Thursday, August 13, 2009

Of Hillary Clinton, the Media, and Women's Health

One would be forgiven if one had no idea what it was precisely that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was doing in Africa this past week. After all, in addition to her husband's splashy, headline-grabbing quasi-diplomatic mission to North Korea, there has been this small matter of town hall meetings where people were theoretically learning about the health care reform proposal(s) wending their way through Congress that were dominating the headlines of the US media outlets.

But if one did hear about the Secretary's trip, it would likely have been about her testy response to one seemingly inappropriate question from a Congolese student asking about her "husband's" views on a loan made by the Chinese government to Congo. Seemingly because this appears to have been a mistranslation of the student's actual question (more anon). "What does Mr. Clinton think through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton on this situation?" was the question that the Secretary received, and--not altogether surprisingly--"Mrs. Clinton" bristled at the apparent implication.

"Wait--you want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" she replied. "My husband is not the Secretary of State, I am. So you ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion; I'm not going channeling my husband."

The flap may have been the result of a misunderstanding on part of the translator; the student claims he was trying to ask Secretary Clinton what President Obama's opinion was, and the translator, confusing the current president with a former one, made the slip between "President" and "husband." Mistranslation or no, Secretary Clinton's carefully-crafted trip to sub-Saharan Africa received virtually zero attention in the US...with the exception of this one, single, less than 20 second flare that she sent up while in Kinshasa. If you heard about her visit at all, odds are was that you heard about her tantrum. Video is below; a representative article from MSNBC is here.

Billy is not here to defend the behavior of the Secretary, a politician for whom he has generally not held much enthusiasm, although he thinks that a mulligan should be allowed for this one, given that this would be about the worst, most condescending question to ask of a female politician accomplished in her own right...and the question being asked of her during a foreign tour and while adhering to what sounds like a fairly brutal schedule. For what it's worth, the Secretary did lose her composure, and in a perfect world she would have kept her cool. She didn't. I for one think that it's not much of a big deal, though the mainstream media would beg to differ. The link below is to an interview with Andrea Mitchell at NBC (the "Today" show), but one could just as easily pluck up clips from CNN and Fox as well.

What's most contemptible about this little episode of media coverage is that her twenty second screed got play, while essentially nothing of the actual substance of Clinton's reason for going in the first place got discussed. As it turns out, Clinton's visit was directly related to issues pertaining to health and medicine, although again one would be forgiven if one didn't recognize that these issues were viewed as "health" through the lens of the US. For in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, often caught in the grips of war, "health" refers to the mere avoidance of being gang-raped. For women, that is. The UN notes that the Congo has the highest rate of sexual violence in the world, and Clinton's visit was in part designed to be the US government's attempt at stemming the tide of the violence.

Again--if you weren't following this closely, you would be forgiven for not being aware of this.

You would be forgiven because your media has done such an unbelievably poor job of explaining her mission to Africa--but what a wonderful job they did of explaining her twenty seconds of pique! The article above, which explains in detail the purpose of Clinton's visit, showed up on page A8 of the New York Times; that got virtually no play at the TV news networks. Her tete-a-tete with the student and his hapless translator did, however. That you just might have caught.

As long as our major media outlets are obsessed with this kind of lunch-room gossip, we're doomed. Not surprisingly, one could be forgiven if one had failed to learn anything about healthcare reform by watching mainstream TV news stories about the Town Halls this past week. Sure, one would understand that there are groups of angry people out there, but precisely why they are angry and what is actually being proposed would not be explained very much, because...well, it's just doesn't make for interesting viewing! (Or reading.) So lots of nonsense reigns. Billy had originally hoped to discuss the truly idiotic "death panels" a few days ago, but he felt that women's health in Africa superseded it for a day, and so you have this. Perhaps we will return to the topic of death panels, and try to make a (very, soft,) case for death in the coming days. But for now, we only humbly beg that you read the Times article that actually reports the point of why Secretary Clinton went to Africa in the first place.

(Also: it is late August, which is the time that Billy takes to get away and spend with his family on what is theoretically vacation. We just might find some time to write about the government's plans to pull the plug on Grandma...and how Chuck Grassley let us down as one of only two Republicans for whom Billy maintains any affection...but we make no promises. If we don't get it in, check back in September. If nothing else, we promise to talk about the Flu. Get those shots, team! A bad moon is rising, and God only knows what the hell is coming our way in the fall.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Health Care Reform Debate & Mind-Numbing Stoopidity: A Match Made in Heaven (or, Quite the Laffer)

What happens when a prominent conservative economist takes to the airwaves to debate healthcare reform on national television?

Well, let's just say that George Orwell would have a chuckle.

You will recall that Orwell authored that polemical novel 1984 about how governments deceive their citizens. Most of us had the book assigned to us in high school because of the seemingly obvious anti-commie streak the book had, despite Orwell's open embrace of socialism and scathing criticism of western European democracies, all of which was politely swept under the rug. Billy took a pass on reading it at that time though he caught up in college during an Orwell Phase where he consumed not only '84 but also Homage To Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London and various essays including probably his greatest work, Politics and The English Language. Among the central preoccupations of 1984, as well as the entirety of Politics, are the rhetorical methods by which governments achieve duplicitous aims. Sometimes it involves subtle tricks such as euphemism, as the phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" in place of torture makes abundantly clear (and is an example where our own allegedly "independent" media have completely and uncritically bought the government's line, for more see here). But sometimes it's fairly bald and just involves a flat-out lie, though done with the perfect straight face.

Today, on CNN during a debate about healthcare reform, our subject, economist Arthur Laffer employed just this sort of rhetorical touch. As part of the Repbulican party mantra, or what I like to think of as the Reagan Credo ("Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem"), Laffer explained why the current "Public Option" proposal will lead to a complete disaster:

If you like the Post Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles and you think they're run well, just wait till you see Medicare, Medicaid and health care done by the government. [my emphasis]

Now, that right there is a gem, for Medicare and Medicaid is "health care done by the government"! And, moreover, they are popular programs--so popular, and apparently misunderstood, in fact, that at a recent town hall held by Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC), a constituent demanded that the "government [keep its] hands off my Medicare." Former Senator John Breaux (D-LA) had a similar experience in 2005.

Such nitwits are merely given the right to vote; they are not, however, allowed onto national television and given substantial airtime to proclaim their nitwicity--and have their nitwittish assertions go unchallenged by anchors in the name of "fairness." But the same is not the case for Arthur Laffer, respected economist.

This, folks, is why health care reform is going down for the second time in less than two decades, and why we will continue to have the most expensive and least effective health care system in the developed world.

True that Laffer is not speaking for the government, while Orwell was describing a system in which the government is the group doing the lying. But since the debate centers around what government policy is going to be, it's a distinction without a difference, and I'm sure that Orwell would see Laffer as an ideological descendent of Le Big Brother.

The link is here (hat-tip to War Room and Media Matters):

Oh, and one other thing: I don't know about you but I like the Post Office!