In the midst of the current debate over healthcare reform, we’re hearing ‘nazi policies’, ‘socialism’; ‘death panels’, ‘government takeover’ bandied about liberally. If these phrases evoke fear, mistrust and aversion, don’t panic. You’re simply responding to well-calibrated language that’s designed to do specifically that. English has a particular gift for carrying loaded, socio-historical baggage. ‘Government takeover’ and ‘socialism’ imply Orwellian machinations at the expense of say, Joe the Plumber (remember him?)
Lyndon Johnson’s campaign against Barry Goldwater was helped immensely by his ‘Daisy’ mushroom cloud attack ad, just as George Bush Sr. used Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis. The most effective political attacks are based on fear, simply because evolution has engineered our nervous system to react with greater speed to it. It’s a survival instinct. Unfortunately, our higher brain functions are disabled to allow these instincts to carry the body to safety. Which works beautifully when we’re told that politician X is a threat to our safety or property.The same reactive behavior that triggers a caveman to wield a club against an intruder works pretty much the same way with a citizen in a small town hall plus a congressman: Stop thinking, just scream and clobber.
Democracies are particularly susceptible to this kind of political atmosphere, where fear mongering comprised of misinformation or distortions can spread unchecked, and unverified. Julius Caesar’s opponents lobbed bombshells against him all throughout his career as a way to stop someone they regarded as a dangerous radical. The wedge issue at that time was Caesar advocating land redistribution to aid the poor. Alarmed, the rich land-owning Senators accused Caesar of homosexuality (a political death warrant in ancient Rome), bribing voters, holding office without divine sanction, and looting the treasury. Later, on being summoned to Rome to answer an accusation of sedition before a kangaroo court stuffed with his opponents, an exasperated Caesar instead mustered his provincial army in Gaul and overthrew the Roman Republic.
The politics of personal destruction were quite literal once upon a time. In 1440 Baron Gilles de Rais, the second most powerful man in France, and comrade in arms to Joan of Arc, was arrested for witchcraft and the serial killing of 140 children. The trial itself was conducted behind closed doors by a mix of church and royal prosecutors. Evidence was never publicly presented. Gilles confessed under torture (legally sanctioned by church and state), and was hanged shortly after. Historians strongly suspect the French monarch was behind his arrest, in collusion with the Church. The reason? To eliminate a powerful rival to the French throne, and the seizure of his lands. The trigger mechanism for the hapless baron was the accusation of witchcraft. All bets were off for Gilles.
In this slice of American history, a political power struggle is being masked behind the metaphors thrown against the healthcare debate wall.. Without addressing the merits or pitfalls of the legislation, we have seen unsubstantiated hyperbole belched out every week – that this reform has associations with nazism, it’s a radical readjustment of our government toward socialism (without defining exactly what ‘socialism’ is), and that it will mandate euthanasia for the elderly with ‘death panels’. The catchphrases gain traction because fear comes embedded in the language. And that fear is fertile ground for breeding a shrill, anxious lemming mentality, which is why the loud, vocal opposition in some town halls seems like a chapter out of Animal Farm with the sheep incessantly bleating "four legs good, two legs bad." Debate matters less than volume.
It’s the height of laziness on our part not to actually find out what healthcare reform is all about. It’s a mouse-click away. It’s google-accessible. And if you don’t know what ‘socialism’ actually means, go wikipedia it, before getting into a tizzy and facebooking all your friends that the Ministry of Euthanasia is just around the corner. For those of you who believe there’s a Vast Right Wing Conspiracy to drown out debate, find out whether every town hall meeting has actually erupted into a noisy Munich beer hall putsch. If you believe that Barack Obama’s a closet Marxist, go do some research to verify your suspicions. Are all humans in the health insurance industry flesh-eating goblins? Of course not. There are companies actually backing President Obama’s reform push.
Caesar, ironically, attempted to placate and compromise with the remnants of his political opposition after seizing control of the government. For his efforts he was stabbed twenty-three times in the Senate Chamber. His adopted son and successor, Gaius Octavius, decided that accommodation with implacable enemies was far less preferable than having them all proscribed and killed. Debate and compromise does have its benefits.
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