We at Faith in Healthcare embrace the opportunity to speak with groups. We love to share the many inspiring stories of interfaith healthcare advocacy. We love to talk about how we can come together to achieve healthcare for all. (And we can prove it: contact us here if you would like us to present to your congregation or group!)
Without fail, we receive a warm welcome and enjoy an engaged discussion. But we also hear some skepticism, especially about the prospects for ensuring healthcare for all in the U.S., without the barriers of premiums, copays, and deductibles.
“What about the insurance companies?” we are asked. “What about the pharma companies? They all have so much money and they use it to buy off politicians by funding their campaigns. And they use it to buy ads and do public relations that mislead the public. How can they possibly be beaten?”
It is a legitimate concern. For-profit health insurance companies see a single-payer healthcare system as a threat to their very existence—and they are right. Pharmaceutical companies know their eye-watering profit margins and executive salaries will be slashed if the U.S. finally follows the lead of other countries that negotiate down the cost of prescription drugs.
Both industries have plenty of money, and they know how to use it. The pharmaceutical industry alone spent more than a quarter-billion dollars on lobbying last year, and tens of millions more on political contributions. When their business models are under attack, for-profit health companies shower extra money on politicians. They opened their wallets extra wide when the details of the Affordable Care Act were being hammered out and they are doing it again now, with drug pricing reform and Medicare for All gaining unprecedented traction.
No wonder many are pessimistic, including leaders as powerful as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Show me how you think you can get there,” she told the Washington Post in April in an interview where she refused to support Medicare for All.
How to respond to the doubters? It is tempting to simply lean on the promise first made by abolitionist minister Theodore Parker: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This assurance was often cited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among other legendary activists for justice. But what evidence do we have that it is true?
Plenty. Just as it may seem impossible now that we will achieve healthcare for all, it once seemed just as impossible to win the human rights battles of the past.
Abolitionists were up against the entire slavery-dependent U.S. economy, along with barbaric racism that was entrenched in northern and southern communities alike. Women’s suffragists confronted centuries of culture and legal precedent that marginalized women, and political leaders who had zero interest in reconfiguring the electorate that had put them in office. Civil rights activists faced a white power structure fueled by bigotry and fear, with a blood-soaked record of using violence to preserve the status quo.
Each of these movements once faced barriers that seemed impossible to overcome. So did the labor movement, the anti-colonial movement, and the anti-apartheid movement.
Yet they won. And each of those victories provides us with both hope and guidance.
Granted, that guidance is not always precise. Although the commonalities of successful movements have been laid out in books like This is an Uprising and Dynamics of Contention, along with the work of Bill Moyer, no one can lay claim to a comprehensive blueprint for a winning campaign. But reading about past victories can replenish both our spirits and our tactical toolboxes.
As Rebecca Solnit wrote in Hope in the Dark, “Together we are very powerful, and we have a seldom-told, seldom-remembered history of transformations that can give us confidence that, yes, we can change the world because we have many times before.” In fact, history-changing movements have always gained strength and solace from their ancestors in advocacy. Abolitionists inspired the women’s suffragists, who in turn inspired Gandhi and the anti-colonial movement. The resisters of colonialism inspired the civil rights advocates like Dr. King, who inspire us today.
So, with the goal of adding a link or two to that powerful chain, Faith in Healthcare provides this list we call the “Bending the Arc Book Club.” This collection of books—and sometimes films—tells the stories of the great movements of the past. All of the books mentioned include web links to the publishers or online book sellers:
Abolition of Slavery. Bury the Chains, by the legendary nonfiction writer Adam Hochschild, is a dramatic, readable story of the anti-slavery movement in the British empire. The Slave’s Cause by Manisha Sinha may be the most comprehensive book on the history of abolition. Biographies of movement leaders run the risk of promoting faulty great woman/great man narratives of social change. But good biographies of movement leaders use their subjects’ experiences as a starting point for a more wide-angle view. Biographies of Frederick Douglass (most recently, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom) and William Lloyd Garrison (All on Fire) fit that description. They chronicle the periods of hopelessness, infighting, danger, and despair, as well as the precious moments of progress and eventual triumph.
Civil Rights Movement. Taylor Branch’s trilogy of the movement—Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge—won a shelf-full of awards, including the Pulitzer. No wonder: the books are both easy to read and deeply researched. The documentary Eyes on the Prize also earned praise from casual viewers and historians alike.
The U.S. Labor Movement. There is Power in a Union charts the history of the labor movement, from the Triangle Shirtwaist to the Flint sit-down strike to the hard-earned mid-20th century economic victories of the U.S. working class. Biographies of Walter Reuter, including The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, and Cesar Chavez, including The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, tell the stories of some of labor’s signature wins.
Women’s Suffrage. Elaine Weiss’ The Women’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote builds its narrative around the final stage of the U.S. suffrage movement. As in every volume mentioned here, modern-day activists will nod in sad recognition when reading about the infighting among groups aiming for the same goal. But suffragists overcame the conflicts, allowing Weiss to tell the story of the final victory and the decades of advocacy that made it possible. Jean Baker does the same in Sisters, a collection of biographical sketches of the movement’s leaders.
The HIV/AIDS Treatment Campaigns. The life-or-death fights to win access to treatment for HIV/AIDS began in the U.S., with a focus on spurring development of new medicines. That activism succeeded in spurring government-funded discovery of effective medicines. But pharmaceutical corporations maneuvered to gain monopolies on those medicines, and priced them at astronomic levels. So the struggle migrated to an Africa-focused campaign to gain access to the drugs.
In both stages, some of the most marginalized and even vilified people in the world took on the globe’s most powerful nation and one of its most ruthless industries—and won. Books about the campaigns include How to Survive a Plague, Drugs into Bodies: Global AIDS Treatment Activism, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS, and South African AIDS Activism and Global Health Politics. The film version of How to Survive a Plague , along with Fire in the Blood, capture the dramatic peaks and valleys of the movement.
The Anti-Apartheid Movement. Mandela, Tambo, and the African National Congress features excerpts of original documents from the movement, Long Walk to Freedom is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, and Loosing the Bonds focuses on the U.S. and international activism in support of the South African resistance.
The Anti-Colonial Movement. Any of several good biographies of Mahatma Gandhi, such as Great Soul, provides an accessible way to understand the challenges of the movement. India: Struggle for Independence supplies a broader treatment. The forthcoming Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent will include the African anti-colonial movements in its accounts.
There is a lot of inspiration to be found in these pages. But we recognize this list is not complete. Faith in Healthcare readers include many movement activists, avid readers, and amateur historians. So we hope you contact us here and suggest additions to this list.
In the meantime, happy reading. And keep pulling that arc toward justice!
Faith and Healthcare Notes
- Health Insurance Prices, Profits Both Skyrocket. Modern Healthcare reports that the Consumer Price Index for health insurance in April increased 10.7% over the previous 12 months, while professional services and hospital and related services rose only 0.4% and 1.4%, and overall inflation increased 2%. In the same report: the eight largest publicly traded insurance companies made a combined $21.9 billion in profits during 2018.
- Report on GlaxoSmithKline: Pharma Corporation is “Ripping Off America.” Patients For Affordable Drugs released a new report that GSK, the leading maker of medicines to treat asthma, lupus, and HIV, has engaged in a pattern of abusive practices, including frivolous lawsuits and pay-for-delay deals with generic manufacturers, to block competition and keep drug prices high.
- Some States Cut or Eliminate Retirees’ Health Benefits. The Wall Street Journal reports that some states, including North Carolina, Kansas, and Iowa, have responded to rising healthcare costs by cutting retirees' health care benefits.