Or: Barack Obama and Barnyard Animals
I've learned the hard way over the years that it's impossible to debate with an irrational person. That's the dilemma health care advocates face when dealing with the town hall mobs. However, I've also learned the hard way that comparing rhetorical styles is dangerous, because one is accused of comparing ideologies. (That's why I no longer write about a certain foreign policy issue.)
But it's hard to watch the health care mobs without being reminded of the protests in the dying days of official segregation, especially when it's coexisting with the more clearly racially driven birther fantasy. (The real losers here are responsible conservatives with legitimate concerns about health care, lumped now into the crazy category).
The racial subtext is accompanied by polls like the one at Pollster.com which notes that in overwhelmingly Republican Utah, only 13% of Republicans buy into the birther myths. But in Virginia and North Carolina, states that Obama won that have large black populations, that figure is more like half. Conservatives in whitest Utah are just as conservative as white Southerners but don't feel as threatened by the black neighborhood across town. Clearly there's subset of Americans -- older, more southern, and more conservative -- that are on some level uncomfortable with a black president.
But despite the rhetorical overlap, and in many cases the overlapping individuals, they're different issues. The birthers are clearly delusional, but there are rational reasons to oppose health care reform. Problem is, those tend to be self-serving, such as "I'm the CEO of a drug company and I want to keep making obscene profits," but at least that's rational. But the truth is too blatant and risks engagement. So the self-interested health care opponents are hiding behind the irrational because they know you can't argue with a crazy person without looking foolish for even trying.
The segregationists, of course, had no shame, which had the side effect of making them more open about their arguments. So let's turn it on its head and look at how the health care mobs are different than the segregationists.
First and most sadly, in their time and place the segregationist mobs too often represented a majority, or at least a local white majority. And they often had local authority behind them. That governor in the schoolhouse door, the sheriff with the hoses, they were elected. On the other hand, while we can argue about the specifics, there's a clear majority consensus that health care is broken and needs fixing.
The segregationists also had a viewpoint and a plan, even though it amounted to little more than rejecting the premise and defending the status quo. One can imagine a dialogue:
Freedom Rider: I am equal.
Segregationist. No you're not.
No real progress, but at least you agreed that you were talking about the same thing. Compare that to:
Obama: "In the wealthiest nation on Earth, 46 million of our fellow citizens have no insurance coverage. They are just vulnerable. If something happens, they go bankrupt, or they don't get the appropriate and adequate health care they need."
Health care mob: Hitler!
The health care opponents don't even bother defending the status quo. They're just the No nothings. The segregationists were screaming no to things that were actually happening, trying to stop action, while the health care mobs are just trying to stop discussion.
Segregationist: No, I don't want my kid to go to school with Them.
Supreme Court: Yes, that is exactly what Brown says will happen.
Segregationist: No, I don't want Them to vote.
LBJ: Yes, that is exactly what the Voting Rights Act will do.
Compare that to:
Palin: Obama wants to kill my baby.
It's an old political adage, which I first heard in an LBJ joke. It's a close election in Texas and LBJ tells someone, probably John Connally, that they should start a rumor that the other candidate likes the sows in the barn a little too much.
Connally: "Jesus Christ, Lyndon! We can't get away with calling him a pig-f****r!"
LBJ: "I know. But let's make the SOB deny it."
And that's what they're doing: Calling Obama a pigf****r and making him deny it. "Under the reform we're proposing, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor," the President said yesterday. "If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan. You will not be waiting in any lines. This is not about putting the government in charge of your health insurance." In this statement, the lines are the pig, the government is the sheep, and choosing your doctor is the goat.