Sarah Palin Is Right, If By "right," We Mean "hallucinating"

by Jonathan Chait | August 11, 2009

I've seen a lot of attempts to make insane rhetoric sound sensible, but this op-ed in today's Washington Post, justifying Sarah Palin's claim that health care reform will create a "death panel" to decide if her baby should live, is a parody of the form:

These activists do not claim that the proposed reforms include policies whose explicit purpose is to ration, nor do the more careful among them claim that the policies will establish panels to help people decide when to die. They are not arguing about the semantic content of the policies; that is, they are not arguing about the meaning of the words that are actually in the relevant drafts of bills. Instead, they are considering, as the pragmatist philosopher William James put it, "what conceivable effects of a practical kind the [policy] may involve -- what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare."

Their claim is that, whatever the stated goals of policymakers, the concrete outcomes that will flow from the policies on the table will include experiences that feel like rationing and conversations that sound like "death panels."

First of all, note the way the author, Danielle Allen, stacks qualifiers on top of each other to strip her argument of any falsifiable claim. The activists don't say Obama's reform would have the "explicit purpose" of rationing, she writes, which lets her get around the fact that on a daily basis they accuse Obama of wanting to ration health care. Then she inserts the phrase "the more careful among them," which allows her to ignore the existence of Sarah Palin, who is the very person driving the claim that there will be death panels.

From there she proceeds to insist that outcomes that "flow from" Obama's actual policies will "feel like" rationing and "sound like" death panels. Using this intellectual methodology, you could justify literally any criticism of any policy. Were there activists who thought the Patriot Act entailed building concentration camps for American liberals? Well, if they said that, they didn't mean it was explicitly in the legislation. They must have meant that it would eventually lead to policies that would sound like liberal concentration camps.

Like I said, this argumentative method could be used to justify any crazed fearmongering at all. But why is the Post using its op-ed page to justify this particular bit of crazed fearmongering?

--Jonathan Chait

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-plank/sarah-palin-right-if-quotrightquot-we-mean-quothallucinatingquot