Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Health care crowds

Talk of the crowd is all the rage these days. The word rage here is convenient for me, given that the word describes much of the imagery of the crowd currently being discussed. There are crowds at tea parties, with their subtle and sometimes overt racism; there are crowds at congressional town hall meetings, with their vague and seemingly, amazingly, misinformed anger over health care reform; the crowds that talk to pollsters that are harder to define and thus slowly eroding the credibility of those pollsters (more on that in a later post); shouting; throwing punches; and in all of the talk about these crowds we find a movement toward making the act of gathering problematic in itself.

One image keeps recurring in my mind, that of Kathleen Sebelius attempting to address an audience with Arlen Specter in Philadelphia recently. The key moment comes at about one minute into this video:

She doesn’t seem to understand the nature of the crowd she’s dealing with. As she throws her hands up in frustration, as if to say, “why won’t you listen to reason” she misses the point that the crowd is not there to have a reasonable discussion. It is there to yell. And herein lies the problem for me; the ideological challenge with which I am faced. Can I continue to hold on to the assumption that crowds/audiences, not to mention individuals, can be reasoned with?

I use the term crowd rather than audience because it is a better description. The people who are shouting at members of congress about health care appear to be “barking mad” for lack of a better phrase. I say this not because they have an opinion counter to my own, but because they literally, at points, look like they’re barking rather than speaking; and look mad, crazy-mad not angry-mad.

And here I reach the depressing point. Is the act of gathering in and of itself now damaged? Will pro-health care reform gatherings now be presented in a similar light by media? These “barking-mad crowds” are coming under scrutiny for the organizations behind them, calling into question the act of organization vis-à-vis astroturfing. Will all organization now be tarred as astroturfing?

All of this misses an important point; if the crowd is “inauthentic,” they are not necessarily there to debate the issue of health care, but rather to act as a communication jam; to stop the flow of communication between representatives and constituents who want to interact. Thus, what is presented by actants (the crowd) as authentic outrage and anger as a political act of participation is instead a political act of interruption, at least as it is described here: “If the event were a shouting match, the mob won. [Rep.] Kagen tried talking about the health-care bill, but the roaring chants deafened his attempts.” This textual description is reinforced by video shown on Rachel Maddow.

The word “mob” is becoming more common these days. I’m afraid it might be an accurate description. I don’t recall protests of the left ever substance-less anger. Maybe that’s because I am of the left and I am blinded by my own beliefs here; I think I’m more fair-minded than that, but who knows. We’ll see how today’s forum with Arlen Specter goes.

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