Spreading Density 

The more some people learn, the dumber they get

I found the following in the July 16, 2009, issue of The New York Review of Books. It is excerpted from a letter written by a British citizen in response to a previous article (March 26, 2009) in which the author (Amartya Sen) " ... stresses the need to improve public understanding of how a national health service works."

"I live ... in a small town with a population of around 5,000. We have a National Health Service medical center staffed with five doctors and the necessary support staff. Each registered patient can ask to see a doctor of his or her choice and the center is run on a predetermined appointments system.

"Where necessary, doctors will issue prescriptions for drugs that can be purchased at a local drug store for a fixed fee, at present 7.20 pounds or around $12, although this charge is not levied on senior citizens. In addition, patients who are not satisfied with the treatment they are getting have the right to transfer to another medical center or surgery. NHS doctors exercise complete medical control over their patients and deal with referrals to consultants for specialist advice and operations.

"Apart from the prescription charge, the service is free to all patients. The NHS deals with the majority of U.K. citizens but everyone has the right to opt out of the system and seek private medical advice and treatment for which, of course, they will pay." --John Dean, Westerham, Kent

And that, Mr. and Mrs. America--stated so simply that even a teabagger could understand it--is socialized health care. It's what scares the peewaddin' out of insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, corporate HMOs, conservative politicians and, of course, teabaggers.

Was I surprised to learn how simple and rational and un-insidious a national health-care system could be?

Not at all. You see, this writer had already learned--in a process going back four decades, in fact, to when I was a young, young man--how simple and rational and un-insidious universal health care can be. I had learned from several and varied sources how successful societies from Japan to Sweden to Canada to Hawaii--along with virtually all of the industrialized world--had managed to negotiate some sort of public option without doing any serious damage to their capitalist roots, except possibly to those who profit excessively off the misery and despair of a large part of their respective populations.

I hadn't set out to discover this overwhelming body of evidence. Young guys seldom give much of a hoot about the health-care setup in their own country, let alone all the others. Yet over the course of those ensuing decades, I picked it up. A little here, a little there--like running across that letter in The New York Review of Books, I didn't go looking for it, it just showed up. When you're paying the least bit of attention to the world around you, learning is like osmosis. (For the benefit of any teabaggers who might be reading this: Strictly speaking, "osmosis" is the diffusion of a fluid through a semipermeable membrane. But in a metaphorical sense, "osmosis" is often used to describe the absorption of anything transferable--knowledge, for instance--by a receptive individual when exposed to that transferable substance from sources ranging from a wide variety of reading materials to direct contact with educated and lucid individuals.)

Of course, I had the benefit of accumulating most of the assorted knickknacks tucked away in my brain before the Internet came along. Useful information can be found on the Internet, certainly. But aside from the fluffery of social networking sites, the Internet's most pervasive influence has been to spread pornography far and wide, and to inflame the fevered passions of stunted people. And by "stunted people," I mean those who spend hours and hours a week (if not a day) rummaging through the Internet dumpster, snuffling up evidence that their obsessions are legitimate. It matters little how meager (or even laughable) that evidence may be, they are content just to know they aren't alone in their raving lunacy.

For instance: A recent and alarming poll reveals that 63 percent of self-identified Republicans believe President Barack Obama is a socialist, with another 16 percent not sure. Twenty-four percent believe he wants the terrorists to win, and 33 percent can't decide. Seventy-seven percent want Genesis taught in biology classes as the explanation for life, 53 percent think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, and 44 percent either believe all contraception should definitely be outlawed or are open to the option.

And thus, through the osmosis of the Internet--through an electronic membrane of un-educated and un-lucid people--spreads another transferable substance: ignorance.

Make no mistake, Democratic leaders share in the blame for the public's dismal lack of understanding of the health-care issues they have struggled with for the last year. But if that poll accurately reflects what is going on in the minds of Republicans, we must ask: Are these people even capable of grasping concepts as simple as the wheel and toilet paper, let alone a health-care system? Could they even describe what we have now, let alone what is proposed?

And the larger question: How does a civilized nation stay healthy with people like these clogging up its arteries?

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