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This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Today's Note From a Madman

October 2, 2007


I Asked the White House

If you're going to ask the White House a question, I have found out that you need to make it as non-confrontational as possible. In the past, I have submitted questions to the Bush administration underling forced to answer the from the "Ask the White House" segment on www.whitehouse.gov without having my question answered... until this past week.

Kerry Weems, the Acting Administrator Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from the US Department of Health and Human Services was the one taking questions, which all had to be submitted prior to the actual event (September 28, 2007). The subject was the S-CHIP program which President Bush has vowed to veto, ignoring the wish of a vast majority of Americans and close to a veto-proof majority in both Houses of Congress (the House needs 12 Representatives to pass it by the President's veto).

JUSTIN (Sparta, IL): What is s-chip?
WEEMS: Kerry Weems
The State Children's Health Insurance Program is a state/federal partnership program enacted with bi-partisan support and signed into law in August 1997. SCHIP is designed to provide health insurance coverage to children in families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid in their state, but not high enough to afford private health insurance through their work or in the private market.
SCHIP was originally intended to cover children in families with incomes at or around 200 percent of the federal poverty level or $20,650* for a family of four per year. Some states have exercised their option to increase that amount.
All 50 states and American territories have SCHIP programs in place and currently serve just over six million children.
* $41,300 - Actual level for a family of four per year.
MADMAN: What Mr. Weems, and the other Bushies fail to realize is that the federal poverty level is well under a 40 hour work week for a full-time employee working at a minimum wage job (those that they WILL actually do). But the really troubling thing about this answer is that Mr. Weems appears to recognize the problem with the 20k ceiling. Note the mention that a family of four earning 41k wouldn't qualify to have their children covered - nor would that very same family earning $20,650 plus one more dollar for that matter. And his mention that some states offer the program without federal support to those who still need it, regardless of that magic 20k figure proves that Mr. Weems and the Bushies know that their contribution is not enough.

The next question was one that left my mouth agape:
WESLEY (Fort Worth, TX): How much is health insurance for poor children expected to cost, after one year, after ten years? The government does not have a bottomless pit of money.
WEEMS (in part): You are correct that government does not have a bottomless pit of money. However, denying healthcare to those in need only RAISES health care costs in the long run.
MADMAN: I don't know what is more frustrating: The question by WESLEY basically telling Mr. Weems to "screw the little bastards" or Weems answer which admits - yes, I said ADMITS - that health care for all would, indeed, keep costs lower in the long run.
With thinking like that, Mr. Weems might be asked to "retire" and be given a "medal of Freedom" and a gold watch.

There were others, but, finally, I had a chance to have my question answered - sort of:
NOAH (Sayreville, NJ): President Bush said that the recently approved CHIP I left the "S" off for "Savings) bill would take children already being covered by private health care off those roles and put them onto the government program. Isn't the administration aware that, although children would be protected under this bill, their parents would still have to pay for their health insurance? And seeing that it is a nominal fee (and only a fee that apples to 4-tier health insurance plans, seeing as two-tier plans make no distinction between spouses and spouses plus children) to cover a child (or children) under private plans, people won't drop their health care coverage if they have it already?
WEEMS: Both sides on this issue agree that there will be substitution of federally-financed insurance for private insurance. In addition, both sides agree the higher the family income, the more likely there will be substitution of public insurance for private insurance.
MADMAN (Noah): Did I say that? Funny, I (being on "the other side") don't agree that there will be substitution. In fact, I believe that those who have private insurance will keep it because their employer-partially-paid insurance will still be better than a Medicaid-type program. Higher incomes will keep those who can afford private insurance in private insurance. Take a look at the recent Quebec Province Supreme Court decision in Canada which, for the first time in Canada's recent history, is allowing those who can afford supplemental insurance the right to purchase it.

WEEMS (continued): We should still try to prevent that from happening, rather than encourage it as would happen under the new legislation. The President believes that poor children without insurance should come first. For instance, New Jersey currently has the highest income coverage in the country at $72,275 for a family of four. Moreover, it spends more than half of its SCHIP funds on adults. Yet, New Jersey remains in the lower tier of states of covering the lowest-income children in their state.
MADMAN (Noah): Oh my God! The argument which Weems is using is that New Jersey decided to help their poorer citizens by including them in a health care plan which will enable them to live in an area of the nation where it costs more to live than just about any other area in the nation. How dare we New Jersians attempt to keep people healthy at the expense of Insurance Company profits.
And isn't it "cute" the way Weems made it appear that those families of four earning $72,275 are taking part in the S-CHIP program?

A forum like "Ask the White House" is a good idea, but making it real-time would be a better idea. The Bush White House - the White House who wouldn't allow protesters in shouting distance of the President - would never allow that.

-Noah Greenberg

by Victoria A. Brownworth
copyright c 2007 Journal-Register Newspapers Inc.

I operate an animal shelter. I say this, because I frequently have to rescue injured and feral animals, which is dangerous work. It’s easy to get bitten or scratched and a few times I have been injured badly enough that I have had to go to the hospital.

Here’s what I know from doing this work since I was a child: You have to be gentle and soft-spoken with animals that might lash out at you. That’s the only way to do the work successfully and win the animal’s trust.

I find this life-lesson applies to people, as well. The soft-spoken approach–what we used to call “diplomacy,” is the best way to get people to listen to you. Antagonizing people generally puts them on the defensive, making them more likely to lash out in retaliation or self-protection.

Apparently no one in the Bush Administration ever thought about this, or they would know that every single step they have taken with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been mishandled and misguided.

The Bush Administration states unequivocally that it believes Ahmadinejad to be dangerous–much like a wild animal. Yet the approach has been the same heavy-handed, undiplomatic, antagonistic one they have used with other potential enemies. It is all wrong. And it has, naturally, caused Ahmadinejad to lash out in response.

Ahmadinejad arrived in the U.S. for a brief visit on September 24th and left on September 27th. During that period of time, diplomacy *should* have been the operating principle everywhere, from the halls of power to the streets.

Instead, everyone with power who dealt with Ahmadinejad, from President Bush to Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions, was surly, churlish and offensive.

My maternal grandmother used to say that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar; all Ahmadinejad got on his trip to the U.S. was vinegar and it’s just a matter of time before he considers payback.

Some clarification: While I am indeed a card-carrying leftist, I am *not* one of those apologists for Ahmadinejad nor am I one of those leftists who thinks he’s somehow cool because he says rude things about George Bush. The ridiculous hand-wringing and high dudgeon evinced by the left since Ahmadinejad appeared at Columbia, is yet another result of the bad behavior displayed by Bush, his cohort and Bollinger. If they all hadn’t turned Ahmadinejad into the victim, the man would have been hung by his own troublesome and pathetic rhetoric.

But that’s not what happened and now a large phalanx of the often rhetorically challenged left is spending a great deal of time and space on the blogosphere feeling bad for Ahmadinejad. As are their counterparts in the international community.

Bush and Bollinger turned Ahmadinejad into a martyr, another fallen hero to the ugly American. Nice job.

The insults began even before Ahmadinejad landed. He had expressed a desire to go to Ground Zero in New York and pay his respects. As a head of state, he should have been allowed to do so. This wasn’t Osama bin Laden asking to go to Ground Zero, nor was it one of the Saudi princes who have actually already been there with no problem (even though the majority of the hijackers were Saudis). Might it have offended some sensibilities, including my own? Sure. But this is still America, folks, and we should behave like a democracy, if we are going to promote ourselves as one.

Then there was the appearance at Columbia.

It’s important to remember that Ahmadinejad was an invited guest. Invited. Guest. Personally, I think this was a mistake, but Bollinger has a reputation for photo-op controversies, so this was just another in his retinue. (He’d previously invited a home-grown American lunatic group, the Minutemen–Americans who patrol the Mexican border with guns and special hats–to speak.)

When you invite a guest speaker, it’s best to let them speak. If you think they are wild-eyed ideologues, which Ahmadinejad surely is (as are the Minutemen), then let their own words hang them. Ahmadinejad’s would have done, were it not for Bollinger’s assaultive preamble.

Bollinger got a lot of flak for inviting Ahmadinejad. The Iranian community was furious; they view Ahmadinejad as a violent, repressive lunatic who has forced the best and brightest from Iran, jailed intellectuals and antagonized the entire West with his inflammatory rhetoric. The Jewish community was irate; Ahmadinejad is one the world’s premiere Holocaust deniers and even held a summit last year to debate whether or not the Holocaust actually happened. (Among the invited guests: David Duke, former KKK leader.) Women’s groups and gay groups were angry because of Ahmadinejad’s repression of women and gays. Professors, including the Iranian head of the Iranian studies department at Columbia, Dr. Hamid Dabashi, were incensed, asserting that this was not about free-speech, but about grandstanding. And of course conservatives were outraged because Iran is considered to be a sponsor of terror and responsible for the weaponry being used to attack American soldiers in Iraq.

All of these protests are, of course, valid. Each speaks to the problems of who Ahmadinejad is and what he represents: a repressive, intellectually stifling, dangerously ideological theocratic regime.

Nevertheless, Bollinger knew all these things about Ahmadinejad when he invited him to speak. Consequentially, he *also* knew the degree of protest he would encounter.

It is widely presumed on the blogosphere and in the mainstream media that the anger raised toward Bollinger prompted his embarrassing and rude introduction to Ahmadinejad–that it was meant to mitigate his wrong choice.

It didn’t. Rather, it just put Ahmadinejad in a role he decidedly does not deserve to be in: Victim.

That victimization was further emphasized by Bush when he spoke the next day at the U.N., as did Ahmadinejad.

It’s one thing for late night comedians to make jokes about Ahmadinejad; that’s their job. They don’t hold back on our own leaders, so of course foreign leaders are fair game. Nor is it inappropriate for American citizens–whether they were once Iranian nationals or not–to protest Ahmadinejad over all he stands for. We have free speech in America. It’s one of the many things that separates us from Iran.

But the behavior of the Bush Administration and Bollinger was inexcusable.

Let’s be very clear about why Ahmadinejad got such churlish treatment during his visit: The Bush Administration has no concept of what diplomacy is nor how vital it is to the protection of the planet. Vice President Dick Cheney has been attempting to stir up a war cry against Iran for nearly seven years. Thus far he’s been unsuccessful. But in May, in what the French newspapers termed a “Right-wing revolution," France elected Nicolas Sarkozy, a Bush-supporting ideologue as president. Sarkozy has taken up the drum-beat of war against Iran beside Cheney and Bush.

Americans, and sometimes their leaders, have little memory or knowledge of history, no matter how recent. Which is a shame, because it’s why we are embroiled in a war in Iraq from which it is impossible to imagine a way to extricate ourselves. Another reason it is a shame, is because this Administration, the Republican Party and a small, hawkish segment of the Democratic Party have utterly forgotten the rules and imperatives of the Cold War.

Living in the murder capital of America, in a neighborhood where guns are prevalent, I know not to antagonize strangers, even if they try to antagonize me. I don’t want to get shot.

That modality–don’t antagonize people with weapons that could kill you–was the operative one during the Cold War. Thus in 1959, when Soviet Premiere Nikita Krushchev was the most feared man in the world was invited to the U.S. by President Eisenhower (yes, a Republican and a former General during World War II), he was welcomed with the same pomp and circumstance as one of our allies would have been. He got the big bouquet of roses and the 21-gun salute.

Why? Because Krushchev had his finger on the button of a gazillion nuclear weapons pointed at the U.S. and President Eisenhower thought it might be the better part of valor to treat him with respect and possibly win his friendship, rather treat him churlishly and risk antagonizing a dangerous enemy.

Oh, and Eisenhower also thought it was a sign of America’s *strength,* not weakness, to show the competition around town with dignity.

In his book *Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons,* Carnegie Peace Endowment Fellow and Vice President for National Security at the Center for American Progress in Washington, Joseph Cirincione, notes that the Bush Administration has single-handedly–and to the detriment of the entire planet–jettisoned decades of nuclear detente and proceeded with a policy of “gotcha,” instead, ratcheting up the possibilities of nuclear attack.

Circincione discusses Iran in his book and makes it clear what Iran is doing in terms of nuclear weapons. There is indeed reason to fear Ahmadinejad and his handlers, the faqih, but far more reason, Circincione asserts, to fear Bush and his incendiary attitude toward other nations with nuclear weapons.

The only way to avoid nuclear war, Circincione insists, is diplomacy.

Which leads us back to Ahmadinejad in America.

This was, first and foremost, an opportunity for diplomacy. With the Middle East in crisis–largely due to Bush’s ill-considered invasion of Iraq–any opportunity for diplomacy should be taken advantage of, not spurned. Yet a liberal university and a conservative Administration colluded to antagonize a world leader both consider dangerous and volatile.

Diplomacy really *isn’t* rocket science. In 1959, without benefit of 24-hour TV news or the Internet, most Americans knew who Krushchev was. They knew he had the potential to wipe them off the face of the earth.

Most Americans really *don’t* know who Ahmadinejad is. Even the Bush Administration seems not to realize that he isn’t the person running the government of Iran; that role belongs to the faqih, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who as spiritual leader, supersedes the President, because Iran is a theocracy.

But irrespective of that reality, the only context in which the majority of Americans know Ahmadinejad is the one the Bush Administration has proffered.

I would submit that the Bush Administration is led by and filled with liars. This doesn’t mean that they are wrong about Ahmadinejad; it’s actually one of the few things they have been right about. Ahmadinejad is vicious and repressive. His approval rating among Iranians is actually lower than Bush’s in America, and that takes some doing. The Iranian left and intelligentsia loathe him for all the reasons Professor Dabashi expressed to Bollinger at Columbia: Ahmadinejad’s trying to take Iran back to the fifth century and in doing so, quash all independent thought or questioning, turn women into second-class citizens and in addition, antagonize the rest of the world with his nuclear games-playing. He’s a Holocaust denier, he wants women out of all positions of power and professions, he wants all homosexuals out of Iran (although at Columbia he insisted there were none in Iran). His volatility is well-known among Iranians and feared.

And yet, he has no real power. Not even in his own country. So why not kill him with kindness on his visit? Why not allow the well-behaved and intelligent students at Columbia to present their questions to the Iranian president without the incendiary prologue by Bollinger? The students were respectful; Bollinger was a boor and a churl. Whether or not one agrees with the substance of what Bollinger said–and he was totally accurate–is not the point. The point is singular: Diplomacy.

George Bush identified Ahmadinejad as one of the leaders of the so-called “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address in 2002. (The others were Saddam Hussein, whom we’ve dispatched, and Kim Jong Il of North Korea, with whom we still play cat and mouse.) Since then, Bush has hammered home–with the help of Cheney–his message that Ahmadinejad is a danger to the world.

Well, maybe. He’s certainly a danger to his own people. But so is Kim Jong Il. And so is the military junta killing off peaceful Buddhist monks in Burma (or as the junta calls it, Myanmar). And so are the leaders of Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Peru and a host of other countries under dictatorial or repressive leadership. Is George Bush going to dispatch all of them? Or just the ones in the Middle East who sit on oil reserves he’d like to have?

The right-wing leadership in America decided while Bush was still campaigning for president that it wanted to control Iraq and Iran. That’s clearly laid out in the neo-con playbook. They inveigled Israel–much to that nation’s shame–into participating in ratcheting up the antagonism. And now, at the end of 2007, we are four and a half years into a misbegotten war with Iraq that is seemingly insoluble and the Administration is still clamoring for war with Iran.

For too long Americans have used their intellectual laziness as an excuse for allowing bad things to happen at the hands of our government. It’s one thing to simply be rude to a head of state, it’s quite another to actively antagonize someone you know to be dangerous–like tossing a stick at a mad dog.

When Ahmadinejad was here, Bush should have met with him. There should have been at least a small sit-down, if only for the cameras. Someone should have taken the Holocaust denier down to the Holocaust Museum. Iranian expatriates should have been part of the discourse at Columbia. But above all, America should have shown her best and most powerful side, not her school-yard bully side.

Ahmadinejad in America was a shameful four days that in the end likely boosted his poll numbers back home. More’s the point, it enraged more than the man himself, who seems utterly out of touch with even his own nation’s realities. In treating Ahmadinejad so shabbily, Bollinger, Bush and their cohort enraged those within the Muslim world who were predisposed to take our side because they loathe Ahmadinejad themselves.

The peril of not understanding diplomacy, is this: While Bush, Bollinger and their ilk were busy congratulating themselves for sticking it to Ahmadinejad, thousands upon thousands more people whom we might have won over had we treated him with respect turned against *us.*

It’s a long time till 2008. This week showed just how long and scary those months will be.

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-Noah Greenberg