My friend and colleague Nick Unger:
Wrestling with the historical moment
Nick’s note: I was asked by the Illinois Campaign For Better Health Care to confront the lack of energy and even negativity at their packed annual meeting.
Then this past week folks from quite a few health care groups agreed that the question of energy and outlook needs to be addressed, observing that many of their troops in the outside the Beltway field have “battle fatigue” or worse. It gets harder to ask for one more call or write one more press release. One terrific communicator said “I’m out of words.” (A wonderful, poignant, sad commentary.) This is no time to run out of words. I offer these.
Edited transcript of remarks at the November 19, 2009 Annual Meeting of the Illinois Campaign for Better Health Care by Nick Unger, AFL-CIO’s Health Care Campaign Training Director
Every once in a while, a country gets to have a conversation about what kind of people we are and who we are as a country. Sometimes it’s in an election, but most of the time it isn’t. An election might start the conversation, but Election Day usually ends it. And you haven’t quite finished.
And most elections don’t even start the conversation. They just keep business as usual going. The 2008 election began a conversation as to what kind of country we are, but I don’t believe it finished it. I think it just opened it up, and that conversation continues.
There are those out there who act like they want a recount on the 2008 election, that Obama is not their president and you – we – can’t have “their country.” And they say it with vigor and with passion and with earned and unearned media (in that they own TV stations and TV networks). Their view of earned media is that they get to say what they want, whatever they want, and echo it over and over and control the national conversation from above.
But they don’t control the national conversation from below. The 2008 election showed that. People were wrestling with who we are. Actually, it was mainly about who we’re not. That election seemed more of a rejection of what was wrong than a climbing onto what was right. That means we didn’t finish the conversation.
We did say that the country is going wrong. And there was a deep sense of it, of pain and suffering. The presence of my brother Rev. Sal Alvarez being here representing the faith community reminds me that the word compassion means shared suffering. It doesn’t mean feeling for somebody else. It means suffering with somebody else.
So last year people got a sense that the country ain’t doing it right, and we can’t go down that road anymore. But we haven’t picked the road that we’re going to be on yet. We haven’t turned the corner yet.
But I would offer to you that we are at the corner. And when you’re at a corner, you best turn because we don’t know when the next one comes up. From a political analytical point of view, the last time America turned the corner was 1980, and we sure turned wrong. And we are living with the price of it now. We are at a corner now. If we miss this one, I don’t know if I will ever get a shot at another one.
The battle to turn that corner is on health care. Health care doesn’t “deserve” to be the battle. It’s not that health care is more important than any other issue. It could have been fought over jobs. It could have been fought over education because education’s real important. I’m not going to say health care’s more important than education. It turned out that the two armies have met on the battlefield of health care. It could have happened some other way, but this is what it is.
My wife and I went to Gettysburg this past summer. Anybody here been to Gettysburg? To a New Yorker, Gettysburg is a one stoplight town. In 1863, when they had the battle there, it was a one-horse town.
They weren’t fighting for Gettysburg. The battle was not about Gettysburg. They were fighting for what kind of country America was going to be. Two armies met in one little town in Pennsylvania and right there in Gettysburg. At the end of the battle, one army was beaten and one army was marching ahead, and America found its soul on Little Round Top in Gettysburg, PA.
If you go to Gettysburg, the ghosts of that battle speak to you. The field is empty, but you can hear the battle. One monument stands out. It’s the Pennsylvania Monument. It lists the names of all the Pennsylvanians who fought and died there.
A hundred years before the Vietnam Wall, they just listed the names, and every one of those names talks to you.
We are in a battle for the soul of America today, right now. It is being fought over health care. Six weeks, tops eight weeks from now, one army marches ahead and the other one is on the side of the road with their banner in the dust.
On one side you have Fox News, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, the insurance companies, the Chamber of Commerce, Goldman Sachs all saying, “If health care reform fails, that’s good for us and our team.” All of them lined up on that side saying to us, “You are not going to decide the future of America your way, and we will take you down over health care.”
So where are we today? There are a thousand things wrong with that bill, and the process of getting to it was a pain in the ass. Each day you say: “we lost this, we gave up this, we conceded this, what about this, this isn’t in it, they don’t have enough here.” I mean, no part of it is quite right.
And yet today, November 19, we are closer to defining the soul of America properly than we have been in decades, in your lifetime for most of you. The metaphor I would use is we are falling uphill. We keep falling down. But turn around. You will see we are so much further ahead. Each time we fall and get up we are getting closer to where we’ve got to be.
We have pushed this process so far that America can say eight weeks from now, maybe six weeks from now, we are going to establish a new “public good” with government and the public in it, a public health care structure, and we’re going to say that everybody in America should have health care. This is the first time America will say it, and it comes after two generations of attacks on these kinds of ideas.
And we’re going to tax the rich to pay for a public good after two generations of saying taxes are bad and the rich can have all the money – all of my money and all of your money. Man, that is heavy!
And we are going to say to the insurance industry, you can’t write all the rules. You can write some of them, but not all the rules, and this is after thirty years of telling corporations, do whatever you want cause that’s the way the world should work.
We are six weeks from doing that as a people. We are six weeks from setting America in a direction where We the People act like we, instead of every man for himself. We are six weeks from turning the corner, making history, and somehow here today we don’t feel the energy of it.
And so when Reverend Sal Alvarez says it’s a moral issue and when Dr. Jonathan Arend says it’s a medical issue and when the woman who said she can make $60,000 but can’t afford health care says it’s an economic issue, they are all right.
And each of you is the center of a universe of people to talk to. You are not just the Illinois Campaign For Better Health Care. You are much more than that. If the only people you talk to are in this room, I have some advice for you: You should get out more.
You come from churches and neighborhoods and groups and mosques and all sorts of things, and you have to talk to your friends about the history that is being made right now and what kind of country we are going to be so that 75 years from now, they read your names the way I read the names on the Pennsylvania memorial: These are the people who made the country that I live in be the way I wanted it to be.
And 75 years from now, people will look at the fall of 2009 the way I look at the summer of 1863. They’ll say America had a chance to become who we should be, and we took it. That’s where we are today.
For many of us, this is the first time in our lifetime that we have had this chance. Some of us were around in the Civil Rights Movement. This moment feels like that was for those of us who were around then. This is the moment that you get to turn around the entire future, and it’s over health care. And if you didn’t stand up strong over it, you will always regret it.
There are better organizers than me who throughout their whole life were getting kicked in the face, fighting a defensive battle, getting smacked around, and they were better – they worked harder, they were more straightforward, they cursed less … and they never once had a chance to be on the offensive to make the world the way it should be because it was their dumb luck to start their work when the world was going wrong and retire before it got right.
And you should think about the people whose shoulders you stand on today because we’ve got six or eight weeks to decide what kind of country we are, to decide which army wins. This is our opportunity, and if you get lost in the weeds of that bill, then some friend of yours better stand you up and say, “We are making history, and I am writing my name down on the memorial that people are going to visit 75 years from now, and if you miss it, shame on you!”
There should be anger and energy and elation and glee because we get a
chance to make this country right.
In 1964, in Alabama, an old civil rights worker said to a young reverend…the old civil rights worker was my age, and the young reverend was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr .… and he said to him, “How long, how long do we have to wait for justice?”
And Dr. King replied, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But he knew it doesn’t bend by itself. You bend it. You reach up, you grab it, and you bend it. And when enough of us grab the moral arc of the universe, it bends towards justice. And in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed.
So the person who just asked, “How long do we have to wait for health care justice?” is repeating the history of our movement. That’s the same question they asked Dr King in 1963. And the answer: when enough of us put our hands on the arc, it bends towards justice.
Right in front of our eyes, the moral arc of the universe is about to decide which way it bends. In six weeks. You can’t ask for anything better than that. You are blessed with this opportunity. How long? You decide. Thank you.