Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Doctor is in - sane

Howard Dean has been regularly making news for his incendiary comments about the fundamental evil that is anyone who opposes him politically. Recently he pulled out this doozy:

"The president and his right-wing Supreme Court think it is 'okay' to have the government take your house if they feel like putting a hotel where your house is."

It is quite clear he's referring to the Supreme Court's recent Kelo decision, in which the court found that a city's hopes of taking privately owned property solely for the purposes of economic redevelopment amounted to a "public use" within the meaning of the Constitution's just compensation clause. It is also quite clear that Dean has no idea what he's talking about; since President Bush has not as yet appointed anybody to the Supreme Court, it's hard to call it his court. And the three justices uniformly viewed as the most rightward leaning on the court - Scalia, Thomas, and Rehnquist - dissented from the decision. Objectively, this statement by Dean makes absolutely no sense.

This raises, to me, two kinds of questions. The first is, just what the hell do the Democrats think they're achieving by having this guy out there spouting nonsense as the head of the Democratic National Committee? The people who agree with this stuff are already voting for Democrats; what they need to do is attract those in the middle or on the right. Constantly demonizing those who disagree with him hardly seems likely to accomplish this. It's bad enough when he's questioning how many Republicans have ever worked for an honest living, or saying that Democrats are more moral, both of which he has done. But when he combines these sentiments with such blatant misstatements of fact, it seems quite clear to me his effectiveness as a party spokesman is rather limited.

The other question I have is this: why does none of this affect Howard Dean's reputation? It is an article of faith among much of the country that George Bush is so dumb he needs help tying his shoes (the Yale and Harvard degrees, college GPA higher than that of John Kerry, and SAT scores comparable to those of Al Gore, are conveniently ignored in this). Yet, when Howard Dean utters complete nonsense, it doesn't seem to affect his image as a know-it-all straight shooter who either thrills or terrifies people, depending on their views. What gives?

Part of this, I think, is because he's Dr. Howard Dean, and society understandably assumes a level of competence and intelligence about doctors that might not be warranted. In order to deal with the uncertainties and risks of illness and medical treatment, society generally assumes that (a) doctors are omniscient, and (b) maladies can be simply diagnosed and fixed much like a car or a computer. Neither is true, but it's a lot more comforting to pretend they are. This is not a knock, on the medical profession, by the way; doctors do amazing things every day to alleviate human suffering, and I watched in awe as they cut open my wife to extricate our son, who seemed a bit hesitant to use other means of egress. But I do think a side effect of the way in which we choose to remain blissfully ignorant of how medicine is an inexact science results in doctors being given a level of respect and deference higher than they might merit. And I think this might be part of why Howard Dean doesn't get the criticism he might otherwise deserve.


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