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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Privileges all

A healthy understanding of who owes what may help shape public debate

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

What are they teaching kids in school these days? If you've just read our back-to-school feature section, then you have some sobering material in answer to that question. While others on our staff have been examining the education battleground, I've been studying another- the one where supposedly mature adult products of our education systems engage in civil discourse.

During the past weeks not only has that terrain revealed itself as particularly uncivil but positively unlearned.

Professors have argued in print that the preamble to the Constitution embodies a right to universal healthcare. Our president in a conference call with the nation's leading rabbis told them, "We are God's partners in matters of life and death" and urged them "to address the health care controversy" in their upcoming Rosh Hashanah sermons. Some of the rabbis wondered, did President Obama consult the Hebrew texts about the first and the IRS about the second?

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But the monthlong steamroller continued, and by now everyone has seen the Aug. 18 video clip of a town hall meeting featuring Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who, when confronted with a constituent who compared parts of the Democrats healthcare plan to Nazi programs, responded: "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"

Another asked whether under a single-payer system Frank would pledge to "opt out of your Cadillac insurance and into the same one we will be forced to take?" Frank's reply: "Do you really think that's thoughtful conversation?"

About the same time John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal arguing for healthcare reform pegged to Medicare reform, tort reform, more high-deductible insurance plans, health savings accounts, and other changes-all suggesting a responsible way to avoid a "massive new healthcare entitlement." Loyal customers quickly let him know they could buy their purple-headed cauliflower and acai berry juice elsewhere. They vented via the blogosphere and Facebook, where one Whole Foods boycott group quickly amassed 14,000 members. The posted photos were telling: Toned women toting designer handbags who exercise their private option to buy organic each week were telling a corporate exec that when it comes to healthcare it's public option or else. Never mind that the exec started his business in his garage and now operates in three countries and won an award this year for "socially responsible retailing." Never mind that the extravagant lifestyle purchases Americans make, large and small, are in no small part driving our desperation for a government remedy.

How to cut through this toxic blend of poor logic, faulty economics theory, greed, and bad manners?

The cultural and political history of how we got here is decidely long but the spiritual lesson of it is blessedly short. We have a warped idea of rights and privileges, and we confuse the two all the time. A right is something that we have earned. Obviously, that means we pay for it. My right to expect a paycheck (plus benefits) grows out of my hours put into editing this magazine. My right to parent and have legal custody of my children grows out of my having borne them, and with my husband sheltered, fed, and clothed them.

A privilege is something we receive when someone else pays. The police and firefighters whose deaths we will remember this month on Sept. 11 in part purchased my "right" to walk the streets of New York terror-free. Soldiers and government leaders in Afghanistan made possible the privilege, however broken-down, of elections. A public official like Barney Frank owes his office to his constituents (and to taxpayers everywhere). They have the right to question his actions, and he has the privilege to answer them.

And for the Christian? "Who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?" (1 Corinthians 4:7) The Christian has the privilege to see privilege on all sides: privilege to work, to parent, to exercise authority, to submit to authority, to be sick or to be healthy, to be fought for, and to fight and to die on behalf of others. That should characterize our debate strategy.
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