Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Invincible Ignorant
I'm starting to believe that much more is at stake in the outcome of the health reform debate than the plight of the uninsured, or the prospect of health costs-driven deficits beyond the horizon, or the political viability of the Obama administration and Democratic congressional majorities. If reform fails altogether, it will represent a triumph of willful ignorance that ultimately could put the entire democratic project in jeopardy.

Most media coverage, even from the better outlets, inevitably fixates on the drama of confrontation--an irate Pennsylvanian promising Arlen Specter that "God is going to judge you!," or some other nut bringing an unlicensed gun to an Obama event in New Hampshire--or (at the behest of too-clever-by-half Democratic strategists) the question of to what extent the protesters are genuinely grass-roots or a product of "astroturfing." This misses the point: sure, they're organized, but the anger is genuine.

The point is that it's almost impossible to imagine how those protesting might be disabused of the entirely mad ideas that "the Obama plan" (which doesn't even exist as such) will kill old people and mandate abortions or sex change operations or homosexual conversion therapy or whatever else their fevered little minds might come up with. Glenn Beck isn't gonna tell them. Sarah Palin's Twitter feed sure won't tell them. Nobody else on Fox News or the Focus on the Family newsletter is going to set out the facts. Network TV news, as noted, is mostly interested in the spectacle--and even if they do point out that there aren't really any "Death Panels," it's an article of faith on the Raging Right that they're all in cahoots with Obama/George Soros/The Gays/the Trilateral Commission/whoever.

In other words, this is a closed system into which no outside information can penetrate--a fact-free zone. It's a mass reflection of what an unnamed Bush advisor, probably Karl Rove, was talking about when he said, "we create our own reality." Not surprisingly, it also reflects the teleological certainty of the fundamentalist religious strain that no doubt inspires many of those resisting reform.

There are a lot of ways to cut at this, including its relevance to the philosophical questions with which every democratic society must grapple: how do you tack between mass public participation and mass public ignorance? How much deference does expertise really merit? Is it ever fair or just to impose change on those who would not welcome it, "for their own good"? Is it more unfair or unjust to deny progress in recognition of that wish? Are we forever stuck at the lowest common denominator of community spirit?

For now, though, I just want to win the fight--and I'm not sure Democrats know how to do that. Yesterday in New Hampshire, Obama asked that "we disagree over things that are real." That sure would be nice, and there are plenty of grounds for disagreement. (I think part of why there's such a gap in intensity between opponents and supporters of reform is that many on the reform side have been put off by this or that ugly bit of legislative sausage-making to such an extent that it's almost not seemed worth it to stand up for whatever emerges from Congress.) But Obama's request presupposes agreement on what is and isn't real... and the whole point of a closed information system is that it rejects the premises of any outside voice.

Republican officials--some of them, I'd like to think most of them, probably not all of them--know better than to believe that death panels are in the legislation, or that the administration is compiling "enemies lists" of reform opponents. But most of them are either egging on the know-nothings or keeping quiet because they figure it's worth using the mob to defeat legislation they oppose on the merits. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who wrote the language that Palin characterized as a "death panel," has defended his work in strictly limited terms, but has pretty much said that since he opposes health care reform anyway, he doesn't want to see his words used in its defense.

How does it end? As I've said a few times recently, I fear that if it's proven that government is incapable of addressing big problems in its current form, popular sentiment will crest toward changing the forms--people will demand simple answers, and fall behind whoever promises them. At that point, I suspect that many of those now decrying "tyranny" will be cheering it on--whereas if we pass health care reform, and nothing much changes (it being perhaps too much to hope that the weak reforms contemplated will actually add value to the lives of those most opposed to them), they'll just have to find another pretext for what is at bottom identity-politics rage.

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