Origin myths

[Regular readers know that I almost always use this space to write about topics related to publishing. This post is longer, personal and necessarily political. I hope you’ll read it, but I wanted to let you know its flavor before you tried a taste.]

I was in Florida this week visiting my father, who recently turned 81. He moved there in the mid-1990s and has enjoyed a good, relatively simple retirement. He  lives just west of Disney World, where he worked part-time until 2009.

As is the case with more than a few people who have seen eight decades, my father has been struggling a bit of late. I try to see him every few months to check in and perhaps play a bit of golf on the short course (nine holes) that runs through the back yards of the development in which he lives.

This trip, visiting a state where the presidential election is hotly contested, I was bombarded by a raft of television ads (all negative, in my limited viewing) for each of the two major candidates. Sitting with my father as he took a somewhat daunting course of medicines, I tried to line up public policy with personal reality.

It’s fair to say that my father has not enjoyed the easiest time of it. He and my mother divorced when I was ten, and my father was awarded custody of four children. Though we grew up middle-class, we walked a fine line, as my father lost his job more than once when I was in high school and college.

That instability eventually cost him our childhood home. It happened while I was away at college, and it echoes through all of us. Whenever my brothers and sisters gather, there’s a good chance that one of us will talk about having driven by the old house, just to see it. The last time it came up, I learned that it had a garage now, something we’d coveted when we first moved there in 1962.

Good things can be said about the children-now-adults (there are six in all; my father remarried and had two more children in the early 1970s). We’re all working (well, I’m a consultant, but we can pretend). We try to be good parents who are both engaged and mindful of their children.

From time to time, we probably all have some of the characteristics typical of children of divorced parents, but it’s not what defines us. At family reunions, we’re likely to make fun of ourselves as well as our father, who probably deserves most of what we give him.

But getting back to the idea of that house …

Crystallized by presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s offhand description of the 47% of U.S. adults who don’t pay federal income taxes, there’s a theme in this election that is based on what I call “origin myths”. It divides America into two camps.

One camp is populated with self-made men and women, successful adults who got there through hard work, judicious application of their God-given skills and the ability to persist through all obstacles. They have stable lives, stable homes, equity and status at their disposal.

The other camp is made up of people living off the largesse of these self-made men and women.

On first look, you’d guess that I am part of the first group. I managed to get admitted to a well-regarded Catholic high school, graduated near the top of my class and joined four of my high-school classmates at Harvard. After that, I attended and graduated from Harvard Business School, whose alumni include former President George W. Bush and this year’s Republican candidate.

Things are more complicated than that, though. I attended my high school on a full scholarship. You could argue that I earned it, but the smartest member of my class (someone other than me) wasn’t given a full stipend. With my father out of work, I had no plans to apply to Harvard, instead favoring one of the tuition-free military academies, until an anonymous benefactor contacted the high school’s headmaster and offered support.

When I was a teenager, we regularly received food stamps. Even then, there was a stigma surrounding their use, but they were a better option than not eating. When my father was out of work, we went without medical and dental care, on occasions visiting emergency rooms and for years foregoing any trips to the dentist, a gap whose effects are still felt.

With his (somewhat misquoted) remarks about building businesses, President Obama has fostered his own set of origin myths. A great many people work awfully hard to get to where they are today, and it can be divisive, though not equally so, to suggest that it was all a group effort.

Personal experience doesn’t carry the day, but it can inform. When you lose your home, rely on food stamps, forego medical and dental care and earn your spots through the decisions of others, you learn that the absolutes are few and far between. It’s hard to judge others when you’ve been judged yourself.

Given my background, the horse-race nature of media coverage appalls me. For the first time, we have a sitting President who can claim that, through his efforts, tens of millions of children who did not have health care are now covered.

Let me repeat that: in the richest nation on earth, the one that critics of the President say should never bow down before other countries, we had allowed tens of millions of children to grow up without consistent or quality medical care.

You can argue that the government should have no role in providing health care to individuals. You can argue that businesses should not be required to provide health care to employees and their families. You can argue that the market, not the government, should decide what the cost of health care should be.

If you argue all three, though, you have to accept the responsibility for pushing tens of millions of children out of a health care safety net.

It’s politically popular, financially dubious and morally bankrupt to say that you’re going to repeal the Affordable Care Act (derisively labeled "Obamacare") the day you take office. Sure, those millions of kids you push out of the system could have been born to parents with means, jobs, stability and extraordinary good luck. But they weren’t. Maybe their kids will catch a break.

Being poor is not a choice, and it should not be synonymous with denial of basic services, particularly health care. Organizations like Partners in Health (PIH) have promoted the idea that access to quality care is a right, one that should not be denied to people living in places and conditions that make providing such services difficult.

PIH also embraces the “preferential option for the poor”, a Jesuit (and now Catholic) doctrine in which “one's words, prayers and deeds … must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor”.

For some reason we can see why this makes sense in places like Haiti, but we can’t countenance it in the United States. I’ve sat at events with people who love PIH and hate what they call “Obamacare”, claiming that the government shouldn’t be mandating health care for all. Bolstered by origin myths, the disconnect is dizzying.

For the record, this is what Christian values sound like:

“The moral test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor. The "option for the poor," is not an adversarial slogan that pits one group or class against another. Rather it states that the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community.”

“The option for the poor is an essential part of society's effort to achieve the common good. A healthy community can be achieved only if its members give special attention to those with special needs, to those who are poor and on the margins of society.”

I didn’t get to where I am today by hanging back, but I can guarantee you that I would not be where I am without the intervention of countless others. I say “countless” not just because there are many (there are) and some unknown (there are those, too). I say “countless” because so many times, people did something to help not because they had to, or because they would have benefited from doing so. They did it because they thought it was the right thing to do.

Next month, it is possible that this country will vote President Obama out of office. If it does, his commitment to providing children and adults with affordable health care will certainly have played a leading role. This election is a test of our beliefs, one that will determine whether we will be judged as the greatest country on earth (its own origin myth) or just one that got incredibly lucky in the 20th century.

I’m successful enough to know that my personal interests are better served voting for the challenger. But I have more than what I need, at a time when many among us don’t have nearly what they need. I’m voting for the option that at least tries to maintain a belief in that preferential option for the poor.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.