Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Advice and Dissent

As the debate over healthcare reform moves to center stage, two things are becoming apparent:
  1. Many people are severely misinformed and have been intentionally misled by powerful corporate interests.
  2. Some of the protesters showing up at Town Hall events believe that might makes right, and that their vociferous outbursts give credence to their basic ignorance.
Understanding what is at stake (as opposed to merely regurgitating talking points that you've never stopped to question) is crucial to getting a grasp on how and why America's form of delivering healthcare needs to be changed. Some people might be very pleasantly surprised if they really understood what the proposed reforms might accomplish. Some people might be very angry to learn how private insurers have conspired to deceive them about what they thought they were entitled to receive as part of their health insurance.

Watching President Obama's Town Hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire was an eye opener. Unlike his predecessor (whose Town Hall meetings were padded with carefully vetted and pre-screened questions), Obama embraced the challenge of hearing from skeptics and people who were opposed to his health plan. He wanted to set the record straight and didn't shrink from any questions. Several times during the event he stressed the public's right to an informed choice, their right to be able to pick the better economic deal for their needs.

The question of one's so-called rights is always a sticky one. Some LGBT people are currently locked in a battle for same sex couples to be granted the same Federal rights (some of which translate into direct financial savings and increased personal security) that are automatically granted to married heterosexual couples. Other LGBT people are fighting for the right to serve their country without the threat of losing their job because of their sexual orientation.

The fight for one's rights can occasionally take strange twists and turns. Two documentaries recently screened at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival examined two highly controversial and truly remarkable rights enjoyed by citizens of the United States and Israel. Each documentary provided plenty of food for thought for people eager to learn.

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In his essay entitled The Last Gasp of the Angry White Man, political commentator Cenk Uygur looked at some of the rage being expressed by older white Southerners at a variety of recent Town Hall events. While some of the tactics employed to bully and provoke people with opposing viewpoints have been ugly and downright dangerous, one important fact remains clear: The Bill of Rights grants all Americans the freedom of speech. In particular, the First Amendment states that:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Director Liz Garbus's intelligent and often riveting HBO documentary, Shouting Fire: Stories From The Edge of Free Speech, goes a long way toward demonstrating not only why dissident speech needs to be protected but how the tradition of protecting dissent became embedded in the fabric of American life. Her father, Martin Garbus, has been a fierce defender of the First Amendment (and has won every one of the nine cases he argued before the United States Supreme Court). In Garbus's documentary, some of the dissidents whose right to free speech have recently been challenged include:
  1. Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder whose controversial remarks about what might have led to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center led to his dismissal.
  2. Debbie Almontaser, who was forced to resign from her job as principal of New York City's Khalil Gibran International Academy (the first public English-Arabic school in the United States) after a reporter twisted her definition of the word "intifada" out of context.
  3. A Christian youth who taped a homophobic message to his T-shirt and was told that he could not wear the shirt at school.
In light of the current "AstroTurf" protests being staged over healthcare reform, it's particularly interesting to revisit footage from the 1977-1978 demonstrations against Nazi marchers in Skokie, Illinois as well as the mass demonstrations (and arrests of protesters) that took place during the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City.

Garbus's documentary offers an invaluable education for those who would attempt to shut down dissent or curtail civil liberties in the 21st century by explaining the genius of the First Amendment and how it must be equally applied to all citizens. Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by David Ofek, The Tale of Nicolai and the Law of Return takes a more whimsical approach to relating how a migrant worker from Moldavia was granted Israeli citizenship. The catalyst for the documentary is fairly obvious: When Nicolai was hired by Ofek to do some work on Ofek's house, the two men started to talk. Nicolai described his journey from unemployment and poverty in post-Communist Romania to owning his own business in Israel with no knowledge that, for a documentary filmmaker, his story was the equivalent of gold falling from the sky. With Nicolai's cooperation, his tale -- which almost sounds like something straight out of Sholom Aleichem -- has been brought to the silver screen with very happy results.

Nicolai and his wife at an amusement park in Moldavia

When Nicolai decided to pursue migrant construction work in Israel, he ended up working for a Manpower-type of employer who held onto the passports of all its migrant workers. After three years of labor, he wasn't even earning enough to get back and forth to work, much less send money home to his wife, his son and their newborn child.

One day, Nicolai was working on a job where he was given the responsibility of planning something. His diligence impressed his supervisor, who exclaimed "You have the brains of a Jew!" As Nicolai asked his co-workers what that meant, he let slip the fact that his grandmother was Jewish. What he did not understand was that Israel's Law of Return would afford Nicolai and his family full citizenship in Israel.

Nicolai with his mother and grandmother

After he went "illegal," Nicolai tried to work in the underground economy but was soon caught by his employer, arrested, and deported back to Romania. While all this was happening, his wife had managed to find the key piece of the documentation proving that his grandmother was Jewish. The next time Nicolai went through Israeli customs, he and his family were met by Israelis assigned to help them become citizens. They received stipends, housing, Hebrew lessons, and by the end of the film he had even managed to purchase a Toyota.

Ironically, the same law which allowed Nicolai's previous employer to exploit him, ended up trapping Nicolai in an unexpected labor law violation when innocently he hired an undocumented worker. Luckilym, Nicolai was resourceful enough to find a way to pay the steep fine.

The film ends quite happily, with Nicolai driving his wife around Tel Aviv in his new Toyota and Ofek finishing the narration of his documentary. One could hope that they all lived happily ever after. But let's not forget, we're talking about life in Israel.

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