Defending Sarah Palin and Her "Death Panels"

by Conor Clarke

The National Review published an editorial this morning pointing out, correctly in my view, that Sarah Palin did a great disservice by claiming that Obama's health-care plan would lead to euthanizing "death panels." Quite naturally, resident National Review goofball Andy McCarthy rushes chivalrously to Palin's defense, criticizing the editorial in a post titled "Palin Was Right on the 'Death Panels.'" He writes:

I don't see any wisdom in taking a shot at Gov. Palin at this moment when, finding themselves unable to defend the plan against her indictment, Democrats have backed down and withdrawn their "end-of-life counseling" boards. Palin did a tremendous service here. Opinion elites didn't like what the editors imply is the "hysteria" of her "death panels" charge. Many of those same elites didn't like Ronald Reagan's jarring "evil empire" rhetoric. But "death panels" caught on with the public just like "evil empire" did because, for all their "heat rather than light" tut-tutting, critics could never quite discredit it.

Setting aside the non-sequitur "evil empire" analogy, I want to try to take this seriously. In a sense, McCarthy is actually raising deep and profound philosophical questions about the nature of truth and the meaning of public discourse in an open society. And in another, more important sense, McCarthy is just lying flagrantly about the bill, embarrassing himself and his magazine, and doing an injustice to the American people. But let us delve more deeply into this matter.

The claim that "critics could never quite discredit" Palin's comment about how Obama's health care plan would create death panels to euthanize the elderly and the disabled is, actually, true. Since many people still believe that Obama will have us all sitting before his tyrannical death panels, the claim has not been discredited. It is, furthermore, difficult to know how one would disprove the claim dispositively, just as it would be difficult to disprove the claim that a teapot orbits Saturn or that a thousand angels dance on the head of a pin. It is hard to prove negatives.

On the other hand, there is no actual evidence that Obama will create anything resembling the euthanizing "death panels" of Palin's original note. There is absolutely nothing about it in the house version of the bill (which would have let Medicare cover the totally uncontroversial and totally voluntary end-of-life counseling). The administration has repeatedly declared that it has no interest or intention to propose anything resembling the Palin death panels. There is, to my knowledge, no evidence that any Democratic lawmaker ever did. So it's a bit odd to say that Sarah Palin did "a tremendous service" by advancing a story for which there isn't even the sickliest reed of evidence.

Why? Because reasoned public discourse depends on a shared set of factual assumptions. We aren't going to have a very good discussion if you deny the existence of reality or claim that the sun revolves around the earth. Or if you posit the existence of death panels. But it's good of Andy McCarthy and Sarah Palin to remind us just how stupid such discussion can get.