Shout it out loud

I’m no expert on Nazi Germany, but the last time I checked, the regime wasn’t especially famous for its health care system. So where do people get the idea that Obama’s health care reform proposal has anything to do with it? More to the point, why do these crazy lies stick? Why is it that the very people who might have the most to benefit from affordable, consistent health care throw themselves into tirades of opposition to reform?

The strange, twisted irony of the Nazi analogy is that one thing Hitler did really, really well was tap into the deep-seated fears of the disaffected working-class Germans and turn their frustration against the abstract forces of global economics and geopolitics that bounded their lives into rage against a specific, real target—their Jewish neighbors. There was nothing logical or true about this, just as there is nothing logical or true about the irrational fears that are causing people to freak out about health care. But the anger and frustration is real. It is also true that the German people rallied to economic programs and policies that benefited industrial corporations far more than they would enjoy. Should the town hall screaming matches and right-wing talking heads kill health care, it will be a win for the insurance companies at the expense of everyone else. And that is all.

It may seem that I’m getting obsessed with health care here. OK, I admit it. But today’s column is less about reform itself than the discourse around it. This is a strange and fascinating phenomenon in our political reality, the crazed tempers and storms of outrage. At one extreme, a man shakes his fist in Arlen Specter’s face, accusing him of “trampling the Constitution.” Where was he when Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, when Rove and Cheney were plotting their own Constitution-shredding parties?

At the other end, we have an 1,100-page proposal stuffed with jargonistic policy-speak and defending politicians who seem curiously distracted from the particulars of the plan. One wonders if they have actually read it, or if they grasp the real mechanics of it. Between the shouts and the snores, there is little room for a real discussion, unless we allow technology to re-structure this exchange.

That is why I’m intrigued by Sen. Harry Reid’s decision to conduct Nevada’s town-hall meetings by teleconference. Some say this is a gutless move, but I think this is what happens when meaningful dialogue is made impossible by a few loudmouths who are only interested in disruption. At least, it’s what happens when a politician decides he’s still interested in hearing what his constituents have to say.

We may say we want to uphold the Constitution and have participatory democracy, but these qualities of our great system carry with them a huge responsibility. Yes, we all have the right to free speech, and not only to say things nicely that people want to hear. But that doesn’t change the fact that we can abuse that right with insult and incitement, and that abuse carries a cost—it erodes the very foundations of discourse. Every disrupted gathering gives credence to those who would prefer not to hear from citizens at all. The media talking heads who toss out the lies in the first place do as much damage to conservatives with real concerns as they might to the reform proposals. Except for the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and the networks behind the talking heads, everybody loses.