Hiding an Agenda behind Facts

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Nearly a decade ago, I read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer and was struck by his method of "argument". He presented numerous facts about animal husbandry and included numerous photographs of the conditions in which food animals are maintained. But did he marshal these facts to support his argument: that animals have rights? No. His thesis trivialized the idea of individual rights by taking the highly abstract concept of "rights" for granted, and then arbitrarily asserting that its basis consists in the ability of a being to "feel pain". If the photographs and lurid accounts of how livestock are sometimes maintained prove anything, it would be that these animals usually do suffer. But that does not prove Singer's contention that animals have rights. What it does do is distract the reader from the fact that Singer should be making an argument, but is not. In addition, it makes the reader emotionally predisposed to accept the thesis by taking advantage of his sense of decency.

Today, I saw a column by social conservative columnist Michelle Malkin that does the very same thing Peter Singer did in Animal Liberation. Namely, she poses as an objective reporter who pays scrupulous attention to facts in order to whitewash the shameless power grab by the religious right on Terri Schiavo's "behalf". The title is "The MSM's life and death distortions." Malkin starts out by making a valid objection to the methodology (push polling) of the ABC poll widely cited in the media to demonstrate American support for the termination of the life of Schiavo's body.

Here is how the spinmasters framed the main poll question:

As you may know, a woman in Florida named Terri Schiavo suffered brain damage and has been on life support for 15 years. Doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible. Her parents and her husband disagree on whether or not she should be kept on life support. In cases like this who do you think should have final say, (the parents) or (the spouse)?

A follow-up question asked:

If you were in this condition, would you want to be kept alive, or not?

The problem is that, contrary to what ABC News told those polled, Terri Schiavo is not on "life support" and has never been on "life support." The loaded phrase evokes images of a comatose patient being artificially sustained by myriad machines and pumps and wires. Terri was on a feeding tube. A feeding tube is not a ventilator. Terri can breathe just fine on her own.

These are valid concerns and, frankly, it angers me that the media did a push poll for such an important matter. The results are questionable, though I suspect that a more honest poll might have gotten similar results. (See Michele Catalano's remarks below.) But we'll never know now. What's worse, is this plays right into the hands of the religious right as silliness by the left does so often these days.

Malkin immediately goes on the attack.

And as many of her medical caretakers and parents have argued, if given proper rehabilitation, Terri could learn to chew and swallow on her own as well. She is disabled, not dead.

Caretakers? I doubt these are physicians or, God forbid, specialists in neurology. Her parents? They have my sympathy, but they understandably might have unrealistic hopes here. Nowhere in the article does Malkin address what medical experts say, except to discount one as a buffoon for using what is obviously an exaggeration to describe how common a medical procedure is. (Malkin should take note: Those strange letters appended to these "experts'" names, like "M.D." or "Ph.D." aren't the cryptic foreign abbreviations of leftist guerilla organizations in cahoots with MSM. They're credentials.) That's OK. I'll do it for her. (A more extensive quote and a reference are supplied here.)

Medical experts said those behaviors are the cruelest aspect of a terrible condition: Grimaces and other facial expressions give families of tens of thousands of such patients hope, but they are evidence only that Schiavo's brain stem is working, keeping alive reflexes and routine bodily functions. They do not suggest that the higher areas of brain functioning needed for her to regain conscious awareness will return

Malkin is thus quick to reveal someone else's bad methodology, but is perfectly happy to indulge in her own. Here, she's relying on anecdotal evidence to make her case rather than the scientific variety. Notice that she holds herself out as being against media bias, but that she goes beyond that into advocacy of her side of the Schiavo controversy. The fact that the media did a lousy job in polling that supports the other side does not automatically make Malkin's case. But then, as we will see, neither does she. And although Malkin never explicitly says that the religionists should shred the Constitution, this is, at the moment, the only way to spare Schiavo's life.

But let's forget, for a moment, Malkin's egalitarianism about medical expertise, and assume that her next bit of medical evidence is solid, and not taken out of context. (I am not sure myself about this, but as you will see, this doesn't really matter.)

Imagine how the poll results might have turned out if ABC News had made clear to participants that Terri is not terminally ill. Not in excruciating pain. Capable of saying "Mommy" and "Help me." And of "getting the feeling she's falling" or getting "excited," in her husband's own testimony, when her head is not held properly.

Imagine how the poll results might have turned out if ABC News had informed participants that in a sworn affidavit, registered nurse Carla Sauer Iyer, who worked at the Palm Garden of Largo Convalescent Center in Largo, Fla., while Terri Schiavo was a patient there, testified: "Throughout my time at Palm Gardens, Michael Schiavo was focused on Terri's death. Michael would say 'When is she going to die?' 'Has she died yet?' and 'When is that bitch gonna die?'"

Now, if you were in this situation, would you want to be kept alive, or not?

Michele Catalano (hat tip: Martin Lindeskog) does a much better job than anyone of addressing the issue posed by the first and third of these paragraphs. Namely: If Terri Schiavo is, in fact, not brain-dead, would she want to live? Malkin is inviting us to speculate on what Terri Schiavo would want: I'm just taking her up on it.

One of my greatest fears is of being buried alive. The dark side of my imagination has created a scenario in which this happens and it appears in my dreams every once in while: Imagine being held down, underneath layers of dirt or stone or maybe in a wooden box. You see a pinpoint of light above. Just out of reach. You can hear muted voices above you; there are people out there. Living, breathing people who are going about their daily lives while you are trying to claw your way out of your trap, while you are trying to shout to them. But no one hears you. No one knows you are in there.

When people tell me that Terri Schiavo is aware, that's what I imagine. That's how I envision her every cognizant moment to be. I don’t know that this is true. I’m no medical expert. But no one knows what’s going on inside Terri’s mind, do they? If anything is going on in there. The fact that she has no working cerebral cortex makes me inclined to believe that she isn’t aware of anything. But I try to put myself in that place. Is that a way I would want to exist for fifteen years? Hell, I wouldn't want to live that life for fifteen days.

So, the answer to the push-poll question above is also, "No!" And then Charles Krauthammer (an M.D., by the way) does a good job demolishing the notion (that Malkin apparently has) that the fact that the husband is likely a slimeball merits the jettison of our Constitution.

The crucial issue in deciding whether one would want to intervene to keep her alive is whether there is, as one bioethicist put it to me, "anyone home." Her parents, who see her often, believe that there is. The husband maintains that there is no one home. (But then again he has another home, making his judgment somewhat suspect.) The husband has not allowed a lot of medical testing in the past few years. I have tried to find out what her neurological condition actually is. But the evidence is sketchy, old and conflicting. The Florida court found that most of her cerebral cortex is gone. But "most" does not mean all. There may be some cortex functioning. The severely retarded or brain-damaged can have some consciousness. And we do not go around euthanizing the minimally conscious in the back wards of mental hospitals on the grounds that their lives are not worth living.

Given our lack of certainty, given that there are loved ones prepared to keep her alive and care for her, how can you allow the husband to end her life on his say-so? Because following the sensible rules of Florida custody laws, conducted with due diligence and great care over many years in this case, this is where the law led.

For Congress and the president to then step in and try to override that by shifting the venue to a federal court was a legal travesty, a flagrant violation of federalism and the separation of powers. The federal judge who refused to reverse the Florida court was certainly true to the law. But the law, while scrupulous, has been merciless, and its conclusion very troubling morally. We ended up having to choose between a legal travesty on the one hand and human tragedy on the other.

There is no good outcome to this case. Except perhaps if Florida and the other states were to amend their laws and resolve conflicts among loved ones differently -- by granting authority not necessarily to the spouse but to whatever first-degree relative (even if in the minority) chooses life and is committed to support it. Call it Terri's law. It would help prevent our having to choose in the future between travesty and tragedy.

Before we go for the kill, let's grant Malkin her premise: that Schiavo is merely "disabled." How would junking the Constitution help her? How will anyone, much less Terri Schiavo, survive for long if we abandon the very foundations of our civilization? Indeed: how would junking the Constitution help anyone? I have to bring up another quote from ASV: "

Honestly, I don't think anyone involved in this case any longer has the benefit of Terri Schiavo in mind. It's way past that. It's all about pushing agendas now. If people really, truly cared about making sure all lives are equal, whether brain dead or not, why weren't they rallying at the bedside of Sun Hudson?

This also brings up an issue that is totally, unforgivably absent in Malkin's piece: Why is she so concerned about the what the polling data say that she feels the need to construct a sort of push poll of her own, but pushing in the opposite direction? Because this poll indicates public disapproval of the extralegal efforts of the Bush administration to "save" the life of Terri Schiavo.

And this is what Malkin means by "life and death" matter when she opens her column. Schiavo's life is basically over whether she gets the tube reinserted or not. But if the tube is not reinserted, the great power grab of the religious right has failed and, God forbid, it wasn't such a popular move in the first place! This column is not just an emotional appeal in support of Bush under the guise of a call for accurate reporting, it is also damage control for the religious right.

What ABC did wrong does not make what Bush did right. And no matter what the American people really think or feel about this case, what Bush did was still wrong. Is Schiavo's husband a slimeball? Looks like it. Bush is still wrong. Might Schiavo be conscious? Bush is still wrong. Ditto if Schiavo wants to live. Read Krauthammer again.When you're done, Bush will still be wrong.

For the record, I'm guilty as charged of pushing an agenda. Here's mine: I want rule of law. My life depends upon it.

-- CAV

PS: For some good further reading on this matter, see this Joe Gandelman post over at the Moderate Voice. He opens by pointing to another poll that vindicates my belief that the Schiavo case is a huge political miscalculation by the religionists. The title pretty much hits the nail on the head, too: "This Unfavorable Poll Must Also Be 'Biased,' Right?


3-24-05: (1) Corrected several typos. Made a few clarifications. (2) Added link to TMV.

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