Saturday, July 28, 2007

Universal health care, Islamic extremists and the gleaming scalpels of doom

“We must remove their appendixes over there so we don’t have to do it here.”


OK, I made up the quote above. Even President Malaprop hasn’t tried that one yet, although it’s likely being tested for credibility and traction on some focus group as we speak. But to the point…

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article for Online Journal called “Health care wars and the lies the for-profit racketeers tell us.” I wrote it to offer my best educated guesses on how the health insurance industry will attack Michael Moore’s “Sicko” and, even more critical to them, blunt the groundswell of public anger and outrage this movie has generated all across the country.

News reports and blog postings from Florida to Alaska suggest Moore is responsible for creating widespread public revulsion regarding our ongoing public health catastrophe. Apparently, it crosses standard demographic barriers, race and class distinctions. And it points an accusing finger directly at the tragicomic fiction that the for-profit health care industry’s sole concern is the welfare of its subscribers.


A little background
My column was written from the perspective of someone whose day job for the past 15 or so years has been consulting spinmeister to corporate America. Prior to that, I was a “senior media relations manager” with a division of a very large software company whose initials are not MS. In short, I’ve got a ton of experience at devising PR strategies and campaigns, some of which have included damage control or “crisis management” as their prime objective, and all of which are designed to deceive, manipulate opinion or destroy the counterweight of critical thinking – or all of the above. It’s soul-shriveling work, but it pays well.

I often atone for my professional sins by using my experience to help people understand how, for example, effective corporate spin-doctoring shifts the focus of cynicism and outrage away from the machinations of big business and attempts to direct it toward whoever or whatever is challenging their public image and benevolent-corporate-citizenship mythology.


Creating and focusing mass opinion
This process of shifting public focus from the crimes of the perps to sins of their accuser takes many forms, occasionally by attempting to rebut the challenger’s views, but more often simply by assassinating the challenger’s character. This has become standard practice in business and politics. You have only to look back to 2004 and the “swift-boating” of John Kerry to see it elevated to an art form. And now Moore is having his own swift-boating experience, trashed by the usual reactionaries as an anti-American, anti-free market, anti-capitalism fanatic who wants to destroy one of the US’ most dominant corporate institutions.

Having destroyed the challenger’s credibility, the tactics now shift to engaging the enemy in “reasoned” debate. In any PR campaign, sets of official talking points evolve to provide “balance, context and support” for the official story. In this case, about a half-dozen standard objections to single-payer specifically, and to universal access in general, pop up every time these issues are widely discussed – the last time being Clinton’s bloated, indecipherable “near universal coverage” plan, which still scared the industry into a $100 million ad campaign to convince Americans that they’d be nuts to tamper with the status quo.

So for last week’s article, I put together a set of talking points that I expect we’ll hear from the usual corporate shills in Congress and mass media. I also provided arguments and counter-spin points that easily debunk the conventional nonsense about the dark secrets and socialistic evils of universal health care.

And I thought I did a pretty good job overall. However, last Thursday, even as my article sat in Online Journal editor Bev Conover’s computer, scheduled for placement in Friday’s edition, the health care industry came up with something so ridiculous, yet so ingeniously creative, that I really should have seen it coming.


Fox News: The wingnut full-employment act
With Fox News’ customary humility and understatement, we learn that “Today on Fox News’s Your World With Neil Cavuto, National Review Online columnist Jerry Bowyer attacked Michael Moore’s movie SiCKO and its positive portrayal of the health care in countries such as Britain and France.”

OK, so what? Been there, done that. However, Bowyer unveiled a brand new industry weapon in the health care wars. Official wingnut doctrine says Americans must fear Muslim extremists. They must also fear universal health care. It’s pure genius to combine these two phobias and come up with this caliber of hogwash. From the Bowyer transcript (and people say he hadn’t been drinking):

“A state run health care enterprise is bureaucratic, and I think the terrorists have shown over and over again, whether it’s dealing with INS or whether it’s dealing with airport security, they’re very good at gaming the system with bureaucracies. They’re very good at getting around bureaucracies…

“And if one of your guys is a jihadist, if one of your doctors is spending all the time online reading Osama bin Laden fatwas, someone’s going to notice that (in the US). But the National Health Service is more like the post office, you know there’s a lot of anonymity, it’s easy to hide in the bureaucracy.”

As evidence, Bowyer cites the recent bombing attempts in the UK, which were allegedly perpetrated by seven National Health Service doctors, along with the wife of one of the docs who also works in the medical field. All eight are immigrants from either India or the Middle East, all eight came to the UK because the NHS suffers from a chronic shortage of qualified docs and nurses (thanks mainly to Maggie and Major underfunding it for 17 years in a Tory effort to get Brits to support US-style privatization) and all eight are Muslims.

So apparently Bowyer’s thesis is: Single-payer, universal access means millions of Americans who had previously lacked the insurance or the money to visit a doctor would suddenly flood waiting rooms, hospitals and clinics all across the country. The current supply of trained medical professionals in the US won’t be able to handle an additional 80 million patients (consensus rough estimate of the combined number of uninsured and underinsured in this country).

Docs and nurses would have to be imported from other countries, some of them inevitably Islamic, to cope with the onslaught of new patients. Some of those countries breed, harbor or covertly encourage Islamic jihad against the US. Therefore, medical professionals from those countries could also be fanatical anti-US Islamic terrorists using newly enacted single-payer legislation as leverage for fast-track immigration clearance. Once admitted to the country, they would simply disappear into the anonymity of a giant new health care bureaucracy, treating patients by day and blowing up the American infrastructure by night.

You can check Jerry out further at his web site. He’s actually a fairly interesting guy for a wingnut and, from reading through some of his articles, I get the feeling he’s not enough of an ideological purist to be the point man for this kind of garbage. Still, there he was on Fox…


The right wing echo chamber circles the wagons
You’d think that any self-respecting pundit would run away from such complete idiocy as if his pants were on fire. But that would be underestimating the lockstep cohesiveness that characterizes the right wing in America these days as it clings desperately to any argument, no matter how absurd, that advances its intellectually and morally bankrupt agenda.

So, in support of Bowyer’s fantasy -- which looks very much like a trial balloon floated by the industry’s PR machine to see how many imbeciles buy into it -- syndicated columnist, author, luxury cruiser with other National Review luminaries and more raving wingnuts than there are asteroids, star of the TV/radio interview circuit and tireless self-promoting right wing shill Mark Steyn weighs in with a July 8 piece on the horrors of imported docs, intensifying the endless 9/11 hangover that’s warped the thinking of millions of gullible Americans and feeds the free-floating fear, suspicion, angst and xenophobia that typifies it.

“Does government health care inevitably lead to homicidal doctors who can't wait to leap into a flaming SUV and drive it through the check-in counter? No. But government health care does lead to a dependence on medical staff imported from other countries.”

See… he’s a reasonable guy. He recognizes that not all Middle Eastern guys with swarthy complexions and medical degrees are fanatical anti-western bomb throwers. But that possibility remains, and if we institute single-payer here, we open ourselves up to the same kinds of terrorist threats now present in the UK. After all…

“Mohammed Asha, Mohammed Haneef and their comrades didn't even require a work permit to come and practice as doctors in state hospitals. You don't have to be the smartest jihadist in the cave to see that as an opportunity…”


Steyn’s position, translated into our native tongue
So, to extrapolate, Mark actually prefers having about 45 million uninsured and another 35 million or so underinsured so they can’t over-stress the current supply of docs and medical facilities and force Mark to wait a little longer to see his proctologist.

If those 80 million suddenly have access to quality medical care – which is to say, if they can finally get that weird lump looked at by a specialist, or have that painful scratched cornea treated, or get that CAT scan or blood test or MRI or tox screen or any of the other standard medical procedures that well-insured elitists like Mark take for granted while 80 million Americans go without – if that happens, they’ll quickly overwhelm existing medical resources and the US will have to look abroad to fill staffing requirements.

And because in Jerry’s and Mark’s delusional world a certain percentage of these overseas docs will prove to be Islamic terrorists, buildings will come tumbling down, bridges will collapse, pets will be poisoned (wait; somebody already did that), Jeeps will be set aflame and launched at airport ticket counters… They might even disrupt communications such that vast areas of the country would be prevented from seeing reruns of “American Idol.” Now that’s terrorism.


In his own words
Just so you understand where Mark’s coming from, here are a few jewels from his own web site.

On Iraq: In the summer of 2002, Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, warned BBC listeners that a US invasion would “threaten the whole stability of the Middle East”. I wrote: “He’s missing the point: that’s the reason it’s such a great idea.” Invading Iraq made sense because it offered the best way to prick the puffed-up pustule of regional stability.

On nationalism and xenophobia: … America is the western world’s odd man out, and has been increasingly since September 11th. Personally, I couldn’t be happier about it. I’m delighted the United States is “out of step” with, say, Belgium. Not because I’m Belgophobic. If the Belgians want to support the International Criminal Court, keep Saddam in office until his nuke arsenal is ready to fly, and continue subsidizing Yasser Arafat’s pay-offs to the relicts of suicide bombers, that’s fine, go ahead, you’re an independent nation.

On the liberal media: Six imams returning from a big conference of imams were removed from a plane at Minneapolis Airport after other passengers grew concerned about loud cries of “Allah akbar,” the imams reseating themselves in the same configuration as the 9/11 hijackers and demanding seat-belt extenders, even though none was of sufficient girth to need them. Aside from Fox, America’s national media showed little interest in the story. Nor, oddly, did the local media. …This is one of those stories that runs for a couple of days because he (a daily newspaper editor) chose to run it only for a couple of days. Had it been something more consequential – like, say, fictitious stories about guards at Gitmo desecrating the Koran – he would have run it into the ground.

And of course, Holy Joe likes Mark’s new book: “The thing I quote most from it is the power of demographics... But the other part is a kind of confirmation of what I know ... that Islamist extremism has an ideology, and it’s expansionist, it’s an aggressive ideology. And the title (“America Alone”) I took to mean that we Americans will have ultimate responsibility for stopping this expansionism.” Senator Joe Lieberman (Democrat [sic] of Connecticut)

So Mark’s a predictable purveyor of right wing doctrine, a counter balance to Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism,” a staunch supporter of the US as antidote to the European world view, and a prominent member of the “fear, fear, terror, terror, all the time” paranoia-perpetuating chorus.

Personally, I wouldn’t trust such a warped personality to make correct change at McDonalds. Unfortunately, in today’s poisoned media ecosystem, he’s one of its more ubiquitous partisan hacks and influential fear-mongers.

Compared with the usual low standards of wingnut punditocracy, which lives by its ability to annihilate reason and logic, this one is unusually slick. Linking two of the right wing’s most terrifying phantoms into a single talking point is sheer PR genius, and I really should have seen it coming. That it’s inane, insane and incredible is beside the point. Just connecting these two harbingers of doom is sufficient.

I may need to take a few refresher classes, attend a thought manipulation seminar, read Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent” again. I’ve got to upgrade my skills lest I become another of those unemployable ghosts who spend their time on the Web sniveling about the good old days and trolling LinkedIn in case somebody’s actually looking for them.


An earlier version of this article appeared in Online Journal on July 13, 2007

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