In Phoenix, the bougainvillea is blooming red against a landscape of buttes and rocks outside my hotel window and interesting cacti that look like cell phone base stations or Modigliani sculptures. Midwesterners who came here long ago slapped grass down on the desert, hoping to make it more like Indianapolis, but Phoenicians have come to accept aridity. If you enjoy rocks, you will love Arizona. But for me, it's weird to walk outdoors and hear "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" from little speakers hidden among the cacti and "Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh."
The clerk at the front desk looked at my Minnesota driver's license and chuckled, which I found annoying. "Pretty cold up there, huh?" he said, implying that any sensible person would leave the frozen tundra for the sunny Southwest. We Midwesterners get this a lot, especially from ex-Midwesterners who've deployed to the Sun Belt and now talk as if a light frost would break their hearts and the thought of arising on a 10-below morning and starting the car is simply unthinkable, like dying and going to hell. These poor deacclimated souls have come disconnected from their own culture.
Christmas is supposed to be white. Dashing through the snow does make your spirit bright. You put Santa in Speedos and a tank top and you've ruined the whole thing.
Christmas is one of the bulwarks of Life As We Know It, and in these parlous times we cling to its classic truth, which is: Rejoice, be not afraid, and show mercy to the poor and outcast, for it was through such people that Jesus came into the world. Dickens' ancient novella, written in a big rush because he was low on cash, is on the silver screen again, and Scrooge is moved by the Spirits to share the wealth with his downtrodden clerk. Meanwhile, the truth of Christmas is tested in Washington as we move toward some sort of semi-universal health care against the near-unanimous opposition of Republicans. Given the chance to be shepherds or angels, they chose instead to be Herod. Spooked by the victory of Barack Obama, they decided to fight him on all fronts, even though Americans will die as a result.
A new study, "Health Insurance and Mortality in U.S. Adults," published by the American Journal of Public Health, tells us what everyone already knows - the uninsured are in a dangerous place. An estimated 45,000 deaths a year are associated with lack of health insurance. Uninsured Americans of working age run a 40 percent higher risk of death than those of us who are covered. If you have diabetes or heart disease, and you can't afford to see a doctor, you're in deep trouble.
The big lie that Republicans have inflicted on us, starting with St. Ronald, is that government is a morass of inefficiency, and private enterprise is the Enlightenment. (Republicans have practically disappeared from the Snow Belt. I just point this out.) My own experience is that when I go to get a new driver's license in St. Paul, or deal with the city inspector when a sewage line breaks, or walk into a post office to mail letters, or talk to the police when our house alarm goes off, I find public employees to be cheerful and competent and highly professional, and when I go for blood draws at Quest Diagnostics, a national for-profit chain of medical labs, I find myself in tiny, dingy offices run by low-wage immigrant health workers who speak incomprehensible English and are rude to customers and take forever to do a routine procedure. An hour in a Quest office will ruin your whole day.
If the government took over this miserable operation, paid the people decently and trained them to smile and speak softly to the clientele, civilization would be advanced. If we simply extended Medicare to anyone who wished to sign up for it, the vast, Kafkaesque bureaucracy of for-profit insurance would come crashing down, and the public would be healthier.
Instead, Democrats fashioned a patchwork plan, trying to meet the objections of Republicans, who then opposed it anyway as socialistic. As long as any sort of reform is going to be attacked as socialistic, why not go ahead and be socialistic, as Social Security is. It is Big Government and runs pretty well, and I don't see many Republicans calling for it to be privatized. Mr. Obama needs to learn that it is a foolish goose who attends the foxes' church. Don't worry about bipartisanship, please. Just do what's right.
Garrison Keillor's column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.