21 novembre 2009

Hard Traveling in Kentucky and California

My friend Linda Eklund contributed this translation of an article I published in "il manifesto" last October.

Lexington, University of Kentucky. I am telling a social studies class about my research in Appalachia, and it occurs to me to tell them that I always have trouble getting reimbursed by the university for travel expenses because Harlanthe equivalent of one of our provincial capitalsis unreachable by public transportation so I never have a normal receipt give the administration. One girl asks, But you can get to rural towns on public transit in Italy? I tell her yes, by and large. At least until we took it in our heads to privatize everything, access to public transportation was more or less seen as a right of citizenship. They were floored: that the idea of rights might apply to something like public transit came as a complete surprise. Forget about healthcare, which is the topic of the day.
That evening, Rhonda, who left a medical career to be a musician, asked me ponit blank, How is your healthcare system? I explain that for all of the waste, bad politics and corruption, whatever it does is done for everyone. Here in the U.S. it is different, a lot depends on who you are. Jo Carsona poet, performer, and extraordinary playwright has a colon cancer. She has no insurance and no public assistance. Luckily, she is famous and her friends and readers are taking up a collection for her treatment. Maybe they’ll pull it off. For people who are not so well known and more alone, things are worse.
Gurney Norman, the poet laureate of Kentucky, tells me about a relative of his wife who also has a tumor. His insurance only agrees to pay a fraction of the cost. The opponents of healthcare reform say they are upset that state bureaucrats might decide matters of life and death, but it seems normal to them that private bureaucrats can do so on a profit-making basis. Fortunately this patient has knowledgeable, stubborn, well-connected relatives who mount such a huge legal and public relations ruckus that the insurance company caves in the end. But it is a power game and not very many come out winners.
A few days later in Santa Rosa, California, the local newspaper reports that one of the major HMOs - the organizations that manage insurance and treatment - has broken relations with the University of San Francisco and that its clients can no longer access the services of university specialists. The University and the HMO trade insults and accusations through newspaper ads. Lucia, a psychotherapist and wife of a university teacher, explains the excellent insurance coverage available to her family. It costs them a few dollars a month, it is tax-deductible, it covers almost everything with a co-pay of ten dollars a visit (free for certain preventive-care check-ups). She and her husband have had every sort of surgical treatment at very little cost. She says: I would be perfectly happy to pay more taxes if everyone could get these benefits.
Her husband just turned 65 and she is getting there. At that age all citizens qualify for Medicare, a reasonably efficient insurance program (They say: if Barak Obama had framed his proposal by calling it Medicare for everyone under 65 people would have understood it immediately and he would have had a lot less trouble). Except that Medicare does not materialize automatically. In the United States, many rights - starting with the right to vote - are only getable if you apply, and the system does not always make it easy to get in the door. Think how complicated it can be just to register to vote. Lucia tells me about the bureaucratic rigmarole she had to go through to get Medicare: form after ever-more-complicated form, lines, phone calls, long waits for bureaucrats who slammed the phone down on her, and Lucia says, I am informed, persistent and I know my rights. But what about older folks who are not as comfortable with written instructions, who don’t speak much English, who don’t have the courage to challenge the people behind the counter? One begins to think that the United states might be a little like the world imagined by Ghedini, Berlusconi’s attorney: Even when the law is equal for everyone, its exercise and its application need no be equal - a random matter of class.
From Lexington I have to go to Louisville. These are the two major cities in Kentucky, about the size of Bologna and Florence, and equally distant at about seventy miles. Notwithstanding the conversation in class the morning before, I am still innocent enough to think I can make the trip by bus. Naturally it doesn’t exist. And the train? Hardly. The plane ticket is priced way out of proportion, and I end up going by taxi; one hundred and ninety dollars, and I doubt that anyone will ever reimburse me.
Berkeley, California, where the Sixties started with the Free Speech Movement and the student uprising of 1964. Its raining and I duck into a café. I count 25 people sitting at 25 small tables separated from one another and absorbed in 25 computers. No one is talking – forget Free Speech. On second glance, I see a couple - both with their own computers. It looks like the lonely crowd that David Riesman talked about 50 years ago. I take a picture with my cell phone but the photograph doesn’t really capture the scene. I sit down at my own little table and I open a book.
That morning David Walls, one of the rebels from 1964, and I were talking about individualism in this country, and he rightly told me that there is a counter-narrative, the history of the benevolent community, of people helping each other and volunteering to help those in need. And it couldn’t be truer. It was true of the friends and readers who rushed to help Jo Carson. But the problem isn’t benevolence; it’s rights. And that the community, when it exists, risks dissolution. Everyone is bound to those who are far away, and separated from the people sitting beside them, like Calvinists believers united and alone in the face of God.
To get to David and his wife’s house in Santa Rosa I take the bus from San Francisco. Unlike Kentucky and most of the country, San Francisco is something of a paradise for public transportation. There is stupendous rapid transit, picturesque streetcars, and bus lines all over the Bay Area. It takes three hours to cover sixty kilometers, but its worth it. The landscape from the Golden Gate is fantastic. And they only talk Spanish on the bus.
In this car-focused country, public transportation is a good place to see the invisibles. Already a cyclist with the long white hair of an ex-hippie under his helmet got on the subway and launched into a long and fairly incoherent oration to his seat-mate about a book written by three Italians that explained all the mysteries of the Kennedy assassination, Oswald and Ruby (California is the world capital of conspiracy theories). But this is where you find the marginalized: riding the intercity buses. While I’m waiting, a black boy with flowing dreadlocks tells me a complicated story and ends by asking me for money to get home, he says. I give him a few dollars, thinking it isn’t the first time I’ve doled out money to a citizen of the world’s richest superpower, and he takes off. A little later a woman comes up. She stands by the bench for a while then breaks the silence: These niggers and Jews take up a lot of space and theyre only good for talking shit. And she shuts up. I freeze. She isn’t white; she could be Asian or Indian. On her wrists she is wearing the kind of pearl bracelets we usually associate with native artisans.
I find Lucia and David in Santa Rosa. Many years ago they adopted an Afro-American baby (with some white ancestry). The boy is older now, married to a Mexican girl, and they have two kids who are black, white, Latino, Indian, bilingual in English and Spanish, and really good-looking. If the world goes the way it ought to go, they are the future, the post-Obama generation. Maybe down the road they will feel confused and want to know what their real identity is. But no one will get to impose it on them from the outside as a prison and a stigma.
If the world goes the way it ought to go. But the old world still has a poison sac in its tail. The father of these children was let go (after training the people who took his place) and re-hired after six months without pay, with a six-month contract, with no insurance and no pension. The Louisville Courier-Journal reports on a judge in Louisiana (the most racially mixed state in the U.S.) who refused to sign a marriage license for a mixed couple. I’m worried about the kids, he explained, These marriages always go bad. Naturally, racism has nothing to do with it. Im not a racist. Its just that I dont think its right to mix the races this way. I have lots of black friends. They come over to the house. I marry them. They use my bathroom. The idea that you are tolerant because you allow blacks to sit on your toilet strikes me as a touch of absolute genius.
Everyone asks me, and I ask everyone, what they think of the Nobel peace prize for Barack Obama. Everyone I talk to is moderately content: So lets wait and see what he’s really going to do. But David succeeds in expressing what I also feel: Our task is not to stand around waiting and passing judgment. What Obama does depends on us, too. After the electoral success, some American progressives are sitting down on the job. But tomorrow David and a small group of activists will go to a demonstration holding placards in favor of new environmental laws. On the sidewalks of Telegraph Avenue, where everything started in 1964, they stop me to ask for a signature and a few dollars for the healthcare reform campaign. They won’t be enough to move the world, but fortunately they aren’t sitting down.