N.B.: If Mr. Olbermann had done more research, he would know what Churchill did say about national healthcare, which is more to the point: see Churchill and Healthcare.
MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann is for the proposed American healthcare reform bill, which is neither here nor there.
What is interesting to Churchillians is his use of Winston Churchill’s words to support it—from both 1945 (when Churchill was campaigning against socialism), and 1936 (when Churchill was urging rearmament in the face of Nazi Germany).
In 1945, Olbermann says, Churchill
equated his opponents, the party that sought to introduce “The National Health,” to the Gestapo of the Germans that he and we had just beaten just as those opposing reform now have invoked Nazis as frequently and falsely as if they were invoking Zombies. Churchill cost himself the election because he didn’t realize he was overplaying an issue that people were already damned serious about.
Er…not exactly, Mr. O.
Churchill did not use the “Gestapo speech” to oppose Labour’s national health plan, which, in general at least, he supported (see next post). He used it to describe—in what was later thought to be a poor analogy—the kind of compulsion citizens might expect under a socialist government:
No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently-worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.
And where would the ordinary simple folk—the common people, as they like to call them in America—where would they be, once this mighty organism had got them in its grip? I stand for the sovereign freedom of the individual within the laws which freely elected Parliaments have freely passed.
It is an article of faith in “enlightened” circles that Churchill made a bad mistake by comparing the 1945 Labour Party, led by the kindly, self-effacing Clement Attlee, to Hitler’s political police. Maybe so.
But it strikes me as interesting when a friend in England, a confirmed Labour supporter, likens the tactics of certain modern Labour town councils in Britain precisely to those of the Gestapo: in their suppression of free speech; in their attempt to destroy those who disagree with them; in their vitriolic hatred of opposition media.
If Churchill’s words don’t put you in mind of certain recent developments in America, read on.
Olbermann now switches to the Churchill of 1936, who, he says,
made the greatest argument ever for government intervention in health care only [sic] he did not realize it. He was debating in Parliament the notion that the British government could not increase expenditures on military defense unless the voters specifically authorized it, just as today’s opponents of reform are now claiming they speak for the voters of today, even though those voters spoke for themselves eleven months ago.
Churchill’s argument was this: “I have heard it said that the government had no mandate….Such a doctrine is wholly inadmissible. The responsibility [of Ministers] for the public safety is absolute and requires no mandate.”
And there is the essence of what this is. What, on the eternal list of priorities, precedes health? What more obvious role could government have than the defense of the life, of each citizen? We cannot stop every germ that seeks to harm us any more than we can stop every person who seeks to harm us. But we can try dammit and government’s essential role in that effort facilitate it, reduce its cost, broaden its availability, improve my health and yours, seems, ultimately, self-explanatory. [sic]
We want to live. What is government for if not to help us do so? Indeed Mr. Churchill, the responsibility for the public safety is absolute and requires no mandate!
Leave aside the question of whether the current healthcare proposal would expand or shrink access to healthcare. To equate it with a threat to a nation’s existence is quite a stretch. But let’s start by quoting all of what Churchill said, on 12 November 1936:
I have heard it said that the Government had no mandate for rearmament until the General Election. Such a doctrine is wholly inadmissible. The responsibility of Ministers for the public safety is absolute and requires no mandate. It is in fact the prime object for which Governments come into existence. The Prime Minister had the command of enormous majorities in both Houses of Parliament ready to vote for any necessary measures of defence.
“The responsibility for the public safety is absolute.” Indeed so: the safety of the nation against those who would snuff it out. That is, inarguably, “the prime object for which Governments come into existence.” They do not come into existence to pass out largess until the public till is exhausted and the currency debased. The American government was not created to force every citizen to buy a good or service—which is part of the current healthcare proposal, but nowhere authorized by the United States Constitution. And has never before been mandated in history.
True, the President does have “the command of enormous majorities.” Yet he seems unable to make them “vote for any necessary measures.” Why?
It would behoove him, and the Congress, and the rest of us to ask. Is it, for example, because 75% of citizens are happy with their healthcare? Or because they prefer piecemeal solutions that are more easily monitored—tort reform and portability, for example—to a comprehensive plan that would inevitably lead to massive spending and rationing? Or because a large majority fear that like Medicare, which will go broke inside a decade unless altered, this amplification of Medicare will also go broke—or exclude many for whom Medicare is now accessible? Or because it will require punitive taxes? Or because they can see no example of anything run efficiently by government, from the Postal Service to the war in Afghanistan? All these are legitimate objections, and people are not Nazis to express them.
Salon.com, which agrees with Mr. Olbermann about health reform, says he did nothing to advance their cause: that his argument is self-defeating:
[He dug] up a Churchill quote from the 1930s where the former British prime minister insisted government had a right to provide for people’s well-being. But what was the point? Churchill is dead; the healthcare reform plan isn’t remotely modeled on Britain’s National Health Service; the only people who think it is are the conservative opponents of reform.
In the narrow sense, that’s a rejection of Olbermann’s argument. In a broader sense, Salon is also right. Churchill is dead. This is not 1936 or 1945. Lady Soames is often wont to remark: “You must never suggest what my father would do or say about any modern issue—after all, how do you know?”
What her father said about liberty never goes out of fashion, and here is the most memorable sentence in his “Gestapo speech” of 1945: “I stand for the sovereign freedom of the individual.”
Of course, Churchill’s times are often paralleled in ours. That’s the value of studying history—how Churchill reacted to challenges which may seem familiar to thoughtful people. And, since Mr. Olbermann likes to tell us what reminds him of Hitler, let me say what reminds me of Hitler.
It is people who think it appropriate to offer an email address where Americans can report anything “fishy” they might see or hear emanating from the thoughts and opinions of other Americans. That reminds me of the Gestapo.
It is a teacher who makes little schoolchildren chant, “Mm, mmm, mm! He said that all must lend a hand, To make this country strong again, Mmm, mmm, mm! He said we must be fair today, Equal work means equal pay….Hello, Mr. President we honor you today! For all your great accomplishments, we all doth say hooray!”—set to the music of “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”
That reminds me of the Hitler Youth.
Commentator Mark Whitting writes: “This is going beyond the beyonds, as this writer’s Irish granny used to say.”
That, Mr. Whitting, is putting it mildly.
If we are going to draw anything from Churchill’s “Gestapo speech” that bears on our current situation, it might be what Churchill said about gathering “all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.
“And where would the ordinary simple folk—the common people, as they like to call them in America—where would they be, once this mighty organism had got them in its grip?”