Friday, August 7, 2009

Using Lies to Whip Mobs into Anti-Democratic Frenzies

A few days ago, I mentioned one of the vile lies that is being used by opponents of healthcare reform:
Add to all of this the degree to which policy debate seems to have become distorted and perverted by out and out lies. My personal "favorite" is the talking point going around that is warning the elderly that President Obama's healthcare plan would require elderly people to decide how and when to die in order to lower the cost of government subsidized healthcare. People who spread this kind of deceitful information, solely to create fear of a policy proposal, pervert the democratic process. Can you imagine the outrage if African-Americans or Latinos were told that a particular Republican-backed bill would require the sterilization of minorities convicted of a crime, even if no such requirement existed? Obviously people can disagree on policy and should voice their ideas and opinions; buy lying to scare people has no place in the political process.
This morning on NPR's Morning Edition, reporter Debbie Elliott had a story about the difficulty that some Democratic members of Congress are having with their constituents in town hall meetings. Two things about this story really caught my attention. First, consider this exchange between a voter and Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Alabama) (note that Rep. Bright is the first Democratic representative of his district in over forty years):

"What I keep hearing is you will be required — required — to meet with a board to discuss your end-of -life options. Now that's my life and my business, and I don't want the government in it," Marsha Trotter said.

Bright explained that that wasn't in the bill and warned voters that special interests have been trying to distort the health care debate. "Who can we trust?" one man asked. It was a hard question to answer.

Note that the requirement that Ms. Trotter expresses concern about has morphed from meeting with a doctor to meeting with some "board" to discuss end-of-life options. But what really frustrated me about this part of the report is that all a listener takes away from it is the fact that the Democratic candidate "explained that wasn't in the bill". That sounds like he was simply expressing his political viewpoint as a politician. NPR did a disservice to its listeners -- especially elderly listeners who are being inundated with this lie -- by not making clear that no such requirement is in the bill or talking about the benefit that the bill is adding to existing Medicare policies. The lies and fear-mongering and distortions are part of the story, but they are being largely ignored.

Thankfully, The Indianapolis Star ran a column by Ellen Goodman on this very issue several days ago. Goodman noted not only the context of the lie, but that it was apparently been repeated by numerous prominent Republicans:

The campaign of the moment is based on a small provision in the health-care bill that would allow Medicare to reimburse doctors for time spent consulting with patients about their end-of-life choices.

This modest idea was willfully distorted by people such as Betsy McCaughey, the former lieutenant governor of New York, who said that the bill would "absolutely require" end-of-life counseling that "will tell them how to end their life sooner." Republican leader John Boehner offered the same flawed product, saying, "This provision may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia."

Their views were also sold by right-wing franchise operators. Laura Ingraham warned that government bureaucrats would "come to an old person'shouse for scary death chats. Fox News analyst Peter Johnson called it a "kind of our 2009 'Brave New World.'" And Randall Terry, the Zelig of the pro-life movement, said this was an attempt to "kill Granny."

Panic is their most important product. The bill doesn't really mandate anything. It simply assures that a talk about advance-care planning will be covered for the patients and families who want it. As Obama told a woman at an AARP forum, "It strikes me that that's a sensible thing to do."

Unfortunately, Goodman's article was printed merely as an opinion column without a corresponding news story debunking the lie.
But that was not the only major problem with the NPR story. Consider this from the NPR story:
Some [Democratic lawmakers] have been heckled and booed by unruly crowds. Some lawmakers are now having their town halls via telephone. And even Blue Dog Democrats who oppose the current legislation haven't escaped the conservative wrath.
That statement is true, but it leaves out critical, important facts. For example, the story never mentions that some Democratic members of Congress have received death threats, been forced to have police protection, had effigies hung outside their offices, and, perhaps most importantly, been prohibited from engaging in dialogue on healthcare or other issues with their constituents by unruly mobs.
Representative democracy requires an opportunity for voters to express their grievances and desires to their elected representatives. It is also essential for the representative to be given the opportunity to listen and explain. But when a frenzied mob yells and screams and prevents reasoned debate and discussion then they are harming the very thing that they most likely profess to care about so much: Democracy.

It addition, NPR also failed its listeners by omitting to note that these mobs that are appearing at Democratic town halls are no more a grassroots movement than the tea parties were. Republican strategists have posted instructions on precisely how to disrupt a town hall meeting and to make it look like there are far more protesters than there may, in fact, be. There is even apparently some evidence that people have been bussed in specifically for the purpose of disrupting town hall meetings. To me, the story is less that some people oppose healthcare reform -- it's a given that someone is going to oppose anything that Congress considers --but rather the organized effort to actually disrupt the democratic process.

And, if it turns out that those engaging in or facilitating that disruption are tied to the healthcare, insurance, or drug industries (or lobbying groups affiliated with them), then I'm afraid that we've really entered a dangerous new reality. If the Republicans were in office and they wanted to pass a law that opened drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we'd be concerned if the Sierra Club was encouraging its members to prevent Republicans from talking to their constituents or making death threats or engaging in other similar behavior. If Congress was considering a bill to abolish unions, we'd certainly be troubled if the unions encouraged their members to engage in violence or violent rhetoric. So shouldn't we be troubled if the healthcare, drug, and/or insurance industries try to disrupt the democratic process as a means of furthering opposition to a bill that will harm their bottom line?

I want to make it absolutely clear that I don't think that people who oppose a bill should be prohibited from voicing their opinion or speaking to their Congressional representative. But they should not use or threaten violence and they should not disrupt that representative's ability to speak with other constituents about that or other issues. Discussion of political issues can become heated and angry, but it should -- it must -- remain reasoned and civil. Mob mentality, especially when instilled by the unseen hand of special interests using lies and distortions as tools, is a threat to our democratic ideals. Anyone who truly supports our system, whether they support or oppose the current healthcare reform proposals, should stand up and say "no more" to the mobs who are preventing our elected representatives from engaging in that reasoned and civil discourse.


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