Politics: March 2010 Archives

I received an email this week from someone who criticized some conservative responses to a Democratic talking point about the health insurance debate. Politicians often like to draw attention to real examples of people struggling with some issue in order to pull on the heart strings of their constituents, which can (a) serve to illustrate that there really is a problem, a problem their own proposal is supposed to address and (b) provide an emotionally-moving draw to get people to care about it more and perhaps mobilize them to help get it done.

I found an insightful analysis of this sort of thing in Aristotle's treatment of emotions in the Rhetoric. Aristotle points out at one point that this is perfectly fine, in the cases where (a) is basically true. Adding the emotional component is a good thing when you can draw the person in to something they already ought to be doing. On the other hand, when (a) involves some kind of false analogy, misleading facts about the case, or a proposal that wouldn't help or would cause other problems that the case obscures by distracting people away from them, then the emotional element is manipulation rather than illustration, deception toward the wrong result rather than motivation toward moral action.

Where you stand on such a question depends ultimately on whether you agree with President Obama's agenda and the health insurance proposals that Democrats have been putting forward. It's understandable that those who disagree are going to see such emotional appeals as mere emotional appeals that don't have any basis in the facts, and they'll try to find ways that the use of such cases by Democrats involve some kind of error or false statement. So should it be surprising if people like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Michelle Malkin dismiss an example of someone President Obama uses in this way? It shouldn't be, and you shouldn't attribute their motivations to anything other than their opposition to his proposal, because that's the simplest explanation, and it makes perfect sense given their views. This should be so even if you find their views loathsome, as many do.

[I should say, for the record, that I think it's crazy to put Michelle Malkin in the same category as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. She's purely a pundit. They're as much entertainers as political influencers, and they're both offensive in a much greater way than she could ever hope to be. She's much more inclined to focus on arguments than they are, and they're much more inclined to make fun of people.]

The email I received made a very different sort of claim. The author pointed out that the family in this particular case was black. That was the basis of his conclusion that they would not have made the same arguments if the family in question had been white. Actually, what he said is that they wouldn't have criticized a white southern family's situation in the same way. I'm not sure where the evidence for that is, and whether it's true is actually irrelevant. I'm pretty sure all three of them have criticized things this president has said about white people's cases, and there's no reason to think they wouldn't have in this case if it had been a different sort of family.

In any case, it was President Obama who chose this case, not them, and they were responding to it in exactly the way you'd expect given how I described the issue above, when I hadn't yet said anything about race. I have no idea about the details of this case, and I have no idea whether what any of them said is true. But I think it's terribly unreasonable to assume that this is purely because of race when those three have consistently criticized the President's statements about this issue in ways that make it utterly clear and public what their motivation is for such criticism. It has nothing to do with race. It's an ideological disagreement.

I've seen several references to this story that imply or assert that Sarah Palin is a hypocrite for being a very vocal critic of the Canadian health care system, when it turns out she used to go with her family across the border to receive services from Canadian medical professionals instead of those in Alaska. (See here for an example.)

But then I read the article. It turns out there are two huge facts obscured by such an analysis, and they're both whoppers.

1. This wasn't something she did with her family as an adult. This is something her parents did with her until she was six. Yes, people are calling Sarah Palin a hypocrite because of what her parents chose to do, while bringing her along, when she was in kindergarten. I guess if you've run out of ways to attack her involving her own kids, you turn to attacking her for what happened to her when she was a kid herself. I suppose this is hypocrisy by proxy. Find something someone else did that seems to conflict with what Palin is saying, and then call her a hypocrite for someone else doing what she thinks is problematic.

2. They lived during that period in a very rural town near the Canadian border. The closest city was across that border. Most people in very rural towns drive to the nearest city for some of their health care concerns. It just happened that they had to go to another country in this case. If Sarah Palin had lived in that town and taken her own children to Canada, that's perfectly consistent with saying the Canadian health care system is inferior to the American health care system, because no one thinks the American health care system is equally available in every small rural town. The closest thing that's of good enough quality might be in the Canadian system that does things in a way that's less ideal. Being less ideal than the American system is compatible with being the best thing in the area. So there's no inconsistency here anyway.

I noticed an argument here that Juneau, AK is just as close to Skagway, AK where they lived as Whitehorse, YT, where they occasionally sent someone for medical aid in emergencies. So I checked Mapquest. It took 6 hours to get to Juneau and 3 hours to get to Whitehorse.

Then the comments there indicate that you would usually go to Juneau by ferry in those days, and that takes several hours also, where the train ride to Whitehorse is only two. So it does seem that Skagway's closest city is Whitehorse, YT. Juneau has a slightly larger population but not enough to make a huge distinction. They're both big enough cities to have the emergency care facilities that her small town didn't.

Also, the Associated Press interviewed Chuck Heath, Palin's father, about this:

Palin's father said Monday they had little choice, given their location in Skagway. "There was no road out of there at that time," said retired teacher Chuck Heath, reached by phone in Wasilla. "The ferry schedule was very erratic. We had no doctor in Skagway. The plane schedule was very erratic. The winds dictated whether the planes could come in or not."
So it's hard to make the argument that even her parents' choice had anything to do with preferring Canadian health care to American health care, never mind that she herself is somehow a hypocrite because of what her parents did when she was in kindergarten or younger.

Update: There's also the following argument. Palin benefited from Canadian health care, so she shouldn't criticize it, much less fight to prevent the same thing from happening in the U.S. or advocate that Canadians should implement something else.

I sure hope those who support President Obama's proposed changes in U.S. health care don't offer such an argument, because it then makes them hypocrites for benefiting from the American system but then criticizing it. It's simply crazy to say that you can't criticize something you benefited from. Think about all the workers in developing countries who actually benefit from the jobs American corporations outsource but who still work in conditions that it's immoral to expect anyone to work in. It's perfectly fair to think those conditions are bad enough to want to change them, even if you're personally benefiting from them. You might even be grateful for the benefit you've received while pointing out that those who have helped you are still doing something wrong.

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