The spinmeisters of the right have done quite a job with what used to be straightforward English etymology. Thanks to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, “integration” was inverted to mean “takeover” and “colorblindness” is code for abandoning the advances of the civil rights movement, which itself is synonymous with an “industry” of exclusion. It’s no surprise, then, that whenever a piece of progressive legislation comes to the table, the same manipulations come into play from right-wing pundits who shamelessly profess their desire to see the Obama presidency fail. Thus it is that America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 is being turned upside down as the neat equivalent of Germany’s Bankrupting Forced Death Act of 1939.
If you are watching the healthcare town-hall ruckuses with only common dictionary meanings in your head, you will be struck by the protesters’ general incoherence and outright nonsense, bearing no rational connection to the actual draft of the healthcare bill. As Representative Barney Frank demanded of one constituent who likened the bill to Nazism, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”
But if you listen as though deciphering pig Latin and realize that this demographic is speaking from a well-managed, near-hypnotic looking-glass world where every word from the mouth of a Democrat (or a liberal, or a Latina, or a Canadian) is a lie, a betrayal… then it all makes sense. Their world truly has been turned inside out, by the election, by the economy, by the precarious conditions that threaten us all. But for those whose sense of identity has been premised on a raced, masculinist, conservative Christian hierarchy of American power, the world must seem even more emotionally terrifying than any actual facts would indicate.
So reversal is key to understanding what’s going on. It’s not just “lies”; it’s the expressive angst of people whose felt power relations have been turned upside down. It’s not factually accurate, but this is how they feel. Obama is Hitler! Health insurance for all means euthanasia for me! “My” country is suddenly “their” country.
Of course, there are special interests who profit from the magnification of these fears. Betsy McCaughey, a former shill for a medical instruments company, is the original source of the “death panel” rumors. From the beginning, big pharmaceutical and insurance companies, with an almost inconceivable amount of money to spend, have been muddying the waters. Think about the recent revelation that Merck secretly financed the publication of a fake medical journal that was designed to look objective but merely touted the supposed benefits of its products–and included “paid advertisements” for the company’s drugs. What is truth in such a corrupt hall of mirrors?
But what does the bill actually say? A quick summary of the most contentious point: the act would provide reimbursement if you seek medical counseling about end-of-life decisions. This option allows you to plan what you would like to have done in the case of catastrophic or terminal illness–nothing forced about it. All extraordinary measures will continue to be used to resuscitate someone whose wishes are unknown: feeding tube, intubation, cracking ribs to defibrillate, whatever it takes. By contrast, it is private, profit-motivated insurance companies–which deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions and restrict one’s choice of doctor, medical treatments and length of hospital stays (based on actuarial tables)–that bear the greatest resemblance to a mulching euthanasia machine. When nearly 50 million US citizens live without any health coverage, how on earth could a purely voluntary public option be considered throwing people under the bus?
Let me acknowledge the genuine ideological and moral misgivings behind some of the protests. Many libertarians hate anything the government does, no matter how monopolistic or quasi-governmental the power of pharmaceutical and insurance companies. But they are a minority and not generally the bloc using the language of reversal and code. Similarly, there are those with genuine moral or religious qualms: “prolifers” who, if they believe that life begins at the molecular moment of conception, could also think that any end-of-life consultation is against God’s will. This would be the same line of reasoning followed by those who wanted Congress to keep Terri Schiavo on life support no matter what. While I can certainly respect that as a belief, it is clearly even more of a minority position than libertarianism. In addition, it requires strong-armed government intrusion over the wishes of patients or family; and it is totally unsustainable as national public policy.
All of this is complicated but surely, with a bit of listening, comprehensible to the average citizen. So how do we connect the reality of our dismal life-expectancy and health-cost statistics to the hysterical sobbing of people who come to town-hall meetings furious that “the insurance companies won’t be able to make a profit”? Much of the epic woe is not about healthcare or public options. It’s about roiling resentments that need to be dressed up as something else, the coded mummery of Halloween monsters hybridized into new chimeras of hate. It’s about fear that precious resources are being transferred to “alien” others. Fear that the gains of others are ill-gotten, leaving the lonely patriot survivalist as victim, “thrown away,” trash. In these fiery monologues, even our president is figured as conspiratorially alien-birthed, from a galaxy far, far away, who’s just pretending to be one of “us.”
This morning I saw a picture of President Obama dressed as Hitler, complete with little mustache, tacked high on a tree trunk. At first it seemed jaw-droppingly ridiculous, sociopathically paranoid. But if the rule of reversal is what’s encoded in that image, all people of good will must worry that what’s really at stake for some of our gun-toting, demagogic fellow citizens is nothing less than America’s very own Weimar moment.