Last Thursday, Rep. Pete Stark (D- Oakland) verbally assaulted Louis W. Sullivan, President Bush’s Secretary for Health and Human Services. Stark’s rebarbative calumniations singularly combined ingredients of racial bigotry, intolerance, arrogance, cowardice, and emotional immaturity. Democracy, freedom of speech, and enlightened public policy would be doomed if Stark’s style of discourse became the norm.
Stark insulted Sullivan in labeling him a “disgrace” to his race and profession, and a craven political apologist for the allegedly racist politices of White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and budget director Richard Darman. These defamatory labels were justified, according to Stark, because Sullivan had voiced dissent from the congressman’s health litmus tests: national health insurance; federal funding of abortions for the poor; and, expanded insurance for workers and the unemployed.
Stark’s invectives epitomize racist thinking. They insist that a black office-holder disgraces his race if he declines to goose-step to a public policy viewpoint trumpeted by a majority of his racial cohort. In other words, a dissident black is traitorous to his race because all persons of color should be ideologically monolithic to fortify political clout. It is difficult to improve on Stark’s racial stereotyping, which disrespects the right of blacks to be as individualized in their intellectual convictions as whites.
Stark’s temper tantrum also betrayed intolerance. Its message was that disagreement with Stark over health issues would invite character assassination, not efforts to persuade by dint of reason. It evokes memories of Senator Charles Sumner’s (R-Mass.) caning by Preston (Bully) Brooks (D-S.C.) because the former sulfurously criticized slavery. It teaches that the best way to meet dissent is to destroy or intimidate the dissenter.
What Stark ignores is that certitude is not the test of certainty, that time has upset many fighting faiths, and that reasoned deliberation is the oxygen of democracy and enlightened laws. How can the nation forge constructive health legislation if persons with viewpoints discrepant with Stark’s are silenced by the fear of inviting attacks on their personal characters? That incubus on robust debate would forever stunt the quest for political truths. Analogously, imagine the state of physics today if Albert Einstein were ostracized and reprobated for challenging Newtonian axioms.
Did Stark learn nothing from the Spanish Inquisition and the trial of Galileo? Did he learn no humility from recent national catastrophic-illness legislation that was promptly repealed because of its unpopularity? Those who believe that they monopolize truth endanger the intellectual challenges indispensable to progress.
Stark’s imprecations against Sullivan radiate arrogance. Who elected him to appraise Sullivan’s contribution to the black race? Did Stark poll blacks (with franked mail) to ascertain their judgments? How does Stark know the consensus of the medical profession regarding Sullivan? Did the profession appoint Stark as its mouthpiece?
Stark’s self-proclaimed authority to speak for blacks and physicians makes Lady Macbeth’s aspirations unambitious in comparison.
The pummeling of Sullivan was also cowardly. The congressman is no ingenue regarding the executive branch and Cabinet dynamics. He knows that President Bush finally decides the health policies voiced by Sullivan. The secretary was appointed by the President and is subject to removal at Bush’s discretion.
But the President is too politically popular to permit attack with impunity. Thus, Stark targeted a less formidable figure whose denigration would not undermine his re-election prospects. His eruption at Sullivan echoes the immaturity of Cleopatra, who attacked the messenger for bringing disagreeable news.
Stark’s tirade would be dismaying to civilized discourse even if he held no office. But his position as a congressman compounds the harm. For good or for ill, he teaches a style of public discourse by example.
His teaching, however, is an enemy of measured and open-minded debate. These characteristics are not endemic in human nature; they must be sleeplessly cultivated if democracy is to escape the degradations emblematic of Germany’s Third Reich. That is another lesson Stark has yet to learn, although he made progress in belatedly recanting some of his Sullivan malignities last Friday.