Revisiting the “Dumbest Letter Ever Written to the Ledger”

typed stuffAs a service to the reader, we’re reprinting a pair of columns. In July 2009, Billy Townsend wrote a pair of commentaries for Lakeland Local and Metro I4 News. Billy referenced a letter written to the Ledger concerning healthcare. While he still thinks the letter was dumb, he must admit its effectiveness. And his next post will examine how Lee Feuer, one of Americas most unrepentant socialists, won the 2010 election for Republicans by killing conservatism.

The Dumbest Letter Ever Written To The Ledger

July 3, 2009 — Lakeland Local

I know, I know, it’s a little bit like saying the greenest blade of grass, but honestly, this letter-to-the-editor from Lee Feuer of Auburndale is almost an artwork of ignorance and self-centeredness. It’s the second of two letters contained in this link.

It opens:

The big government takeover has to stop. Ever since liberals claimed power, it’s been one bureaucratic scheme after another.

Their newest target, health care, is the most dangerous intervention yet…

OK. Standard Rush/Hannity boilerplate. Nothing to see here. But then read the punchline:

I am a senior citizen and, up to now, have had great care under Medicare. I have worked all my life and feel that we do not have to give coverage to those who have not become citizens nor have not decided to work. I also feel that if this bill passes that Congress should be under this program, with no perks.

[Emphasis mine]

That’s right, the man railing against a government, bureaucratic takeover of health care is afraid that this takeover will damage the “great care” provided to him by the government “bureaucratic scheme” known as Medicare. He’s afraid of the government intervening in government. I never thought I’d write this anywhere, but – OMG.

I just want to stop for a second and ask a question. We do all understand that Medicare is single-payer, mostly socialized medicine, right? It is not conjured out of sweet nectar by the private sector health care fairy. Taxes pay for it. Government bureaucrats administer it – more efficiently than private sector bureaucrats administer their plans. We grasp this, collectively, don’t we?

And as far as working all your life, Mr. Feuer, let me just say that my wife and I have worked our entire lives to pay for your Medicare and Social Security, which you seem to enjoy. We are happy to do it. We’ll continue to do it, with smiles. But we’d like to come up with a plan that ensures that we also pay for ourselves and our children to enjoy that excellent care at a cost that doesn’t bankrupt the country, as private sector insurance is currently doing.

Finally, I’ve heard a lot over the years about how much better our education system used to be in this country, how those of you in the golden years were taught with such great rigor. But I got to tell you, there are times when I wonder how you people even perpetuated the species.

Ultimately, All Politics is Personal

July 13, 2009 – Metro I4 News

Last week, I quite publicly labeled a letter-to-the-editor written by a Medicare recipient as the “dumbest letter ever written to The Ledger.” The author had railed against the supposed liberal takeover, blah, blah, blah, of US health care (I only wish) while simultaneously praising his own Medicare coverage and insisting that he’s worked all his life and nobody better screw with it. I’m paraphrasing, go see it for yourself.

Surprisingly enough, most of the commenters seemed to agree with me, which doesn’t always happen. But one person in particular took me to task pretty thoughtfully in a pair of long comments he or she must have spent some time composing. For the purposes of this post, here’s key passage:

And Mr. Townsend I wonder if it would not be too much trouble to disagree with people without making it personal. Is the “you people” to which you refer “Baby Boomers” in general? Or just the elderly who disagree with your political position? To suggest that Mr. Feuer’s was “The Dumbest Letter Ever Written to the Ledger” is offensive on its face. if one takes the time to write out of concern, should not the concern be addressed without throwing them under the bus? No , that’s not the way we do things anymore, we need to berate, and castigate them until they are silenced. Not everyone has the ability to make a point without writing a book, but you know that. So when a concern is raised, could just a little latitude be offered.

This is a point worth discussing, I think, if just for the sake of the commenter. (If the rest of you find this entirely too much narcissism, feel free to eject at this point.)

My first reaction was to emphasize that I attacked the author’s letter, not him. But that’s disingenuous. Clearly, I stuck it to an elderly man I don’t know to make a point, complete with a couple of turns of phrase seeking malicious laughs at his expense. It was not, as my mother might say, Christian behavior. And yet I stand by it fully and regret nothing. Why?

It has to do with the relationship between the abstract and the real, or the “personal”, as the commenter says. More and more, I see this as the key divide among citizens and the institutions – public and private – we allow to govern us. Far too many citizens of all parties are ignorant of the basic consequences of their beliefs – or at least the talking points they’ve heard other people say – and are unwilling to learn about them. This letter provides a beautiful example of that. The author repeats the talking points he’s heard — “The big government takeover has to stop. Ever since liberals claimed power, it’s been one bureaucratic scheme after another.” — while demonstrating utter obliviousness to the fact that his beloved Medicare is, in fact, next to the military and social security, the largest “bureaucratic scheme” in the history of the United States. If we did away with these dreadful big-government-takeover-liberal-bureaucratic-schemes, the author would suddenly experience what it means to be old and “conservative.” Doctors and pharmacies don’t take IOUs.

So here I am, reading this letter in The Ledger. What to do? Easiest thing is to ignore it. But these types of letters, ignorant as they are, repeat, perpetuate, and help establish longterm abstract narratives that harden into political realities which have no bearing on actual reality and prevent us from taking common sense action.

Here’s a good example: the carbon tax. Such a thing could long ago have helped spur alternative energy and transit investment and development – such as the Europeans enjoy – and helped us move away from Saudi oil. But because so-called conservative Republicans over the years so successfully turned the word tax, out of all relation to its meaning in the real world, into an abstraction roughly equivalent to child molester, we never grappled with the pernicious realities of foreign energy dependence. Remember, Bill Clinton wanted to institute an energy tax at the onset of his administration. Who filibustered that to death, I wonder?

Instead, we allowed reality, in the form of religious terrorists, corrupt regimes, and opportunistic participants in energy markets to provide the tax for us last year – on their terms. It took $4 gas about six months to kill the SUV culture in this country. A sensible carbon tax might have kept it from ever developing – and left us with viable solar energy like they have in Germany or fantastic public transit and high speed rail like France. Think we’d be better off, right now? Because of the lasting power of the tax bogeyman abstraction and big economic interests to cower politicians, we can’t even do a simple carbon tax now, which leaves us with this Godawful corporate grab-bag of a cap and trade plan to fight global warming.

In the case of health care, all those people talking in the abstract about the horrors of a “government takeover” seem completely unable to even consider that the entire private health care system depends on the willingness of employers to pay for its ever-increasing cost, as I laid out here. They want to stay with a model that is almost certainly doomed if it doesn’t change. And they give no thought to the consequences of that.

You could make an argument that the tax/government takeover abstraction would be legitimate if conservatives actually embraced the consequences of treating taxes as evil. But they don’t, because that would mean real, substantive, death enducing cuts in the services those dreaded taxes buy, such as Medicare and the military. That’s where the money is, folks. Nowhere else.

And that brings us to this “ever since liberals claimed power” nonsense. It is a fact that George W. Bush, in his first term in office, backed by a mostly Republican congress, launched two wars and created the Medicare prescription drug plan, the most expansive and expensive government entitlement program since the Great Society. He did all of this while slashing taxes. He then proceeded to account for all of this by keeping the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan off budget and by pretending that his tax cuts would sunset at the end of his term in office, thereby assuring that his successor – whoever it might have been – would have to either keep up the dishonesty or acknowledge a much larger US deficit than Bush was willing to acknowledge. This is breathtaking in its irresponsibility, dishonesty, and shamelessness. Throw out the value or morality of these policies for a second and just consider their budget impact. I know of no failure of US financial governance by a president of any party that remotely compares to this massive unfunded mandate on the American people. And while a number of craven, gutless Democrats helped, this was Bush’s agenda, fully backed by the institutional Republican party and helped along by a debt and housing bubble. I’d like my commenter to either acknowledge this or tell me why I’m wrong.

It is incredibly difficult, as a political opposition, to wrestle with opponents willing to engage in this level of shamelessness. Run on actually paying for all this government action, and you’re an income confiscating socialist tax-and-spend liberal. Run on ending the Iraq War or the Medicare prescription drug plan because we can’t afford them, and you’re an America-hating senior killer. Run on some messy combination of the two, and you’re all of the above plus a wishy-washy flip-flopper. That was John Kerry in 2004.

My commenter writes: “I am not a big fan of the previous administration either.” Really? See, I hear this a lot now. Oh, I couldn’t stand Bush. Not a real conservative. Really? Who did you vote for in 2004, when all of this was well-known? Put your money where your mouth is. John Kerry, for all his many problems, actually ran on trying to pay for some of Bush’s government. Bush did not. Nor did he run on cuts. Did you vote to repudiate this most unconservative of approaches to government?

I didn’t think so. And nothing changed in the next four years.

Now that we have a president who is trying to actually address these problems (getting out of Iraq, trying to reform health care in a way that restrains cost growth, and yes, borrowing money to nudge the economy away from bubbles while preserving public education and other services), letter-to-the-editor conservatives suddenly have rediscovered the principles they claim to hold, but don’t even understand.

And therein lies the problem. It isn’t the policy; it’s the political shamelessness behind the abstractions that lead to the policy and the grassroots willful ignorance that enables it.

And that’s why I went after this letter and its writer. I hate to say it, because it’s harsh, but he’s the problem. I want all my services, but I don’t want to pay for them because I’m an anti-government conservative – or something. And he is not alone. There’s an old saying that “all politics is local.” That could just as easily read: “All politics is personal.”

If I ignore his letter, it’s just another log on the fire of a wrongheaded, but powerful narrative. If I treat this letter’s repetition of talking points as a legitimate argument, I legitimize it. I have no interest in doing that. The author’s not making an argument or even asking a question, so there’s nothing to engage with in good faith. (In contrast to my commenter.) By calling him out, and by mocking that other old saw about how much better educated the previous generations were, I hoped to discredit him and the ignorance to which he contributes.

And, ultimately, I hope that I’ll discredit him effectively enough to protect him from himself. There’s another saying I’ve come to love, “Those who will not learn will be made to feel.” Let this letter-writer get his wish, and if he lives long enough, and he may get to feel what it’s like when government bureaucratic schemes that help millions of people stay alive fall prey to cynical abstractions.

Creative Commons License photo credit: eisenrah

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