THE YEAR isn't even four weeks old yet, but we may already have a winner in the competition for Most Appalling Utterance of 1995. I nominate the following, which appeared in last Sunday's Boston Globe:
"CAMBRIDGE -- Citing several studies detailing the relationship between stress, isolation, and higher death rates, 27 doctors recently warned politicians about the health consequences of abolishing rent control.
" 'If rent control vanishes, dozens will die,' said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, an internist at Cambridge Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. . . .
" 'One-third of our heart attack patients at Cambridge Hospital live in rent-controlled apartments. By allowing landlords to force them out, the governor and state Legislature are implementing the death penalty -- a social policy sure to kill.' "
Somehow, in all the months that the rent-control debate hissed and billowed in Massachusetts, it never occurred to me that the best way to shed light on the issue was to talk about killing. Limited as I am, I had imagined that Question 9 was about the right of property owners to charge fair-market rents vs. the desire of tenants to live in subsidized apartments.
But now, thanks to Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, I see that the issue is really much simpler: Life or death. "If rent control vanishes, dozens will die." I'll try to remember that.
The article quoted another Cambridge Hospital physician.
"As doctors," pronounces Dr. David Himmelstein, "we don't have the power to change the law or get a person another apartment. But we do have the power to appeal to the moral consciousness of politicians as well as landlords."
If only conservatives could be as sensitive and morally refined as Drs. Woolhandler and Himmelstein. Then they would realize how massive the death toll can be when liberals don't get their way.
- "People will be dying in hidden corners all over the state," said welfare advocate Judy Meredith in 1990, as the Massachusetts Legislature weighed a 4 percent trim in the state's budget. "People will die. They may die slowly, but they will die."
- The specter of death haunted Gov. Michael Dukakis that year, too. If he wasn't allowed to raise taxes, he prophesied, the Grim Reaper would stalk the land. "I think," he intoned mournfully, "we will probably lose some citizens of the commonwealth because we can't do justice by them." As Drs. Woolhandler and Himmelstein might have put it, holding the line on taxes would have been "implementing the death penalty -- a social policy sure to kill."
- Welfare reform is another issue that becomes much clearer once you understand that the conservative position is to kill people. One leftist academic recently explained in The New York Times that Republican plans to change welfare into workfare are "a new form of deadly domestic assault" in which "the male predators are key legislators who are declaring open season on poor women and their children." Get out the body bags, warned Valerie Polakow, because for welfare mothers, "America has become the most dangerous democracy to live in."
On issue after issue, liberals play the death card: Do what we want or people will die. Nationalize health insurance or people will die, says Hillary Clinton. Curtail Americans' right to drive cars or people will die, says Al Gore. Impose "gay sensitivity" curriculums in public schools or people will die, says the Weld administration. The last refuge of scoundrels used to be patriotism. Now it's mortality rates.
This death talk is sure to increase as Congress pushes to enact the "Contract with America." Any day now, Drs. Woolhandler and Himmelstein (or somebody equally compassionate and virtuous) will release a report "proving" that term limits would increase fatalities. They'll say something like this:
"As doctors, we know that the health implications of term limits are grave. More frequent political turnover will generate more hard-fought elections. That will induce more people to keep unhealthy campaign schedules and live on black coffee and No-Doz -- which will ruin their health and shorten their lives. Nor can we overlook the stress caused by negative campaigning, and the emotional toll on the lives of children and spouses. In short, if term limits are adopted, dozens will die."
Ludicrous hyperbole, you say? I say so, too. But when archliberals call welfare reform "deadly domestic assault" -- when Drs. Woolhandler and Himmelstein equate the repeal of rent control with capital punishment -- they aren't drawing mere rhetorical flourishes. They really mean it. Either you're a decent person and you're for rent control -- or you're a murderer. There is no middle ground. There is no room for debate.
This is intellectual terrorism, but it's also self-parody. What satirist could invent such a scenario -- a pair of doctors called Woolhandler and Himmelstein, invoking their medical credentials, no less, to prevent death-by-rent-increase. Oh, it's to laugh. Like the famous National Lampoon cover -- the one that showed an adorable little dog with a gun at its head, above the warning "Buy This Magazine, Or We'll Shoot This Dog" -- it's so sick it's funny.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)