Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sicko will make you sick

I watched Michael Moore's latest documentary – Sicko – over the weekend, and I was surprised to find how angry, depressed and desirous of moving to France, home of the world's number-one health care system, it made me feel.

The movie starts with a simple premise that we all pretty much know: the American health care system sucks, lots of people don't have coverage, and everything you need should you fall ill might not be covered. But Americans are so used to this system that we tend to blame individuals for their stupidity if they don't have the kind of job that gets them covered. "I have a friends who are 45 and still don't have health insurance," said one friend to me. "I just can't deal with their kind of craziness anymore."

What Americans don't really know – because this would require actually knowing that there are other countries in the world besides our own – is that in many other countries, health care is free and universal. If you are having a baby in Great Britain, you just go to the hospital and have it. There is no stop at the cashier on the way out the door.

I think most people have a general idea of this, but they don't understand the implications. And we sort of toss it aside, anyway: "well, they don't have a military," we say, or "they pay 80% of their income in taxes." I myself have said these things verbatim.

And they may be largely true. Still, Sicko got me thinking that this was a pretty shallow way to look at the issue. Yes, many countries spend far more money on their universal health care than they do their military protection. Well, that's because we, or our government and its military, protects them. (Sort of.) One upper-crust Brit in the movie says this (not verbatim): "it's just a matter of what your country's values are: do you want to spend your money killing people or saving them?"

That got me thinking. I know it is necessary to have a system of national defense in place, but do we need to be spending billions of dollars each year fighting an impossible and unclear war in Iraq? Since 2001, we've spent more than $500 billion in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to warresisters.org (not the world's most bipartisan organization in the world, I realize). Meanwhile, 45-50 million Americans lack health insurance and 18,000 people die each year due to that lack, according to the U.S. Census and the Center for American Progress.

Moore takes these numbers and makes them personal: A two-year-old girl dies in a hospital, and a wife loses her soul-mate husband because the hospital board won't approve the experimental treatment that could save his life. That's saying: sorry, your ability to pay your medical bills far trumps your life – your life! – so please go home and die.

Does that really represent our country's values? Does it represent my values? Does the fact that I am personally doing nothing about this make me culpable too? In some ways, yes, I'm afraid it does. People say "the only way to change things is to vote," but I don't agree. Voting might get some new guys in power, but does it catalyze institutional change? Unlikely, considering the way our government works. The only way to bring about the massive change something like this would require is overwhelming, unrelenting grassroots demand for it, and at this moment, that kind of universal political will does not exist in apathetic, comfortable America.

People argue that Michael Moore's films are propagandistic and don't tell the whole story. I thought that myself watching Fahrenheit 9/11. But Sicko tells stories of personal tragedies that could have been avoided if we as a nation cared more about each other. Propaganda has no affect on that truth.

LA Times' interview with Moore

Time's interview with Moore

New York Times' review

Of course, the Post hates it
But it still gets a Tomatometer of 92% -- that means 'go see it!'

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