Note: updates below. (I also added a few more comments to the P.S.)
Throw them into a room and hope it works: I’ve just been watching one of the most superficial-ever episodes of Newsnight. A whole load of “experts” — although Paxman admitted to one transport “expert”, a completely obscure local Labour figure, that they had asked 48 other people before alighting on him — were collected together in a studio to discuss various pressing issues such as health, education and transport.
They were put together in groups of 5 or 6, and after watching a short film made by one of them, they banged on drunken dinner-party style for about 5 or so minutes. Not surprisingly they constantly interrupted each other, granstanded, defended their own patches, made sweeping, vague statements and predictable partisan comments. We learned absolutely nothing at all. The BBC think an intellectual discussion consists of people disagreeing with each other every few seconds.
The most disgraceful thing about the whole show, though, was the first film which involved a rock journalist and regular Guardian writer called John Harris (who even the BBC admitted was “a left-wing writer”) going to Cuba to wax rhapsodically about their health-care system. Moreover, when Paxman challenged him, saying that perhaps this was a rose-tinted view, he said that he had been TOLD — not by a Fidel flunkey, but by the Newsnight people – to do a “positive, proselytizing” story. (Oops!)
To be fair, they had another film on transport made by a Conservative big-wig, so perhaps the producers generally wanted everyone to make opinionated films for the sake of it being good TV. So it may not have been because the producers particularly wanted to portray Cuba in a positive light — although, equally, it may have been. They certainly wanted to draw attention to this one supposed good thing about Cuba.
Either way, it was disturbing to see that almost everyone on the show believed the myth that Cuba has a good health care system, and were concerned that we should learn from them. If you want to see the reality, rather than what a bunch of posers have assumed after reading a Guardian column on health — one particularly loud-mouthed panellist’s claim-to-fame was that she was “The Designer of the Year 2005”, for God’s sake — go to The Real Cuba website:
One of the greatest fallacies about the so called ‘Cuban Revolution’ has to do with healthcare. Foreigners who visit Cuba, are fed the official line from Castro’s propaganda machine: “All Cubans are now able to receive excellent healthcare, which is also free.” But the truth is very different. Castro has built excellent health facilities for the use of foreigners, who pay with hard currency for those services. Argentinean soccer star Maradona, for example, has traveled several times to Cuba to receive treatment to combat his drug addiction.
But Cubans are not even allowed to visit those facilities. Cubans who require medical attention must go to other hospitals, that lack the most minimum requirements needed to take care of their patients. In addition, most of these facilities are filthy and patients have to bring their own towels, bed sheets, pillows, or they would have to lay down on dirty bare mattresses stained with blood and other body fluids.
No wonder the Cubans that the left-wing writer interviewed stressed that the Cuban medical system placed great emphasis on prevention, rather than cure. The best way to stay alive in Cuba is not to need to go to hospital in the first place, because you won’t get much help there.
If you think this is all mere assertion, check out the numerous photos on this Real Cuba page, some of which were originally published in a major Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter.
And another thing: some of the people on the panel had an easy-going attitude towards Cuba’s practise of — as one panelist ever so cutely put it — knocking on the door late at night. Oh those incorrigible Red Stars! They play a little rough sometimes, but who minds when they’re so funky and in such rude health? (Somehow I can’t imagine these people having the same attitude towards Guantanamo Bay.)
P.S. The only good things about this show were that Paxman was actually using the term “left-wing” in relation to journalists and think-tanks, a term the BBC often manages to omit in these contexts, and that they at least had some right-wingers on in slightly more than token numbers. Having said that, it was depressing to see how many of the people involved just took it for granted that the state has the right to interfere in people’s lives at any level and run their lives for them. Yet many of these people are the same people who, when it comes to someone who’s committed a “traditional” crime, or a drug crime, get all anti-state and start talking about individual rights. (It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the only way you can enforce, for example, a state health compulsion, or yet another increase in taxes, is to criminalize those who disobey).
P.P.S. Speaking of crime, Paxman seemed astonished — his jaw genuinely dropped — that anyone could seriously suggest that we should put more people in jail, as though there’s some fixed amount of people who should be in jail, regardless of how many people are actually committing crimes, and we’ve now reached that level.
Some young twit then jumped in saying “We could put every male between 13 and 30 in jail and that would reduce crime, but I don’t want to live in a society like that”. Well, no doubt you wouldn’t, son, and neither would anybody else, but then this is straight from the Germaine Greer school of argument. Greer recently wrote a sour and much-mocked piece about Steve Irwin after he died in which she said:
What seems to have happened on Batt Reef is that Irwin and a cameraman went off in a little dinghy to see what they could find. What they found were stingrays. You can just imagine Irwin yelling: “Just look at these beauties! Crikey! With those barbs a stingray can kill a horse!” (Yes, Steve, but a stingray doesn’t want to kill a horse. It eats crustaceans, for God’s sake.)
That’s an innovative way to criticise someone; imagine them saying something stupid, then correct that imagined statement. The whole game of opinion writing just became a great deal easier.
This young man’s argument technique wasn’t much better. The fact that no-one would want to live in a society where every young male was put in jail even if completely innocent of any crime has nothing to do with the proposal that we put more of the people who are commiting actual crimes into jail, rather than not put them into jail even though we know this will result in a large percentage of them going on to commit other crimes.
Such a ridiculous argument is effective in the right circles, however, because even educated people — all right, mainly educated people — then come to believe that the idea that we should put more criminals in jail is somehow tantamount to (or is in the same political ballpark as) putting millions of innocent people in jail.
Update, 14-9-06: It was also disturbing that so many people on this show, including Paxman, thought we should hand more power back to local government. This is of course something that even the right has been banging on about for some time now, as though it’s a way to hand power back to the people. It isn’t. Local government isn’t much better than central government (that why there was so much demand to take powers away from local government in the past).
A good case can be made to show that the best way to empower people is not to hand over more powers to some government body (whether local or central or European) but to open up the market more, let a multitude of firms compete for custom, and let people make up their own minds about who they think is best at delivering them services. But “the market” is only ever mentioned on these shows in an airy, abstract way, to be readily dismissed by a wave of the hand. Designer of the Year 2005 Hilary Cottam’s criticism of the market amounted merely to saying that private institutions treat people as “customers”, as though that were a knock-down argument. (Unsurprisingly she turns out to actually be yet another Demos-linked sociologist).
The argument for handing more power to local government on this show seemed to be nothing more than “Here’s one place, namely Portand, Oregon, whose local government seems to have done a decent job of providing public transport. So let’s give more power to our local governments as well, because that will provide the same results”. Talk about cherry-picking. That’s like saying “Isaac Newton was an alchemist who was appointed a Cambridge Professor, and he produced fantastic scientific results. So let’s give all Cambridge Professorships to alchemists”.
Update 2, 14-9-06: Marian Tupy slammed John Harris’s Cuba report — apparently it was originally shown on Newsnight last month — in this article:
The report starts with the sounds of jolly Cuban music and happy children playing football in the street. There is no sign or, for that matter, mention of the political prisoners who fill Fidel Castro’s prisons. Yes, there is a mention of food shortages and lack of consumer goods, but those are, Harris tells us, America’s fault. In reality, the U.S. trade embargo is almost totally meaningless, since Cuba can trade with the rest of the world. All it needs to do to prosper is to produce goods and services that other people want to buy — not an easy task for a socialist economy.
Moreover, we are told in typically Orwellian fashion, shortages are really a blessing in disguise. After all, are the Cubans not lucky to be spared the scourge of fast food and passenger cars? Walking and a “balanced” diet, Harris informs us, are the ingredients for a long and healthy life…
The “Cuban miracle,” as Harris puts it, rests on the prevention, rather than treatment of disease. And for good reason! Treatment of disease requires advanced prescription drugs and expensive medical equipment that have to be purchased in the capitalist West. And how can an inefficient socialist economy produce enough foreign currency to afford such purchases? It cannot.
Not surprisingly, Harris does not mention the availability of drugs. Therefore, a viewer who is otherwise ignorant of Cuba might simply conclude that they are readily available. After all, to get drugs in the West, all you have to do is to walk into the nearest pharmacy. Yes, many Westerners grumble because drugs can be expensive and the insurance companies will not pay the full cost. It is also true that some Americans don’t have health insurance. But life without access to prescription drugs at all? Try living on the paradise island.
As Matus Posvanc, an economist who works for the Hayek Foundation in Slovakia, wrote to me after his recent trip to Cuba, “The people have no access to prescription drugs. The pharmacies are empty of even the most basic medicine. In fact, I had to help a Cuban lady buy drugs at a special clinic that has wonderful facilities and is well stocked with drugs. That clinic, however, only caters to tourists and prominent members of the Cuban Communist Party.” Other acquaintances, who have been to Cuba, found that the locals had to supply their own medicines and linen, because hospitals simply did not have them.
Both of my parents are medical doctors and I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia. As such, I find the problems of the Cuban healthcare system very familiar. As in Cuba, so in Czechoslovakia and throughout the supposedly egalitarian Soviet bloc, the prominent members of the Communist Party enjoyed superior healthcare in special hospitals or hospital wards. As in Cuba, the lack of hard currency resulted in the shortage of medicines, which had to be bought on the black market. As in Cuba, the availability of advanced medical technology was low. Socialism, it turns out, does not work no matter where you go — Central Europe or the Caribbean.
In an article in the British daily The Guardian, Harris recently opined, “Cuba may look forlorn, all peeling buildings and pockmarked roads. Its economy may have long since tumbled into creaking anarchy. But unlike the old states of Eastern Europe, the revolution has a few genuine jewels to defend: chiefly, its education system, and globally acclaimed healthcare.”
Strange, the superiority of communist healthcare was exactly what the Western socialists, like Harris, raved about during the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall fell and with it the veil of ignorance that shrouded the life behind the Iron Curtain, communist healthcare came to be seen for what it really was: far from equal and far from excellent. The same, I suspect, will become obvious in Cuba once the Castro brothers finally depart.
Update 3, 14-9-06: I found this bit of virtual-proselytizing on the Newsnight website (it’s dated Aug 1):
The best health service in the world?
Which country do you think has the best health service in the world? Some Scandinavian shangri-la? The wealthy United States? ? Or how about Cuba? Tonight we launch a series of films looking at what Britain can learn from the the best public services around the world. Tonight we launch a series of films on “the best public services in the world”.
It will look at what may well be the best run schools, hospitals and transport systems anywhere on earth. Tonight we look at the Cuban health service – and why it may be the best in the world – just as the Cuban President proves he trusts the system by undergoing surgery.
Here’s my challenge to either Paxman or Harris or any of Newsnight producers. If you need major surgery, then go to Cuba to have it done. And have it done in the way ordinary Cubans have it done, not in the way Castro is having it done. (For God’s sake, do they really think that Castro is going to get the same treatment as most other Cubans? How can they say with a straight face that this proves that he trusts his own system?)