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Weekly Commentary — Death Panels and the Paranoid Style

2009 August 18
by rahul

It’s an amazing, made-in-America story. A Republican representative, now senator, from Georgia no less slips an innocuous provision in a draft health-care bill giving patients the right to coverage for counseling regarding hospices and other end-of-life issues — a need many face at some point in their lives — and ignites a firestorm of political craziness that makes the hysteria over the nonexistent “war on Christmas” look like a paragon of logic and reason.

The gap between an attempt to make sure that people are treated with respect and kindness when they are in extremis and “death panels” that the government sets up to adjudicate whether people who are old, sick, disabled, or unable to work are sufficiently useful to society to warrant health-care or whether they should instead be turned into Soylent Green and fed to the burgeoning proletarian masses would seem to be a large one, yet elisions like this are the stock-in-trade of Republican operatives in our benighted era.

As an article in the New York Times points out, the source of this nuttiness is not some fringe conspiracist but some of the mainstream conservative players that defeated Bill Clinton’s health-care reform in 1993, including the editorial board of the Washington Times and Betsy McCaughey, famous critic of the previous bill and former lieutenant governor of New York.

It starts simply, with some dedicated staffer scouring a government bill for language that can be mocked and derided, twisted and distorted, or used as the launch-pad for insane flights of fancy. It has the same provenance as the idiot jibes about money for “volcano monitoring” (who could be so stupid as to want to know when a town might be covered in lava?), with the added fillip of the hard-core paranoia that characterizes the right.

When the woman who, inexplicably, was a heartbeat away from being a heartbeat away from the presidency took up the cause, it went national. Some commentators are already treating it as a political victory for the right and are predicting the demise of the public option.

Along the way, we’ve seen threatening mobs at town hall meetings, people carrying guns to presidential addresses, and swastikas painted outside the offices of congressmen. Strangely, since this is America, those swastikas are not statements of belief by the right-wing lynch mob but rather statements about the putative beliefs of the congressman (a Blue Dog Democrat, as it happens). Never mind the fact that it is precisely the people who might believe in a crazy notion like death panels who are susceptible to beliefs like perhaps that the Jews control society — and, indeed, they are the lineal descendants of people who did and do.

The Washington Times, whose owner Sun-Myung Moon of the Unification Church was once a member of the World Anti-communist League, a rogue’s gallery of former Nazi and Ustashi, Romainian fascists, Franco-supporters, and right-wing Latin American dictators, has twice compared this proposal to offer counseling to people facing death to the Nazi T4 Aktion program of euthanasia for the disabled, retarded, and chronically ill.

As journalist and historian Rick Perlstein points out in a Washington Post op-ed, this kind of craziness is not new — it’s as American as apple pie. When Richard Hofstadter wrote his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in 1961, after all, he didn’t have Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin to draw from. At the time he wrote it, the John Birch Society had a widely distributed pamphlet showing irrefutably that Dwight Eisenhower was an agent of the Soviet Union, continuing earlier Republican analyses of FDR and Truman. Today’s Birthers, who claim that Obama was born in Kenya, get their name from the Birchers of yesteryear.

Says Perlstein, JFK, a warmonger who campaigned against Nixon on the laughable claim that the Soviet Union was ahead of us in nuclear missile technology and who dramatically increased the military budget when in office, was accused of wanting to disarm the United States because he was moving toward ICBM’s and away from long-range bombers. And let us not forget Nixon and McCarthy, who found Communists under every tree.

The difference, says Perlstein, is that these claims were not afforded serious attention by the three nightly news broadcasts. Walter Cronkite never addressed whether or not Eisenhower had been a Communist. He is right. There was a patrician consensus about notions like “fact” and “reality” — which included a fair amount of self-delusion of its own, incidentally (see Vietnam) — and the opinions of the canaille were not allowed to intrude, no matter how many of them there might be at the gates.

With the impending demise of the newspaper, the last vestiges of that world are disappearing. I am not sanguine about what will take its place.

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