as Americans, we need a President willing to choose morality over hyper-Americanism. Elections are, among other things, a manifestation of the electorate’s priorities. The importance we place in the coming months on healthcare is thus a test of whether we shall continue to ignore what is right when it does not directly concern our national heritage, or whether we shall embrace an ethic concerned not only with the ideals and traditions that make us Americans but the tenets of human decency that make us good people.