U.S. Health Care Debate Feeds Anti-Americanism in Europe (Part I)

Europeans have dedicated saturation media coverage to the debate over reforming the American health care system. Some of the coverage has provided useful insights into the diverging attitudes between Europeans and Americans on the issue of health care.

But the health care debate has also provided rich fodder for European opinion-shapers, ever on the lookout for new reasons to bash America. Even with Barack Obama in the White House, European newspaper headlines suggest that anti-Americanism is as alive and well as ever in Europe, even if some surveys say things are improving.

European press coverage of the American health care debate has tended heavily toward the sensational, and the United States has often been portrayed as a third-world medical wasteland in comparison to the European socialist utopia of health, happiness, and longevity for all. Not surprisingly, European political and media elites have seized on the debate in an effort to reassure weary European taxpayers of the superiority of the European social and economic model.

Media from across Europe have dispatched reporters to the far corners of the United States to scout out the worst deficiencies of the U.S. health care system; these have often been presented as being the norm across the country. European journalists have also played fast and loose with statistics in order to magnify the problems out of proportion.

For example, a common mantra has been that 45 million Americans do not have access to health care. From a European perspective, that is an astonishing number because it is more than the population of most European countries. But in the American context, 45 million constitutes around 15 percent of the population.

British media have produced some of the most exaggerated European reporting about that state of the American health care system. And the left-wing Guardian, one of the most influential newspapers in British society, is virtually without peers when it comes to anti-American bias.

The Guardian, like many of its European counterparts, has perfected the art of presenting statistics in a way that portray the United States as a developing country. A typical Guardian news article reads: “According to government figures, life expectancy for [American] women is lower than in Albania and infant mortality is higher than Cuba. This national disgrace conceals a regional outrage. Black infant mortality in Louisiana is on a par with Sri Lanka; in the very city where the reforms will be decided, Washington, D.C., life expectancy is lower than the Gaza Strip.”

The Guardian dispatched one of its reporters to the United States to “recreate” John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in order “to reveal life in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” In an article titled “From Dust to Bust, America’s Poor Take on a New Type of Monster,” the Guardian reports: “To travel the old road [Route 66] today -- stumbling across crumbling ghost towns and half-abandoned communities, across the sprawling Native American desert reservations, through cities where people work all the hours they aren’t sleeping and still cannot afford to go to the doctor -- is to encounter new despair. … For those who fall off the juggernaut of American capitalism, or who fail to find space on it in the first place, there are considerable challenges in a land with an inherent suspicion of people in need.”

In another “exposé,” the Guardian sent one of its reporters to Quindaro, Kansas, “to see how the poorest survive.” The article titled “Dying for affordable healthcare -- the uninsured speak” reads: “Obama’s attempts to extend health care to all Americans has stalled in the face of a sustained right-wing guerrilla attack. … She [Sharon Lee, a doctor in Kansas City] rattles off a litany of horror stories. There was the man who walked into the clinic with a brain tumour. It took Lee three months to get him an MRI scan and another two to get an appointment with a neurosurgeon. Or the patient whose nerves in his neck were pushed against his spinal cord so that he lost use of both arms; by the time Lee found a way of getting him an MRI he was so sick he had to be operated on immediately. Or the woman who had such heavy periods she would wind up in ER every three months requiring a blood transfusion. What she really needed was a hysterectomy. … These are the stories, the broken lives, that have been obscured by the fury generated by the Republican rump.”

An article titled “Whistleblower tells of America’s hidden nightmare for its sick poor” makes the claim that Michael Moore’s health care documentary Sicko “hit the nail on the head” and is “full of truth.”

The Guardian also claims that the conflict over Obama’s health care reforms is motivated by racism, not political philosophy. An article titled “Obama cannot escape the sound and fury over the colour of his skin” attributes resistance to Obama as stemming from “years of Southern prejudice and a simmering resentment among some Americans that a black man could become president.” Again: “Having Barack Obama as president doesn’t make America colour-blind,” which asserts that “prejudice lives on in the USA.” Again: “Liars in America,” which says that “facts don’t matter in the alternate Republican reality where Joe Wilson, Sarah Palin and the birthers are heroes.” Again: “Fears for Barack Obama’s safety as healthcare debate fuels extremism,” which says: “As the storm over Barack Obama’s health care reforms rages, surge in right-wing extremism is fanned by opponents.” And again: “If Obama can’t defeat the Republican headbangers, our planet is doomed.”

To be sure, the Guardian also lashes out at the American left: A commentary titled “Its nasty. Its scary. But face it, its not new -- America was built on racism” assures readers that “the left too has problems with people of color.”

Elsewhere, the Guardian portrays the health care debate as a war between rich and poor: “The American right loves the conservative party’s hatred of fairness” reads: “Images from the USA of field hospitals for the poor, who stand in line all night for the sake of basic health care, have a distinct whiff of the warzone; which is exactly what they are, the bloody battlefields in a third world war, the ongoing low-level conflict between rich and poor.”

A commentary titled “Myths of the [American] middle class” accuses Americans of showing “a lack of curiosity about alternative health care systems elsewhere in the world.”

The Guardian also claims that is better to get sick in Britain than in America. An article titled “In the U.S., my credit card saved my life” says that in Britain thanks to the NHS [National Health Service], “no one is afraid of getting ill.” Another article titled “In defence of the NHS: I’m glad I didn’t break my leg in the U.S.” profiles a careless British man who fell off his roof and lived to tell about it. Unlike in the United States, no one in Britain “has yet questioned whether my life is still worth living, or whether amputation would be cheaper” than fixing his broken bones. He then tells about how he has gamed the British health care system. “I am, understandably, profoundly grateful to the NHS. As it happens, during my 55 years I have had more than my money’s worth out of it.”

The Guardian has also gone beyond the debate over health care to lash out at anything its editors dislike about the United States. The newspaper has published dozens of articles with sensational headlines, many with strong anti-American undertones. Some include: “Solving America’s hunger crisis”; “America’s broken immigration system: Obama says immigration reform must wait until 2010. Until then, the inhumane detention of immigrants will continue”; “Getting America back on track is no easy task”; “Emptying California’s crowded prisons”; and “Will California become America’s first failed state?

But the Guardian is not an exclusively British platform for purveying anti-Americanism. Indeed, a surprising number of American left-wingers seem to feel that bashing their own country in a foreign newspaper is a good thing. Consider, for example, Steven Hill of the New America Foundation, who writes about “America’s failed model for the world.” Or Michael Crowley of the New Republic, who writes: “Barack Obama must beware the rise of the angry white man.” Or Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, with titles such as “The rich still run the U.S.,” “We don’t want to run the world,” “U.S. economic myths bite the dust” and “Who is America to judge?