Monday, August 31, 2009

The Importance of Tragedy

One of the things I always thought odd about American taste in fiction and cinema is our aversion to tragedy. Filmmakers, in particular, are constantly changing movie endings for American audiences to "lighten" them up. Many British books just aren't carted over the ocean for the simple fact that they're just "too depressing."

I had a lot of trouble understanding this phenomenon. I figured it had something to do with our belief in the American Spirit and Manifest Destiny. I figured we were terrified of tragedy, and in love with the idea that science and progress and good, god-fearing folks could overcome everything.

But it still bugged me. Because I love tragedy. I love watching the inexorable trudging on events toward a inevitable end knowing there's no way to stop it... but watching our heroes bravely try anyway. I like the cathartic rush.

Then I watched this TED talk with Alain de Botton and was suddenly stuck by what he had to say about our aversion to tragedy. Tragedy, he points out, was created to teach us compassion. Instead of looking at somebody who's down on their luck and saying, "God, she's such a loser. She must have done something pretty terrible to end up that way," we learn the old "there but for the grace of god go I" lesson. We learn that each person who's down on their luck isn't a loser, but merely "unfortunate."

But in America, we don't believe in misfortune. We believe in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We figure that bankrupt people living out of a friend's house, unemployed, with chronic medical conditions, working temp jobs, are just... losers. Lazy. Meritless. After all, if they worked hard and had merit, they'd be winners, right? They'd be successful American entrepreneurs.

But what our American dream ignores - each and every time - is the influence of tragedy on people's lives. We don't like tragedy. We don't like the idea that sometimes you really do get hit on the back of the head with a shovel for no reason. Sometimes, shit happens.

Because if shit happens, then we can't ignore the bum on the street. We can't plead entitlement for healthcare. We can't just say, "If you don't own your own house, you're a loser," or "if you don't have a car, you're a loser."

Without tragedy, without teaching compassion and morality by putting us all in the shoes of good people who experience bad things, we look down on the poor, the uninsured, the bankrupt, the destitute, with scorn, derision, and not one ounce of compassion. After all, they must have *done* something (or *not* done something) to get there, right? I'm good, I'm hard working. That will never happen to *me.*

I mourn our lack of tragedy.

Excuse me, ma'am, I'm busy trying to figure out which way I'll choose to prevent you from receiving healthcare

In conversation with my mother:

"Well, with this Obamacare thing, we'll all get rationed healthcare."

"Mom, do you even know what `public option' means?"

"The government's taking over healthcare!"

"Mom, the government isn't running healthcare. All they want to do is expand Medicare to cover people who don't have insurance or are underinsured. That's it."

(long pause)

"Are you SURE?"

"Yes, mom. I have a chronic health condition. This is something I actually looked into."

"Well, what's to stop employers from just dropping our insurance then, if there's a public option?"

"Because Medicare SUCKS, mom. Doctors treat you like crap. You still pay copays for insurance. It's a shitty insurance program for poor and desperate people. Nobody fucking wants to be on Medicare. But for poor people, or people with chronic conditions, or other folks who can't afford health insurance - it's *something.*"

"But --"

"Ok, mom. Think of it this way. It's like the post office. You can go to the post office and have a letter sent for cheap, and it takes 5-7 days to get there, right? And you wait in a long line and the employees are surly. Or you can go to UPS or Fedex and get it shipped overnight and walk right up to the counter and everyone treats you great. You still get your letter sent. It's just that the service and speed you get from the post office sucks compared to UPS and Fedex. But! It's affordable. The postal service makes it possible for everyone to send a letter, not just rich people. All they want to do is create an insurance version of the U.S. postal service. And the post office certainly hasn't put DHL, Fedex, or UPS out of business."

"Are you SURE?"

"Yes, mom."

"But... then why do they make it sound like a government takeover of healthcare?"

"Speaking as somebody in marketing and communications, I can tell you exactly what I'd say as a communications manager at a big insurance company... and `government takeover of healthcare' is it. These are the same talking points the insurance companies dragged out back in 1993, the last time we tried to get healthcare reform going. Because the other stuff in this bill - which the insurance companies aren't keen on advertising - is that there's going to be a lot more regulation for the insurance companies. Dropping bank regulations on the banking industry in the 90s helped create the greedy meltdown last year, and having an unregulated insurance industry is what's turning health care into a greedy meltdown. The bill will eliminate lifetime caps on coverage and force them to cover people with pre-existing conditions (among other things). These companies make billions of dollars a year. This is their marketing strategy. Tell people the government's taking over healthcare, and people freak out. I do a lot of marketing stuff. I provide people with a lot of talking points. Now think of somebody who's making about 8 times what I make sending press releases to every talk show host and major news outlet in America about what's become a totally political issue and spending millions in money lobbying your representatives. Scary talking points make much better news than `expanding Medicare.' People who are afraid are really easy to manipulate."

"Well, I just don't know how it'll all turn out."

"I don't either. But it'll be really interesting to find out."

(for those interested, here is the actual latest version of the bill. Wiki-like forum where you can actually comment on diff't sections of the bill. Very cool.)