Mom was probably wrong when she said the local bully was just afraid no one would like him. Nevertheless, hostility often masks fear, especially when that hostility is directed against expressions of care. The vitriol we have seen in opposition to the health care bill, which recently included racist and homophobic remarks directed at members of Congress, represents a kind of fearful opposition to the idea of caring for one another.
In America, part of our national story is that we are rugged individualists, pioneers who do not need help or care from anyone. This long-standing mythology becomes self-fulfilling prophesy as our society becomes increasingly competitive, dangerous and cutthroat. We compete, often ruthlessly, for grades in school, spots in universities and graduate programs, jobs, promotions, careers and financial security. Because of all this intense competition, many of those Americans who have "made it" think of themselves as "self-made." But we are not as independent as we think.
Even in America, where social and public services lag behind most other Western nations, we are enmeshed in a complex web of care and help.
We depend upon parents and teachers, upon medicine and research, and upon elaborate systems of transportation, communication and infrastructure in which most of us have played little part. We depend on government to keep our food and water clean, to catch criminals, to distribute resources, to defend us from enemies and to protect our rights.
To many opponents, the idea of (health) care is anathema because care implies dependence: "If I accept care from you, then my well-being depends on you." Care makes us feel vulnerable, especially if we are not accustomed to it. Whether we have been cared for in our lives or not, we may not always feel cared for, or cared for well. One of the ways we cope is to try to be more fully independent, and this is a useful and even admirable strategy.
But it is important to see that this strategy is also based on damaged trust and the irrational belief that dependence always results in abuse. The neglected child and the adult operating in a fiercely competitive market society are likely to believe that they must be totally self-reliant, because no one else is going to adequately care for them.
Our staunch defense of independence, then, is both honorable and fearful: honorable because in it we take full responsibility for ourselves, fearful because we are afraid of the vulnerability that dependence implies. The exaggerated concern that the health care bill will transform America into a socialist state expresses people's fear of a society of care where no one really cares, where our last defense against painful vulnerability (our independence) is eroded.
That fear says a lot more about our current political, social and economic culture than about the likely effects of this rather limited piece of legislation.
Matthew Bowker, Ph.D., is a professor of social sciences and humanities at Medaille College.