Are We Really Debating Health Care? In her weekly commentary, host Michel Martin shares her thoughts about the national debate over health care. Martin ponders whether the important questions have been overshadowed by town hall drama and mean-spirited rhetoric.

Are We Really Debating Health Care?

Are We Really Debating Health Care?

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An opponent of Democratic health care reform proposals interrupts a town hall meeting held by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) on Aug. 11 in Alhambra, Calif. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images hide caption

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Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

An opponent of Democratic health care reform proposals interrupts a town hall meeting held by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) on Aug. 11 in Alhambra, Calif.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

I want to tell you about a nasty e-mail I got through one of the member stations a few weeks ago. It was from a man accusing me, in rather purple prose, of maligning the anti-tax "tea party" protesters who had been in full effect over the winter during the debate over the economic stimulus.

He said I owed them a apology for calling them racists; I wrote him back to tell him I had no idea what he was talking about.

It turns out, neither did he.

He refused to tell me what I had said — or what he thought I had said — where he heard it, or from whom, so I could actually figure out what he was talking about. He just kept bombing my e-mail account insisting I was wrong and the world would be a better place when I just admitted it.

Can I just tell you? You can see why this puts me in mind of all the bellowing we've been seeing as a part of the so-called health care debate. I say so-called because, is anybody really debating anything here?

And while I don't want to dismiss the understandable anxiety most people probably feel about what seem like huge changes to something as important as our health care system, I cannot help but feel that — for too many people — the acting out is the real agenda and actually more important than the outcome.

This has been a long-term trend. I remember when I started being invited onto public affairs talk shows when I was a young White House correspondent. At first, I loved reading my mail because people would offer up all kinds of interesting and thoughtful critiques on everything from my pronunciation to clothing. Some of it was painful, but for the most part it seemed well-intended. People would recommend books to read, articles to consider, even colors I should consider wearing.

But somewhere along the way — and I am not sure why — I started to hear from a certain group of people who seemed to think the purpose of having paper, stamps or e-mail was to be as nasty to people as possible.

I'll never forget one young woman, in particular, who wrote to me about something I said on the PBS program Washington Week, and I think the word "stupid" appeared three times in the first paragraph. Buried under all the excess meanness was a substantive point which I had not considered. So I wrote her back to say, you have an interesting point, but why do you feel the need to express yourself that way?

She wrote back to say, "Oh, I just wanted to get your attention."

OK, I get it. So it isn't about sharing ideas or making a connection or being understood. It's about getting attention. But the fact of the matter is, and this seems so obvious as to not even need to be said, there is only so much bellowing that anyone can or will take before it all just gets tuned out.

When I was growing up my family lived over a subway yard. The screeching and rumbling went on all day and all night, and when I left home and returned to visit I wondered how any of us ever managed to sleep there. But we did.

And so, too, with this. When this kind of behavior at public forums becomes normal the obvious will occur. We will all just tune out.

So what is the point?

This isn't to say that we have it so bad here. Some of the people running for office in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan and Kenya would love for obnoxious people yelling in their faces to be their biggest problem, instead of car bombs and corruption.

So, too, my colleagues in those countries and just south of the border in Mexico, who are regularly paying with their lives for doing the same job we do, just to put offensive e-mails in perspective.

But just as we don't judge our health care or other institutions by the standards set in these countries, why are we allowing our standards of civil discourse to sink to the level of places we are supposed to be teaching to embrace democracy?

This is all of our responsibility, not just the people standing in the front of the microphones.