WARNING: This column could lead to alligators in your toaster oven.
There are people out there who actually value a good, honest, fact-based and data-driven debate about reforming the nation's health-care system.
That's because the chance of our actually having a good, honest, fact-based and data-driven debate about reforming the nation's health-care system is roughly equivalent to the chance of Sarah Palin being chosen the next poet laureate of the United States.
(In other words, don't bet the ranch.)
But does that make the current debate worthless? Hardly -- at least for those of us who enjoy watching the way politics and policy occasionally interact with the English language. For us -- the few, the masochistic -- the battle over health care has been an absolute treasure trove of linguistic innovation.
And it's not just the instantly memorable phrases like "death panels" or "tea parties." It goes way beyond that. The health-care debate has birthed an entirely new tense!
That's right: Just in case the Present Tense and the Past Tense and the Future Tense and the Past Subjunctive and the Future Conditional and all the rest aren't quite enough to satisfy you, suddenly there's the Cataclysmic Hypothetical.
As in "The provisions of this bill could lead to pulling the plug on Grandma."
Or "This so-called reform puts us on the path toward a government takeover of the health-care system."
Or even "The president's recent statement moves us one step closer to a totalitarian, socialist, communist, fascist state."
The Cataclysmic Hypothetical.
It's no longer necessary for the particular horrible they're railing against to actually be in the bill they oppose so fiercely. It's now enough simply to suggest that the bill in question makes that particular horrible the tiniest bit more likely.
They can't prove it -- but they don't have to! They only have to claim that, under the most sinister possible interpretation of every word and number and punctuation mark in the bill -- and the even-more-sinister interpretation of every word and number and punctuation mark that isn't in the bill -- some terrible something is a hair more likely on some distant tomorrow than it might have been yesterday.
They can't prove it -- but they don't have to: The other side can't disprove it!
Maybe something really awful really could be in the offing if this or that provision passes. Maybe this or that phrase really could mean we get invaded by swarms of illegal aliens -- or, for that matter, swarms of intergalactic aliens from the Planet Rootytoot. Do you see anything in the bill that specifically prohibits intergalactic swarms? Not a word! What does that tell you?
And what about Thursdays? Why doesn't it say anything about Thursdays?
And how about when the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars...?
No? Just give them time. First they use the Cataclysmic Hypothetical Tense to stir up the fear, to jump-start the panicked conversations. Then they say, "Well, we're not saying it's necessarily true, but it's certainly something that lots of people are talking about, so let's talk about it some more."
Right. The bootstrapped bogeyman.
You can believe it if you want to. You can believe anything if you want to.
You ought to know, though: It can move your brain one step closer to mashed potatoes.
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.