The right-wing fury at town hall meetings over health care and the Republican obstruction of any serious reform in Washington are not just symptoms of a complex debate on an issue packed with powerful special interests; it is a test of whether reality matters in the United States.
When a supposedly “moderate” Republican like Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa endorses the crazed view of the “deathers” who claim that President Barack Obama’s health-care plan would promote euthanasia, it is clear that the nation’s problem is bigger than any one legislative battle, even one as big as health reform.
The overriding question has become whether the United States – as a representative democracy – is on the verge of losing its sanity.
And this is not the first time this question has arisen recently. Only seven years ago, much of the American population was persuaded that Iraq was some lethal threat to the United States.
Then, there was fear-mongering about Iraq somehow sending small remote-controlled airplanes across the Atlantic Ocean and over the United States to spray chemical and biological weapons on the American people. There were wildly exaggerated (indeed, false) alarms about Iraq developing a nuclear bomb that would be given to al-Qaeda.
Some of this Iraq War craziness tracked Vice President Dick Cheney’s view that if there were a one percent chance of a threat to the United States, that possibility needed to be treated as a certainty – a mad-hatter approach to the world that would guarantee endless warfare seeking to erase hypothetical dangers while creating an endless array of other one percent risks.
There is a direct lineage from the Iraq War hysteria to the current madness surrounding the health-care fight. In both cases, the hysteria was stoked by leading Republicans and their right-wing media allies. Both involved disseminating farfetched, nightmare scenarios to a gullible (if not paranoid) segment of the population, which was then whipped into a frenzy that spilled over into intimidation and silencing voices of disagreement.
Regarding the Iraq War, any skepticism toward George W. Bush’s version of the facts was greeted with anger, from crushing Dixie Chicks CDs because of their criticism of the President, to condemning former weapons inspector Scott Ritter as a traitor for doubting Bush’s WMD claims, to pouring French wine into gutters in protest over France’s cautionary advice on Iraq.
Today, anti-health-reform protesters disrupt town halls held by Democratic lawmakers, shouting down pro-reform arguments, issuing direct and indirect threats of violence, and escalating attacks on Obama, including preposterous depictions of the President as Adolf Hitler.
One can surely trace this pattern of Republican-Right behavior even further back (see, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “Palin’s 'Death Panels' and GOP Lying”), but the key point is that the response from sane Americans remains inadequate to this angry irrationality.
Some rational Americans, it seems, have their own erroneous beliefs that justify inaction. Over the years, I’ve often heard the hopeful slogans that “the truth will out” or that “the pendulum will swing back,” when the reality is that there are no automatic mechanisms for stopping lies and distortions.
Truth is a battle, much as democracy is. Bringing truth to light requires resources and infrastructure, as well as personal honesty and courage. That is especially true when the other side in the battle has opted for a strategy of falsehoods and exaggerations – and has assembled both powerful artillery and well-trained mercenaries to carry out what it calls “information warfare.”
In such a conflict, there is no guarantee or even a likelihood that the “truth will out,” at least not on its own. Nor is there any reason to believe some mythical pendulum will restore a normal order.
What I have seen during more than three decades in Washington is that many truths remain effectively hidden, even if technically they have been revealed. A rare moment of truth-telling can be easily overwhelmed by a steady barrage of falsehoods and an infusion of well-calibrated doubts.
Before long, it is the oft-repeated faux reality that is remembered. It becomes Washington’s conventional wisdom and then the official history. [See, for instance, Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
In the United States today, there is a massive infrastructure for spreading lies and distortions – a right-wing media machine that reaches from newspapers, magazines and books to cable TV, talk radio and the Internet.
By simple repetition, this machine can transform any crazy theory or bald-faced lie into something that many Americans believe. We saw this happen when the right-wing media – supported by many neoconservatives in the mainstream press – pushed the lies about Iraq’s WMD and intimated that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 attacks.
As the drumbeat for the Iraq War began in earnest seven years ago, large segments of the American population were persuaded by President Bush’s lies. Even years later, huge numbers of Americans continued to believe that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 and that U.S. forces actually had found Iraq’s fictitious WMD stockpiles.
Today, a similar phenomenon is playing out on health-care reform. A well-funded and well-organized right-wing infrastructure is pouring out deceptive talking points and hitting emotional hot buttons. Like during the run-up to the Iraq War, the opposing forces seeking to make rational arguments and counter the hysteria find themselves out-gunned and out-maneuvered.
The imbalance is perhaps most clearly on display in what may be the most extreme case – the Right’s successful use of the absurd notion that health-care reform equates with government-mandated euthanasia for the elderly and the disabled.
The right-wing attack line derived from a well-meaning proposal initially advocated by Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia who wanted to make sure that doctors would be reimbursed if the elderly or members of their families sought counseling about end-of-life issues. Isakson’s idea ended up in the House version of health-care reform.
This provision then was twisted by medical-industry defenders into some sinister government plot to impose euthanasia and the lie quickly spread via the right-wing media.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin elevated the lie to national prominence in a Facebook posting that claimed the goal was to have “my parents or my baby with Down Syndrone ... stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”
Rather than repudiate Palin’s false and outlandish claim, other leading Republicans, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, defended her.
“You are asking us to trust turning power over to the government, when there are clearly people in America who believe in establishing euthanasia, including selective standards,” Gingrich said on ABC News’ “This Week” on Aug. 9.
Some hopeful Democrats still believed that thoughtful Republicans – steeped in the details of the health-care debate – would break from the madness. But Sen. Grassley, whom President Obama has praised for participating in bipartisan talks on health care, sided with the so-called “deathers.”
At an Aug. 12 town hall in Winterset, Iowa, Grassley told some 300 constituents that “you have every right to fear” the provision in the House bill regarding end-of-life counseling, adding that the country “should not have a government-run plan to decide when to pull the plug on grandma,”
While this insane notion of government “death panels” continues to spread, there is far less attention to the current reality that countless thousands of Americans are facing premature death because the for-profit health insurance industry won’t give sick people coverage, either by citing “pre-existing conditions” or pricing the infirmed out of the insurance market.
In other words, the Palin-Gingrich-Grassley crowd raise the specter of imaginary government-run “death panels,” while actual “death panels” are being run today by the insurance industry.
That reality was underscored by the thousands of Americans lining up at the Forum in Inglewood, California, for free health care provided by Remote Area Medical, a group of volunteer doctors who normally provide treatment in Third World countries. As embarrassing as these images are to the wealthy United States, they represent painful proof of the health-care crisis.
Yet, what is becoming apparent about the health-care debate – just like the run-up to war with Iraq – is that reality has been devalued if not discarded by one side of the battle in favor of propaganda and fear-mongering.
Republicans appear to have made the calculation that their right-wing media allies and riled-up listeners can dominate the debate with scary rhetoric and unruly tactics. The secondary assumptions are that the mainstream news media will be intimidated into a mindless even-handedness even toward blatant lies – and that the Democrats will wilt under the pressure.
For many years now, mainstream U.S. jounalists have cowered in career fear over the risk of offending the Right. Already, some newscasters are playing into Republican hands by refusing to repudiate the health-care lies directly, instead treating the fabrications as points disputed by the White House.
In other words, the media talking heads say, some people think the health-care legislation creates “death panels” to kill the old and the sick, but the White House insists that it has no plans for “death panels.”
Another part of the GOP thinking is that Americans who favor facts and reason still won’t invest in building a media infrastructure to fight for reality, that well-meaning liberals and progressives won't arm themselves for "information warfare," that they will just trust that truth will somehow emerge on its own or that a magical pendulum will swing the country back into balance.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on August 13, 2009.