After ‘Sicko,’ old American ideals seem lost

Sunday, July 8, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

When I read the Declaration of Independence in the Missourian on the morning of our 231st birthday, I had to wonder whether ­— amidst parades, cookouts and fireworks — we’ve forgotten something important.

That’s the part where Mr. Jefferson and his fellow traitors to the Crown declare that they’ve had enough, that revolution is required and that they’re all in it together. Remember that last, spine-tingling line? “... We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

So I went to the movies. My life’s companion and I saw “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s latest. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. There’s at least a chance, I think, that, like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” this is a film that will change the public conversation, maybe even public policy.

You know the story line: After introducing us to a variety of victims of our current health care system, Mr. Moore takes his cameras and his audience to examine some alternatives. He visits Canada, Great Britain and France, all of which have government-run systems that produce better results at lower cost than ours. In the grand finale, he gathers three of the many rescue workers from Sept. 11 who’ve been labeled heroes while being denied adequate medical care, along with some of the others, and takes them to Cuba, where they receive what appears to be compassionate, effective — and free — treatment.

If you’ve only read the reviews, you probably don’t realize that in this film more than his previous works, such as “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Mr. Moore is striving for empathy rather than outrage. He lays a credible foundation of the facts we already know — how we spend more and get less care than any other developed country, and how the big money of the insurance companies and drug companies perverts policy making. In a tone more of sadness than anger, he shows us the real stories of real victims of the system we tolerate.

As the lights came up, I was left wondering how much truth there was in the explanation one Frenchman offered for the differences between his country’s all-inclusive, taxpayer-supported system and ours, in which denying care and maximizing profit seem to be the objects of the enterprise. In France, he said, the government fears the people; in the United States, it’s the other way around.

An old English left-wing politician suggested another possible cause. Britain’s National Health Service, he recalled, was created after WWII, a time of shared sacrifice and shared commitment. Real democracy is required for real change, he said.

Could it be that we’ve become a people so self-centered, so self-satisfied, or maybe so apathetic and even cowed, that we refuse to see the need for a health care revolution when it stares us in the face? Is our political system so corrupted by the legalized bribery that finances unending election cycles that it is incapable of responding to a crisis so evident and so critical?

The essential question is the one Mr. Moore poses near the end of the film. As a people, who are we, anyway? Is that pledge of 1776 still relevant? Or is it just a historical relic to be recalled once a year?

George Kennedy is a former managing editor for the Columbia Missourian and a professor emeritus at the Missouri School

of Journalism.

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