Saturday, August 29, 2009

Look Hard Enough For Something And You Will Find It

The quest to discredit conservative activism continues

In an op/ed column for the Tallahassee Democrat, Florida State University Associate Professor Dr Andy Opel offers an "anatatomy of a photograph" that he believes is quite damning of opponents of US President Barack Obama's health care reform package.

In the photo, pictured left, a man is shown speaking with Opel in what appears to be a quite angry tone. Opel treats it -- and his experiences at a Town Hall meeting on health care -- as evidence that those protesting Obama's health care reforms are using "intimidation and threats of violence" to advance their agenda.

This despite the fact that the man in the picture seems to be pointing at Opel with sheet of paper clutched between his middle and ring fingers.

Even through his own reporting, the story that Opel presents does not materialize. What materializes in its stead is a story about the desperation with which advocates of health care reform are attempting to marginalize and demonize their adversaries.

As with most such stories, it isn't a pretty picture. It begins with Opel going looking for a confrontation:
"On Tuesday, I went to Tallahassee City Hall to attend a forum on health care reform that featured Congressman Allen Boyd as a panelist. The hall was full when I arrived, but outside I found a large group of people participating in a rally sponsored by Americans for Prosperity and the James Madison Institute. Some were carrying signs ranging from a swastika with a red line through it to another that read, 'Government Healthcare makes me sick!'

As someone who supports health care reform and would like to see universal coverage in the US, I was curious to find out what was motivating the resistance to health care reform and why anyone would be so hostile to proposals that will provide health coverage to the 46 million people who currently lack access to medical care.
To most people, this would actually be perfectly evident: one way or the other, these people simply do not see this issue the same way Opel does. Opel, like many committed ideologues, doesn't seem to understand this, let alone does he understand how someone may see the issue differently.

But, as it stands, Opel doesn't really seem interested in it at all. He seems perfectly content to portray opponents of health care reform as base brutes.
"What I found, and what the photo I was pictured in on Wednesday's front page revealed, was that many people who are resisting the current government initiatives would rather use intimidation and threats of violence instead of rational debate to advance their agenda."
The picture does seem rather tense, but still a far cry short of impending violence.

It's also perfectly evident from Opel's body language in the picture that he doesn't feel the slightest bit intimidated by the man with whom he is arguing. If anything, his body language is every bit as confrontational.

But that, sadly, isn't Opel's only argument. Despite the folly of recent efforts to invoke racism as part of the health care debate, Opel conflates concerns about illegal immigrants and where they would get their health care into evidence of some kind of white supremacist agenda -- much like MSNBC concealing the race of a man with an assault rifle in order to suggest that he's white.
"Among the people to whom I did talk at length, a number of themes emerged.

One thing that quickly became clear was that this is not really a debate about health care. Within a matter of moments, multiple conversations turned to the issue of 'illegal immigration.' These individuals mistakenly believed that their tax money would be paying for the health care of 'illegal immigrants.' This was followed by criticisms of US immigration policy, border security and a slew of racist comments against non-English speakers and the poor.
Interestingly enough, the question of illegal immigrants and how they would access health care can't be as easily separated as Opel would like to believe.

After all, it isn't as if amnesty for illegal immigrants -- who, for the record, have broken the law by virtue of their method of entry into the United States -- is a cause that has never been championed by the Democratic party.

Concern over illegal immigration, and the massive security risk it poses to the United States not only in terms of terrorism, but also in terms of issues such as organized crime and drug smuggling, is a legitimate issue. Trying to delegitimize that concern is a service to no one.

Of Dr Opel's legitimate concerns is the misinformed nature of many health care reform opponents:
"I also discovered that there are parallel worlds when it comes to statistics about health care. When I asked individuals if they were content to let 46 million people go without health care, I was met with the repeated line, 'It's not 46 million.' I would then ask how many were uninsured, and the repeated answer was that most of the 46 million were 'illegal immigrants' and that the real number was fewer than 10 million and those people could pay for insurance but choose not to.

These opinions contradict data from the US Census Bureau, which documents 46 million uninsured American citizens in the US in 2007.

A similar disconnect occurred around my attempts to compare US health care spending and outcomes with other developed countries. According to the people I spoke with, health care systems in Canada, England, Germany and elsewhere are all on the verge of collapse and those countries are looking to replicate the current US model. These ideas challenge World Health Organization data that rank overall US health care as 37th in the world, 24th in life expectancy, all while we pay nearly twice as much in health care costs per person as any country in the world. Paying more for less is not an indication of a healthy marketplace, but these protestors were ready to defend the current system at any cost.

Finally, the number of senior citizens protesting 'government run health care' stood out with great irony. When I asked a man holding an 'Obama = Socialism' sign if he wanted to give up his Medicare, I was told that Medicare was underfunded.
Certainly a great many more Americans would share Opel's enthusiasm for health care reform if they were aware of the facts surrounding the state of health care in the United States. They may not necessarily be eager to embrace the health care models of Canada, Britain or Germany, but they would almost certainly be in favour of some kind of structural reform.

But the greatest irony of Opel's column is only about to emerge:
"These intellectual and ideological disconnects are a reminder of the power of niche media to create echo chambers that allow us to live in isolated worlds where our own views are rarely challenged and demagogues offer bumper-sticker slogans instead of policy solutions. Examples include Sarah Palin, who spread the 'death panel' lie; Fox News host Glenn Beck, who has called President Obama a racist and joked about poisoning Nancy Pelosi; and Rush Limbaugh, with his ongoing accusations of Obama's policies paralleling those of the Nazis."
To be fair, the reporting of media outlets such as FOX News on a great many topics -- including health care reform -- has been of rather dubious merit.

But then again, so has the reporting of outlets such as MSNBC. For Opel to decry the "intellectual and ideological disconnects" of Palin, Beck and Limbaugh is one thing. What of the "intellectual and ideological disconnects" of Contessa Brewer, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann?

Not only is Opel content to ignore them -- conflating concerns over the costs of health care reforms, whether or not citizens will provide the benefits of such to non-citizens, and the scope of reform with racism -- Opel is more than content to embrace them on his own.

It seems that, as far as echo chambers go, Opel is more than content to be just another voice ringing through the chamber.
"When US Senator Chuck Grassley repeats Palin's lies and groups like Americans for Prosperity host two clips of Glenn Beck on the front page of their Web site, we can see the echo chamber at work, propagating myths as political reality and fanning the flames of fear and insecurity in a time of economic crisis and demographic change in the US."
We can also see the echo chamber at work when Opel joins the chorus of those trying to delegitimize those who dissent from their own views. And when people such as Brewer and Maddow make bold predictions that an assassination attempt is imminent, what are they playing to but the politics of fear?

It's one thing to decry the alleged fear mongering of one's opponents. It's another thing to do it while fear mongering on your own.
"As conservative politicians and media pundits exploit fear for political gain at the expense of any real health care solution, we all suffer from the economic drag of an inefficient health care system and the moral failing of a society unwilling to care for its most vulnerable."
One has to imagine that Andy Opel believes he's doing fellow advocates of health care reform quite the favour.

The truth is very different.

When Opel falls all over himself to deligimize his political opponents he reveals himself to be every bit as misguided, dishonest and unprincipled as his ideological adversaries. He shows that he is exploiting the same echo chamber, and he is doing so secure in the knowledge that those within that chamber will not seek any outside information or perspective.

There is a great deal of security to be found in such an echo chamber. For example, Contessa Brewer, Toure and Dylan Ratigan have yet to retract their report in which they edited footage in order to obscure the race of a gun-bearing individual at an Obama rally so they could suggest white racists were planning Obama's assassination. They don't actually need to. Because those viewing their show very likely may have never watched a story about the rally in question on a competing network. Although they know full well they've misrepresented the story in question, they need never admit it. That is the power of the echo chamber.

Just like MSNBC may even find some who are legitimately racist among those opposing Brack Obama's health care reform, Dr Andy Opel clearly went looking for a confrontation with ignorant opponents of health care reform. He evidently looked hard enough to find it. But that is no surprise.

When one looks hard enough for something they want to find, they may even convince themselves they've found it.

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