Pathologizing Dissent, or Deja Vu All Over Again
Hendrik Hertzberg, from The New Yorker magazine, whose political commentary I usually enjoy and agree with, has just added himself to the growing and not-so-illustrious line of those who mock and dismiss critics of our so-called health care reform bill, in his piece aptly titled -- because of its unintentional self-mockery -- Um, Pathetic.
To his credit, Hertzberg, somewhat reluctantly, admits that the bill has “conspicuous flaws,” but he breezily absolves our lawmakers of their responsibility for them, maintaining, rather unconvincingly, that our Congress is an inanimate entity, impervious to human feelings, thoughts, or intentions.
A curious observation, that, especially in light of the various astounding concessions our supposedly unfeeling and unthinking Senators (OK, there may be some truth to it) were able to intentionally finagle for their votes. For example, the sweet and jaw-dropping Medicaid deal for Nebraska secured by just one (allegedly unfeeling and unthinking) individual Senator, Ben Nelson. Or a mind-boggling provision giving Medicare benefits to all citizens of one town in Montana, obtained by Senator Baucus. (This begs an obvious question: if it can be done for all citizens of one whole town, why not for all citizens of our country?)
For an inanimate, unfeeling entity, the Senate members have shown remarkable, life-like nimbleness and skills in securing favorable concessions on their own behalf (because, let’s face it, they were negotiated with an eye on their upcoming elections).
Furthermore, Hertzberg does something even more unsavory in his attempt to excuse the Senate and President Obama from bearing responsibility for the "conspicuous flaws" of this bill: he joins the chorus of those who pathologize dissenting critics, even though his attempts at this untoward exercise are somewhat less heavy-handed than those done by the White House.
But Hertzberg too ridicules people like Howard Dean (whom the White House called “insane,” “irrational” and “uninformed”), Arianna Huffington, Keith Olbermann, Ralph Nader, and others. Not that he gives any space in his column to discussing the merits of their criticisms – he dismisses them off hand, attributing to the critics' thinking a “pathetic fallacy:" that of considering our Congress to be populated by living and breathing human beings.
The pathetic fallacy is a category mistake. It’s the false attribution of human feelings, thoughts, or intentions to inanimate objects, or to living entities that cannot possibly have such feelings, thoughts, or intentions—cruel seas, dancing leaves, hot air that “wants” to rise.
Ah, yes, cruel seas and dancing leaves. Just like our Congress.
To think of it, accusing one of cultivating a “pathetic fallacy” is only a tiny bit less offensive, if at all, than calling one “insane” (as it was done to Howard Dean). But the overall message is the same: the critics of the insurance reform must be, well - what’s the word? – crazy. Their thinking is seriously and "pathetically" compromised. That’s the diagnosis at which Hertzberg and others in his camp arrive without giving any consideration to the merits of the critics’ objections.
For some of us, this trend to pathologize dissent has the familiar aura of the way the Soviet government dealt with its critics, labeling them psychotic if they dared to voice their opposition to its policies. The next step was forced hospitalization and “treatment” – thankfully, Hertzberg et al. are not advocating that. Yet.
Instead, they issue soothing assurances from experts, like Paul Krugman who calls this massive and mandatory transfer of the American working and middle-class into the hands of private corporations “a great achievement.”
Reasonable people disagree on this. Rather than “establishing the principle that all Americans are entitled to essential health care,” as Krugman says (quoted by Hertzberg), the bill clearly establishes that all Americans are to be sacrificed like lambs on the altars of the corporate profits – or be punished if they refuse to participate in the sacrifice.
Call it what you will, but please do not call it a “great achievement,” or, even worse, a historic health care overhaul, as our grandiose and self-serving lawmakers and pundits are prone to do. That’s as offensive and possibly harmful as being diagnosed insane for pointing out the unpalatable obvious.
Hertzberg also compares the current legislation to the troubled and imperfect process of enacting Medicare under, first, Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, as if forgetting that Medicare is a government-run program and not yet another corporate enterprise (which is what this health insurance reform effectively turns our health care into).
He lectures angry progressives, in the condescending manner of one who can so capably point out others' pathetic fallacies, that their indignation would be better directed at what an earlier generation of malcontents called “the system”—starting, perhaps, with the Senate’s filibuster rule, an inanimate object if there ever was one.
Curiously, or not at all, somehow Hertzberg does not seem to appreciate a possible fallacy creeping into his own reasoning -- that trying to change "the system" is only slightly more challenging than trying to change individual minds of "the system's" members.
But you know what they say: one man's fallacy is another's New Yorker's commentary.
Last but not least: Hertzberg takes exception to those who call Obama a “liar.” All right. What should we call the President then, if he has broken his major campaign and early presidential promises pertaining to the health care reform (e.g., on drug price controls and importation, public option, tax increases – you know, all those things that would make this legislation a real reform, and not just putting lipstick on the corporate pig)?
Not only that, but when recently asked about his abandonment of the public option, Obama stated that he never campaigned on it or promised it, which flies in the face of verifiable facts (i.e., his own documented statements). If these are not lies, what should we call them – terminological inexactitudes perhaps?
On one thing, however, I agree with Hertzberg: yes, it is all, um, pathetic.
Cross-posted from The Middle of Nowhere.