My fellow Americans, socialism is not an insult

 
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By Rebekah Crawford

I may never be able to convince a Trump voter not to vote for Trump, but I can tell them what it’s like for an American to live with “socialist” healthcare and education in Europe.

Image: Michael Vadon, Flickr

Friday 23 October 2020

“If you vote for Biden, you vote for socialism/the radical left”. This seems to be the scare tactic Republicans are using as they desperately fight to keep their incumbent president seated.

And like clockwork, Democrats twist and turn, trying to avoid being pinned with the campaign killing “socialist” label. Only Bernie Sanders has the actual chutzpah to proudly accept his policy proposals as socialist

Trump Makes The Case For Universal Health Care

Health care for all is not radical. It exists all over the bloody world. What we are doing now—where people don’t have health insurance because they have a bad job or are unemployed—that is crazy stuff.

Posted by Bernie Sanders on Saturday, October 10, 2020

In support of his daddy’s campaign, Donald Trump Jr is bravely leading a “Fighters Against Socialism” bus tour in Florida.

Tweets by President Trump portray Biden as weak on socialism (and those are just the polite ones). Or they accuse Democrats of plotting to turn the United States into a SOCIALIST NATION, firing up his base with angry denouncements of the radical left and how they’re not going to let that happen in the good old US of A.

I may never be able to convince a Trump voter not to vote for Trump, but maybe I can shed some light on what it’s like to live in a “socialist” (cue scary music) democracy. Almost 18 years ago, I left my home state of California for Belgium and what I found surprised me.

Aside from the near constant rain and grey skies of Brussels, we live so well in Europe – so much better than in America. Yes, better than in America. Not only because the food is of higher quality, the prices of almost everything are lower or because it’s easy to hop on a plane and within an hour or two arrive some place where they speak a different language, like Barcelona or Berlin. It is superior because almost every single country in Europe provides universal services like healthcare, education, paid maternity leave, and care for the elderly, unemployed, and children.

Before I moved from Los Angeles to Brussels at the age of 33, I had almost never seen a doctor. So my first order of business, even before treating myself to frites and chocolate, was splurging on private health insurance. I met with an insurance broker, a pale, bespectacled young man, who made some calculations and determined the best plan for me, a young woman with no prior health issues, was a hospitalisation plan.

The cost?

Sixty dollars a month. Barely able to contain my glee ($60/month!!!?), I casually asked what exactly this would cover. He read from a list –100% reimbursement of hospitalisation costs, year-round reimbursement of medical costs for 30 serious illnesses, coverage before, during and after hospitalisation, yadda, yadda, yadda, up to $12,000. I slammed back down to earth. Ouch. That wouldn’t even cover one night in a hospital, I complained bitterly.

He looked at me in utter bewilderment. “I really can’t think of any treatment that would cost over $12,000,” he said.

I rattled off a number of diseases that could easily surpass $12,000: multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, pneumonia, a busted collar bone, a baby, the common cold. Again, he shook his head. Spending over $12,000 on healthcare was beyond his mental capacity. For a further $50 a month, I could also have all of my doctor’s visits and prescription drugs covered but he determined that wasn’t necessary for me.

I tested his theory a few years later when I delivered my first born. I spent five days, as is customary in Belgium, in a private hospital room with round the clock care. If, at 3am I couldn’t get my baby to latch on, I had simply to push a button and a nurse came to my aid. A physical therapist worked with me daily to strengthen my pelvic floor and a pediatrician checked and weighed the baby every morning.

The five-day stay, including the epidural, came to $3,000. My insurance covered all of it. If I had gone to a public university hospital, it would have only cost $500. At those prices, I practically didn’t need insurance. And after all that, I still had four months paid maternity leave.

I am now a Belgian citizen, which means I have universal healthcare or the “mutuelle” as it is called. A doctor’s visit costs anywhere from $40 to $95 and the mutuelle will cover about 75%. A short visit to a doctor in California starts at $150.00. The mutuelle also gives me $355 a month to help cover the costs of my two children.

Why?

I dare not ask.

The nagging fear I used to live with about my fate should I ever get sick is gone and, with it, an enormous weight. I know that if any illness befalls my children or me, we will receive the best care. And it makes me feel good knowing that all of my compatriots receive proper healthcare too, even the poorest. It’s hard enough being poor, without the additional worry of what to do if you fall sick.

Part of why healthcare costs are so low is because while doctors make a very good living, they don’t make an outrageous living. Most people in Belgium don’t. If they do, they are taxed (Belgians are among the highest taxed people in the world, though tax dodging is a problem).

This might sound like cruel and unusual punishment but not if you remember that a doctor or lawyer or similar professional earns their degree without the burden of debt. School, which begins as soon as a child is potty-trained, is free. If my children decide to go to university and become doctors and lawyers, it will be free for them as well.

When Americans spit out the word “socialism” as if it were a racial slur, I wonder what system they are so adamantly against. Where do they get their information about what it is like to live in a country that provides universal healthcare, free education and access to public services? Why is access to affordable healthcare and education un-American or un-democratic? Because the money you contribute might pay for someone else’s broken hip?

I love America and there are times when I miss it keenly. But I would never move back. When I visit my friends, I am envious for about two days at the size of their paychecks. When I see how much of that money goes towards education, childcare and healthcare and the underlying stress they live with lest one of those expenses unexpectedly skyrocket, my envy is tempered.

They might make more money and pay fewer taxes, but they don’t see their kids as much and summer vacation, which is not part of the American employee culture, is plotted secretively behind closed doors, as if they were planning the next great bank heist. In Europe, not only is it expected that people go on holiday, they are literally paid to go on holiday. Belgians receive paid holidays and a 13 month of salary.

Whenever I see my American friends who live in Belgium, we always acknowledge how much luckier we are to live in Europe. Our children go to fantastic schools for free, we have no worries or stress about healthcare, and nobody thinks any less of you because you’re openly planning to spend two weeks on a Greek island in July.

So Democrats, the next time you’re accused of being socialist, own it. Stop wiggling and squirming and take it as a compliment, with pride. Educate them on what socialism is and reframe it as a positive accolade, not a nasty insult. Remember, they’re most likely confusing it with that other dreaded bogeyman – communism.

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Rude Mediterranean awakening

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“Croatia, the Mediterranean as it once was,” the ad says. I didn’t realise that meant rude.

25 August 2009

Reader warning! The following may contain flagrant stereotyping, unsubstantiated opinions and some spite.

I was warned before venturing to this beautiful part of the world, where the Adriatic melts into the Ionian and Mediterranean Seas, that the locals can be on the brusque side. It came from a couple of people who have been known to bring out the shittier side in others, so I put it down to that.

But they weren’t that far off. Rude officialdom at Split’s customs is to be expected, but when it carries over to a good chunk of your other ‘tourist’ exchanges, you have to start wondering whether you’re dealing with some sort of national hump.

Questions are often met with a blank-faced reply. Overt, even idiotic, efforts to smile broadly during exchanges with the locals – you know, the way you do in foreign countries to avoid misunderstandings – are greeted with bemusement.  And humour seems at best to win pity.

You could easily notch all this up to language or miscommunication, but the rudest locals so far seem to be those with the best English.

An example, you demand. I rented a scooter last week from an operator in Bol, an attractive port town on the Island of Brac. I put on my friendly voice, asked questions about the scooter and prices etc., and even ventured some private information that I have a similar scooter at home, to which one would expect a polite “Oh, really? Or that’s nice. Or what kind?” … Nothing. The guy took my deposit and said pick it up tomorrow.

Okay.

Next day, I picked up the Sym 200CC scooter from his partner (wife?). A bit friendlier, she told me the price was 400 kuna and I handed over two 200 bills. I expected change of 50 for the deposit already paid. None came, so I presumed she would keep my deposit for the helmet or as a surety on a full tank when the scooter was returned. I asked for some touring tips and how to get to some local ruins. Sharpish answer: “You can’t take the scooter off road!” Of course, the map didn’t really indicate the ruins were off road. A few more tips of varying utility and that was it.

The husband then showed up and the wife took the next customer. He gave me a demo of how to operate the scooter while I took photos of the damaged parts before riding off, just in case. He pointed out there was an extra helmet under the seat. I said that I’ve only signed one out – proffering again extra info on why the other wouldn’t be needed. His brow furrowed just enough to tell me I was unnecessary.

More was to come. On returning the scooter, I filled it up at the petrol station but apparently it wasn’t enough. He said bluntly “I filled it this morning, you fill it now!” I tried to explain I had just done so, but it was clear this was a pointless exercise. The guy at the station looked at me like I was daft when I returned to put another 10 kunar in the tank. Thinking words were needed here as well, I said the scooter guy said it wasn’t full. Response? Not even a shrug.

Back again to return the vehicle and I asked if I’d get my deposit back now everything was in order – it was back on time, under the 200km limit and with no additional damage.

“Deposit? You already got it!” He called his wife and she claimed it had been given to me already. I argued that the €7 euro equivalent was not a lot of money for me, but it was a matter of principle. She asked why I hadn’t said something in the morning. Of course, I said I thought of it but assumed it was part of the procedure. Why wouldn’t it be?

Anyway, this went on for a while. The husband took the phone away from me mid-sentence and just handed back my driving licence and deposit, which I took to be confirmation that the deal was over – the goods had been returned in a fit state. Of course, I may discover spite wills out in weeks to come if  a bogus bill for damages arrives on my doorstep…

I’m not new to travelling, so this rant is not the paranoid delusions of someone unaccustomed to new cultures. I’ve visited every continent bar Antarctica and most countries bordering the Mediterranean, and nowhere have I come across this sort of discourtesy or perhaps it’s diffidence.

(No, wait, I have come across something of the sort in Israel but the curt replies there are not devoid passion.)

I choose a word like discourtesy instead of, say, hostility because the way we are treated is not aggressive, and there is no apparent singling out of nationalities, even if they could guess where my wife and I come from (different countries). We both have the impression that the Croats are just not ready for the world, or at least the sun-hat-wearing western world that answers the call to visit “the Mediterranean as it once was!”

If this is the way the Mediterranean used to be, I’m curious to know when that was. Perhaps it was when the Illyrians were trading horses in the 4th century BC or around the time of the Peloponnesian War a century or so later. I’m only guessing here. I’m also only guessing rudeness would be more common during the challenging times of antiquity.

Tough love

Maybe I hit on something there with the challenging times thing. They (the experts) tell us we’re going through some pretty tough economic times at the moment. But the region we are visiting seems pretty bustling to me; the boats are full, the scooters all rented days ahead, the hotels booked out.

(Of course, I could do some solid journalistic research to establish that the region of Dalmatia is not really suffering a massive downturn in visitors in 2009, but I can’t be arsed. And this is venting, not reporting.)

So, the ‘tough times’ excuse for the apparent sourness doesn’t seem to wash in this case. On reflection, it could be closer to the Israel ‘tough love’ case. Croats and Israelis might well share a bone to pick with the world, both bearing the scars of recent wars. And in Croatia’s case you’ve also got the communist legacy to deal with, which could manifest in distrust of strangers, certainly a hint of stoicism.

Maybe if you stay long enough, the smiles might come easier or I might learn to read the body language better. Maybe if I knew more about the country’s history and culture, or learnt more than the basic good mornings and thank yous in Croatian, the door might begin to open. But that’s probably too many maybes.

Sometimes it takes rebirth to forget the past and in a round about way I can already read some positive signs here. The Croats smile freely at my baby boy. He is engaging and very cute so it’s hard not to grin. But these are stoical people, so it is not nothing to see them scratching his double chin or patting his silky baby hair. And then look up at me or my wife for a microsecond before moving on.

And, just for the record, the island of Brac is worth visiting despite some coolish hospitality and the odd rude bugger – yes, you scooter man (be thankful I don‘t name and shame you). And the people who rented us an apartment were generous, helpful and warm.

It shows that rudeness isn’t in the water or totally embedded in the collective mindset. Like history, I’m sure it can be overcome. I’ll be back one day to test the theory.

© Copyright – Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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