Farewell to 2009

WASHINGTON — If you were writing the great American novel about Detroit, how would you come up with an ending for a year in which General Motors and Chrysler went bankrupt, the city held four mayoral elections and the first black U.S. president took the oath of office?

If you were some great man of literature, John Steinbeck, say, or James Michener, you would probably end with national health care finally, imperfectly, being passed by both houses of Congress.

If you were Kurt Vonnegut Jr., on the other hand, you'd end the book with a hopeless Muslim jerk named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab trying to blow up a plane coming in for a landing, but only setting his own thighs on fire instead.

So which was the real and more true-to-life ending? Both, of course. Vonnegut, Michener and Steinbeck will never understand this, because all those guys have had the bad taste to have died. But both those things happened — health care and the thigh burner — proving we live in a world of high drama, occasional heroism, enormous problems and low farce, all at the same time.

Health care isn't completely done, of course. The corrupt tools of the insurance industry, i.e. the Republican Party, are desperately trying to find a way to sabotage it, before the differing House and Senate versions can be reconciled and passed again by both houses.

Infantile left-wing types are trying to kill health reform too, because the bill isn't perfect, doesn't cover everyone, doesn't include a public option and, in some cases, because it isn't single-payer. Those folks, of whom Howard Dean is the most visible, ought to be given a blanket and a pacifier and shoved into the nursery. The world, as Doonesbury's Joanie Caucus once said, needs grown-ups.

Yes, Obamacare doesn't do everything it should, not right away. Neither did the Civil Rights Act of 1957, nor even the one in 1964. Baseball didn't automatically welcome all black players the day after Jackie Robinson took his first at-bat. But all those things were a start, were a foot in the door. We have to do the best we can with what we've got, keep fighting, and as people get used to it, there will be a public option, maybe even a form of single-payer, eventually.

If you go back and look at newspapers and magazines from the mid-1960s, you'll see that the same sort of language about how national health care would "destroy the country" was also used about Medicare and Medicaid back then. I know at least one elderly doctor who denounced those plans then. He went on to discover he was totally wrong, and says he cannot imagine life without them now.

That will happen again with the current plan, which will insure about 30 million more people. Perfect, no. But we're on the brink of having made a start, an important start. The late William Kienzle, a former Detroit priest and a spellbinding mystery writer, used to say, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." If you want to live in a mansion but only can manage a decent house, it makes no sense to burn it down and go squat spitefully by the Dumpster instead.

Bizarrely enough, boatloads of people are eager to become Dumpster-squatters, and take the rest of us with them.

Which brings us to our idiot of the week, the thigh-burner Abdulmutallab. Bizarrely enough, though the headlines all say he failed in his mission, in a very real sense Umar succeeded. He didn't kill anybody, but his act certainly will succeed in doing further economic damage to the airline industry. As luck would have it, I flew to Washington for a few days the day after Christmas, or only a few hours after the idiot set his short hairs on fire.

To their credit, the airport staff was about as classy and professional as they could be. However, I did have to stand outside in the cold for well over an hour to check my bags, and then stand inside almost as long, to get to empty my pockets and go through security. That cost everyone money, and will also, almost certainly, cause some people to put off or avoid trips where they have to fly. Others will drive instead, not out of fear so much but to avoid the hassle.

Twenty-five years ago, I flew to Washington all the time, almost every week for a while, always on Republic Airlines, which long ago ceased to exist. The attendants came to know me, and once, when I was running late, just laughed and waved me on board.

Silly as it sounds, back then the only thing they worried about were leftist nuts hijacking planes to Cuba, and I hadn't the complexion for it. Now, Islamic nuts blow planes up. Thanks to the thigh scorcher, Air Canada was, as I wrote this, planning to force all passengers on international flights to sit in their seats for the last hour without anything in their hands, apparently including reading matter. They wouldn't be able to go to the bathroom, either.

That would make me want to stow away aboard a tramp steamer instead. Frankly, though it may make doctrinaire liberals squeal, this may be a time when the airlines and the security services do need to engage, openly or otherwise, in some form of sensible, non-racist passenger profiling. I know that there are a lot of Muslims who live wonderful and productive lives, and know lots of them. However, the world is also full of crazies, and most of the ones advocating wholesale slaughter are Muslim whack-jobs. I am not a member of any religion; have no use for Christian whack-jobs, and because of my own genetic background, find the abortion clinic bombers and other Christian nuts most repugnant of all.

But they aren't the main threat to civilization. Christopher Hitchens has taken a lot of heat for suggesting that the main political threat today is "Islamic fascism," and Hitchens is, sadly, right. Admitting the obvious and paying more attention to people with certain backgrounds may sound awful, especially when a proud ACLU member like me says so. But it makes more sense than risking that the last carriers go out of business and the nation's transportation system be bogged down and go bankrupt.

Of course, when thigh-burners who are 70-year-old nuns named Colleen O'Meara start popping up, I will cheerfully change my mind.

Hold on to your Stormy Kromers:
Just a reminder, as you get ready to party the New Year's Eve night away, that here in the mitten state we are about to face the most intense political year in our history. We'll be electing a new governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, almost all of the state Senate and at least a third of the House. Meanwhile, the politicians now in power will have to cope with the biggest budget deficit they've ever seen.

What nobody knows is whether they can do that without destroying higher education, the cities, and other things not regarded as essential by the early dinosaurs. We also have a real opportunity to change our flawed system; the voters will be asked if they want to call a convention, elect delegates and have them write a new state constitution. I am voting yes, and will take my chances that we can do better. If you think everything works fine now, you should just say no.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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