Debate is healthy–essential, even–to a thriving democracy. But debate requires that all parties tell the truth. Dishonesty poisons social discourse, and invariably prevents us from arriving at common ground and reaching important goals.
I am extremely troubled by the misinformation–lies, really–being spread about the proposed health care reform slowly winding its way through Congress. The misinformation takes many forms, but at its heart lies a straw man. That is, some of those who strongly oppose health care reform are deliberately distorting what reform would mean in an effort to make change appear undesirable. So, for example, they make outrageous claims that, under the Obama plan, the elderly will face forced euthanasia (or any sort of euthanasia), when, in fact, all the proposal would do is give patients the option of discussing advanced directives regarding life-support should they ever suffer a perpetual coma. There is nothing wrong or even scary about that. In fact, in the wake of the Terry Schiavo calamity, you would think that everyone would be in favor of such a logical proposal. But, by misinterpreting what the legislation would do, those making false claims are able to frame the debate in new terms. If all you hear are people screaming at their congressmen at town hall meetings, you, too, might walk away with the wrong ideas of what health care reform would look like. (There is a curious similarity between some of those screaming about health care and others screaming about President Obama’s citizenship.)
Another common refrain amongst those who–for whatever reason–oppose reform is that citizens of other nations which have some form of national health care (“socialized medicine!”) or single-payer program (which isn’t even on the table here in the USA, though, mark my words, it will happen in my lifetime) receive much worse care than Americans. Generally, these arguments point to the “long waits” that patients must endure before receiving essential treatment. I don’t doubt that patients needing elective operations occasionally have to wait their turns. But I strongly suspect that the more horrifying claims are greatly exaggerated. Moreover, when you consider that many tens of millions of Americans are not able to receive those procedures at all, waiting a few weeks doesn’t seem that bad.
But, others who claim that “America has the greatest health care system in the world”, which is demonstrably false if you use almost any measurable criteria, like to make different, more terrifying false claims. A hilarious one appears in the latest Investors Business Journal. It suggests that the British public health system is terrible because of “rationing”, and that “the stories of people dying on a waiting list or being denied care altogether read like a horror movie script”. If, the article states, the bureaucrats don’t believe your life is worth saving, they cut you off, and “you get to curl up in a corner and die”. Now, you might expect such a shabbily written and poorly researched article to cite ridiculous and unreliable tabloids like the New York Post, and this one does. And you might also expect it make the sinister insinuation that American patients will be “compelled” to pull their own plugs, so to speak, and this one does that, as well. But you probably would not have believed that anyone who receives money to write words could make a mistake this stupid:
People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.
Investors Business Journal probably ought to have asked British scientist Stephen Hawking, who lives in the United Kingdom, where they have the National Health Service, if he agreed with that premise. He would probably have told them that he “wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS”. That is, in fact, exactly what he told The Guardian. The ignorance of facts displayed by the Investors Business Journal is not unlike that demonstrated by those fools who claim that, even if President Obama was born in Hawaii–which they’re not willing to concede–he cannot be an American citizen because his father was Kenyan, which is clearly wrong.
It is, of course, appropriate to discuss what this health care reform will cost and how we will pay for it. And it is entirely understandable that many who oppose abortion would be troubled to think of their money going to cover abortions. I resent that even a penny of my tax dollars goes to pay for chemicals that the state of Florida uses to kill human beings strapped to a table. So, their concerns are fair, and we should discuss our options. But intellectual dishonesty makes legitimate debate impossible, and the fanatics who insist nothing is wrong with what we have, or who seek to make the perfect the enemy of the good, are only making things worse.