An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Sarah Palin [whatever]-gate

Posted in US politics by Frieda on June 13, 2010

Palin on 'On the Record' (Fox news)

As a member of the ‘liberal elite’ eastcoast media, you would expect me to side against Sarah Palin in any argument. And let me be clear, although I’ve had phases of fascination with Ms. Palin (she is SO popular — what can we learn from that/her?) I do detest her politics.

But I’m disappointed in the media’s recent kerfuffle over her. The debate surrounds the question of whether Palin has had breast implants: if you closely peer at the multitude of photos that websites are posting on the subject, you can almost detect a marginal increase in their size; though ultimately it’s hard to tell.

A while back I became a ‘fan’ of Smart Girl Politics on Facebook. Now, these are Republican women activists, who say they are dedicated ‘to effecting change at the grassroots level.’ Although I’m not Republican (bien sûr) I think that it’s salutary to know what the other side is thinking, and even to learn from them if possible, subscribing to an idealistic notion that if both sides listened to each other more, American politics might not — just might not — be so terrifyingly polarized.

On Friday a Smart Girl Politicker posted, ‘deciding it’s easier to ignore Sarah Palin’s role in yesterday’s primaries, the media instead focuses on … her chest?’ linking to an article in the Boston Herald, written by a woman, that begins, ‘Hey Sarah Palin, I can see your cleavage from my house!’ The Herald piece is so snarky and gratuitously anti-Palin, minus any substantial political content, that I felt some sympathy. However nasty you think the woman is, her breasts should not be the point.

Further, sticking ‘Sarah Palin’ and ‘breasts’ into a newspaper article just ends up lending weight to Palin’s criticisms of the media. In the short-term such articles may get a gazillion hits, but in the medium and long-term it’s a liberal-elite-media own goal.

The story’s all over the web of course. On Gawker I watched Palin defending herself on Fox news. With a trickling (Alaskan?) waterfall in the background, evocative of religious bookmarks or the cheesiest of greetings cards, Palin says ‘boob-gate is all over the internet right now because there are I guess a lot of bored, idle bloggers and reporters out there with nothing else to talk about’ (er, I guess so!). But she makes a serious point: ‘They need to grab a shovel, go down to the Gulf, volunteer to help, clean up and save a well or something instead of reporting on such stupid things like that.’

I’m going to stop here, as I’m feeling chastised. On this one, I’m with Palin.

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That hopey changey stuff

Posted in US politics by Frieda on March 23, 2010

Republican protestors on Capital Hill in November (Pic: AP)

I couldn’t bear to watch the end of the healthcare debate last night. When I went to sleep at 11pm, it was still going on, and it continued to midnight. I couldn’t bear to check US newspapers this morning either, so I heard the good news from a more distant source, the BBC Today show. It was the first headline Justin Webb read out: “Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare reforms have finally been approved by Congress.”

There was a hint of bemusement in US correspondent’s Mark Mardell‘s voice as he reported. This is what landmark means: “Nearly every American will have to take out insurance, or face a fine, and insurance companies will be stopped from refusing to insure sick people, or dropping them when they get ill.”

Bewilderment of some sort would be justified. To anyone outside the US who lives in the developed world, the healthcare bill introduces measures that are elementary, basic, almost a bare human right.

This in itself isn’t news to anyone who’s been following the bizarre healthcare debate,  but some of the provisions are truly telling. They show just how bad the situation has been.

The most striking today was this factlet, reported in the Wall Street Journal: From 2010 onwards, insurance companies will be “barred from denying coverage to children with pre-existing illness.” What? What??!! I thought, when I read this. Clearly up until now it had been entirely legal for insurers to deny coverage to sick children. Given the wild costs of healthcare in the US, many kids must simply have had to do without. It seems unimaginable.

Also shocking was news of the turmoil at Capital Hill. On Saturday anti-bill demonstrators hurled racist slurs at African-American senators entering the House. Oh, and spat on them. Nancy Pelosi linked arms with John Lewis, an African-American congressman from Atlanta Georgia, to show her support. Lewis said the protests reminded him of his days as a civil rights activist in the 1960s. “There’s something loose in the land which has created this climate,” he said, adding, “I don’t any ill-feeling or malice towards people who use the ‘n -‘ word, the individuals that spat on my colleague … Our responsibility is to create a greater sense of community.”

But … I just don’t understand. How does healthcare relate to race? The madness that unfurled during this debate seems randomly to blend specific anger about government activities with a free-floating racist rage. It says a lot about America.

I’ve lived in the US for under two years. It’s impossible for anybody here to go unscathed by the maelstrom of awfulness that is the US medical system. Whether you’re rich or poor, uninsured like me (well, we’ll see how travel insurance works!) or even insured, the system gets you down. Just the other day Cary Tennis, the advice columnist at Salon.com, who is receiving treatment for cancer, wrote that his insurance company had denied a request to pay for the treatment doctors said he needed. After he hired “a professional medical advocate” and asked Salon.com readers to lobby his insurance company, his treatment was approved.

“Thanks to everyone who has worked on my behalf, the medical reviewers at Blue Cross have taken a second look at the case for proton beam radiation therapy and have approved my treatment,” Tennis wrote today.

He later said: “I do fear for the fate of sick people who lack the communication skills, the research skills, access to media and the resources to call upon the necessary specialists to make sure that their cases get the scrutiny they deserve.”

Hmm. Should a cancer patient need to hire an advocate and establish an internet campaign, just to get care for his illness? Note: this was someone who had insurance. If you don’t have it, you go bankrupt; or simply forego treatment.

On a personal level I’ve had some deeply unpleasant encounters with the US medical system, which I chose not to blog about because they were just too depressing. The most amusing, though, was when I had a shouting match with my elderly pharmacist.

Towards the end of my period of insurance as a student, I went to my doctor to get one or two extra prescriptions to tide me over while I figured out what to do next. When I went to the chemist, the prescriptions wouldn’t go through because I had maxed out my limit, according to my insurance company’s records (this couldn’t have been true, the company just knew I was near the end-date of coverage). I was upset and struggled to understand what was happening. Somehow the grey-haired pharmacist took my questions amiss, and we ended up in a row. “It’ll be worse when Obama gets his way!” the old man yelled at me. “It couldn’t get any worse!” was my reply.

Today I received an email from Barack Obama entitled “Thank you, Frieda” (I don’t quite know what I did but I’m on his mailing list). “For the first time in our nation’s history, Congress has passed comprehensive health care reform. America waited a hundred years and fought for decades to reach this moment. Tonight, thanks to you, we are finally here,” Mr. Obama wrote.

“We have shared moments of tremendous hope, and we’ve faced setbacks and doubt. We have all been forced to ask if our politics had simply become too polarized and too short-sighted to meet the pressing challenges of our time. This struggle became a test of whether the American people could still rally together when the cause was right — and actually create the change we believe in,” he went on.

Yet it’s been those who rallied together against the bill that have really been notable over the past year.

Still, what Sarah Palin called “that hopey changey stuff” has come back to life again. Although it rained all day today and it’s dark now, the world somehow feels a sunnier place.

Update: For another instance of someone WITH insurance being screwed by the system, see Nicholas Kristof in last weekend’s New York Times, where he asks if insurance companies cover any illness at all.

Update 2 (April 1 but it’s not a joke): Certain insurance companies have made women pay more for coverage than men, even men who smoke, arguing that women are more likely to avail themselves of it. For this and more insalubrious info. about health insurance sexism see NYT, March 29 2010, “Being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition.”

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Obama: beats January blues with lilac

Posted in US politics by Frieda on January 28, 2010
Lilac aplenty at the SOTU speech

Lilac theme dominates at the SOTU speech*

More than a million people tuned in to the Whitehouse website to watch Obama’s State of the Union address tonight. The president was like a benign Santa Claus, doling out tax cuts to the middle class, and scolding naughty bankers (that’ll be coal for you guys!).

Although I’m a true fan of Obama, I could see some of the traits that the Republicans have been picking on. He started his speech by referring to history, and took us through occasions in the past when America has endured trouble. It really was a little like listening to a professor in college. (One rightwing pundit, S. E. Cupp, today criticized him as a “Harvard-educated, memoir-penning intellectual and oratorical genius” who could never be a populist — that may be, but I just don’t see much wrong with having an intelligent world leader).

The text of his speech was already online as he gave it; and I’m sure it will have been analyzed to death by morning (I’ve found this site an excellent source of analysis). But a couple of things stood out.

“I’ve been told that addressing our largest challenges is too ambitious,” he said. “I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should we put our future on hold? Washington has been asking us to wait for decades.”

In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King dealt with the issue of waiting:

“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

Obama’s speech, of course, had lots of other rhetorical flourishes. The familiar term “hope” popped up numerous times, as well as, just once, the now-Bush-tainted word, “freedom.” And there was a poignant moment when Obama said of the famous Change: “I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone.” He responded to attacks (on healthcare: “I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people”), and admitted it’s been a difficult year.

Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind Obama alongside Joe Biden, was constantly on camera, her glossy mauve lipstick matching both her own lilac suit, and Biden’s stripy purple tie. In the audience, Michelle Obama wore a long plum skirt and plum-coloured top, reflecting the Pelosi-Biden purple pairing. Isn’t it odd to imagine them co-ordinating their outfits? [Update, Jan. 28: My friend C. reminds me that purple = red + blue which (kind of) = bipartisanship. That would be ingenious].

The speech was 71 minutes long, and the first 30 minutes, at least, went by in the blink of an eye. Forget about rhetoric and academicism. As he warmed to his subject, which he perceptibly did about 15 minutes in, Obama was an engaging, personable performer. And there was no talk of anger, as my friend S. E. Cupp had foretold (“Expect the President to announce he (suddenly) hears you. Drink every time he says the word ‘anger'”).

The conservatives can go crazy about it, and who knows what liberals will say, but to me the speech hit its mark.

It was only on re-reading Cupp’s piece that I realized the SOTU is a party event, complete with drinking games. Another American custom I found out about, too late! I watched it on my laptop, alone, at home.

*The pic comes from an LA Times politics blog.

Brooklyn pays tribute to MLK

Posted in Brooklyn, US politics by Frieda on January 19, 2010

Dr. Martin Luther King jr.

NEW YORK* — It’s astonishing to think that Martin Luther King was just 39 years old when he died. Had he not been shot by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, he would be 81 this year.

Today is Martin Luther King day in the US, the only American public holiday dedicated to an individual. It falls on the Monday closest to January 15, MLK’s birthday. It’s designated as a “day of service,” the idea being that people use the holiday to volunteer to do good work of some kind. To mark it, I went with friend L. to a tribute to this brave man at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

L. had warned me to arrive early. In previous years, after the event featured in the media, it was impossible to get in. So I turned up at 9.45am, a good 45 minutes before it began, and joined the line outside. It was fascinating to see who was there — a small number of white people (why so few?) but mostly elegant African Americans in their Sunday best.

We were bowled over by the brilliance of the gospel singers from the New Life Tabernacle Mass Choir. The pastor himself was musically gifted, and he led the choir with a smooth warm voice. The singers swayed and clapped and sang their hearts out, while several in the audience stood up and whooped and sang along, including one adorable little boy in the seats in front of us. For some songs, a woman led the choir, wearing a short black dress, high heels (of course) and a delicate long coat that looked like a dressing gown. She was joyously over the top, urging the choir to sing out and at one point lying on the stage in a fetching pose.

One of the preachers summed up the mood perfectly. In his church, he said (in the underprivileged area of Bedstuy in Brooklyn), the congregation tell him they are “too blessed to be stressed.”

Actor Danny Glover was the keynote speaker, and he described America as living in the wake, not of MLK’s death, but of his absence. Glover wondered what questions MLK would ask if he were alive today. Wouldn’t he ask why Haiti had been treated so badly by history? Glover, who is 63, broke down, his voice cracking.

Brooklyn has the largest population of Haitians in the world outside that country. There must be many who are suffering here.

The district attorney, Charles Hynes, said that at any point in time, 25% of young African Americans are in prison or on probation or parole. This statistic was so shocking I wondered if I’d misheard it, but L. said that was right.

One of the last speakers was Dr. William Pollard, president of  Medgar Evers College, a historically black school. He too spoke of Haiti. A student from the college recently visited Haiti with his mother for a holiday and is still there now, trying to return. Pollard said the student had told him, over email, that US embassy officials had arranged a line at the airport. It was for journalists and caucasian Americans only.

At the tribute’s end, the choir-master preacher returned to the stage and said, “Let’s have some more church!” And the singing began again.

*I got back to NYC last week.