Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Zooks and Yooks

March 2, 2015

Every March I go to Washington D. C. to meet with federal agency heads and visit with the Minnesota congressional delegation. Today, my arrival in D.C. coincided with the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Because of that coincidence, getting to my hotel took longer than usual as the cab had to navigate around police barricades and groups of protesters. That extra time in the taxi allowed me to ponder the polarization that’s so prevalent in our society. On almost every issue – from the Affordable Care Act through immigration reform to funding of Homeland Security and research on zoonotic diseases – the protagonists and antagonists appear to be acting like each other has an infectious disease that requires as much separation as possible. Sparked by the Prime Minister’s scheduled appearance before a joint session of Congress tomorrow, that polarization was blatantly evident throughout our nation’s capital today. 

Although the rhetoric is less intense and the issues not as prominent, Minnesota certainly hasn’t escaped from partisan polarization. 

With that thought in mind as I watched the green light turn red for the third time without the cab moving, I remembered that today was the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel. Not surprisingly, I immediately thought of one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books, The Butter Battle Book, which begins: 

On the last day of summer, ten hours before Fall…
my grandfather took me out to the wall.

For a while he stood silent. Then finally he said,
with a very sad shake of his very old head,
“As you know, on this side of the Wall we are Yooks.
On the far other side of this Wall live the Zooks.”

Then my grandfather said, “It’s high time that you knew
of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do.
In every Zook house and in every Zook town
every Zook eats his bread with the butter side down!”

“But we Yooks, as you know, when we breakfast or sup,
spread our bread,” Grandpa said, “with the butter side up.
That’s the right, honest way!” Grandpa gritted his teeth.
“So you can’t trust a Zook who spreads bread underneath!

While the nuclear arms race was the basis of that story, Dr. Seuss could just as easily have used any of today’s controversies as his inspiration because, in Washington and throughout the country, people are using their Boom Blitzers, Blue Gooers, and Big-Boy Boomeroos to throw invectives at those who think differently than they do about myriad issues.  And what has it gotten us - a stalemate on most important issues and mutually assured destruction of anyone who tries to collaborate or compromise.  Health policy seems to be ground zero for many of these debates. 

Is it possible to get away from this brinksmanship and find a way to break down walls and collaboratively develop rational health policies?  Given the entrenched positions in Washington, it’s probably not possible there – at least not now.  Perhaps it can be done at the state level; especially in a state like Minnesota which has a history of coming together for the common good.  But who could help make that happen? 

I contend that it is our role as public health workers (some of whom are Yooks and some Zooks) to help make that happen.  Building on the fact that most people value health on both the individual and community level, we have the opportunity and responsibility to foster a conversation about what creates health.  We need to broaden that conversation beyond just the policy makers on one side of the aisle or the other and actively engage community members because everyone has a stake and responsibility in creating the conditions for health. 

The health of the public should not be a partisan issue – it is an issue that benefits everyone and everyone’s input is needed.  Our role in public health is to create the opportunity for all voices and perspectives on health issues to be heard and foster respectful and non-judgmental debate - essentials for the development of rational and effective approaches to creating health for everyone.  Now is the time to create that opportunity because, as was stated in Horton Hears a Who, another of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories: 

"This", cried the Mayor, "is your town's darkest hour!
The time for all Whos who have blood that is red
To come to the aid of their country!", he said.
"We've GOT to make noises in greater amounts!
So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!"


Ed