The Star-Ledger

Listening For The 'Voices Of Reason' In The Healthcare Debate At N.J. Townhalls

The Star-Ledger — Tuesday, August 25, 2009

NJ Voices
Mark Diionno / Star-Ledger Columnist

Where are the voices of reason in the healthcare debate?

Shouted down, or off camera, but there. If you listen hard enough. Or if you read.

But it's hard to get past all the name-calling and label-hanging. Socialists, Astroturfers, Nazis, all of it, obscures reason like graffitti obscures a sound wall. We don't hear solid logic, or find appreciation for the art of compromise. We hear only the screamers.

"It saddens me to see how much anger there is in this country," said Betty Butler, 83, who spoke at the Piscataway town hall meeting Monday night with Rep. Frank Pallone.

Butler has watched policy issues debated since FDR's New Deal and wonders where the "civility" has gone.

She held a sign that said "Healthcare NOT Warfare" as she spoke Monday. A gentle soul in '60s jewelry and dress, she asked Pallone to back single-payer healthcare because the sick and poor deserve treatment, too. She was vociferously hooted by some as she spoke, then applauded by others when she mentioned the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Everyone seems so frustrated and fearful, so afraid of losing what they've got," she said, with a hint of sadness in her voice. "We no longer know how to talk to each other."

More accurately, we no longer know how to listen to each other.

"People have become too idealogical," Pallone said, with a hint of weariness in his voice after the first of two 90-minute sessions Monday night. "It would be great if we could think of things more practically and get away from the ideology and labeling."

And name calling. Socialist. Communist. Fascist. These words are bandied about, without regard for definition. Or reality. Or history.

People on either side call each other Nazis. Barack Obama is called Hitler.

Has our IQ fallen that low? Or our knowledge of history? Not to mention our sense of decorum.

While introducing Pallone Monday night, Piscataway mayor Brian Wahler asked the crowd to be respectful. In the back, a guy held a day-glo green sign that said "It's really about Liberty!" on one side, and "BULLSHIT!" on the other. As Pallone spoke, the BS side often faced him. So much for decorum.

Jim Granelli, who is against the healthcare plan because he is against government control, arrived at the town hall meeting at 4:30 p.m. and was second in line.

"I wanted to make sure I got in," he said.

Granelli also thinks the days of compromise and intelligent discourse are over.

"I'm all for reform, but I trust free enterprise and capitalism, the things on which this country was built," he said. "But the minute you disagree with people, they start calling you Nazis or Astroturf (referring to phony grassroots organizations planted by conservative groups). I'm not with some group. I'm a member of John Q. Public. But there is so much polarization, I doubt either side will honestly ever listen to each other."

Almost on cue, two verbal skirmishes broke out on either side of Granelli in minutes. Eve Gittelson, who blogs for Huffington Post and the Daily Kos, and Rosi Efthim, the editorial director of the political website Blue Jersey, were arguing with Dan Fialkowski, who was wearing a Tea Party t-shirt.

"The fact that some people don't have healthcare in the wealthiest country in the world makes me ashamed to be an American," she said. "We represent the mainstream: 77 percent of Americans want a public option."

"Not anybody I know," said Fialkowski. "And whose going to pay for it?"

As faces got red, Fialkowski twice touched Efthim's arm while making a point.

"Don't touch me!" she said, getting the attention of police at the door.

On the other side, Manijeh Saba, who is for the plan, argued with a woman who asked not to be identified because she works in the healthcare field. Their voices drowned each other out.

"I can't ge a word in edgewise," the healthcare worker said.

"You just talk. But you're not listening," both said to each other, almost in unison, before Saba walked away.

And so the bumper stickerisms fly. "Higher Taxes. Rationing. Bankruptcy." said one sign. "Certified MOB Member," said another. "No Obamacare."

Those were the hand-made signs. The printed ones came from pro-plan lobbying groups like Healthcare for America, and New Jersey Citizen Action.

"And they call us Astroturf," Fialkowski said. "They're a hell of a lot more organized than we are. This place is filled with their operatives. Half of them aren't even from New Jersey."

One of those "operatives" was a young idealist named Crystal Snedden. At 25, she sees hope in the discussion.

"I think when you talk to people one-on-one, you can have a rational conversation," she said. "When you have these huge crowds, then it gets a little crazy. It seems like people are more interested in taking down the president than the actual healthcare debate."

When you have huge crowds, you also get media attention. When you get media attention, the posturing starts. The signs get thrust into the cameras, the fingers get pointed, the voices go up.

Is it all to be heard?

Or be seen?

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