Sarah Palin and the 'death panel' lie that wouldn't die
Not long ago, if you told a whopper like Sarah Palin's "death panel" claim and it was as thoroughly debunked as hers was, that would have ended the discussion, writes Leonard Pitts Jr. These days, however, facts seem overmatched by falsehood, too slow to catch them, too weak to stop them.
"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care."
— Sarah Palin, Aug. 7, 2009
The death panels are back.
Sarah Palin's vision of a dystopian society in which the elderly and infirm would be required to justify their continued existence before a jury of federal functionaries has been widely ridiculed since she first posted it on Facebook three years ago. It was designated "Lie of the Year" by Politifact, the nonpartisan fact-checking website, something that would have mortified and humiliated anyone who was capable of those feelings.
Last week, Palin doubled down. "Though I was called a liar for calling it like it is," she posted, "many of these accusers finally saw that Obamacare did in fact create a panel of faceless bureaucrats who have the power to make life-and-death decisions about health-care funding." Note that that's not actually the claim she made in 2009. Of course, "Obamacare," aka the Affordable Care Act, was upheld by the Supreme Court on Thursday, which must gratify Team Obama.
But we are not here to discuss that. Neither are we here to litigate Palin's claim about "death panels." That you could fertilize the Great Lawn of Central Park with that lie has been well established. No, we are only here to ask whether that matters, given the increasingly obvious impotence of fact.
Not long ago, if you told a whopper like Palin's and it was as thoroughly debunked as hers was, that would have ended the discussion. These days, it is barely even part of the discussion. These days, facts seem overmatched by falsehood, too slow to catch them, too weak to stop them.
Indeed, falsehoods are harder to kill than a Hollywood zombie. Run them through with fact, and still they shamble forward, fueled by echo-chamber media, ideological tribalism, cognitive dissonance, a certain imperviousness to shame, and an understanding that a lie repeated long enough, loudly enough, becomes, in the minds of those who need to believe it, truth.
That is the lesson of the birthers and truthers, of Sen. Jon Kyl's "not intended to be a factual statement" about Planned Parenthood, of Glenn Beck's claim that conservatives founded the Civil Rights Movement, and of pretty much every word Michele Bachmann says. It seems that not only are facts no longer important, but they are not even the point.
Rather, the point is the construction and maintenance of an alternate narrative designed to enhance and exploit the receiver's fears, his or her sense of prerogatives, entitlement, propriety and morality under siege from outside forces.
This is the state of American political discourse, particularly on the political right, where a sense of dislocation, disaffection and general been-done-wrongness has become sine qua non, coin of the realm, lingua franca of the true believers — and of their true belief in the desperate need to turn back the unrighteous Other and his unwelcome change.
To score Palin for being unfactual, then, is to bring boxing gloves to a knife fight. The death panels are not about fact. They are about fear and the shameless manipulation thereof for political gain.
The result of which is that Americans increasingly occupy two realities, one based on the conviction that facts matter, the other on the notion that facts are only what you need them to be in a given moment. That ought to give all of us pause because it leads somewhere we should not want to go. When two realities divide one people, the outcome seems obvious.
They cannot remain one people.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is: email@example.com