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Giving the finger 

Decent social programs reflect common values---and yes, we can afford them.

I laughed out loud during the "finger" scene in Michael Moore's Sicko. It tells the story of Rick, who accidentally cut off the tops of two fingers with a power saw. Because he's one of nearly 50 million Americans who don't have health insurance, the hospital gave Rick a choice: Have his middle finger re-attached for $60,000 or restore his ring finger for $12,000. "Being a hopeless romantic," Moore reports, "Rick chose the ring finger for the bargain price of 12 grand. The top of his middle finger now enjoys its new home---in an Oregon landfill."

That scene says it all. No need for Moore to rail against a system that puts profit and private greed ahead of people and the public good. That would sound preachy. And Moore never preaches. His films tell people's stories to illustrate why everyone deserves the basics---medical care, a decent job, adequate food and housing and a good education. Moore's critics try to paint him as a left-wing ideologue who twists facts to peddle propaganda. Yet, if anything, Moore actually represents the mainstream political consensus. It's a consensus forged decades ago in the aftermath of the economic chaos of the Great Depression and the bloody violence of World War Two.

In 1948, for example, the United Nations unanimously endorsed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It guarantees all of the basics Moore champions, including the right to education and decently paid work. In the male-centred language of the time, the Declaration also states: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

While the Declaration reflected widely shared social values, its principles weren't legally binding until at least 35 countries had signed and ratified two United Nations covenants on civil and economic rights. That happened by 1976. Canada was one of the countries to sign and pass the covenants. The US, on the other hand, signed them but its Senate has never ratified them. That's partly because the covenants call for universal health care and that would curtail the profits of powerful corporations which peddle medical insurance, hospital treatment and prescription drugs.

As Canadians, of course we rejoice in universal health care. A Canadian Rick would never have to choose which finger to save and which to send to the dump. At the same time, however, Canada flouts its obligation to live up to the many other economic and social rights set forth in the Universal Declaration. Right-wing politicians like Stephen Harper pretend that we just can't afford to provide basic living standards for all. But that claim rings hollow in a country where national wealth has more than doubled in the past few decades while the economic gap between the rich and the rest steadily grows. Liberal and Tory governments have also taken delight in handing out billions in tax cuts that mainly benefit big corporations and wealthy individuals while they steadfastly refuse to close loopholes that allow big business and the rich to dodge taxes.

It's not that we can't afford greater economic and social equality. Europeans enjoy social programs far superior to ours. It's that the corporate interests which dominate the North American economy work relentlessly against social justice. Their think-tanks, their media and, yes, their politicians spread the myth that social spending will plunge us into such ruinous debt that our children's children's children will curse us. No wonder they loathe the likes of Michael Moore, who tells people's stories to remind us of the values most of us share. No. Moore never preaches. But he does give our would-be corporate masters and their political henchmen the finger.

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