Thursday, October 22, 2009

Viva l'Italia!

What great timing! In the midst of our national debate over health-care reform, my Fall 2009 issue of Italian America magazine arrived in the mail the other day. Included is an article by Martin Gani, a free-lance writer who lives in Como, Italy, on the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale (SSN), Italy’s national health service. The next three paragraphs are a summary of Signor Gani’s article.

Universal health care for all Italians has existed since 1978. How do Italians pay for the SSN? All workers and professionals pay a “health tax.” In 2007, Italy spent a little under nine percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for health care. By comparison, in 2007 the United States spent 16 percent of its GDP on health care. That reminds me of Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s response to a question in 2008 concerning how we would pay for his universal health care proposal: His response was that we’re already paying for it, but we’re not getting it! Italians pay money for health care, and we Americans pay money to fill the coffers of health insurance companies.

About 653,000 Italians work for the SSN, of whom about 106,000 are doctors. Every Italian citizen may consult his or her family doctor at no cost. Hospital tests that are prescribed by family doctors are quite affordable; for example, a basic blood test costs from $14 to $28, and a CAT scan costs from $42 to $56. Essential prescription drugs cost a few dollars. Consultation with a specialist costs $28 to $40, but, if the patient needs surgery and is hospitalized, all diagnostic tests, the surgery, treatment and medicines are free.

The SSN treats all foreigners working and living in Italy and some foreign tourists the same as Italian citizens. Only foreign tourists from the European Union and those from countries with whom Italy has a bilateral agreement receive the same treatment as Italian citizens. (The United States has no agreement with Italy.)

What I hear over and over again in this country is that many Americans object to paying taxes to pay for “somebody else’s” health insurance. Like Cain, when confronted by the Lord after he had slain his brother, Abel, they deny that they are their “brothers’ keepers.” Apparently, more Italians than Americans are familiar with Matthew 25:31-46!

My maternal grandmother, Maria Di Camillo, came to the United States as an 18-year-old in 1913, leaving behind her younger sister, Giovina Di Camillo. My great-aunt Giovina died in Italy in 1979, aged 75, one year after universal health care was achieved in Italy. If my grandmother were still alive today, she would be 114 years old, and living in a country without universal health care. Sadly, I must conclude that Giovina remained in the civilized country, and Maria migrated to the uncivilized country.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Red-State Socialism?

South Carolina. Home of Republican Senator Jim DeMint, who has stated publicly that, if the GOP can prevent passage of health-care reform, it will be President Obama’s “Waterloo.” Home of Republican Congressman Joe (“You Lie”) Wilson. Presumably the home of millions of “tea-baggers,” some of whom descended on the nation’s capital this past weekend to protest, among other things, paying taxes to Washington.

South Carolina. According to the Tax Foundation, a non-partisan but conservative think tank, the Palmetto State receives $1.35 in federal spending for each $1.00 it pays in federal taxes. South Carolinians annually pay about $20 billion in federal taxes but receive about $27 billion in federal spending. South Carolinians are getting more than they give. They are benefiting from a redistribution of wealth. South Carolina is being subsidized by the 18 states that pay more in taxes than they receive in federal spending, 17 OF WHICH VOTED FOR THE OBAMA-BIDEN TICKET IN LAST YEAR’S ELECTION.

Kentucky. Home of conservative Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, and Republican Senator Jim Bunning, who is so far to the right that you can’t see him without high-powered binoculars. Kentucky. According to the Tax Foundation, The Bluegrass State receives $1.51 in federal spending for each $1.00 that it pays in federal taxes. The “Dark and Bloody Ground” is being subsidized to an even greater degree by the “blue” states than is South Carolina.

Oklahoma. Solidly conservative and solidly Republican. The McCain-Palin ticket carried EVERY county in Oklahoma. Sooners don’t believe in redistribution of wealth, right? Well … it depends on which way it’s being redistributed: Oklahoma receives $1.36 in federal spending for each $1.00 it pays in federal taxes. Oklahomans are also being subsidized by the “blue-staters.”

In summary, 21 of the 22 states that voted for the McCain-Palin ticket RECEIVE MORE MONEY IN FEDERAL SPENDING THAN THEY PAY IN FEDERAL TAXES: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. That reads like a “Who’s Who” of Republicanism, doesn’t it?

Republicans don’t believe in “socialism”; they don’t believe in the redistribution of wealth … unless, of course, they’re on the receiving end.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The outbreak of protests against a national health care plan, including stormy town-hall meetings and gun-toting Obama-haters, reminds me of my father, who died more than 32 years ago. I’ve commented before on the wisdom of Harry Merle Stonestreet, a steelworker who didn’t have the benefit of any post-secondary education. Two of his views that he constantly expressed to me during my childhood are especially relevant to today’s crisis.

With respect to guns, we never had any in our house. Dad wouldn’t permit it. He was as extreme in his opposition to firearms as the National Rifle Association is in its assertion of the right of American citizens to own, carry and use submachine guns. Now, mind you, despite his not being a hunter, he had no problem with guns used for hunting. It was handguns, assault rifles and the like that bothered him. He said over and over again, “If you have weapons like that around the house, somebody is going to get killed.” At the time, I thought his anti-gun position was simplistic, but, now, when I see the pistol-packing, protesting pinheads, I’m not so sure. Especially unconvincing is their stated reason for taking their guns to the anti-Obama rallies: not to intimidate anybody, but rather to affirm their Second-Amendment rights. Yeah. Sure.

Dad also had an unconventional view of the American Revolution. He maintained that the rebellion was unnecessary, that we eventually would have become independent without bloodshed. Besides, he argued, being united with the mother country longer would have made us more civilized. Wow! That’s heretical, isn’t it? Anybody who states such ideas should be required to stand in the corner and sing “God Bless America” 100 times, right? But, now, as with his view on guns, I’m not so sure. One event that hastened the War for Independence was a 1772 British court decision that freed James Somersett, the slave of Massachusetts colonist Charles Steuart. Somersett accompanied his master to England in 1769, escaped in 1771 and was baptized. He was captured and imprisoned, but his godparents obtained a writ of habeas corpus, resulting in the decision that freed him. The American slavocracy was enraged. As English writer Samuel Johnson sarcastically commented, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Slavery, although never mentioned by name in the Constitution, became firmly entrenched in the United States until its abolition by the 13th Amendment in 1865, following the bloody four years of the Civil War. By contrast, English common law had never recognized slavery, and the United Kingdom banned slavery by statute in 1833. (British participation in the slave trade was made unlawful in 1807.)

As the right-wing loonies assail “government-controlled” health care, focusing on the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, surely the British must be wondering why so many Americans want no part of health care that is more efficient, less expensive and covers everybody. Sixty-one years after the National Health Service was instituted, many Americans don’t want quality, universal health care; will shout anybody down who disagrees with them; and apparently will begin shooting if necessary. Surely the British must be thinking that we Americans gained independence prematurely, before they had time to civilize us.

It’s said that, as we get older, our parents get smarter. I believe it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


In 1770 French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote,

“On en trouve [l’argent] toujours quand il s’agit d’aller faire tuer des hommes sur la frontière: il n’y en a plus quand il faut les sauver.” (“Money is always to be found when men are to be sent to the frontiers to be destroyed: when the object is to preserve them, it is no longer so.”)

No truer words were ever spoken, and, unfortunately, what was true in 1770 is still true today. For eight years, our federal government borrowed money like a credit-card abuser and spent money like a drunken sailor (the latter simile attributable to Senator John McCain) to pay for a war in Iraq that nobody has yet figured out why we started in the first place.

Now we have a President who is trying to shift our priorities from “sending people to the frontiers” to “preserving them,” but THAT kind of spending is unacceptable to the thousands who gathered in “Tea Party” protests April 15th. We heard nary a peep out of those same protesters when Bush, et al. were running up the greatest budget deficit in our history because, presumably, the Tea Party people are infected with the same mindless jingoism that Voltaire condemned almost 240 years ago. Presumably they believe that spending to kill human beings is appropriate, but spending to help people to get back to work or provide them with affordable health care is not.

A few days ago I saw a bumper sticker on a pickup truck that read “I’ll keep my guns, freedom and money.” My guess is that the driver of that pickup truck believes that his freedom depends on his not paying taxes and using his gun to shoot anybody who tries to take his money and spend it on something “frivolous” like improving the human condition.

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935) is supposed to have said, “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.” Justice Holmes was right. Paying taxes is patriotic, especially when those taxes are used for improving the quality of life instead of destroying life.

Friday, May 1, 2009


“The healthy man does not torture others--generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.” - Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961).

President Obama’s release of the secret Bush Administration documents that contained the “justification” for torture techniques such as waterboarding has generated much debate. Former Vice President Dick Cheney argues that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” resulted in our obtaining valuable information. Here in West Virginia, MetroNews radio talk-show host “Hoppy” Kercheval has alleged that our junior U.S. Senator, Jay Rockefeller, knew about and approved of the torture because, at the time, he was the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Intelligence.

I have serious doubts that torture results in any useful information for its practitioners. Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican standard-bearer, has consistently maintained that what torture accomplishes is to cause the person being tortured to say what the torturer wants to hear, whether it is true or not. Senator McCain knows a little something about torture; certainly, he knows more than former Vice President Cheney, a draft-dodger who sought and received five deferments to avoid the Vietnam War.

But whether torture “works” or not is beside the point. The point is that, as Jung said, only sick people order, engage in or condone torture. (If Senator Rockefeller knew about and approved of the torture, then, in my eyes, he is as guilty as those who ordered and engaged in it.) Call me naïve if you will, but, as one who is proud to be an American, I think that we are better than that. Must we become like our enemies to defeat them? If we do, then what have we accomplished?

Now comes the disturbing news. The results of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center show that 49 percent of all Americans polled believe that torture can be justified at least sometimes. However, most disturbing of all is the breakdown of the survey relative to churchgoing frequency. Of those who attend religious services at least weekly, 54 percent believe that torture can be justified at least sometimes; of those who attend religious services monthly or a few times a year, 51 percent; of those who attend religious services seldom or never, 42 percent. What are those people learning at their religious services? Or--and this is even scarier--what are those people being TAUGHT at their religious services?

According to Yale University religious historian Sydney Ahlstrom (1919-1984), the early part of the 19th century was characterized by an individual approach to religion: “The quest for holiness, however, came to take a very individualistic line. The accent was on vices of persons, not evil in the forms of society. Reform meant change in the individual, not the tearing up or modification of a social contract that had been religiously approved.”

It is sad to say, but Ahlstrom could easily have been talking about 2009.

Friday, January 23, 2009

I was there

Dupont Circle, January 19th: A crowd has gathered, and the people are throwing shoes at a large, inflatable George W. Bush. Muntazer al-Zaidi, wherever he is, is vindicated.

Not far from Dupont Circle, January 19th: A Catholic church sports a sign that thanks President Bush for “protecting life,” reminding me of the unfortunate truth that many of my fellow Catholics believe that an embryonic stem cell is a person, but a pregnant Iraqi whose death (along with the death of her unborn child) is caused by Bush’s unnecessary war on the Iraqi people apparently is not. This shallow thinking ignores Pope John Paul II’s March 2003 characterization of the invasion of Iraq as neither morally nor legally justified. Or is it that the Catholics who support Bush and his policies think of themselves as holier than the pope?

Union Jack’s, a pub in Arlington, the evening of January 19th: The crawler across the bottom of the big-screen television tells us that Vice President Cheney will be in a wheelchair the next day at the Inauguration. Most of the customers cheer. Disrespectful? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that one reaps what one sows.

Inauguration Day: President Bush appears, and there is groaning in the crowd, which eventually turns to scattered boos. Somebody starts singing, “Na-na-na-na; na-na-na-na; hey; hey; good-bye;….” It catches the fancy of many in the crowd. I join in. Again, one reaps what one sows. One cannot treat the Constitution and Laws of the United States with disrespect and expect to be treated with respect by the people.

The swearing-in: Despite Chief Justice Roberts’s botching the oath, Barack Obama is sworn in as our 44th President. The crowd, which has been holding its collective breath (afraid that somehow, somebody or something would prevent this happy moment from taking place) exhales and erupts. Tears are running down cheeks, and people are hugging people whom they do not know, have never seen before and will never see again.

After the ceremonies: As the helicopter with the former first family flies overhead, many people begin to cheer. Two thoughts enter my mind: (1) Gone at last! Gone at last! Thank God Almighty! George W. Bush is gone at last! (2) The Village of Crawford, Texas, is no longer missing its Village Idiot.

Back home in West Virginia, January 22d: I sit down to breakfast at Harding’s, a restaurant just north of Charleston. A man near me says (to nobody in particular), “What’s so special about this Inauguration? It was just another Black man moving into public housing!” I announce that I was at the Inauguration and that it was special to me. Another man asks me whether I heard the “inappropriate” benediction by Rev. Joseph Lowery. I tell him that it was a great prayer, that I heard nothing inappropriate.

I was there. Now I’m back here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Every election year the Republicans dust off Roe v. Wade and beat Democrats over the head with it, calling us “baby killers” (or worse). Although I’ve written on this subject before, because we’re in another election campaign, I think it’s worthwhile to revisit it. My purpose here isn’t to take either a “pro-life” or a “pro-choice” position; rather it’s to call attention to yet another example of Republican hypocrisy.

WHO gave us Roe v. Wade? From 1970 continuously to the present day, Justices appointed by REPUBLICAN Presidents have constituted a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1973, the year in which Roe v. Wade was decided, the Court consisted of SIX Justices appointed by REPUBLICAN Presidents (Warren E. Burger, William J. Brennan, Potter Stewart, Harry A. Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell Jr. and William H. Rehnquist) and three Justices appointed by Democratic Presidents (William O. Douglas, Byron R. White and Thurgood Marshall).

The majority decision in Roe v. Wade was written by Justice Blackmun, an appointee of REPUBLICAN President Nixon. He was joined in his decision by FOUR other REPUBLICAN appointees: Chief Justice Burger (who also filed his own concurring opinion), an appointee of President Nixon; Justice Stewart (who also filed his own concurring opinion), an appointee of President Eisenhower; Justice Brennan, an appointee of President Eisenhower; and Justice Powell, an appointee of President Nixon.

To summarize, of the six REPUBLICAN appointees on the Court, FIVE voted with the majority in Roe v. Wade. Only ONE REPUBLICAN appointee, Justice Rehnquist, an appointee of President Nixon, DISSENTED from the decision and filed his own dissenting opinion.

Of the three Democratic appointees, two joined the majority: Justice Douglas (who also filed his own concurring opinion), an appointee of President Roosevelt; and Justice Marshall, an appointee of President Johnson. One Democratic appointee, Justice White, an appointee of President Kennedy, dissented from the Court’s decision and filed his own dissenting opinion.

So, WHO gave us Roe v. Wade? They were FIVE Justices appointed by REPUBLICAN Presidents (Burger, Brennan, Stewart, Blackmun and Powell) and two Justices appointed by Democratic Presidents (Douglas and Marshall).