18 September 2013

Mark from Olathe, KS  


Mark is a 41-year old Warrant Officer in the US military (I'll withhold the branch for his sake). He hails proudly from Olathe, Kansas ("we've got more cows than jobs!") and considers himself "pretty damn patriotic."

Mark and I were working together recently and--as is often the case--FOX News was on the television not too far from us. If I had a nickel for every time FOX News started a heated political conversation...

Mark was concerned about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Or, to put it more succinctly, "Obamacare is fucking communist," he told me without prompt.

I did a quick choke of the coffee I was drinking (it was cold; we'd been working for a while) and asked him to elaborate. "This is just government spending--mandatory government spending--jammed down our throats to pay for people who can't afford to live within their own damn means. This is government telling people how to live their lives." 

Mark was raised Baptist in a loving family with 5 other brothers and sisters. And we're talking "Baptist" with a capital "B"; that kind of Midwestern, down-to-the-river sect that values strict adherence to church rules on Sundays and other related things, such as always holding the door open for ladies and voting Republican.

There's just one thing, though--Mark's sister has a daughter with Downs' Syndrome. The reason I came to know this was that he got a call from his sister while we were out at lunch; apparently, his sister was having a tough time keeping the house together on this particular day.

"Why should anyone tell me how to live my life? Being American means you take care of yourself and your kin. This government-sponsored robbery is communist, plain and simple. Anyone who tries to say otherwise is a liberal apologist."

The way Mark says "liberal apologist" makes me think that the only other group of people he's ever spoken about in that tone are the Devil and his evil henchmen. I'm treading a fine line here, so I say: 

"Well I don't know, Mark, I think there's a case to be made that says this country was founded on people taking care of one another, regardless of who they were. And that, if that hadn't happened, this country would have ceased to exist a long time ago."

Mark scoffs at that idea (and I'm afraid I have just been lumped in with the apologists and henchmen).

"This isn't about helping people; it's about control. The government wants to control the type of care, how much you can pay the doctors--do you know how much it costs to go to medical school? And now all the good doctors are going to leave; I've already talked to some of the good folks back home who are saying they are going to pack up their practice because they can't afford it!"

"But Mark, what are they going to do? Toss horseshoes and live off of their savings forever? Doctors have never been the problem, and this law isn't going to change the fact that ours are the best. This is still America, and it's still the greatest place on Earth to work, right?"

"Not if Obama has his way! Look around you. Gun control, health control. It's a goddamn banana republic."

Mark's family originally emigrated from Germany back in the late 19th century. His ancestors lived for a short while on Long Island before moving West--far west, first to Oklahoma for a generation, then north to Kansas. Mark's parents, however, were the first to live in Olathe, where Mark spent most of his childhood.

"Well that's what elections are for, man, and if you can convince enough people that you're right I don't think that concern is warranted. But the point is, health care was bankrupting some people--the exact people who were closest to poverty in the first place. Is it their fault that they got sick or injured? I think Obamacare makes health care affordable for people--and while we're going to have to pay somewhat in the interim--I think it says a lot about us as a people. We can take care of our own--isn't that what Jesus would want, too?"

I'm bracing for the smackdown after the religious insert at the end. But it doesn't come. Instead:

"That's what charity is for. And Jesus said, "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's; but give to God what is God's." 

Mark's parents were educators, and moved from the family home to Olathe where they could both work together. Mark's father eventually worked at a community college while his mother would tutor throughout the year. They worked hard for all of Mark's life, he remembers, despite having to raise 6 kids on little money. "We didn't have new things, we just learned to love the old ones," Mark says.

"If charity was the whole answer to the problem of affordable health care, I'd agree with you completely. But we're a country and I don't think it's always so black and white. There's a solution that is part-charity, part-government, part-family. You just only hear about the government solution and mistake it as the whole thing because FOX News has to make ratings!"

"It's no different than MSNBC or CNN or whatever other channel Obama pulls the strings on."

"Do you think I'm a liberal apologist?"

"Yeah. Don't worry, I won't hold it against you."

Mark and I might not have come to an agreement on the issues on this day, but that's okay. Regardless of our political stripes, we can all agree that those who are working hard and having a hard time--having a child with Downs' Syndrome or working your whole life, paycheck-to-paycheck to make a better world for your children--are more than worthy of our respect.

I'm afraid that in this constant cycle of sound bites and vitriolic opinions, those who would shout the loudest just to hear that sound of their own voice might crowd out those of us just talking, living and making the world a better place. There is a place for Mark, for FOX News and for all the rest of us--if we can all keep it in perspective.

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