Beware Of Those Politicians Who Spread Fear–We Have No Reason To Fear Ebola As Long As We Respond Sensibly

A mood of fear is engulfing the country which might very well affect the midterm elections. Hopefully people will react rationally and reject the Republicans who promote unwarranted fears, play politics, and advocate for counterproductive responses such as travel bans. Unfortunately but this is not the probable response.

As I discussed last week, even citing a report on Fox, we have no need to fear Ebola as long as proper precautions are taken.

There is no need to panic, or initiate measures which would be counterproductive such as a travel ban at this time. There is no meaningful problem with Ebola in this country and the biology of the virus makes it unlikely we will have a problem in the future. The nature of Ebola makes it a serious problem in countries without a Public Health infrastructure, but not in countries like the United States.

To date we have had exactly one patient with Ebola come into the country beyond medical personnel transported back here. Despite some serious mistakes being made, he did not infect a single person in the general population. The spread was limited to two nurses who cared for him at the most infectious stage, but before this stage the viral load is very low and Ebola is not likely to spread. This is also why, despite people who did come into contact with him having traveled, not a single other person has contracted Ebola.

Ebola is a serious problem in countries without sufficient infrastructure to deal with it, and if we are ever to be at serious risk it would be due to more widespread infection outside of the United States first. Our major focus must be on eradicating Ebola in West Africa, and anything which hinders this will make this more difficult and be counterproductive.

We also must closely track those who have been exposed, and a travel ban would also make this far more difficult. One of the major reasons for Ebola spreading in West Africa is an atmosphere which causes people who have been exposed to hide this until they are very sick and courageous. We must avoid an atmosphere such as this in the United States if we are going to prevent spread here.

We see in Nigeria that Ebola can be beaten, with the country now being free of the disease. Among the measures cited for eradicating Ebola are avoiding fear and keeping the borders open:

Nigeria has not closed its borders to travelers from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, saying the move would be counterproductive. “Closing borders tends to reinforce panic and the notion of helplessness,” Shuaib said. “When you close the legal points of entry, then you potentially drive people to use illegal passages, thus compounding the problem.” Shuaib said that if public health strategies are implemented, outbreaks can be controlled, and that closing borders would only stifle commercial activities in the countries whose economies are already struggling due to Ebola.

Similarly, Republicans are playing on exaggerated fears of terrorism and unfounded claims that the Affordable Care Act will cause increases in premiums when insurance companies are actually reporting plans for lower premium increases than were the norm prior to Obamacare.

SciFi Weekend: Doctor Who; Dr. Cotton’s Bizarre Ideas, Boardwalk Empire & The Knick; DC and Marvel Movie Plans; Twin Peaks; The IT Crowd & Other British Adaptations

DoctorWho Flatline

Flatline managed to provide an episode of Doctor Who which successfully combined elements of both horror and humor. While not a totally original idea, it was something not seen on Doctor Who before, and realistically few television shows manage to come up with ideas which have not been influenced by other works. Think of it as if the residents of Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott were to invade earth, with a touch of The Adams Family thrown in.

Besides the idea of two dimensional beings invading, there was the added component of the TARDIS shrinking when the “structural integrity is compromised.” This did contradict The Name of the Doctor which showed such leaking to cause the TARDIS to swell in size, not shrink. The shrinking of the TARDIS, with the Doctor trapped inside, did enable Clara to take a leading role in this episode. This whole situation was quite difficult for the Doctor: “I mean this is just embarrassing. I’m from the race that built the TARDIS. Dimensions are kind of our thing.”

The Doctor did win out in the end. Ultimately the aliens from the two dimensional world were defeated by their inability to distinguish a two dimensional picture of a door from a real three dimensional door.

With the Doctor separated from the action for most of the episode, Clara took on the role of the Doctor, including taking on a companion, Rigsy, and calling herself the Doctor:

Rigsy: “What are you the doctor of?”
The Doctor: “Of lies.”
Clara: “Well, I’m usually quite vague about that. I think I just picked the title because it makes me sound important.”
The Doctor: “Why, ‘Doctor Oswald,’ you are hilarious.”

Clara did show Rigsy the inside of the shrunken TARDIS leading to the classic comment, “It’s bigger on the inside.” This set up the Doctor’s response:  “I don’t think that statement has ever been more true.”

Doctor Who Flatline1

Clara also showed that she can act like the Doctor, from using the Sonic Screwdriver to using his tactics:

Clara: “I just hope I can keep them all alive.”
The Doctor: “Ha. Welcome to my world. So, what’s next, ‘Doctor Clara’?”
Clara: “Lie to them.”
The Doctor: “What?”
Clara: “‘Lie to them.’ Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine. Isn’t that what you would do?”
The Doctor: “In a manner of speaking. It is true that people with hope tend to run faster, whereas people who think they’re doomed …”
Clara: “Dawdle. End up dead.”
The Doctor: “So, that’s what I sound like?”

Ultimately, when Clara asked if she did a good job, the Doctor did respond, “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it.” We still have the question from the start of the season as to whether the Doctor is a good man, and whether they are doing good.

The most amusing gag of all in the episode was seeing the Doctor’s full sized hand emerge from the tiny TARDIS to walk it away from an oncoming train.  The episode was very light on Danny Pink, but we did have another amusing scene with Clara talking on the phone with Danny, hiding the fact that she was in danger. The previews do show him taking an active part next week, but it still remains unclear whether we will ultimately see a return to two teachers from Coal Hill School being companions aboard the TARDIS as was teased last summer.

The ending scene with Missy took a different turn from her previous scenes, with Missy saying, “Clara, my Clara. I chose well.” It has already been suggested that it was Missy who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number back in The Bells of Saint John, but we still have no idea as to what Missy’s overall plan is. Also uncertain is whether this has any connection to Clara’s role in The Name of the Doctor to become fragmented in time and have a role in each of the Doctor’s regenerations.

The writers this season do seem to be writing as if some of the past events have not taken place, almost starting fresh with Clara and the Peter Capaldi Doctor. Even going back to the season premiere in Deep Breath, the Clara who saw each regeneration in The Name of the Doctor should not have been as surprised by seeing the changes in the Doctor after his regeneration. Perhaps the events of The Time of the Doctor, with the Doctor gaining additional regenerations and not dying on Trenzalore, also mean there was never a giant TARDIS tomb for the Doctor and Clara never was fragmented in time. The Missy story line might wind up providing a completely different version of Clara’s life.

The Doctor Who Extra for Flatline is above.

While both the Doctor and now Clara having claimed to be a doctor without formal qualifications, there are some actual doctors who have done considerable harm despite having true medical degrees. One example, Dr. Henry Cotton, has appeared on cable television shows in the past week both on The Knick (at the start of his career and Boardwalk Empire (near the end). He was a real person. Henry Cotton believed that psychiatric problems were based upon infections and his treatment often began with pulling the teeth of psychiatric patients. If this did not provide a cure, then he would proceed to remove other organs which he believed were the cause of the infection. Needless to say, in an age before antibiotics, such unnecessary surgery could have catastrophic results. At one point during his career Cotton even had a nervous breakdown. He responded by pulling his own teeth, then proclaimed himself to be cured and returned to work.

Knowing the factual basis behind Dr. Cotton’s life leaves me concerned about Gillian Darmody’s fate after she told Dr. Cotton that she felt she was cured. We already saw another woman at the asylum undergo surgery, and Cotton would not be likely to accept Gillian’s assessment that she is cured without surgically removing what he believes to be the site of her infection. Being the final season,  Boardwalk Empire does have the ability to show tragic endings for its characters. This included the deaths of two long time characters last week. While Boardwalk Empire is ending, The Knick just ended its first season and has done an excellent job of showing what medical care was like back in 1900 and the development of new ideas such as transfusions.

News came in last week that a cable series which debut last summer, Manhattan, was renewed. While I have not seen the series, I feel comfortable in recommending this show about the development of the atomic bomb based upon several favorable reviews. (Although I have not seen Manhattan yet, do I get any points for reading Joseph Kanon’s novel, Los Alamos, several years ago?)

Still no news on whether Continuum will be renewed.

Episode 101

I would also recommend another new cable series which I did see the premiere of last weekend, The Affair. The main story involves an affair from the viewpoint of both parties, each telling their version for half the episode. We have narrators who are unreliable at least due to the faults in human memory. There might be additional reason for intentional deceit as we found that the stories are being told as part of a possible criminal investigation years afterwards, similar to in the first season of True Detective. It also reminds me of William Landay’s novel, Saving Jacob, in which there are glimpses of future questioning but we don’t know who the accused is or the crime until the end of the novel.

The creator of The Affair, Sarah Treem, discussed the dual narratives in an interview at The Hollywood Reporter:

With Noah and Alison remembering different accounts of the same stories, the series explores the notion of objective truth. Do you think there’s such a thing?

I think there is such a thing as objective truth. There are events that actually happen. As individuals our understanding of what happens is often quite limited. Sometimes the only way to get at objective truth is to have multiple people tell their own version of the same event. It is the job then of the interrogator, the therapist, the audience member, whomever, to basically try to find the commonality between the accounts in order to figure out what actually happened. That’s basically what we’re trying to do with this show. We’re not saying there’s no such thing as truth — there absolutely is — but we don’t think that one person is usually the arbiter of the truth. We think that it comes forward in conversation. There’s this quote, I think it’s from Hegel, but it’s the idea that all understanding is dialectic, meaning that nothing gets understood unless it’s as a result of a conversation. That’s how I think of the two sides of this show, that it’s a conversation from which the audience gains an understanding.

Will we see the perspectives of other characters besides Alison and Noah?

Not this season but maybe in subsequent seasons, if we get them.

We see a lot of overlapping stories that vary slightly depending on who’s telling them. What’s it like to have to regularly write two versions of the same event?

It’s a really fun exercise for a writer. It’s just about putting yourself in another character’s perspective, seeing the scene through the other character’s eyes. For the scene at the end of the pilot [where Alison and Cole have sex on their car], I was interested in writing a scene that looked like an attack on one side, and then coming back into it knowing more about what was actually happening to where all of the sudden the scene plays as a very different negotiation. Writers are trained at this because you’re always approaching the story through somebody’s eyes so it’s just a great, enjoyable exercise to go back and think, “Well, I wrote it this way the first time and now let me jump into a different character’s body and a different character’s mind and let me try it again and just see what happens.”

super-movies

Both Warner (DC) and the various studies which own the rights to Marvel characters have recently released news on their upcoming movie plans. Comics Alliance has more information and has put together the above infographic.

Here is an ambitious list from Warner Brothers:

  • “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” directed by Zack Snyder (2016)
  • “Suicide Squad,” directed by David Ayer (2016)
  • “Wonder Woman,” starring Gal Gadot (2017)
  • “Justice League Part One,” directed by Zack Snyder, with Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams reprising their roles (2017)
  • “The Flash,” starring Ezra Miller (2018)
  • “Aquaman,” starring Jason Momoa (2018)
  • “Shazam” (2019)
  • “Justice League Part Two,” directed by Zack Snyder (2019)
  • “Cyborg,” starring Ray Fisher (2020)
  • “Green Lantern” (2020)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice producer Charles Roven recently gave an interview with more information on the movie, including the origin story for Wonder Woman which is being used.

Unlike Marvel, DC is keeping their movie and television universes separate. While Gotham will probably need to be kept in a separate world of its own, Green Arrow, The Flash, and next Supergirl are forming their own television universe. Many fans are angry that Stephen Amell and Grant Guston won’t be appearing as Green Arrow and The Flash in the  Justice League movie. While fans would probably prefer such continuity, it does make it easier to wrote both the television shows and the movies if there is not a need for consistency. We saw how Agents of SHIELD was harmed by a need to postpone mention of HYDRA taking over SHIELD until after Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released.

avengers-captain-america-iron-man

Marvel fans are getting more excited by what appears to be planned. While Robert Downey, Jr. has not agreed to do another stand alone Iron Man movie, he may be appearing in Captain America 3, which reportedly involves the two being on opposing sides over the Superhero Registration Act. This could also be the end of Chris Evans as Steve Roberts. of There have also been rumors of Marvel making a deal with Sony, which owns the cinematic rights to Spider-Man, to allow him to appear, which sounds plausible as Spider-Man had a role in this storyline in the comics. Several other Marvel characters are also rumored to be appearing.

Emma-Stone-Cabaret_612x830

Meanwhile Emma Stone, when not playing the role of Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man, will be playing Sally Bowles on Broadway in Caberet.

With Twin Peaks coming back we have twenty-five years to catch up on. Mark Frost is writing a book to fill in this gap. I am looking forward to see what they do with the series and which characters return. I do hope that Audrey Horne returns and has a daughter who can tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue.

The IT Crowd

NBC has commissioned Bill Lawrence (Scrubs) to do a remake of the fantastic British sit-com, The IT Crowd. I have mixed feelings about such attempts to remake UK shows here. NBC’s first attempt at a remake, with cast including Joel McHale, was reportedly a total flop and never aired. NBC also failed in adapting Coupling, another excellent British sit-com written by Steven Moffat.

Fox has  had their own problems in attempting to remake British shows, both with Gracepoint (a remake of Broadchurch) and Us and Them (a remake of Gavin and Stacey).

Republicans Attack Ebola Czar While Blocking Surgeon General Nomination

On the surface, Republicans have been all over the place regarding the idea of a government official to coordinate handling of Ebola. For example, there’s John McCain. Back in 2009 he attacked Obama over having too many czars:

Then McCain demanded an Ebola czar:

“From spending time here in Arizona, my constituents are not comforted,” Senator John McCain (R-AZ) told State of the Union host Candy Crowley Sunday morning. “There has to be more reassurance given to them. I would say that we don’t know exactly who’s in charge. There has to be some kind of czar.”

So Obama appointed an Ebola czar. Ezra Klein explained why Ron Klain is an excellent choice:

Today, the White House will announce that Klain is being named “Ebola czar.” It’s a good choice because it shows a healthy respect for how hard the bureaucratic job of coordinating the Ebola response really is.

The Ebola response involves various arms of the Department of Health and Human Services (particularly, though not solely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the Pentagon, the State Department, the National Security Council, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, President Obama’s office, private stakeholders, and many, many more.

The “czar” position requires someone who knows how these different agencies and institutions work, who’s got the stature to corral their efforts, who knows who to call when something unusual is needed, who can keep the policy straight…

Actual government experience is badly underrated in Washington. Politicians run for office promising that they know how to run businesses, not Senate offices. “Bureaucrat” is often lobbed as an insult. But in processes like this one, government experience really matters. Nominating Klain suggests the White House is thinking about this correctly: as an effort that requires the coordination of already ample resources, where the danger is that the federal government will be too slow in sharing information across agencies and getting the resources where they need to go.

John McCain’s reaction to the appointment of an Ebola czar was to again attack Obama for doing what he recommended:

“Frankly, I don’t think Mr. Klain fits the bill, as a partisan Democrat, certainly not in any effort to address this issue in a bipartisan fashion,” McCain said Friday evening on Fox News.

“He has no experience or knowledge or background in medicine,” he added.

McCain is hardly the only Republican with irrational attacks. For example, Steven Taylor has looked at even more irrational attacks from Mike Huckabee. The only common thread to Republican response appears to be a knee jerk opposition to whatever Obama does.

The duties of an Ebola czar are exactly the bureaucratic skills which Klain has, not being a medial expert. Of course there is a position in government which should have a background in medicine, and work closely with the Ebola czar. That would be the Surgeon General–a nomination which Republicans have blocked as Obama’s nominee has shown concern for gun violence.  Now Democrats are demanding that the Senate vote for approval of the Surgeon General nominee:

More than two dozen House Democrats are calling on the Senate to swiftly approve Vivek Murthy’s nomination to serve as surgeon general to help combat the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in the U.S.

Murthy’s nomination got sidelined after Republicans and vulnerable Senate Democrats voiced reservations about the Harvard Medical School physician’s outspoken views on gun violence and public health. But the House Democrats, in a letter set to be released next week, argue that the Obama administration needs a top official in place to help with the Ebola response.

“The American public would benefit from having a Surgeon General to disseminate information that is desperately needed,” the Democrats wrote. “The Surgeon General can also work to amplify the Center for Disease Control’s actions, reassure the American people, and combat misinformation here at home.”

We have around 30,000 deaths due to guns a year in this country, but Republicans would rather ignore this problem, while playing politics and creating hysteria with a disease which so far has resulted in exactly one death in this country.

Avoiding Panic Regarding Ebola

With some conservatives playing politics with Ebola, it is good to see that Shepard Smith at Fox is being more responsible. See the video above where he explains why there is no reason to panic. Hopefully this will calm down the conservatives who are being incited to panic and see this as reason to vote against Democrats by other conservative voices.

As Shepard Smith explains, there is no outbreak of Ebola in the United States. We had an isolated case of one person with Ebola returning to the United States. Unfortunately, two nurses who cared for him when critically ill contracted the virus. Some mistakes were made. Hopefully what was learned in this case will help reduce the risk of this happening in the future, both in terms of handling patients with Ebola and in monitoring those who care for them. One key point is that Ebola is highly contagious when someone is this critically ill, but it is not contagious before symptoms appear.

Unfortunately far too many people in this country learned epidemiology from The Walking Dead. Some conservatives who otherwise deny evolution are now claiming Ebola could mutate to become an airborne menace–and this is far from the most absurd thing being claimed.

There is no need to panic and initiate bad policy such as a travel ban, which is primarily supported by Republicans.  A travel ban is unlikely to be effective and could have several adverse effects. It could make it harder to treat Ebola at its source. Further spread in West Africa would increase the risk of worldwide spread. Adverse effects on commerce in Africa could make it harder for local governments to deal with the problems. People who came from the region would be harder to track as this would give them motivation to come to the United States by less direct routes and deny possible exposure at borders. Even during the SARS outbreak a decade ago, with a disease which actually is airborne, travel bans were found to be unnecessary and ineffective.

California Study Debunks Claims That Medicaid Expansion Will Increase ER Utilization Long Term And Excessively Increase Costs

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion have often twisted the results of a study in Oregon showing an increase in Emergency Room utilization after their expansion of Medicaid. Subsequent studies have debunked claims that Medicaid patients are abusing Emergency Rooms and studies of the Medicaid expansion in Ohio showed that better management of the Medicaid patients can lead to better control of chronic disease while limiting Emergency Room use. A new analysis from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research released Wednesday also specifically debunks claims made based upon the Oregon study, showing that the increase in Medicaid utilization is short-lived. From Kaiser Health News:

While the Medicaid expansion may lead to a dramatic rise in emergency room use and hospitalizations for previously uninsured people, that increase is largely temporary and should not lead to a dramatic impact on state budgets, according to an analysis from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research released Wednesday.

Researchers reviewed two years of claims data from nearly 200,000 Californians, including a group  who had enrolled in public programs well in advance of the expansion of Medi-Cal,the state’s version of Medicaid, in January. These programs were designed to ease the expansion of Medicaid by providing insurance to low-income adults who were not eligible for Medi-Cal at that point but would be when the health law’s expansion went into effect earlier this year. The researchers  divided the group into four categories, based on the researchers’ assessment of each group’s pent-up demand for health care.

In July 2011, after being enrolled in California’s Low Income Health Program, the so-called “bridge to reform,” the group with the highest pent-up demand had a rate of costly emergency room visits triple — or more — that of the other groups. But from 2011 to 2013, that high rate dropped by more than two-thirds and has remained “relatively constant,” according to the analysis.

“We were hoping that this would be the case,” said lead author Jerry Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, “because we think that that’s what access to care does for low-income individuals … that there’s an additional increase in demand for services and that that demand, or utilization, drops off pretty rapidly.”

Rates of hospitalization for the “highest pent-up demand” group also started high and dropped by almost 80 percent over the two-year period. Curiously, if ER and hospitalization rates were dropping, it’s reasonable that outpatient visits might rise. But that wasn’t the case; the rate of outpatient visits was largely unchanged during the two-year period.

Kominski said that one of the fears of the Medicaid expansion was the potential high cost of low-income patients. He argued that this analysis should ease those fears: “What our findings say to the country is (that) concerns about Medicaid expansion being financially unsustainable into the future are unfounded.” Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government provides 100 percent of the cost of the newly eligible under the Medicaid expansion, but in 2017 that contribution will phase down until it reaches 90 percent in 2020.

As was the case in Ohio, a key factor in keeping costs down was better coordination of patient care:

One factor in helping drive down the higher rates of use, Kominski said, is better efforts at coordination for Medi-Cal beneficiaries. For example, virtually all Medi-Cal beneficiaries are now enrolled into a Medi-Cal managed care plan. “To the extent that other states don’t have adequate coordinated care mechanisms in place for their Medicaid populations, then the kinds of drop off that we observed in California may not occur there,” Kominski said.

Media Lets Republicans Get Away With Absurd Statements On Obamacare & Other Issues

Republicans have been successful at “playing the refs” with false claims of liberal bias, helping them get away with spreading their misinformation. Liberal blogs and magazines, have commented a lot on Mitch McConnell’s absurd statement in support of the popular and successful Kynect exchange site while attacking Obamacare, which makes Kynect possible. Fact checkers have debunked this claim months ago. However the mainstream media is paying little attention to this–considerably less than the far less significant refusal of Alison Lundergan Grimes to say who she voted for.

Brian Buetler thinks that the media is largely giving McConnell a pass on this due to failing to understand this, and not really liking to discuss policy. He explained, as so many have in the past, why McConnell is both wrong and dishonest:

During the debate, McConnell said he’d be “fine” with it if Kentucky decided to hold on to Kynect if and when Republicans repeal Obamacare. The subtext of Holmes’s tweet is that Kynect would simply become a hub for the kinds of plans that existed in Kentucky before Obamacare. After all, it’s true there was an insurance market (a non-group market) before there was Obamacare. It could follow that McConnell’s proposition is perfectly reasonable.

But there were also websites before there was Kynect. One of those websites is a Kynect-like exchange called ehealthinsurance.com. Yet somehow, before Obamacare and Kynect came along, it wasn’t processing half a million Kentuckyians a year. The uninsurance rate in Kentucky was extremely high and showed no signs of falling on its own.

That’s because prior to Obamacare, the non-group market was dysfunctional. It excluded and priced out the sick and poor. It offered decent plans to young people who posed minimal health risks, but also sold junk policies that left people who believed they were doing the responsible thing exposed to medical bankruptcy.

It took Obamacare (and, thus, Kynect) to transform that market into something that proved inviting to half of Kentucky’s uninsured population almost overnight. Take away Obamacare, and Kynect might still exist as a website. But it’d be about as useful to Kentuckians as ehealthinsurance was prior to last year. Not totally useless, perhaps, but dramatically diminished and completely superfluous.

You need to know all this if, as a political reporter, you’re going to dismiss the McConnell camp’s spin and call him out as clearly as you (presumably) called out Grimes. Likewise, when McConnell implies that Kentucky could simply replicate the ACA’s private insurance expansion and its Medicaid expansion, you need to know that Kentucky probably couldn’tand certainly wouldn’tever do it on its own. McConnell is suggesting that Kentuckians replace a valuable, paid-for federal benefit with one that would impose steep new burdens on the people of the state alone, knowing it’ll never happen.

Once you grasp it all, then it becomes obvious why McConnell’s contradiction is theoretically so dangerous. He isn’t just painting a shiny gloss on a controversial position. He’s exploiting the public’s confusion over it, playing voters for fools by peddling absurdities. Something that can come to define a campaign just as easily as Grimes’ political cowardice might ultimately come to define hers.

This isn’t the only dishonest statement to come from Republicans in recent debates. Tom Cotton, Republican Senate candidate in Arkansas, made an absurd claim that people with pre-existing conditions were better off before the Affordable Care Act. I happened to listen to the debate in Virginia on C-Span, hearing Ed Gillespie make multiple false claims, such as repeating the Republican lie that Medicare is being cut to pay for Obamacare.

Part of the problem is that many in the media sees their job as “objectively” reporting what each side says, regardless of whether one side is saying far more absurd things. The conventional wisdom this year is that Republicans are doing better because there have not been statements such as Todd Akin talking about “legitimate rape,” but in reality Republicans continue to say many totally off the wall things which are being ignored by the media. Paul Waldman discussed absurd statements which Republicans are getting away with this election cycle and concluded:

…in the last few years, there’s a baseline of crazy from the right that the press has simply come to expect and accept, so the latest conspiracy theorizing or far-out idea from a candidate no longer strikes them as exceptional. Sure, there are exceptions: For instance, Republicans Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell both saw their candidacies derailed by their crazy or outsized statements. But their utterances were truly, deeply bizarre or comical, so they broke through.

But during this cycle, Republican crazy just hasn’t broken through at all. It’s almost as if the national press has just come to accept as normal the degree to which the GOP has moved dramatically to the right. At this point so many prominent Republicans have said insane things that after a while they go by with barely a notice. This is an era when a prominent Republican governor who wants to be president can muse about the possibility that his state might secede from the union, when the most popular radio host in the country suggests that liberals like Barack Obama want Ebola to come to America to punish us for slavery, and when the President of the United States had to show his birth certificate to prove that he isn’t a foreigner.

So ideological extremism and insane conspiracy theories from the right have been normalized. Which means that when another Republican candidate says something deranged, as long as it doesn’t offend a key swing constituency, reporters don’t think it’s disqualifying. And so it isn’t.

Defending Abortion Rights

The current podcast in the playlist on my phone is an interview with Katha Politt on the Diane Rehm Show from last week. While I have only heard half of it so far, the author has made many good points regarding attitudes towards defending abortion rights, some of which are reflected in my recent post on the culture war. Pollitt defends abortion rights on principle, as opposed to taking a halfhearted position of approving of legalization while still acting like abortion is something shameful, while debunking the conservative framing on the issue. I anticipate hearing more good points in the remainder of the podcast and from reading her book.

I decided to mention this now, before concluding the podcast, as I just noticed that Hanna Rosin has an interview up at Slate reviewing her book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. While I have not read the book, the review does give a good feel for the points I have heard so far in the interview and presumably reflects her book. The review begins:

I had an abortion. I was not in a libertine college-girl phase, although frankly it’s none of your business. I was already a mother of two, which puts me in the majority of American women who have abortions. Six out of 10 are mothers, which makes sense, because a mother could not fool herself into believing that having another baby was no big deal.

I start the story this way because Katha Pollitt, author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, would want it this way. In fact any woman who’s reading this piece and has had an abortion, or any man who has supported one, should go in the comments section and do the same thing, until there are so many accounts that the statement loses its shock value. Because frankly, in 2014, it should be no big deal that in a movie a young woman has an abortion and it’s no big deal. We shouldn’t need a book explaining why abortion rights are important. We should be over that by now.

The reason we’re not, according to Pollitt, is that we have all essentially been brainwashed by a small minority of pro-life activists. Only 7 to 20 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want to totally ban abortion, but that loud minority has beaten the rest of us into submission with their fetus posters and their absolutism and their infiltration of American politics. They have landed us in the era of the “awfulization” of abortion, Pollitt writes, where even pro-choicers are “falling all over themselves” to use words like “thorny,” “vexed,” “complex,” and “difficult” instead of doing what they should be doing, which is saying out loud that abortion is a positive social good.

Pollitt aims her book at the “muddled middle” who have been infected by the awfulization without thinking about it that much. To win them back she’s crafted a lengthy Socratic response dissecting the contradictions on the pro-life side. If you know Pollitt’s writing at all, it’s no surprise what she believes. But by the end of the book, it’s a surprise to realize that while the fight over abortion has been going on for more than 40 years, we’ve all forgotten what’s at stake. The left especially has lost sight of its original animating purpose.

Later in the review:

Pollitt spends significant energy dissecting the pro-life side’s contradictions. This largely involves explaining how the concept of personhood, when applied to a fetus, makes very little sense. She cites one poll for example showing that 38 percent of people say abortion is as “bad as killing a person already born.” But in the same poll 84 percent say it’s fine to save the life of a mother. If you really think about it, this position is untenable. No one would say it was fine to kill a toddler if the mother needed its heart. The pro-life position, she concludes, involves a reflexive moralism but doesn’t really reflect what people know to be true, which is that the fetus and the mother have a complicated relationship, unlike any other.

More at The American Prospect, Cosmopolitan, and  Elle.

I know it might not necessarily be right to recommend a book based upon listening to half a podcast and only reading the reviews of others, but this book certainly does appear worth reading. I just placed my order for a copy.

Update: In related news, the Supreme Court has blocked portions of the restrictive anti-abortion law in Texas.

Is The Culture War Really Over?

Bill Scher has an article at Politico on How Republicans Lost The Culture War. While it might be premature to say they lost and the war is over, a subject I’ll get into later, he does have some good points as to what went wrong for the Republicans.

Scher makes three main points. First, Republicans stopped being savvy on abortion. Rather than taking the purist position which they actually favor, legislatively the Republicans had concentrated on more narrow victories. Although late term abortions are rare, they made a lot of noise about “partial-birth abortions.”

While Scher sees this as no longer being savvy, I think that the change in Republican tactics was inevitable. They were never satisfied with stopping the rare late term abortions and were bound to ultimately push for what they really want–a complete ban on abortions.

They might have been more open in pursuing this partially due to a misreading of the polls which show Americans to be more ambivalent on Row v. Wade. The problems is that many people in this country don’t really know what Roe v. Wade means, but that doesn’t stop them from saying yes or no to a pollster. However, when the real question is posed, Americans do not want to make abortion illegal, and a majority agrees that women should  have the right to first trimester abortions.  Americans do not want to ban abortions, and imprison either women or the doctors involved.

Misreading the polls might have been a problem for Republicans, and this was compounded by moderate Republicans being forced from the party. The far right wing ideologues who now dominate the GOP would push for their position regardless of how unpopular, just as they push for restrictions on birth control, the second item on Scher’s list–Republicans got weird about birth control. If Americans would not go for Republican opposition to legalized first trimester pregnancies, they certainly did not accept their opposition to forms of birth control which prevent implantation, along with wider attempts to reduce access to contraception.

Hysterical Republican cries of “baby killers” are even more absurd when applied to a fertilized egg which lacks a central nervous system and consciousness. The Republican position here makes no more sense scientifically than Republican attitudes which deny science regarding evolution and climate change.  This also helps debunk the false Republican frame of making the pertinent question be when life begins. Certainly a fertilized egg is alive, but it also is not deserving of rights which trump the rights of a woman to control her own body. The Republican attitude on contraception only acted to expose their fallacious views regarding abortion, not to mention destroy any false claims they might make for being the supporters of limited government and greater freedom. This seems especially absurd to thinking people as providing easier access to contraception is one obvious way to reduce the number of abortions.

His final point is that Republicans bet wrong on gay marriage. Attitudes in this country certainly have changed rapidly. As James Joyner put it, “As we’ve become more educated, appeal to tradition and cries of “We’ve always done it this way!” are simply less persuasive. Ultimately, the arguments for excluding people from marrying others of the same sex were revealed to be provincial at best and simple bigotry at worst.”

However, while liberal Democratic voters might have supported legalization of same-sex marriage, many Democratic leaders were also behind the country on this one. Still, it is Republicans who made a major issue of trying to again intervene in the private lives of individuals, while Democratic leaders were at least ready to get out of the way as the country changed. While Republican have lost on this issue, Democrats also lost the opportunity to win respect by clearly standing for liberal principles before becoming politically safe.

While the country has been becoming more liberal on social issues, and I see this as a gradual process, not a sudden victory, this does not necessarily mean the culture wars are over. This country still consists of those of us who live in the modern world, and a sizable number who continue to reject science and reason and follow conservative ideas.

Fortunately such ideas are diminishing as fewer young support such conservative attitudes, but they are not disappearing entirely. Young people are far more likely to be influenced by the fake news of Jon Stewart than the fake news coming from Fox. Republicans now will have a hard time winning a presidential election if they do not change their views, but with a two party system we cannot exclude the possibility of another conservative Republican president. Democrats have a significant edge in the electoral college, but not a lock.

The presidency is only one branch of government. The Republicans still have the Supreme Court, although they have decided it best to stay out of the marriage issue now that conservatives are clearly on the wrong side of history. Republicans will continue to have an influence in Congress due to structural issues which keep it from being a truly representative democratic institution. Republicans have a tremendous edge in the Senate as the small states receive the same two Senators as the much more populous blue states. The framers of the Constitution never envisioned such a vast difference in population between the large and small states.

Part of the Republican edge in the House comes from gerrymandering, but even without gerrymandering the Republicans benefit from the concentration of Democratic voters in cities, unless districts are made to account for this. Republicans also benefit from a higher turn out by their voters in midterm elections, and they attempt to increase this edge with laws directed towards making it more difficult for minorities and young college students to vote. The right to vote itself might be the next big division between the parties as Republicans continue to pursue voter suppression as a tactic.

Republicans also dominate in a significant portion of the country, primarily but not limited to the deep south. The culture war is bound to continue there, with Republican candidates also seeking to promote their views elsewhere. As Eleanor Clift wrote, the Republican War on Women continues, just more quietly. We might not be hearing comments such as Tod Akin on women’s bodies shutting down in case of legitimate rape, but  have heard plenty of other outrageous statements this year.  Republicans might be trying to be more quiet on social issues, but they are failing, and this certainly isn’t coinciding with a change in their views.  It is also hard to say that the culture war is entirely over when Republicans have been successful in multiple state legislatures to make abortion more difficult, even if the most draconian Republican proposals have failed.

The Highly Successful Presidency Of Barack Obama

Paul Krugman has been defending Barack Obama much more recently, such as in a recent article in Rolling Stone and on ABC’s This Week. Krugman’s views on Obama have evolved over the years. I think that early on he was critical of Obama based upon disagreements on policy matters. Two things have altered how he discusses Obama. First there are all the off the wall attacks on Obama from both the right and many mainstream commentators. Secondly, he is doing a better job of separating differences of opinion with a more centrist president from outright condemnation where he disagrees. This includes both recognition of Obama’s actual accomplishments and realization that wherever he disagrees with Obama, the Republicans would be far, far worse.

In Rolling Stone, Krugman looked at the various types of attacks on Obama:

All Obama-bashing can be divided into three types. One, a constant of his time in office, is the onslaught from the right, which has never stopped portraying him as an Islamic atheist Marxist Kenyan. Nothing has changed on that front, and nothing will.

There’s a different story on the left, where you now find a significant number of critics decrying Obama as, to quote Cornel West, someone who ”posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit.” They’re outraged that Wall Street hasn’t been punished, that income inequality remains so high, that ”neoliberal” economic policies are still in place. All of this seems to rest on the belief that if only Obama had put his eloquence behind a radical economic agenda, he could somehow have gotten that agenda past all the political barriers that have con- strained even his much more modest efforts. It’s hard to take such claims seriously.

Finally, there’s the constant belittling of Obama from mainstream pundits and talking heads. Turn on cable news (although I wouldn’t advise it) and you’ll hear endless talk about a rudderless, stalled administration, maybe even about a failed presidency. Such talk is often buttressed by polls showing that Obama does, indeed, have an approval rating that is very low by historical standards.

But this bashing is misguided even in its own terms – and in any case, it’s focused on the wrong thing.

There’s a different story on the left, where you now find a significant number of critics decrying Obama as, to quote Cornel West, someone who ”posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit.” They’re outraged that Wall Street hasn’t been punished, that income inequality remains so high, that ”neoliberal” economic policies are still in place. All of this seems to rest on the belief that if only Obama had put his eloquence behind a radical economic agenda, he could somehow have gotten that agenda past all the political barriers that have con- strained even his much more modest efforts. It’s hard to take such claims seriously.

Finally, there’s the constant belittling of Obama from mainstream pundits and talking heads. Turn on cable news (although I wouldn’t advise it) and you’ll hear endless talk about a rudderless, stalled administration, maybe even about a failed presidency. Such talk is often buttressed by polls showing that Obama does, indeed, have an approval rating that is very low by historical standards.

But this bashing is misguided even in its own terms – and in any case, it’s focused on the wrong thing.

Yes, Obama has a low approval rating compared with earlier presidents. But there are a number of reasons to believe that presidential approval doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to: There is much more party-sorting (in which Republicans never, ever have a good word for a Democratic president, and vice versa), the public is negative on politicians in general, and so on. Obviously the midterm election hasn’t happened yet, but in a year when Republicans have a huge structural advantage – Democrats are defending a disproportionate number of Senate seats in deep-red states – most analyses suggest that control of the Senate is in doubt, with Democrats doing considerably better than they were supposed to. This isn’t what you’d expect to see if a failing president were dragging his party down.

More important, however, polls – or even elections – are not the measure of a president. High office shouldn’t be about putting points on the electoral scoreboard, it should be about changing the country for the better. Has Obama done that? Do his achievements look likely to endure? The answer to both questions is yes.

From there, Krugman looked at Obama’s achievements on health care, financial reform, the economy, the environment, national security, and social change. As Obama has so many favorable accomplishments, I would suggest seeing the original article rather than trying to list them all here. He then concluded:

Am I damning with faint praise? Not at all. This is what a successful presidency looks like. No president gets to do everything his supporters expected him to. FDR left behind a reformed nation, but one in which the wealthy retained a lot of power and privilege. On the other side, for all his anti-government rhetoric, Reagan left the core institutions of the New Deal and the Great Society in place. I don’t care about the fact that Obama hasn’t lived up to the golden dreams of 2008, and I care even less about his approval rating. I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot. That is, as Joe Biden didn’t quite say, a big deal.

Andrew Sullivan cited Krugman’s article and added:

Just a year ago, I had a conversation with a friend as the healthcare website was crashing. All that mattered, we agreed, was if, this time next year, the healthcare reform is working and the economy is doing better. Well, both those things have happened – Obamacare is actually a big success so far; the growth and unemployment rates are the envy of much of the Western world – and yet we are now told that he’s a failure. WTF? The architects of the Iraq War – like, yes, Clinton and McCain – somehow believe they have a better grasp of foreign affairs in the twenty-first century than he does. And the party that bankrupted this country in eight short years now has the gall to ignore the fastest reduction in the deficit ever, and a slow-down in healthcare costs that may well be the most important fiscal achievement of a generation.

Add to this two massive social shifts that Obama has coaxed, helped or gotten out the way: marriage equality and the legalization of cannabis. These are not minor cultural shifts. They are sane reforms, change we can absolutely believe in and have accomplished on his watch. Jihadist terrorism? It has murdered an infinitesimal number of Americans in the past six years, compared with almost any other threat. Yes, Americans are still capable of PTSD-driven panic and hysteria over it, and Obama has failed to counter that more aggressively, but to be where we are in 2014 is something few expected after 9/11.

The idea that he has “lost Iraq” is preposterous. We “lost” Iraq the minute we unseated the Sunnis, disbanded the Baathist army and unleashed the dogs of sectarian warfare.

The only sane response to continuing unrest there is to cut our losses, act as an off-shore balancing power, and protect ourselves. And one reason we have this capability is that Obama managed to pivot nimbly last fall to ensure the destruction of Assad’s WMDs. The Panettas and McCains and usual suspects still seem to believe that it would have been better to have bombed Assad, let him keep his WMDs, and … what exactly? Can you imagine ISIS with its hands on those weapons in a failed state with a deposed leader? Think Libya today with poison gas. Who prevented this? Obama. And he is still pilloried for it.

SciFi Weekend: The Flash; Arrow; Gotham; Sleepy Hollow; Agents of SHIELD; Person of Interest; Doctor Who; Selfie; 12 Monkeys; Renewed Shows; Utopia; Gracechurch; Red States & Pornography

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 The Flash was off to an excellent start last week. It looks like it will be a lighter version of Arrow but has started to set up an interesting back story. There’s the death of Barry’s mother in the past and the episode ended with a look into the future which raises the question if they plan their own version of the Crisis on Infinite Earths. We don’t know for certain that the future will play out as suggested:

“Time travel is going to play a big part in the overall series, but one of the things that we will discover is that time is mutable,” executive producer Andrew Kreisberg says. “As the good Doctor says, time can be rewritten, so not everything you see on the show is necessarily what’s going to come to pass and not necessarily everything that’s happened is fixed.” In other words, that newspaper’s headline could change.

Presumably their version will not include the death of Barry Allen. The final scene also revealed that Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) can walk, contrary to what was previously suggested. Is his name supposed to bring H.G. Wells and time travel to mind? With Tom Cavanagh’s character able to walk, this also leaves open the possibility of returning to his bowling alley (Ed).

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Returning genre shows such as Arrow, Sleepy Hollow, Agents of SHIELD, and Person of Interest have all returned to strong starts. Arrow returned with a very brief romance between Oliver and Felicity along with  (major spoiler ahead)  an unexpected death, which I bet will ultimately lead to Laurel taking over as Black Canary. Thanks to flashbacks, this won’t be the last we see of Sara. The episode also introduced Ray Palmer, who has now taken control of Queen Consolidated. While Gotham has premiered, Arrow remains by far the best television adaption of Batman ever aired.

While still early, Gotham does look  promising. It essentially feels like a comic book world without the superhero. Jim Gordon serves as the superhero, even if lacking either superpowers of the special abilities of characters such as Batman or Green Arrow. In a city where virtually everyone else appears corrupt, just fighting for justice and being the rare good guy is enough. Hopefully the can continue to work in a storyline with young Bruce Wayne without it appearing too contrived.

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What makes Sleepy Hollow so much fun is how theye can have both a conspiracy linking Judas, Benedict Arnold, and events in the current episode, mixed with such humorous scenes as last week with Ichabod learning about how our banks work and getting confused about men wearing hats indoors (but not gays).

Ichabod : Is that considered acceptable now?
Abbie : Oh, lots of attitudes have changed since your days, not everyone’s but supreme court has upheld the constitutional right of same sex couples, and more and more states are even legalizing gay marriage
Ichabod : I meant gentleman wearing hats indoors, I know about homosexuals thank you, I trained under Baron von Steuben. His affections for his own sex were well known. Also, I watches the finale of Glee.

Even when in the midst of the big conspiracy they still don’t take things too seriously, such as with Nick Hawley not getting too worried about the apocalypse they were trying to prevent. After all, every civilization has their own apocalypse story.

Last week had another strong episode of Agents of SHIELD with a new role for Simmons. They are making far better use of both Fitz and Simmons than last year. Presumably the real Simmons, as opposed to the one in Fitz’s head, will appear intermittently while undercover at HYDRA. It would probably appear too contrived if they run into her every episode.

Person of Interest is also off to a great start after a semi-reboot, placing the major characters in new situations. I am hoping they do more with the big issues of surveillance and artificial intelligence as the season progresses, rather than number of the week shows.  There is the danger that the reboot won’t matter as they have quickly made things similar to before with the establishment of a means to communicate, a new base, and a new source of money.

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Steven Moffat had a line in The Big Bang with a call about an escaped Egyptian goddess on the Orient Express in space. With the substitution of a mummy for the Egyptian goddess, this premise turned into this week’s episode of Doctor Who, Mummy On The Orient Express. Perhaps some of the plot holes and unanswered questions from Moffat’s stories will ultimately be answered if we wait long enough.

We don’t know who Gus, who masterminded the situation, really is, but perhaps this will be answered at a later date. I also wonder if there is more to Perkins, and if he will be seen again. I am also curious as to whether this episode was planned at the time of The Big Bang. I suspect that it might have just been an idea in Moffat’s mind, which he later altered because he could not resist the line, “Are you my Mummy?”

The episode also included themes from previous episodes, including jelly bellies and the Doctor talking to his previous regenerations. In keeping with themes from this season, the mummy was a soldier. There was progression in the Capaldi Doctor’s attitude. He still had no qualms about watching people he considered to already be doomed die in order to gain information, (“Old ladies die all the time.It’s practically in their job description.”). However, he also substituted himself for a potential victim. In the end, he used the TARDIS to save everyone.

The Clara storyline was handled in a strange manner. Last week it looked like she was done with the Doctor, leading to speculation that this might have been done to set up a solo adventure. Instead Clara was present, yet they teased that this might be their last trip together. If Clara was planning to leave the Doctor, why did she go with him on the Orient Express? After so much teasing that she would no longer travel with the Doctor, she changed her mind quite quickly at the end. I also continue to wonder what type of cell service the Doctor and his companions have which allows them to communicate not only with each other regardless of where they are, but back with earth in the present. Personally I can lose cell service if I wander too far from the cell extender I found necessary to purchase to set up a cellular hot spot in my own house.

The Doctor Who Extra is below:

I had mixed opinions from the pilot of Selfie but obviously I was going to give any show staring Karen Gillian and John Cho a second chance. I’m glad I did as the second episode was much better. Pilots can be a poor way to judge a series as the pilot has the burden of setting up the situations. In addition, changes for the better are sometimes made in shows between the time a pilot is shot and the show goes into regular production.

While there are some excellent genre shows in the fall, summer was weaker on broadcast television. CBS has shown a commitment to mediocre summer science fiction, renewing both Under the Dome and Extant.

Still no word from Showcase regarding Continuum.

ABC has given a full season pick up to two of their better new shows of the season, How to Get Away With Murder and Blackish.

12Monkeys

IO9 reports that Syfy’s television version of 12 Monkeys, which begins in January, will be different from the movie, taking the aspects they like and changing others, like their previous reboot of Battlestar Galactica. It sounds like it might be an intelligent time travel series based upon their review of the pilot:

What the pilot really proved was that this is a show not afraid of the complications of time travel. It does not slow down and explain to the audience its fractured timeline, save for a few title cards in the beginning. Ivanek gives a speech at the end of the episode that wholly relies on the audience being quicker on the uptake about time travel tropes than the characters.

The pilot also builds in a lot of space in the characters’ backstories to fill in later. And you actually want to know about them. you want to know how Stanford got to be in a position where he was picked for his mission. You wonder endlessly about how Railly can get from where we meet her to where she ends up. There’s more than enough to carry more episodes.

An old CBS science fiction series us returning. Legendary TV is working on a rebooted series of Lost in Space. Hopefully they can improve upon the original with the reboot as Battlestar Galactica did.

Utopia Jessica Hyde

Channel 4 has canceled Utopia after its second season, which was one of the better genre shows over the past summer. HBO is planning a remake with David Fincher directing. He is again working with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), who has written the scripts for the new series. While I often question making US remakes of recently aired British shows, such as with Broadchurch,I am curious to see Flynn’s take on this story.

As a consequence of lacking the time for all the genre and quality television shows now on (a welcome problem and change from the past), I have not watched Gracepoint, having already seen Broadchurch. For the benefit of others in this situation who are debating whether to watch, I have found that most reviewers are saying that the early episodes of Gracepoint are very similar to Broadchurch, and where they differed Broadchurch did it much better. Both version star David Tennant. Reviewers are also saying Gracepoint begins to diverge from Broadchurch in the seventh episode. The producers have teased that the ending might be different, so at this point the reviewers I have read (who have not seen beyond this point) do not know how significant the difference from the seventh episode will be.

And, finally, yet another study shows that people in red states are more likely to search for porn:

A new study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, produced by researchers from Canadian Universities, found American states that identify as more religious and conservative are also more apt to search for sex online. Of course, the study makes a point of separating the religiously conservative from the politically conservative. The latter is more likely to look for sex specific terms, such as “gay sex, free porn and xxx,” whereas those that consider themselves religious were looking for generalized sex terms that could’ve theoretically fallen under the “health and wellness” category.

In heavily religious states, abstinence is often pushed as the only safe sex, with very little to offer in the way of sexual education. Unfortunately, that leaves a growing number of people with questions about sex but no answers. Enter Google: the best way to find an answer to personal, possibly embarrassing questions without calling attention to yourself. So of course the study finds that religious communities have a higher percentage of sex-related searches. That’s what happens when you can’t find it elsewhere.