While watching "Sicko," the Michael Moore film last night I got to thinking about why it is that we don't have a Universal Health Care system. I thought of the nationalism and our pride in our own ways of doing things and ultimately the American Dream. I thought of our recent lashing out at immigrants and considered the way these things are connected.
A couple of weeks ago, our local paper published an article on workers' rights. A local non-profit had done a training on workers' rights calling upon an attorney with expertise in the area to help out. The article did not emphasize or really even highlight the undocumented immigrants, yet the online discussion on the newspaper's website took a markedly racist turn. One woman (not as ravingly racist as the person who wanted to tatoo and hang "illegals" who returned) in particular mentioned the loss to our education standards that takes place because of hispanics from uneducated backgrounds inundating our schools. "They don't value education. And I don't want our kids to suffer for it through lowered standards." Aside from the obvious, us-them problem with the argument, its a valid concern for many people in changing schools.
Their standards are heightened, teachers' pay is beginning to be tied to accomplishment, and you're getting shhhhh... hispanics... in your class. Yikes. Joking aside though, a group of kids who speak a different language and don't do their homework is a concern. So why don't they value education?
Well duh, they DO value education. Its just that other values come first. If there's a family celebration that night for instance, that comes first. If they need help around the house, that comes first. Work always comes first. And there is an amount of truth to people who do not have advanced educations not seeing why its important. But as people go through the system and see the benefits of education, they see the value and they begin to tell their kids to do their homework.
Maybe health care isn't so dissimilar. When thinking of how other cultures view Americans, they all think we're fat. Being fat is generally not associated with health. Our culture too associates fat with lazy, but Americans are far from lazy. We work longer workweeks with less vacation than any other western country. Many of us pick up extra work, having 2 and 3 jobs. We're not lazy. So why are we fat and is there something to that association with our country?
I think the underlying theme is we're not healthy. I live in a small idyllic mountain community where the rec center parking lot is always full, people cross country ski, down hill ski, snowshoe, the roads are covered in bikes all summer long, we hike, we kayak, and we look pretty healthy albeit sunburnt. But when I think of the culture of where I grew up in the midwest, I certainly don't think of all that. I think of smoking and drinking, partying, and working really hard to achieve the American dream.
Most of my high school and college friends still in the midwest own their own homes with beautiful furniture and cars bought within the last 4 years. They wear stylish clothing to go out and yes, they all smoke. They are our successes. I have no doubt that they are known in their work places for competence and hard work. They have work friends and probably barbeque with these people on weekends. Those who haven't gotten this far in their success as of yet, are still in school working toward it. And they'll get there.
As for what I'd guess this culture of American dreamers has to say about exercising and health, I'd guess they don't have time. And they really don't. There is little social culture around health. If you want to be in a tri-athalon you'll likely call me 800 miles away. If you want to start trail biking, you might get to go once with a church group but its going to be quite the hunt to find someone to go with you. You might get up an hour before work to shower, put make-up on, iron clothes, make sure everything matches, put gel in your hair... I don't know, but doing yoga for 20 minutes before leaving seems like another thing to add to your list.
We don't value it. Ok we do, just as the "Mexicans" we hear so much about value education, but we have other things that are more important. East Asians often do Tai Chi in the mornings before work and other cultures have other exercises that are part of the morning, but we have rushing and being busy. These people live longer and we think, if I can just get more organized then I can add working out to my todo list. But for those of us who love healthy living, find it a vital part of life, it isn't on the todo list. Its a philosophically different view.
It is a time you grant yourself, a necessary indulgence, probably how advertising has taught us to feel about indulging ourselves with our starbucks, or our spa day or our cheeseburger. The difference is, yoga is not advertised, nor does it help a corporation for you to participate in it. In Europe, you and your friend might take your bikes into a neighboring town for a fun afternoon at an open air market, you might hike into the woods together with your dog to hunt mushrooms. You might have a goal of living to 100 or riding the path of the Tour de France at 80. Their values are different.
We value hard work. We value education. We do not value health the same way. We value it from afar the same way poor from other countries value our education. We think of it as another thing to work really hard at in order to get a nice body. I admit there are many times when I'm working out simply because I'm afraid of becoming a fat American, when working out is a chore that I wish I had a friend to accompany to do. But then summer rolls around and I have friends to hike with and teams to play soccer with and I forget that working out was on my to do list. Because when the dominant culture of the people around values health, you make decisions to spend time with those people doing healthy things. You do it because that's what everybody else does and as it turns out, when you start doing it, its intrinsically good... just like education.
As I was watching Sicko it felt much like reviewing the year I spent as a foreign exchange student. The questions he asked people about maternity leave and hospital payments were the same as the questions I'd asked. I remembered the shock I'd felt at finding out that everyone goes to college for free, at finding out that father's get paid maternity time too, at finding out that all your health is paid for no matter what. That's crazy I thought. And finding out that the government pays for people who can't afford it to go on vacations, "These Swedish people are rich and crazy to spend all this money" I thought. I also recognize now that deep down, I thought they overvalued themselves, that people ultimately don't deserve these things. They don't deserve vacations (although we all know how much better we feel when we return from one). They don't deserve all that time off, yeah its good for them, but you don't NEED it. And if I'm completely honest, even though I believed Americans worked harder I didn't think Americans deserved those things either. I didn't think we deserved things we didn't NEED.
Its not really about what you need in an immediate way though for them. They think long term, and what will be really good for you in the long term, is what we should get you. I wonder now if Americans aren't like that employee who undervalues herself. I can think of just the one right now. She works really hard, does a good job, but she doesn't have the degree for it so she feels like she has to work harder and recognizes the limits to how far she can go. Her brother was sick recently, not the everday cough or flu, hospitalized sick. She was the only family to help out so she had to leave work for a time to care for him. She believes, like most Americans, that she is replaceable. That the only thing keeping her from being beat out in competition by the other guy is her working hard. Keep that nose to the grindstone and you'll get the American dream, house, car, just work hard. But know, deep down know that you worked really hard and someone else could do that too if you stop working hard. If you take a break to do what you need to do which is take care of him. She got sick recently but was too undeserving of her job to take a sick day. Afterall she'd already used up all her value on taking care of him. We are each a cooperative member of a group: at times contributing much and at others taking from the wisdom and abilities of those around us. None of us stands alone. None of us minds helping out coworkers or brothers or friends in our neighborhood. It is part of life. When someone dies, people bring you food knowing that you won't cook any to eat yourself. When someone is in the hospital we visit them. When someone needs, we provide. That is what a community should do, value its members and help them in their need.
Maybe the worst part of not valuing health is the underlying belief system, where we don't value ourselves: so we can't recognize need.