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.

Redefining Eugenics

I recently quoted Glenn Beck in providing one example of the anti-science right using eugenics to disparage science. This has been a common meme from the right wing noise machine. Apparently their logic is that a few scientists advocated eugenics in the distant past, and therefore liberals who quote science when discussing evolution or climate change are planning a secret eugenics program. Kevin Drum also questioned Beck’s reference to eugenics.

Russ Douthat responds to Kevin Drum by arguing that conservatives have been talking about eugenics for a long time–as if holding a fallacious belief for a long time is somehow superior to recently developing a fallacious belief. Douthat’s response comes down to redefining support for abortion rights (or unfettered right to abortion as Douthat erroneously calls it) as being “pre-natal eugenics.”

Abortion rights is a totally different debate. Regardless of the merits of that argument, abortion and eugenics are two different things. Maybe the opponents of abortion rights found that they were sounding too shrill and unconvincing with their cries of “baby killers” and are looking for a new word. This is just another example of the Frank Luntz school of trying to win arguments based upon the words you use as opposed to the merits of the argument.

Global Warming, Hurricanes, and the Anti-Science Right

The response to newspaper articles today demonstrates the anti-scientific mind set of the right wing, showing who is looking at climate change objectively, and who is choosing their “facts” based upon ideology. Several papers, including USA Today and Reuters, report on a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences which shows a correlation between global warming and increased incidence of hurricanes. Following is from the abstract:

We find that long-period variations tropical cyclone and hurricane frequency over the past century in the North Atlantic Ocean have occurred in the form of three, relatively stable regimes separated by sharp transitions. Each regime has seen 50% more cyclones and hurricanes than the previous regime and is associated with a distinct range of sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Overall, there appears to have been a substantial 100-year trend leading to related increases of over 0.7 C in SST and over 100% in tropical cyclone and hurricane numbers. It is concluded that the overall trend in SSTs and tropical cyclone and hurricane numbers is substantially influenced by greenhouse warming. Superimposed on the evolving tropical cyclone and hurricane climatology is a completely independent oscillation manifested in the proportions tropical cyclones that become major and minor hurricanes. This characteristic has no distinguishable net trend and appears to be associated with concomitant variations in the proportion of equatorial and higher-latitude hurricane developments, perhaps arising from internal oscillations of the climate system. The period of enhanced major hurricane activity during 1945-1964 is consistent with a peak period in major hurricane proportions.

I’ve made note several times cases in the past where a newspaper carried a weak criticism of global warming, but the right wing blogosphere adopted it as the new gosple on the subject (including here and here). This article on hurricanes presents the reverse situation. As is often the case in science, there is controversy over this paper. Scientific issues are typically resolved in peer reviewed journals, as opposed to newspapers or blogs, and a more definitive theory can be developed after the issues are resolved. In the case of global warming, this culminated in a strong consensus among scientists regarding the influence of human action on climate change.

Search engines and Memeorandum reveal considerable buzz about this article in the conservative blogosphere. They generally grab onto the controversy and, despite the lack of any expertise in the field or even reviewing the actual journal article, are unanimous in declaring that the findings are bogus. A typical conservative response can be seen at Blue Crab Boulevard.

The liberal response is more objective. Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, summarizes the debate and concludes:

Let me be completely frank: I have no idea who’s right in the current argument between Holland/Webster and Landsea. Indeed, in some sense it’s probably unknowable–we’re talking about missed storms, after all, and now that they’ve been missed of course we don’t know how many of them there were.

From a policy perspective, though, we don’t have to remain completely agnostic regarding this debate. There are several important points to take away from this latest dustup, and in a follow-up post, I will tease out those implications. But for now, if I’ve left everyone scratching their heads about who to trust in the current argument, all I can say is, I’m scratching my head too….

While anti-science conservatives were ready to find reason to argue with the findings immediately upon seeing the headline, liberals who respect science take a completely different approach. Whether or not this particular study is valid has no bearing on the overall scientific consensus on global warming. Of course, while unlikely, it would be even better if we were to find out that global warming is not really a problem and actual evidence of this would be welcome. Unfortunately, unlike the right wing, we cannot ignore scientific evidence just because we do not like the results.

Paul Allen Producing Documentary on Intelligent Design

The Seattle Times profiled Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen regarding his interest in the arts. Allen is especially interested in documentaries, and is producing one on a worthwhile subject–intelligent design and the Dover case:

“With documentary-film projects, you hope you highlight an area of concern people haven’t thought about before,” Allen said in an interview. “A lot of times I’m asking myself — this seems to be a significant problem. What can be done that hasn’t been done?

“In global warming I think everyone is scratching their heads — are there technological things that can be brought to bear that can make a difference?”

Through his production company, Vulcan Productions, Allen makes feature films, documentaries and television programs related to art and science. His latest project, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial,” is scheduled to air in November as part of the PBS Nova series, telling the story of a Pennsylvania school district beset by controversy over teaching intelligent design, which holds that the universe is too complex to be explained by evolution and must have been aided by the work of some supernatural “designer.”

Intelligent design isn’t the only topic he is working on. There is a certain irony in a production company named Vulcan producing a series on this topic:

Allen’s team at Vulcan is starting work on a series about human nature that explores mental difficulties and emotions.

His personal interest drives the film’s subject matter, said Hutton, a former executive at Walt Disney Imagineering. “Paul was very interested in not just the science of human nature, but what we’ve learned over 20 or 30 years and how that has been applied to people beset by negative feelings, anxiety and depression.”

The series started out with a scientific focus, but Allen pushed the producers to take a much more practical approach, presenting solutions and resources for people who need support.

“I think Paul sees film as a way of breaking through some of the clutter and giving back,” Hutton said. “He’s getting information out to the public that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible.”

Paul Krugman on The Immoral Republican Philosophy on Health Care

Paul Krugman‘s column today examines the philosophy behind Republican health care positions, which are a reflection of their overall view of government programs. Republicans are right more often than not when they argue that the private sector does a better job than government. The problem for them is that at times this is not true. While liberals are more willing to consider either private or public solutions to problems based upon which is best for a specific problem, conservative philosophy compels them to oppose virtually any government program, regardless of its benefits.

George Bush opposes any expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (Schip) on philosophical grounds. Krugman writes:

President Bush says that access to care is no problem — “After all, you just go to an emergency room” — and, with the support of the Republican Congressional leadership, he’s declared that he’ll veto any Schip expansion on “philosophical” grounds.

It must be about philosophy, because it surely isn’t about cost. One of the plans Mr. Bush opposes, the one approved by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the Senate Finance Committee, would cost less over the next five years than we’ll spend in Iraq in the next four months. And it would be fully paid for by an increase in tobacco taxes.

The House plan is even worse for Bush as it would take money from Medicare Advantage plans to fund the expansion. An aspect of Bush’s Medicare bill has been to reward the insurance companies which contribute to him with subsidizes for treating Medicare patients in private plans. These Medicare Advantage plans typically cherry pick the healthiest patients but it still costs twelve percent more than it costs to care for patients under the government Medicare plan. It makes no sense, unless your goal is to privatize Medicare regardless of the cost, to fight so hard to preserve these subsidies. The money could be better spent either on improving the Medicare program itself, or on other health care programs such as Schip. Krugman looks at the underlying philosophy:

So what kind of philosophy says that it’s O.K. to subsidize insurance companies, but not to provide health care to children?

Well, here’s what Mr. Bush said after explaining that emergency rooms provide all the health care you need: “They’re going to increase the number of folks eligible through Schip; some want to lower the age for Medicare. And then all of a sudden, you begin to see a — I wouldn’t call it a plot, just a strategy — to get more people to be a part of a federalization of health care.”

Now, why should Mr. Bush fear that insuring uninsured children would lead to a further “federalization” of health care, even though nothing like that is actually in either the Senate plan or the House plan? It’s not because he thinks the plans wouldn’t work. It’s because he’s afraid that they would. That is, he fears that voters, having seen how the government can help children, would ask why it can’t do the same for adults.

And there you have the core of Mr. Bush’s philosophy. He wants the public to believe that government is always the problem, never the solution. But it’s hard to convince people that government is always bad when they see it doing good things. So his philosophy says that the government must be prevented from solving problems, even if it can. In fact, the more good a proposed government program would do, the more fiercely it must be opposed.

George Bush ran as a compassionate conservative in 2000, claiming to be different from previous conservatives who would cut useful government programs. His governing philosophy is the opposite of the views he campaigned on as he opposes government programs not because they are bad, but because they are effective and prove him wrong.

Obama on Separation of Church and State

Barack Obama answered some questions on religion asked by a correspondent for CBN. While he does often speak of the influence of religion on hs life and views, he isn’t interested in recent polls where he is considered among the most religious candidates of either party, stating, “I don’t think it’s helpful as candidates or as a country to get into discussions about who’s more religious.” Obama also discussed separation of church and state:

For my friends on the right, I think it would be helpful to remember the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but also our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves.

It was the forbearers of Evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they didn’t want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it. Given this fact, I think that the right might worry a bit more about the dangers of sectarianism.

Whatever we once were, we’re no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. We should acknowledge this and realize that when we’re formulating policies from the state house to the Senate floor to the White House, we’ve got to work to translate our reasoning into values that are accessible to every one of our citizens, not just members of our own faith community.

Obama also spoke about separation of church and state during last week’s CNN/You Tube debate. By showing his concern for separation of church and state while also taking about religion, Obama might be able to receive considerable support from both religious and secular individuals, consistent with his campaign theme of bridging divisions in the country.

Republicans Block Legalization of Medical Marijuana

The authoritarian right might have lost control of Congress, but they have enough votes to win when the Democrats are divided. The Hinchey of New York Amendment which would have permitted medicinal use of marijuana was voted down in the House, defeated by a 262 to 165 margin. Democrats supported the amendment 150 to 79, but this wasn’t enough to overcome the overwhelming opposition by Republicans, who opposed it by a vote of 183 to 15.

Freedom Democrats notes that eight Democrats voted for the amendment last year but voted against it this year. The two members of the House of Representatives running for their party’s presidential nomination, Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, both voted for the amendment.

The Hillary Clinton Cleavage Controversy

For those interested in the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s cleavage, The ombudsman for The Washington Post has responded today. As I previously noted (only after it was a major topic of discussion in the blogosphere) this whole subject is of little significance.

For women who are offended that their real accomplishments are ignored in favor of discussion of how much cleavage they show, I am sympathetic. As I do not normally read anything from the section where this appeared, I also do not know if such condescending articles are typical for the fashion section or not.

Yes, I do hope that people who are making a big fuss about this realize this appeared in the fashion section. The magnitude of the response to the article would be much more understandable if it appeared in news coverage of Hillary Clinton. As I also stated in my earlier post, “My standards for what is trivial as opposed to a true political story are different for the fashion section, where this appeared, as opposed to the news sections.”

Deborah Howell, ombudsman for The Washington Post, writes:

Givhan won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for criticism“for her witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism.” She writes for Style, where staffers pride themselves on being edgy (some say snarky) and provocative. Her editors give her wide latitude to comment, and she regularly ticks off readers.

Givhan said the National Desk, tuned to C-SPAN2 on July 17, alerted her to Clinton’s appearance “speaking in the Senate chamber, an extraordinarily conservative environment. The cleavage made me do a double take. It seemed so out of her stylistic character. And remember, women couldn’t wear pants on the Senate floor until 1993 — not exactly an environment where modern attire is robustly welcomed.

As I am totally unfamiliar with what is written in the fashion sections of newspapers, or what passes for edgy these days, I am not in a good position to judge whether this column really crossed the line. However, even without reading the fashion sections I feel safe that one argument which some bloggers are making does not hold up. The Washington Post has been criticized for discussing this as opposed to the real issues. I really doubt that the fashion section contains serious discussions of health care reform or Iraq, and the presence of this column does not affect the Posts‘ actual coverage of the issues. It might be argued that the bloggers themselves who have been discussing this have distracted from the real issues, but space seems limitless in the blogosphere and a post on one topic, however trivial, does not prevent discussion of issues of more substance.

Update: Clinton Finds Solution To Cleavage Controversy

Giuliani’s Record as Tax Cutter Questioned

Many conservatives are backing Rudy Giuliani because they believe he is generally with him, even if they shudder at the pictures of him in drag. Among other attributes, they think Giuliani will cut their taxes–which is a big thing among Republicans who would let the whole country fall apart if it meant a two percent reduction in their tax rate. They believe Giuliani is a tax cutter because he claims to be one. The New York Daily News says it isn’t so:

It is Rudy Giuliani’s favorite boast on the presidential campaign trail: “I cut taxes 23 times” as mayor of New York, he says, a claim inevitably met by applause.

The impressive-sounding stat stars in radio ads this week in New Hampshire and Iowa, where the voiceover asserts that Giuliani “cut or eliminated 23 taxes.”

Trouble is, it’s not really true, say tax-cutting allies of the former mayor, as well as experts at the city’s Independent Budget Office and elsewhere.

A close examination of the tax-slashing claims from a list provided by his campaign show that in at least four cases, the former mayor is seizing credit for cuts initiated by others and, in one case, for a tax reduction he fought.

This revelation might hurt Giuliani’s campaign, but it won’t be fatal. There’s a big demand for authoritarian war mongers among Republican primary voters.