The soldiers of ignorance are on the march again. For those of us who dwell in the reality-based community, there are only two ways to respond:
Option A is to simply ignore the marchers, by convincing ourselves that nobody would ever believe the lies that they are spreading.
Option B is to subscribe to the 19th-century English proverb (often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain) that goes something like this: "A lie will go 'round the world while truth is pulling its boots on." In other words, all kinds of credulous people will swallow all kinds of lies. Therefore, it becomes imperative that the truth-tellers insist on equal time.
So in the spirit of Option B, let's assess one of the more toxic lies currently being circulated on conservative talk radio, on conservative blogs, and in right-wing viral emails. The topic, naturally, is health care, and the aim is to freak out America's senior citizens - or, at the very least, prey on those who are most gullible - in the hope that systemic reform can be scuttled and the status quo preserved.
I'm referring to this summer's Pinocchio whopper, about how the Democratic health care reform agenda would supposedly "require" Medicare recipients to plan for their own deaths - and to consider ending their lives in a premature fashion, perhaps via suicide, in order to help the government save money.
I kid you not. This lie was introduced on a radio show hosted by Fred Thompson, the former Republican presidential candidate, back on July 16, and it has quickly metasitized into more virulent forms. The original author was Thompson's radio guest, Betsey McCaughey, a former Republican lieutenant governor of New York, who had helped kill Bill Clinton's health plan 15 years ago. McCaughey told Thompson's listeners that the House Democratic reform bill - page 425, to be exact - would basically require seniors to shorten their lives.
Her quote: "The health care reform bill would make it mandatory - absolutely require - that every five years, people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner, how to decline nutrition, how to decline being hydrated, how to go into hospice care...all to do what's in society's best interest...and cut your life short."
(Fred Thompson's credulous reply was priceless. He said, "I didn't know that," thereby demonstrating what happens when you give a microphone to a failed politician who won't even make a pretense of fact-checking.)
The lie soon traveled 'round the world, getting worse with each right-wing re-telling. Chain emails have been telling seniors that the Democratic health care plan includes "an ORDER from Government to end your life." Citing the supposedly notorious Page 425, the emails claim that "the Federal Government will require EVERYONE who is on Social Security to undergo a counseling session every five years with the objective being that (the bureaucrats) will explain to them just how to end their own life earlier...They are going to push SUICIDE to cut Medicare spending!!!" Meanwhile, Randall Terry, the anti-abortion extremist leader, has reduced it all to a bumper sticker; he says that the government wants to "kill Granny."
As for the elected Republican leaders, they have not condemned the lies; rather, they have employed just enough hyperbole to oxygenate the lies. Eleven days ago, House GOP leader John Boehner said that the Democratic health reform plan "may place seniors in situations where they feel pressured to sign end-of-life directives they would not otherwise sign. This provision may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia."
In reality, Page 425 does not "absolutely require" anybody to do anything. Rather, it says that if seniors voluntarily choose to consider their end-of-life options (living wills, do-not-resuscitate provisions), and voluntarily seek to discuss those choices with their doctors, Medicare would be required to pay for those counseling sessions. Simple as that.
But the falsehood fallout has been extensive. President Obama was hit with the lie during a town hall meeting last week, when a credulous soul said: "I have been told there is a clause in there that everyone that's Medicare age will be visited and told to decide how they wish to die." (The lie keeps getting worse; now the feds are supposedly going to "visit" every senior in person and decree their fate.) Obama had to spend valuable time knocking that one down.
On another front, the AARP in recent weeks has been compelled to share the true facts with thousands of panicked callers; the seniors lobby also put out a press release on July 24, pointing out that the Democratic language "would actually help empower individuals and doctors to make their own choices on end-of-life care...This measure would not only help people make the best decisions for themselves, but also better ensure that their wishes are followed." Meanwhile, the American Medical Association has echoed the AARP on this issue, and indeed has told its callers that the AMA supports the Democratic language as common-sense planning.
Not surprisingly, Democrats have been slow to assail the under-the-radar kill-the-old-folks campaign; as The Washington Post reported over the weekend, "Democratic strategists privately acknowledged that they were hesitant to give extra attention to the issue by refuting the inaccuracies." But didn't they learn anything from the Swift Boat assault on John Kerry, which they studiously ignored until it was too late?
Democrats might be wise to heed this warning, penned in a letter in 1867: "The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might." Credit that one to Mark Twain. In their summer pitch for health care reform, Democrats need to refute the outrageous lies with, at minimum, equivalent fervor.