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Cranky old people didn’t come up with this on their own

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, August 17, 2009 22:48 EDT
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Please, my liberal friends. I understand that you want to be generous people who assume that our opposition is capable of arguing in good faith, and Ross Douthat makes himself an appealing person to reach out to, because he will occasionally say not-crazy things. And you’ll be tempted to reprint them on the front page of Daily Kos. But do not be fooled! Douthat only says occasional not-crazy things in order to lull you into not realizing that he’s pushing a crazy point. That’s his schtick. He is not about being reasonable. He’s about taking crazy, right wing ideas and writing them in a way that makes them seem reasonable. And that’s what he’s doing with this Monday’s column, which can be summed up as, “Republicans are only lying about the existence of death panels, because of the death panels.” Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to say, “Hey, he admitted that the ‘death panels’ thing is a lie!”, when of course what he’s doing is basically saying that Democrats want to kill your grandmother.

Look! He says it right there.

In this future, somebody will need to stand for the principle that Medicare can’t pay every bill and bless every procedure. Somebody will need to defend the younger generation’s promise (and its pocketbooks). Somebody will need to say “no” to retirees.

In other words, amen to death panels! Which is another way of raising concerns about death panels, under the guise of supporting them. Hey, the motherfucker’s crafty, I’ll give you that. He’s luring Democratic supporters into admitting what isn’t true, which is that health care reform will shorten life spans. It won’t. It will lengthen them. If you’re an old person who is afraid of death, Douthat is basically telling you to be afraid, and he’s willing to posture as someone out to kill you to get that message across. In truth, reforms that would make it easier for families to look at the facts and choose hospice care would likely lengthen, not shorten life.

We performed retrospective statistical analysis on selected cohorts from large paid claim databases of Medicare beneficiaries for five types of cancer and congestive heart failure (CHF) patients. We analyzed the survival of 4493 patients from a sample of 5% of the entire Medicare beneficiary population for 1998–2002 associated with six narrowly defined indicative markers. For the six patient populations combined, the mean survival was 29 days longer for hospice patients than for nonhospice patients. The mean survival period was also significantly longer for the hospice patients with CHF, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and marginally significant for colon cancer (P=0.08). Mean survival was not significantly different (statistically) for hospice vs. nonhospice patients with breast or prostate cancer. Across groups studied, hospice enrollment is not significantly associated with shorter survival, but for certain terminally ill patients, hospice is associated with longer survival times.

Douthat’s posturing about he’s willing to kill you to save money is just that: in truth, money-saving non-invasive approaches may in fact keep you alive nearly a month longer on average, and in more comfort with more access to your family. But he’s interested in pushing the lie that reforms are aimed at killing old people off, even if that means having to adopt a posture that makes him look cold. The point is to adopt a cold persona in order to damn the Democrats with it. The ugly truth is that saving money and keeping terminally ill patients alive and comfortable are compatible goals.

In reality, the basic point of his essay is to lie to you about Republican lies. In Douthat’s world, elderly people who are freaking out and saying things like, “Obama is going to take away my Medicare” are making rational statements based on calm analysis from honest Republicans. Even though that’s impossible, because Medicare is a government program, and the elderly people freaking out clearly are confused about this fact, because Republican leadership is lying to them. They’re not reacting to sober assessment of actual policy proposals. They’re reacting to Sarah Palin telling them that they’re going to be euthanized. They’re reacting to email forwards, rumors spread by word of mouth, and direct mailers. They’ve convinced themselves that “big government” and Medicare are not only different things, but that the former takes away the latter. They’re almost all white, and they’re reacting to the race-baiting of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. They’ve decided that a bunch of younger, non-white people are basically out to kill them and steal their shit.

This isn’t very complicated. The senior citizens with “concerns” aren’t reacting to anything resembling reality, because they aren’t being exposed to it. Opponents of health care reform are feeding them outrageous lies. Trying to find a connection between what Republicans are saying and what’s in the bill is like trying to find a connection between Ross Douthat and non-douchebaggery. It’s not there, and anyone who does it is either lying to himself or to others. The reason that senior citizens are lapping up these lies is the one-two punch of the racism (notice how Douthat ignores that the townhall “skepticism” is a largely white phenomenon?) of older white people who have never gotten over their days resisting desegregation and the fact that elderly people are, as a population, known to be more gullible and easy to scare than other populations. I’ve been over this before. Elderly people are targeted by hucksters and con men all the time, and that’s why the Republicans are doing so well selling the big health care con to the elderly. (This doesn’t mean all elderly people, of course, but enough that it can create serious problems.) That’s why this paragraph from Douthat is especially deceitful:

If the Democratic Party’s attempt at health care reform perishes, senior citizens will have done it in, not talk-radio listeners and Glenn Beck acolytes. It’s the skepticism of over-65 Americans that’s dragging support for reform southward.

This is one of his favorite tricks: “If X happens, it will be because of Y, not Z,”—what he doesn’t tell you is that Z is caused by Y. In this case, “skeptical” senior citizens are “skeptical” because they are the talk radio listeners and Glenn Beck acolytes. Let’s try his rhetorical trick with other phenomenon, to show what he’s doing here:

*If it gets dark at night, it’s because the sun set, not because the earth rotates around, causing the sun to light up different parts of the planet at different times.
*If your garden produces more fruit this year, it’s because the plants had more nutrition, not because you spread fertilizer.
*If you get a high score in your video game, it’s because you got the most points, not because you practiced endlessly until you got much better.
*If you have dinner tonight, it’s because you scooped the food out of the pan, not because of the cooking you did to get it into the pan.
*If you graduate college, it’s because someone handed you a diploma, not because you did all your homework and completed your classes.

Talk radio, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, etc. are experts at exploiting and scaring gullible, paranoid, racist old white people. That’s their job. They do it day in and day out. They enjoy painting pictures of a scary world out there to titillate and scare old people, particularly those whose aging has affected their critical thinking abilities. Sure, their broader mission is to titillate and scare all wingnuts who’ve had their critical thinking abilities eroded through willful ignorance and prejudice, but elderly wingnuts are especially susceptible to the wildest claims. Everyone’s heard stories about this person or that’s grandmother who won’t give up her Bill O’Reilly, even though watching it is clearly making her afraid to leave the house, as she’s afraid she’ll be running into a wall of college orgies and rampant crime. These right wing radio and TV hosts are playing paranoid older people like fiddles on health care reform. And that’s before we’re even talking about the shadow world of right wing email forwards and rumor mills. When that elderly lady asked Obama the tremulous question about euthanasia during his TV town hall, was there any doubt that she got this idea from a team of right wing media assholes who are determined to feed it to people like her, if not directly, then through their social networks?

That Douthat was willing to lie about something so obvious in this piece should be exactly the sort of thing that causes people to pause and ask themselves, “What’s he really trying to do here?” I strongly suspect he’s playing the role of a Medicare reform supporter in order to clean up and promulgate the lie that senior citizens have anything to worry about when it comes to reform. Remember, Douthat’s a strong believer in 95% of the bullshit the “right to life” dickwads pass out, and he’s an avid fan of trying to find ways to pass out the same information without the usual anti-choice hysterics that turn others off. I fail to see how that’s not going to be a factor in his writing of this column.

The strategy he’s using is called “damning them with faint praise”, and we shouldn’t fall for it.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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