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Sunday, 10 June 2012

Protecting the Flame

Spreading ignorance and fear throughout a population is easy, you just need a mouth that is loud enough. In the past there were soapboxes. One could stand tall and shout far and wide about whatever beliefs, no matter how silly or dangerous, they wished. Nowadays, TV, radio, and the Internet allow these opinions to spread instantly across most demographics. The general population is gullible enough to believe things they see on TV and read on the Internet, especially when these mouthpieces are backed by trusted, superstar celebrities. It's horrifying how simple it is to get people to believe you about anything, but particularly when it's about something they don't understand. Ease of belief is often related to simplicity. The more believable something is (directly linked to how simple the matter is boiled down) the more people will buy it wholesale. Seeing as how 'responsible media' is an oxymoron of epic proportions, we have celebrity crusaders appearing on TV shows like Oprah espousing their radical and dangerous ideas to millions of trusting people.

This brings me to Public Enemy Number One, a dangerous woman in the public eye who is vomiting bullshit that is being lapped up by people worldwide. The woman is Jenny McCarthy, the seemingly innocuous former Playboy bunny and 'actress' who is now using her celebrity to misderect and misinform people about a very serious issue: vaccinations and their 'link' to autism.

Jenny McCarthy has a child with autism, as anyone who has glanced at tabloid magazines or channel flipped through daytime talk shows knows. Parenting a child with autism is incredibly stressful, taxing, and requires 110% of one's time and patience. Relying on government funding is like relying on a cinder block to keep you afloat when you're drowning. For the average parent, their entire life is devoted to doing what's best for their child with autism no matter what. Sure, they can make their voice heard through newspapers and local TV stations, but global attention is something rarely granted to the average. For celebrities, though, things are different. They have a real chance to sink money into and shed light on scientific research. They have a chance to the advance the medical field and make a difference for people all over the world. This gift is a double edged sword, however.

imageWhen Andrew Wakefield published his 1998 paper in the medical journal The Lancet titled Ilial-nymphoid nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children, the ground of the autistic community shook. The paper itself was dense and full of jargon, as most medical research papers are, but there was a take home message that was very easy to understand: vaccinating your children is bad. Specifically, the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) is an agent to cause autism in your children. Yup. Cause autism in your children. Talk about fearmongering. There are thousands of papers published in these academic journals, though. Controversial ones to boot. Perhaps this paper would have been swept under the rug, dismissed as pseudoscientific garbage, if it were not for a high profile mouthpiece attached to it. Enter Ms. McCarthy, a pretty blonde whose face looks great on magazine covers and TV shows, who also has a personal stake in autism research. She chooses to back this pseudoscientific nonsense with as much firepower as she possibly can. The result? In 2008, for the first time in 14 years, mumps was considered an endemic in the UK. In 2011, there were over 200 cases of measles reported, up from the 60-70 average per year. True, before the vaccine was introduced in the 60s, cases numbered in the millions, but this is a startling rise nonetheless. Of the cases in 2011, over 80% were either unvaccinated or the vaccination status was unknown. 13% of these were for children one and under, and unable to receive the vaccination. So what does common sense tell us? Not vaccinating your child not only puts them at risk, but also endangers the lives of children who are still too young to receive the vaccination. These numbers were not found on some crackpot website but the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention. And to boot, autism cases are on the rise. What the fuck?! How could people not see this coming?

In 2010, Andrew Wakefield had his medical license revoked. He is no longer legally allowed to practice medicine in the UK or the US. He is a disgrace, a fraud, and in my opinion, an evil bastard. To this day, he is a figurehead of the antivaccination campaign. Just last month, he and Jenny McCarthy served as keynote speakers at the Autism One conference is Illinois. They focus on conspiracy theories from big pharma and the government and claim to offer 'the truth' about autism and your child. Dozens of other speakers and presenters also claim to have the answer to treating autism, but not without a price. They sell books and expensive equipment (you think hyperbaric oxygen treatment is cheap?), all in the name of science. My question is: how on earth can people put their faith in a disgraced 'doctor' and a celebrity who has zero medical training whatsoever? Easy. They offer an easy to swallow attractive solution with a lot of media traction, while real scientists and researchers are working tirelessly to find real causes and treatment options.

So who is to blame for this enormous fuckup? Are the doctors who published this fraudulent paper who have since been charged with dishonesty and abuse of delvelopmentally disabled children? The celebrity endorsers of this quackery who lend time and money to forward a cause that only causes harm? Or the people, the ignorant masses, who believe every word of these snake-oil salesmen? Yes to the first two, but resoundingly so to the third. This endemic of ignorance and fear would have been snuffed out like a flame in a hurricane had people done some research and made choices for themselves. People need to educate themselves, to look at all sides of the issue with a skeptical eye, before they make such drastic decisions like eschewing vaccinations for their children. It's incredible how far a little common sense will go.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Something Sad This Way Comes

I hate reading news like this. Ray Bradbury, the seminal science-fiction and fantasy writer, has died. Bradbury was always mentioned with sci-fi literary giants like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, but Bradbury often shied away from the sci-fi label, claiming he only wrote one science-fiction book, Fahrenheit 451. The rest of his works were pure fantasy.

Fahrenheit 451 was the first Bradbury book I read, and I would imagine I am not alone in this, as it is often required reading in schools. After devouring it, I picked up The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. The more you read his work, the clearer it becomes why  he eschewed a strict sci-fi label: his books concern the why much more than the how. Why humans want to travel beyond the stars rather than the mechanics behind it. This point-of-view enriches his novels and stories with unabashed humanism, something rather lacking from science-fiction in my opinion (there are exceptions, of course). Anyways, I may as well let the man speak for himself about death:

Death doesn't exist. It never did, it never will. But we've drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we've got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing.

Ray Bradbury   1920-2012

Dusting Off the Rabbit Ears

It is so often the case that you never really know how lucky you are while you are in the midst of something until it is no longer there. Or, as Joni Mitchell far more eloquently put it, don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got til it's gone. Well, I'd hate to apply that lovely, universal maxim to something as trivial as television, but dammit, we are lucky, and I'd like to take some time to wax poetic as to why.

Over the last five years, my interest in TV has been lukewarm to say the least. Reality television shows were seemingly self-replicating to diminishing and increasingly stupid returns, a trend that nowadays seem to only be getting worse (just how many pawn shops and storage lockers need their own damned show anyways?). I have been guilty of indulging in these awful shows in the past, but have since purged my appetite for them and rediscovered some truly great television in the process.

It is unfortunate that movies get more respect than most television shows these days. With a movie, even a great one, you get two, two and a half hours tops to tell an engaging story. Add a sequel, there's five hours. Trilogy? Seven or eight hours. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Trilogy is pretty much where this line of thinking maxes out at about thirteen or fourteen hours. Sure that is a long time to get to know characters, have a conflict, show some interesting settings, trade some dialogue, and wrap it up in a meaningful way, but what if there was more time? Like say sixty, seventy, or even a hundred hours where you could expand your characters and really breathe some life into them. That is precisely what shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad are doing. These long form shows are make even really good movies feel about as deep as a Where's Waldo book. Their characters are given room to really flesh out and exist in a world that actually feels lived in and real.

Mad Men is a great example of just how lived-in a television show can feel. The series begins in 1960, where misogyny and martini lunches were the norm. Women were considered second-class citizens and only filled secretarial positions. African-Americans were elevator operators and live-in nannies. As the show progresses, however, real life events are being documented (the JFK assassination, for example) and societal change is a tidal wave that is sweeping up every single character. Now in its fifth season and comfortably in 1966, women have more power (as evidenced in Peggy being a major copywriter), the civil rights movement is right at the doorstep (literally) and the younger generation is starting to push back at the "establishment" of advertising, thus exposing its sometimes archaic worldview. The best thing is that these events are practically happening in real time. The characters are aging along with the show, as well as the children. In fact, one of the many joys of Mad Men is watching Don Draper;'s daughter Sally start off as a blonde moppet in season one to a teenager with complex needs on the verge of becoming a flower child in season five, all the while being played by the same actress, the very capable Kiernan Shipka. You can't get that kind of verisimilitude from a film.

Speaking of verisimilitude, I don't think there's been a more in depth, realistic, or honest look at the police procedural than that of The Wire. You encounter characters and situations as you would in real life, without backstory or explanation. The pilot episode simply plunks you in the middle of a court case, leaving you to parse out what is going on as events unfold. Needless to say, The Wire is not for those who wish to be spoon-fed important details. For the viewer who puts in the time, however, the rewards are rich. Imagine any episode of Law & Order stretched out to a season's worth of detective work: collecting clues, planning strategies, making busts, fixing mistakes, and a whole lot of the ground-level bureaucracy that goes on in police work. This may sound boring, but on screen it unfolds like a classic novel, full of fascinating details and asides that are woven into a striking arc of five seasons worth of amazing television.

I came late to the Breaking Bad party, admittedly. I'd heard about it from coworkers urging me to watch, but shrugged it off for some awful, ridiculous reason. A year later and I have atoned for my sins, if only I could say the same for Walter White, the, ahem, hero of Breaking Bad. Through four seasons, a mild-mannered, cancer-ridden chemistry teacher has become a blood-spilling Michelangelo of meth. Show creator Vince Gilligan and his team of writers have added such depth, nuance, and tragedy into a show that is essentially about a good man turning into a monster. No small feat.

All of the aforementioned shows have been intense, moody dramas, but quality television does not stop at abortions, methamphetamines, and wire-taps. Comedy greatness is easy to find, which is mind-blowing since it is much more difficult to achieve than dramatic greatness. Louie, the show written, directed, edited and starring Louis C.K., is probably the most daring, original and hilarious show of the last couple of decades.  Eschewing format altogether, C.K. offers skits and scenes revolving around his usual stand-up tropes: sexual inadequacy, failed marriages, how awful children can be. These scenes are Gestaltan in their overall effect, mirroring what most of us so often fail to realize: life can be really fucked-up, but sometimes the best way to deal with a beheaded hobo is to laugh at him.

The next time someone tells you there's nothing good on TV, or that television shows peaked after The Honeymooners, Cheers, or (Lord help me) Two and a Half Men, know that you are most likely speaking to an ignorant moron (likely) or someone whose taste is absolutely dreadful (likelier, sadly) and shuns quality like most people shun root canals. To counter their stupidity, calmly remind them that the golden age of television is now, that most movie blockbusters are insufferably terrible, and that you can show them the way to redemption. After all, it's only a remote click away.