There’s Phase Transition:
A phase transition is a natural physical process. It has the characteristic of taking a given medium with given properties and transforming some or all of that medium into a new medium with new properties. Phase transitions occur frequently and are found everywhere in the natural world.
And in thermodynamics there is the Critical Point – “a critical point, also called a critical state, specifies the conditions (temperature, pressure and sometimes composition) at which a phase boundary ceases to exist.” That’s when all bets are off, when old boundaries just up and disappear, when you get something quite different.
Chemists and physicists study such things – the abrupt complete transformation of one thing into another, say a solid into a gas, plotting out the conditions when things reach what they call the critical phase, the tipping point when one thing becomes another thing entirely. And what is going on when that happens is never what you expect. But they don’t believe in miracles, or if they do, they set their personal beliefs aside – the idea is to describe, in detail, just what caused an abrupt transformation, and then to see if they were right by recreating the same conditions and inputs and seeing if it happens again and again. If it does they’re happy, and others find useful applications for what they figured out – you know, semiconductors, nuclear weapons, aerosol cheese spread.
The same thing happens in our national political life – things are humming along pretty much as they always have, and no one is particularly happy, but everyone knows what to expect. The Republicans – a coalition of business interests, free-market enthusiasts who hate the regulation of anything, pro-war nationalists who advocate showing the world just who’s in charge and deciding who’s a true American at home, and evangelicals who fret about gays and sex in general and women having too much say in matters like abortion and so on – do what they do. No one is surprised. You know what to expect. They wave the flag. The other side, the Democrats, liberals or progressives, or whatever, do what they do – arguing for community, decency, tolerance, and standing up for those who others say are useless and inferior.
It’s quite comforting – one side waves the flag and talks of personal responsibility and Jesus and individual freedom, and the other side says we’ve made mistakes under that flag but we can achieve equality and brotherhood, and freedom from those moralist scolds and nags and busybodies and the Jesus-knows-best folks. They say we’re all in this together, and the other side says oh no we’re not, and I’m not paying for anyone else’s foolishness. So things are as they should be – predictable.
And then, suddenly, a phase boundary ceases to exist:
From Connecticut to California, angry demonstrators opposed to health care reform have disrupted recent town hall meetings held by congressional Democrats. They attack lawmakers for backing a “socialist agenda,” shout questions without waiting for answers and repeat misinformation as fact, in some cases even accusing Democrats of favoring mandatory euthanasia for senior citizens.
On Friday, a Democratic lawmaker from Washington state received a faxed death threat a day after he described angry town hall demonstrators as “a lynch mob.” Rep. Brian Baird of Washington, who supports President Barack Obama’s push to overhaul the health care system, said that he also received threatening phone calls. He cancelled the rest of the town halls he’d scheduled during Congress’ August recess.
A few Democratic congressional offices also have received threats connected to the health care debate. The U.S. Capitol Police has advised all of them to cancel their town halls.
The demonstrations have grown more unruly. Six people were arrested Thursday after a forum on aging in St. Louis held by Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan drew an overflow crowd of health overhaul opponents and backers who came to counter them.
In recent weeks, demonstrators in Maryland hung in effigy a Democratic congressman who backs an overhaul, and in Texas opponents erected a tombstone with the name of another. Police in New York had to escort a Democratic House of Representatives member to his car after a raucous town hall meeting on health care.
Of course the Democrats are canceling their town hall meetings left and right. Something changed. Following the guidelines distributed by an insurance industry lobbying group, folks are showing up and shutting things down – asking why this congressman or that is advocating a single-payer healthcare system like in Canada, and when the congressman says he’s never called for that and doesn’t want it, and it’s not in the proposed legislation anyway, being shouted down with chants of Liar! Lair – and Read the Bill! Read the Bill! And that doesn’t stop, so the meeting is over. And that is not in the proposed legislation, of course, but it doesn’t matter much. People wave bibles and chant. And that’s that.
This is new, as are the death threats.
Of course some of it is comical – folks shouting, over and over one very odd thing. Don’t Turn My Medicare into a Government Program! It seems to be a government program – a single-payer government healthcare program, socialism if you will. And that’s where it gets strange, with the most important economist from the Reagan years, Arthur Laffer, saying this on CNN:
I mean, if you like the Post Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles and you think they’re run well, just wait until you see Medicare, Medicaid, and health care done by the government!
People have seen Medicare done by the government. They like it better than employer-sponsored coverage by wide margins – and the Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman seemed worried about Laffer – “The prejudice against government seems to have become free-floating, unattached to any actual experience.”
That may be the new thing here. This cannot be about healthcare. When a chemical reaction reaches a critical phase, what is causing the major transformation often isn’t what seemed so obvious at first glance. It probably wasn’t you shaking the test tube while humming a Beach Boys tune. You examine all the conditions and inputs, and in this case, with the town halls, deep and unrelenting terror of becoming Canadian seems rather irrelevant. And people like their Medicare just fine. Maybe this is what happens in a country a hundred years after civil war over the issue of slavery when a black man becomes president, and nominates a Puerto Rican woman to the Supreme Court, and she gets confirmed. It finally seems to be sinking in – the guy is black. And in a few decades whites will no longer be in the majority. Those are inputs and conditions too. If folks are slipping out of their usual roles, and we get mobs, that could be a factor.
Or you could look at another way. Steve Benen suggests what we have here is a test of character:
You can learn a lot about a group of people by how they choose to fight for what they believe in. It is, in a sense, a test of character and an opportunity to see what they’re made of. Faced with a challenge and a passionate zeal, will they use the people who trust them in good faith? Will they tell the truth? Will they sacrifice honor and dignity to get what they want?
Take the opponents of health care reform.
Okay, forget that Henny Youngman line, but Benen notes that Brian Beutler posted this item with a video of a Patients First bus tour event in Colorado. It seems that Patients First, a project of Americans for Prosperity, a group financed by the insurance industry, had a speaker telling activists that reform will mandate physician assisted suicide. The Patients First speaker said, “Adolf Hitler issued 6 million end-of-life orders – he called his program the final solution. I kind of wonder what we’re going to call ours.”
Yes, the pending legislation has a change in Medicare reimbursement – if a patient asks for a session with his doctor to discuss Living Will stuff and whether that patient wants a do-not-resuscitate order or that sort of thing, Medicare would now pay for the doctor’s time. The doctor doesn’t have to do it for free. He can bill Medicare for that half-hour or so. Somehow Hitler came up. Health care reform became just like the Nazi Holocaust. It’s very puzzling.
That worries Josh Marshall:
Most significant here is not the right-wing liars and demagogues making this stuff up but the fact that they’ve convinced a significant number of their followers that this stuff is true. That’s a very dangerous situation.
We should also keep in mind that the Birther-mania, as comical as it is on one level, is all part of the same fabric with the Hitler and Holocaust comparisons, an aggressive process of denigration and dehumanization, dressed up around claims about paperwork and places of birth, but all escalating and churning the belief of a minority of Americans that President Obama is not a legitimate president but rather a usurper.
It’s always important for us to remember what the last eight years have again taught us, which is that America has a very strong civic fabric, one that can withstand, absorb and conquer all manner of ugly behavior. It can take in stride a lot of angry rhetoric, town hall fisticuffs and more. But as this escalates we should continually be stepping back and thinking retrospectively from the vantage point of the future about where this all seems to be heading.
But there has already been a phase change, and Benen adds this:
It’s tempting, at times, to feel a little sorry for the right-wing mobs, made up of people who may not know better. They’re convinced that fascism is upon us and competition between private and public insurers will mean the end of Western civilization. Clinton-era tax rates represent Soviet-style governing, and those FEMA concentration camps, staffed by ACORN volunteers, are right around the corner.
But the pity quickly dissipates when I see them applauding the clown comparing health care reform and the Holocaust. They may be victims of a right-wing con, but they also have a responsibility to at least give decency and critical thinking a try, and resist a mass movement that’s more than a little dangerous.
Policy fights like the one we’re watching unfold put their character on display, and it’s not a pretty sight.
But maybe it’s not a matter of character. That’s a concept from the way things used to be, when each side behaved as everyone expected them to behave, before the phase boundary ceased to exist, as they say.
So there was the town hall in Tampa hosted by two Democratic policymakers and the Service Employees International Union – the angry folks shut that down by overwhelming anyone who wanted to say anything. That works, and there was the event in Saint Louis which led to six arrests:
An official with SEIU, which has been sending members to town halls to counterbalance the Tea Party brigade, sends over this audio of a phone call the union received on its central voicemail system, threatening to teach union officials a thing or two about “the Second Amendment.”
The call seems to refer to reports today to scuffles in St. Louis between SEIU members and town hall rowdies.
“I suggest you tell your people to calm down, act like American citizens, and stop trying to repress people’s First Amendment rights,” the caller says. “That, or y’all are gonna come up against the Second Amendment.”
We get to shut down your speakers or you get shot? That seems to be the message. That’s new.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) seems to be the target now. Benen covers it all:
A reform opponent in New Mexico, for example, has been using Twitter to encourage conservatives to consider violence. In one message, he wrote, “If ACORN/SEIU attends these townhalls for disruption, stop being peaceful, and hurt them. Badly.”
Actually, if you read the Tweets, the leader of the loyal opposition suggests all their folks pack heat – they should arrive with guns, fully armed. That’s new.
Benen adds these:
What’s more, there’s at least one right-wing protest scheduled for an SEIU headquarters — and Rush Limbaugh has been reading the address of the headquarters on the air.
It’s part of a growing effort to encourage physical, if not outright violent, confrontations. When a caller to Lou Dobbs’ radio show threatened to “brawl” with reform supporters, Dobbs stuck up for him. Glenn Beck suggested today that a caller should show up at policymakers’ homes. Michael Savage said he’d like to see anti-reform protests include “violent motorcycle groups.”
He has the links if you want to click through and confirm all that.
But something is up, and he doesn’t like it:
I continue to think mainstream America – the families who’ve been hoping to see meaningful health care reform for decades – will see and hear about these tactics and run in the other direction. Right-wing mobs may think they’re proving that there’s a sizable group of Americans who are siding with the corporate interests who’ve made reform necessary. In reality, they’re proving how crazy and borderline-dangerous the far-right base has become.
No, not crazy and borderline, but, as Eric Kleefeld reports, quite mainstream, as with perhaps our next president:
In a new posting on her Facebook account, former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) made a dire statement about health care reform – that it could result in an Obama-created “death panel” killing her infant son with Down Syndrome:
“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. Such a system is downright evil.”
And she pointed Americans’ attention to a recent speech by none other than Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), warning of the dastardly involvement of Rahm Emanuel’s brother, who is a doctor, in the health care debate:
“Rep. Michele Bachmann highlighted the Orwellian thinking of the president’s health care advisor, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the brother of the White House chief of staff, in a floor speech to the House of Representatives. I commend her for being a voice for the most precious members of our society, our children and our seniors.”
Eric Kleefeld sees what’s up:
Could this be an early trial balloon for a Palin/Bachmann ticket in 2012?
That’s possible – Palin gets to shut down the Obama death panels and Michele Bachmann gets to have what she once said, on MSNBC, that she really, really wanted – a new House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate those in Congress who hold un-American views and should be jailed or executed, and perhaps to rid us of evil Jewish doctors named Ezekiel. That’s perfect.
But something has changed, and there could be no election in 2012 – people are arming themselves. Glenn Beck and Fox News are leading the revolution, with Lou Dobbs carrying the water – grab a gun, it’s time to break all the glass as you recall. That was, the man said, a spontaneous reaction of the German people. They were fed up too, even if for all the wrong reasons.
But phase changes are like that. When there’s a transformation, you need to examine the real causes, even if it doesn’t help much.