A rally was held Saturday in the state Capitol parking lot. Hundreds of single-payer health care advocates convened. Some gave speeches. Some held placards. Some sang songs. Some vended refreshments and literature. Others stood quietly absorbing the information and camaraderie available to everyone. Well, almost everyone.
Across the way — about a hundred yards away — more folks gathered. They had come to protest the rally. They were sequestered because they disagreed with single-payer health care and had to stand in the “free speech” zone. Maybe they could have joined us and had a cup of coffee, a sandwich or an ice cream. I don’t know if they tried, but I bet the vendors would have appreciated the additional business. And anyway, disagreement on political issues can’t possibly mean that you wouldn’t enjoy an ice cream on a sunny day.
I’ve worked for a very long time to advance the notion of single-payer health care. It was the centerpiece of my 2006 campaign for governor. I’m guessing that’s why I was asked to emcee this event — because of those years of hard work coupled with 20 years as a professional public speaker. As the emcee, I can tell you, whoever segregated the private-pay health care people didn’t ask me before they forced our fellow citizens to stand far away — as though their dissent was some sort of threat to our event or to peaceful public discourse.
We had a full slate of speakers and occasionally we paused from the program to honor the 22,000 people who the Kaiser Family Foundation says will die this year because they lack health care access. We also pulled the names of various elected officials out of a sack. Of the roughly 200 officials — from Maine state representatives to U.S. senators who have the best health care options our tax money can buy — we randomly selected 39 to lose their health care privilege. This represents the percentage of their constituents without access to health care. We speculated that they might solve the health care crisis a little faster if they were in the same boat as the rest of us.
In his closing remarks, our last speaker pointed to the pro-private insurance folks and speculated about their motives. He implied certain reasons for their opposition to health care as it exists in every other industrialized country in the world. Countries such as Japan where, according to National Public Radio, people pay less and live longer than we do.
That was the first time I noticed the group behind the barricade. When I then resumed my emcee responsibilities I voiced my regret that the dissenters had been segregated. There were only a handful of them and there were hundreds of us; it was unlikely that they were going to start any more than a conversation. And maybe through that conversation we could have better understood our differences.
I commented that while I couldn’t speak to their motives, we’d clearly never know them — or more importantly find our common ground — if we were always kept apart.
I read later in a newspaper that one of the people banished to free speech isolation was Tarren Bragdon of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. I’m mortified. I don’t know if you know Bragdon but he’s a great guy, extremely bright with a wonderful wife and two gorgeous babies. Bragdon disagrees with us for the most important of reasons; It’s his right to disagree. He thinks he knows what’s best for our country and he’s willing to put his time and energy into working toward that end, just like everyone else at our rally. Our country has gone mad over the last decade, and we’ve lost our most basic liberties.
Since 2002, various Supreme Court rulings have stated that it is lawful for our government to isolate and consequently marginalize dissenting opinion. And while they concede that government can’t control the content of “free” speech, they can control the “manner, time and place.”
The result: We’ve become a country that’s easier to control. Us versus them, you versus me, my ideas isolated from yours and vice versa. History has proved that sort of separation inspires hatred and even violence between groups. Don’t believe me? Google Mussolini.
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.