As most people on the planet probably know by now, last Friday ex-Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska made a post on Facebook in which she labeled President Barack Obama's health insurance reform plan "downright evil." Palin wrote:
"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."
This image, circulated among opponents of health insurance reform, says a great deal about the motivations of those who readily embrace flat-out lies about President Obama and his proposals:
A Rightwing Lie-In
The first question is whether Ms. Palin was engaged in the "Big Lie" technique, as are many shouting heads on talk radio and Faux News, along with several leading Republicans, including House Minority Leader John Boehner, GOP Whip Eric Cantor, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. The rightwing "World Net Daily" headlines its scare "Medical Murder."
Most of them clearly know that what they are saying to scare the American people into opposing their own interests on health care is whole-cloth fabrication.
Was Palin part of this rightwing lie-in, or was she simply repeating the lies others were saying, having foolishly believed information being spread by totally unreliable sources?
I suspect it is the latter. Former Governor Palin is more like the people taken in by the fraud than she is like the perpetrators.
If we change the gender of the pronouns and the tense of the nouns, what one noted American history text said of William Jennings Bryan applies as well to Sarah Palin: She "does not sense popular opinion, she embodies it . . . She does not resemble the common man; she is the common man."
We now know that the source of the lies about the "death panels" and other lies that Palin and company have parroted is a chain email based on a "report" issued July 29 by the Liberty Counsel, a far-right group affiliated with the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
The reasons why those who made up the lies did so are plain enough and only two in number: to gain political advantage for Republicans and to protect the interests of large private insurance companies that are making huge profits off the miseries and insecurities of the American people.
"Birthers" minus "Deathers" = 0
The far more important question is one that has received less attention: Why are so many people willing, even eager, to believe what is in fact -- and very easily verifiable fact at that -- sheer nonsense?
Like Fox Mulder, the Fox News faithful "want to believe."
Millions of people believe the patently false charge that the president is not an American citizen. Millions of people now believe that the president wants to kill old people. The "birthers," one strongly suspects, are a set almost entirely coextensive with the new "deathers."
What do these false charges have in common? Why do people want to believe them?
A strong indication of the reason is seen in the statement frequently repeated by the birther/deathers: "We've got to take back our country."
That declaration begs the question: Take it back from whom?
The answer, of course, is "THEM."
Ever since populist anger rose against big business interests in the late nineteenth century, the actual THEM who have taken over the country have fallen back on race to divide the people and deflect the discontent from themselves to other races.
The image above, circulated among opponents of Obama health insurance reform and labeled by them as "funny," reflects the underlying motivation among those who "want to believe" the lies about the proposed legislation.
The Birthers and Deathers are susceptible to outrageous lies because they have previously been persuaded that the "boogey man" is out to get them.
What Sarah Palin was saying when she said that an Obama "death panel" might condemn her baby to death translates to:
"The dang "O" ate my baby!"
What is to be done about it? I'll offer some suggestions in a subsequent post.
Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College & author of The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 (Random House) and Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the "Forgotten Man" (North Carolina).
His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America (Crown).