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Sicko: A Prophetic Cry for Forging a "We Nation"

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Sicko (2007) is Michael Moore's best reviewed movie to date, a documentary earning widespread acclaim from Democrats and Republicans alike for socking it to the profiteers and heartless bastards in the US healthcare industry. Its greatest success isn't in making a sustained argument for changing health care policy, but in creating a vehicle for the transformation of base selfishness into a higher calling for American selflessness.

The movie tells story after story of Americans getting cruel and inhumane treatment from their healthcare providers (not to mention the pharmaceutical industry). A young woman loses her child after taking the child to an emergency room (her HMO insists that the child be treated in an in-network hospital). A man originally from France must leave his home in the US to return to France when he learns he has cancer (like millions of Americans, he carried no health insurance). An American man without insurance must choose how many of his severed fingers he can afford to reattach. And so on...

Yes, as you might expect from a Michael Moore film, Sicko is manipulative, questionable, gimmicky, melodramatic, and it plays situations as often for laughs as for wisdom. It's vintage Moore. But if it is his most successful film to date, it's because Sicko takes on the most complex and divisive social policy issue of our day and produces a vision that is likely to win assent in degrees from moviegoers from all over the political spectrum.

It's obvious that Moore favors a single-payer, government-run universal health system like those offered in Canada, Great Britain, France, and Cuba (the countries he visits in the documentary). Those countries have lower infant mortality and higher life expectancies than the US. They also spend far less per capita as a percentage of GDP than the US. And of course, they achieve full coverage for all their citizens, not just those who can afford and are eligible for private health insurance.

No matter one's conclusions about government-sponsored healthcare, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Americans are paying far too much for health care and getting less than we deserve for too few. There seems to be a huge discrepancy between our present reality, what we can afford, and what our other industrial nations have been able to achieve.

To listen to Sicko tell the story, the difference between the likes of the US, Canada, and Great Britain is simple. At some point in their history, Canada and Great Britain each made national health care a top priority, and they marshaled great resources towards producing a mammoth social reform. Today, despite all the inevitable imperfections, few in Canada or the UK would change their system for one such as ours.

The United States, besought by entrenched and well-funded special interests (Sicko tells us that there are four health care lobbyists for each member of Congress), has failed to mount a similar Marshall Plan for health care. Historically, we attempted to treat health care largely as a luxury available to those who can afford it rather than a right available to all regardless of ability to pay. By and large, we have pursued a core system to protect the self-interest of the young, the healthy, the strong and the selfish over against the weaker and the older and the poorer. This is the root of the problems we face today over universal access to health care.

The way out, Sicko suggests, is not a mere shift in policy (as if that could happen magically). Even if it doesn't frame the issue in quite this way, Sicko says we need a radical change in the consciousness of the American people. In short, we must pursue a less selfish and more selfless country. We must create a We nation, not a Me nation.

In short we must be willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of those who need a helping hand, because in the future that person in need could very well be us. The movie offers a spiritual vision, one calling each person to take a less egocentric perspective and to put others (especially the less fortunate) on a level playing field with their own concerns.

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I'm a Seattle-based writer exploring integral approaches to values, politics, culture, religion, spirituality, and contemporary life. My books include Soulfully Gay (Integral Books/Shambhala, 2007), the first published "how-i-found-my-faith" sort of memoir in the Integral Spirituality tradition. I am currently blogging at my eponymous blog, (more...)
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