Judith Warner on 24 As a Reality Show

Judith Warner, currently a guest columnist for The New York Times, discusses how the distinction between fantasy and reality is blurred on 24 to some people. After all, “We had the first African-American president on television, and now Barack Obama is a serious candidate. That wasn’t going to happen eight years ago.” It doesn’t stop there, as Warner writes, “freaky it is that his show’s first female president will make her debut just in time for the Iowa caucuses.” Warner sees 24 as a “political crystal ball.”

I giggled a bit nastily over this at first. What was next — claims that fingering China as a one-nation axis of evil on “24” had presaged the country’s exposure this spring as the source of all perishables tainted and fatal? That screen first lady Martha Logan’s descent into minimadness anticipated Laura Bush’s increasingly beleaguered late-term demeanor? (Has anyone but me noticed her astounding resemblance to Dolores Umbridge in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”?) That foolish Vice President Noah Daniels’s narrowly averted war with the Russians had its real-life equivalent in recent Bush-Putin wrangling over Eastern European missile defense systems?
Kiefer Sutherland and I may both be silly, but we’re not the only people guilty of blurring the boundaries when it comes to “24.” In recent weeks, a surprising number of journalists have seemed ready to play along with the conceit that the fictional creation of the show’s first female chief executive could actually have some bearing on the American political scene. The Hollywood Reporter, for one, proclaimed this change “could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

I don’t remember people holding their breath for major political developments every time a new season began on “The West Wing.” There’s something different, I think, about “24” that gives its cartoonishness a bizarrely compelling sense of reality.

The past six or so years — the years of the show’s existence — have given us a parade of imagery seemingly tailor-made for Bauer’s TV world. The crumbling of the World Trade Center, Saddam Hussein in a hole, stress-deranged U.S. soldiers-turned-prison-block-pornographers — the dividing line between what’s believable and what’s not, between fantasy and reality, has become utterly permeable.

What was once unimaginable, or imagined only for entertainment value in “Die Hard”-type thrillers, is now all too real. Anything is possible in a world of falling towers and Abu Ghraib. Kiefer Sutherland’s magical beliefs about his show’s potential impact on politics are forgivable. Even quaint.

The big difference, unfortunately, between real life and small-screen fiction is that, on “24,” Jack Bauer actually catches the bad guys and saves the world. Good guys are incorruptible; fatuous politicians are made to pay for their sins. There is redemption; there is comeuppance.

Oh, and torture works.

While 24 might seem predictive on a superficial level, it differs from reality in many areas, such as torture. Rather than seeing 24 as I crystal ball, I see it more as a warped mirror of reality.

David Brooks: Edwards vs. Obama on Poverty

Needless to say, David Brooks isn’t especially fond of either John Edwards’ or Barack Obama’s ideas with regards to poverty. He does summarize the differences, and of the two argues as to why he prefers Obama’s ideas:

Obama and Edwards agree on a lot, but in this matter they emphasize different things. As Alec MacGillis of The Washington Post observed, Edwards emphasizes programs that help people escape from concentrated poverty. Obama emphasizes programs that fix inner-city neighborhoods. One helps people find better environments, the other seeks to strengthen the environment they are already in.

Edwards would create a million housing vouchers for working families. These would, he argues, “enable people to vote with their feet to demand safe communities with good schools.” They’d help people move to where the jobs are and foster economic integration.

The problem with his approach is that past efforts at dispersal produced disappointing results. Families who were given the means to move from poor neighborhoods to middle-class areas did not see incomes rise. Girls in those families did a little better, but boys did worse. They quickly formed subcultures in the new communities that replicated patterns of the old ones. Male criminality rose, but test scores did not.

Obama, by contrast, builds his approach around the Harlem Children’s Zone, what he calls “an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck anti-poverty effort.” The zone takes an area in Harlem and saturates it with childcare, marriage counseling, charter schools and job counselors and everything else you can think of. Obama says he’ll start by replicating the program in 20 cities around the country.

The problem here is that there are few historical examples of neighborhoods being lifted up at once. There are 4,000 community development corporations around the country and they have not lifted residents out of poverty. The positive influences in the center get overwhelmed by the negative peer influences all around.

The organizations that do appear to work, like the Harlem Children’s Zone (there’s no firm data yet), tend to have charismatic leaders like Geoffrey Canada who are willing to fight teachers’ unions and take on bureaucracies. It’s not clear whether their success is replicable, let alone by the federal government.

What we have, then, is two divergent approaches, both of which have problems and low odds of producing tremendous success. If you find that discouraging, welcome to the world of poverty policy.

If I had to choose between the two, I guess I’d go with the Obama plan. I’d lean that way because Obama seems to have a more developed view of social capital. Edwards offers vouchers, job training and vows to create a million temporary public-sector jobs. Obama agrees, but takes fuller advantage of home visits, parental counseling, mentoring programs and other relationship-building efforts.

The Obama policy provides more face-to-face contact with people who can offer praise or disapproval. Rising out of poverty is difficult — even when there are jobs and good schools. It’s hard to focus on a distant degree or home purchase. But human beings have a strong desire for approval and can accomplish a lot with daily doses of praise and censure. Standards of behavior are contagious that way.

A neighborhood is a moral ecosystem, and Obama, the former community organizer, seems to have a better feel for that. It’s not only policies we’re looking for in selecting a leader, it’s a sense of how the world works. Obama’s plan isn’t a sure-fire cure for poverty, but it does reveal an awareness of the supple forces that can’t be measured and seen.

I doubt many Democratic voters would pay any attention to what David Brooks has to say, but he does present a compelling argument in favor of Obama over Edwards on Edwards’ key issue.