Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Of 'death panels' and animal behavior

My dog Lucy is frantic for light beams. Shadows, too.

In the morning, she patrols the sunlight-splayed kitchen, watching for reflections from a wrist watch, or from a juice glass exiting the cupboard. She will skid across the tiles in pursuit when the refrigerator door handle flings a reflection across the floor.

It used to be that Lucy did this all by her lonesome. Lately, however, her sister Sadie is paying attention to the light beams, and to the shadows cast from Lucy's tail. More curiously, so is Star, one of our cats. Assembled as a gang of three, they watch the floor.

What we used to have in the kitchen was one kooky dog. Now, what we have is a movement. Sad to say, this reminds me of present-day politics.

Consider a recent story in the New York Times about the option of end-of-life counseling in effect when the federal health care plan kicks in with the new year.

What got spiked in the legislation as the result of contrived right-wing disinformation — the rabbit scream of "death panels" — has been inserted in the legislation by the Obama administration.

It's as reasonable as could possibly be: Medicare will pay physicians who advise patients about options for end-of-life care. Those patients may then use that information to draw out "do not resuscitate" orders so as not to extend their suffering needlessly at the end of a feeding tube or ventilator.

Now, it's one thing to say Medicare shouldn't reimburse for a service like this. But to take it and assert that somehow it means Big Brother will be dictating who lives and dies is, well, kooky.

Of course, Sarah Palin and numerous Republicans made swift routes to microphones and their Twitter lecterns to shout "death panels." Like the dreaded lights on my kitchen floor, the claim made heads jerk — that is, for that breed of Americans wholly receptive to any sinister inference made about Barack Obama.

But, my goodness, what an important thing to promote: clear-headed discussion with an expert about end-of-life matters. You'd think those who wrung their hands into powder over the end-of-life saga of Terri Schiavo would want more discussions that make matters clear. But, no, they choose demagoguery over this simplest matter: choice. Some people just can't stand that word.

A representative of LifeTree, which describes itself as a "pro-life ministry," told the Times it was concerned that the new policy would "encourage patients to forgo or curtail care, thus hastening death."

Well, you know, that's the whole point of a DNR request. Does LifeTree wish to remove that option?

What's amazing is that despite the crystal-clear intent of this policy, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that one-third of Americans still believe the whole "death panel" spiel. This is reminiscent of a recent Onion headline: "One in five Americans believes Obama to be a cactus."

It's also reminiscent of a commentary by Michael Ventura citing a "plague of ignorance" abroad in the country. Let us assign Palin as Patient Zero for this strain, she for whom the toughest question imaginable from Katie Couric was, "What magazines do you read?"

The fact is, like the three animals chasing light beams in my kitchen, you can convene one-third of Americans around just about any notion if it fits into the narratives of Fox News, Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann.

In 2010 a lot of commentators looked at those types and — against a backdrop of apathy and economic malaise — thought they represented a movement that reflected what America was thinking. No they didn't. They were just the most frantic.

Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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