Vaccinations, Xers, & Playing with Nature

This story is but one of the latest about the consequences of distrust and misinformation regarding vaccinations. From Jenny McCarthy’s antics (joining the table on The View this fall) to liberal Washington’s whooping cough to a conservative Texas Megachurch’s rampant measles there is a common thread I’ve noticed: the ratcheting-up of anti-vaccine believers has mostly come out of Generation X.

Of course, you could argue this is because currently most American parents are Xers. Yet, I think that there is more to it than that. Anti-vaccination hysteria has found such fertile ground on the those born 1962-1981. Because this generation has not experienced, say, polio or German measles the insidious “playing with nature” trope seeps in, attached to typical Xer individualism.

The polio vaccine was announced to the world by Dr Jonas Salk on April 12, 1955

The polio vaccine was announced to the world by Dr Jonas Salk on April 12, 1955

What’s interesting to me, and a little amusing, is that anti-vaccination advocates seem to emerge out of the political Left and the Right. Washington State is a pretty solidly blue these days, and has one of the lowest church attendance rates in the nation, yet there was recently the biggest Whooping Cough outbreak in 70 years due to the relative ease of “opting out” on public school mandatory vaccinations. Some of these parents were conservative home-schoolers, but many more were left-leaning hippie types who shun vaccinations. Often it is due to complex conspiracy theories, but often it is just that vague distrust of modern science and an even vaguer sense that everything was better “naturally” until Western Medicine came along to muck it up.  Here’s where it gets really interesting: you will have an ultra-progressive Liberal be vehemently against genetically modified food (“it’s playing with nature!”) yet simultaneously are fierce advocates for stem cell research and embryonic research.  Like with vaccines, opposition to public fluoridation of the water often comes via a strange alliance of right-leaning, government-conspiracy prone Libertarians and ultra-Lefties fearful of “playing with nature”.

I have a feeling ABC probably has something in Jenny McCarthy’s contract to limit (or prohibit) her from using The View to espouse her vaccination misinformation. If not? For one of their first guests I would like to nominate Bangor, Maine resident Dennis Stubbs.

Who still refers to Reagan Democrats in 2013? Pat Buchanan, that’s who!

Ordinarily I don’t use this space to link to other articles of note (I’d be at a dozen or more links a day at least) but since I did start this project with one of those links praising (sort of) Pat Buchanan I thought I would put this piece here.

A young Pat Buchanan, advisor to the 1968 Nixon campaign.

A young Pat Buchanan, advisor to the 1968 Nixon campaign.

I don’t care for the strong scent of Know-Nothingism that seems to always hover around Buchanan’s writing. However, I do think it is interesting to point out how one of the very inventors of the “Reagan Democrats” in the 1970s seems more or less agreeing with my thesis that for the lower white working class the very recession that helped pushed them to vote Republican (Reagan) in 1980 never really went away.

I have recently taken a new position at the University of Washington and the challenges of being the new guy are really keeping me on my toes! I’m hoping by the time Fall Quarter begins I will be able spend more time writing here again. It’s been the one thing missing from a great summer!

It's not been ALL work for me this summer.  Mt Rainier on July 5th.

It’s not been ALL work for me this summer. Mt Rainier on July 5th.


Soaps & Silents

Last week I was surprised by the amount of mainstream entertainment press given to the death of actress Jeanne Cooper. She played the role of Katherine Chancellor on the CBS daytime drama The Young & the Restless for nearly all of the show’s 40 year (and counting) run. The coverage mainly was referring to the 84-year-old as the show’s matriarch. For some reason that moniker didn’t sit well with me: Grande Dame? Yes. Longtime veteran? Sure. Reigning Diva? Okay. Something about “matriarch” doesn’t seem like the right fit for the feisty, sometimes spiteful and petty, on-again/off-again alcoholic Kay Chancellor.  Then last night while watching my other favorite–Mad Men–I realized why. Unlike other older soap veterans that have passed away over the last decade or so Jeanne Cooper/Kay Chancellor wasn’t part of the older, homemaker, matriarchal figures my cohort remember as the grandmothers when we were watching soaps in the 1980s. Jeanne Cooper/Kay Chancellor was Silent Generation through and through: that oft-ignored generation squeezed in between the bigger, louder Greatest Generation (WWII) and the Baby Boomers.

Let me back up a minute and talk about my relationship with The Young & the Restless, a daytime program roughly the same Kayage as me: a “new soap” of the 1970s created by Bill Bell (as opposed to the earlier generation of soaps–General Hospital, Guiding Light–those that span as far back as the era of the fifteen-minute episode or even radio).  Like most soap opera fans, closeted or not, my introduction to the genre was watching episodes with my grandmother one summer in the late 1980s. This is an often-discussed element to this medium: it is usually passed on to someone in childhood or adolescence.  I’ve yet to meet someone who decides to just take up a new daytime soap opera at age 35. If you ever watch one it’s going to be that very one you remember being introduced to by your mother, grandmother, or babysitter one summer years and years ago. Home from work sick? If you are going to tune into a soap it’ll be the one passed onto you like a family heirloom.

Anyway, my tastes soon diverged but then a couple years later as a teenager working a summer job with a daycare center I realized all the African-American women I worked with watched Y&R! Jumping back in, I was able to share in the workplace gossip revolving around Cricket, Victor, Paul, Drucilla, Jill and (of course) Kay Chancellor! Throughout university I could pop in now and then depending on my class schedule, there was always a slew of newbies but there would always be the core families to check up on which could get you hooked back in for a time. The Chancellor mansion set (pictured at left circa 1975) was as much a familiar mainstay as the characters of Genoa City. Fittingly, Jeanne Cooper’s last scene as Katherine has her climbing the stairway on that set that has more constancy than any home I’ve lived in.

Soaps can serve as a “safe place” during a breakdown or transitional period in life.  That was definitely the case for me during 2010 and so that (to date my latest) brief dip back into Y&R occurred simultaneously with a new, freakish devotion to Mad Men–arguably the best written thing on television joan-holloway_lright now. Mad Men is living proof that the best elements of daytime soap writing have all migrated to cable and primetime. It’s strange to think only 25 years ago it was extremely rare to have multiple, continuing plots during primetime. Summer re-runs could scramble the order of a drama with little confusion. Hill Street Blues began that primetime evolution to arching, overlapping storylines in the early 1980s. There is so much great analysis of Mad Men out there I have no need to replicate it, but fundamentally I think there is an appeal (to me) because the core characters and conflicts are nearly all Silent Generation focused. Boomers like to claim the Sixties, but only that slice at the end is truly theirs. I really think Matthew Weiner’s creation is an acute exploration of this often sidelined cohort born roughly 1928-1945. The newer, younger characters coming onto the canvas now in Season 6 are just starting to represent the generational shift that was taking place as the decade wound down. Joan Holloway, Betty Draper Francis and, of course, Don epitomize the Silent Generation’s adjustment to the “Boomer-60s” (which I would say is roughly 1967 to 1973) with varying degrees of success.

Back to Kay Chancellor. When she was brought onto the show in its first year she was the ultimate desperate housewife. Wealthy, although not as wealthy as the show later made its core families when (foolishly in my opinion) daytime started aping glossy 1980s primetime soaps like Dynasty and Knot’s Landing, she wanders around her mansion in kaftans and jewels, usually with a drink in her hand. Here’s an early scene when her husband leaves her for Jill (and yes her husband Philip is none other than Battlestar Gallactica’s Doc Cottle, don’t you love when obsessions overlap?). By the 1990s Chancellor Industries had become a big corporation, with Katherine as CEO. In 1984 Cooper wanted to have a face lift so the writers wove it into the plot for Katherine, utilizing footage of the actual surgery. Other soap matriarchs like As the World Turns’ Nancy Hughes or Days of Our Lives’ Alice Brady often were given substantial plotlines in their older years but they mainly stayed in the mold of the kind, mentoring grandmother. Mrs. C, in fact, never had an actual blood grandchild on the show until post 2000 when some very creative retroactive continuity (“retcon”) gave her a couple! One of them the African-American illegitimate son of the illegitimate son she had during an alcohol-induced blackout. Deliciously soapy? Sure. Kindly matriarch? Not so much. 

Joan's license renewal cattily posted on Sterling-Cooper's bulletin board to expose that, yes, unmarried Joan is in her 30s.

Joan’s license renewal cattily posted on Sterling-Cooper’s bulletin board to expose that, yes, unmarried Joan is in her 30s.

Today will definitely be highest security Southen Methodist University has ever seen

All five living presidents of the United States & their spouses including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

All five living presidents of the United States & their spouses including former Secretary of State (and possible future POTUS?) Hillary Clinton. April 25th, 2013

Why Patti Davis and Michael Reagan are both right–and wrong–about their father

I am finding this light family spat between our 40th president’s two children fascinating. It highlights a generational difference that is more nuanced than partisan marriage equality supporters (and detractors) care to admit and highlights the inevitable folly of bringing one’s own outlook to those of your deceased predecessors.


Patti Davis posing provocatively in 1994.

Davis (born in 1952), is (as is common for her Boomer cohort) naturally trying to make the personal political. In her view because her father had no personal animus toward his gay friends, many of them in long-term couples, of course he would be supportive of same-sex marriage if alive today! From everything I’ve read about President Reagan his nonchalant attitude toward gays is indeed accurate and matches what Davis recalls. The first I’d read about this was in the biography of silent movie actor William Haines. Not only did Ronald and Nancy Reagan seem to concur with Joan Crawford that William Haines and Jimmie Shields were “the happiest married couple in Hollywood” the author’s interviews with Nancy Reagan confirmed a close friendship and sincere outreach to Haines’ partner after Haines died. Patti Davis in her interview mentions a lesbian couple they who babysat and housesat for the Reagans, openly as a couple.

Davis plays to the (at least historic) GOP position on less government to say: “He was well known for wanting less government. He would truly be baffled at what the problem is.”  While this may be true, I think it downplays Reagan’s legacy of throwing more than the occasional bone to the religious right-wing of his party, at least once in office. Davis should know her father was a politician and just as the modern GOP overstates the man’s staid conservatism (he raised taxes when necessary and demurred from armed conflict in Beirut in the face of terrorism, for instance) she shouldn’t overstate his Social Libertarianism either. When it came to 1978’s Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gays from being public school teachers in the state of California, Reagan did ultimately oppose legislating discrimination and spoke out against it. His response/reasoning appealed to basic sense of privacy plus distrust of government meddling in personal lives and employment opportunities. While brave for someone who was soon to be entering the primary battle for nominee of the Republican Party, gay issues had not yet been established as a partisan litmus test either way. Reagan was not boldly flouting his base in 1978 as he would have been in 1988 or 2008. The current level of engagement on that issue is something Reagan would not have even fathomed. For that matter nor would have his openly gay colleague William Haines. Plus, being accepting of individual gay people does not always translate to brave political moves on their behalf. While I appreciate Patti’s warm memories there really is no way of knowing how publicly he would have came out for marriage equality in the last days of his dementia (when marriage equality was only just beginning to be presented as a serious issue) or how much he would have (perhaps begrudgingly) accepted the ever-rightward lurch of his party through the 1990s.


Michael Reagan posing provocatively in 2005

However, if you set aside the absurd homophobic slips and slopes in his rebuttal, deeply conservative son Michael Reagan actually has a fair point when refuting his sister and speculating himself: “He would have pulled both sides in and found the common ground of what everybody was looking for.”  I can go along with this because Reagan did have a spectacular ability to keep the various factions of his party under the same big tent. He–unlike Bush 43–was a master at keeping the extreme Right aboard without alienating the socially moderate, fiscal conservatives in the older Rockefeller/Ford tradition. People forget there was serious talk of bringing ex-POTUS Gerald Ford onto the ticket in 1980 as VP in order to bridge the Far Right and Rockefeller Republican factions! I doubt that Reagan would have called for a divisive Constitutional Amendment to define marriage (as Bush did in 2004 and is still GOP official platform), but that really is just my own speculation.  During the GWB era I did notice, generally, the older the Republican the less strident on the social issue legislation they tended to be. Think of McCain’s tepid support for gay marriage bans in the 2008 campaign or Alaska’s giant Senator Ted Stevens as pro-choice anachronism within the GOP. While the reverse was, generally, true for Democrats: the older the Democrat the more reticent or coy they tended to be on marriage equality.

That said, I suspect Reagan would have had plenty of ready platitudes and dog whistles to religious conservatives about traditional values, child-rearing, God’s unique place in America, et. al. since he played that balancing act so expertly through the 1980s with issues like abortion and school prayer. For all Patti’s assurances there is no reason gay marriage would have fared any differently once it picked up momentum a decade after Reagan’s death as a hot-button issue. During Reagan’s presidency it simply wasn’t a mainstream debate, and so Patti has the comfort of deferring to her father’s personal benevolence. Never a heavy church-goer, Reagan was still readily willing to speak the language of the Evangelicals even while rarely bringing their pet issues to the front burner. Many have blamed his odd silence on the AIDS crisis on this fearful balancing act. In their different ways Michael and Patti are both awkwardly grafting Boomer 90s culture war perspectives on someone far older and more complicated.

Stuck in the 90s

I admit I do sometimes find Ann Coulter wickedly funny. Yet, the last 8 years or so she seems to be ramping up the rhetoric and the outrageousness and the cheap shots–and falling completely flat. More shrill, less funny. Why is this? The vitriol about Latinos and immigration in particular seems unhinged. Her latest race book? Eye-rollingly terrible. Or maybe I’m just jealous, if I’d known merely pointing out the Senate Republicans of 70 years ago were better on Civil Rights was enough meat to get published I’d have jumped on it too!

I didn’t mind this recent piece by her. Why? I think this harkens back to Ann Coulter circa 2000 when she was at her “best” (I put that in quotes because 9 times out of 10 I still fundamentally didn’t agree with her, but would at least muggedchuckle once or twice and grudgingly admit she got in a good dig at Democrats/Liberals/etc). However, the fact she had to take on New York City Bloomberg subway ads to get an old-school Ann Coulter piece demonstrates that the landscape has changed. Ann–an older Gen X–came of age in the era of Michael P. Keaton young conservatism.  When the overarching narrative, with some truth, was that conservatism offered the common sense approach during the Reagan years. Conservative talking heads like Limbaugh and Coulter milked the perceived hypocrisy, pettiness, and corruption on the Democratic side for comedy gold. People forget that in the 1990s Rush Limbaugh was much less angry and bitter and more of a common sense conservative with a sense of humor (something those dour Liberals were perceived as not having circa 1991).

Yet, everything has changed. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart cannot be over-credited with that. Liberals ability to make fun of themselves (and conservatives, of course) has become well-entrenched for some time. South Park as well. Things like the soda ban in NYC does harken back to the 1990s condescending PC debates that Limbaugh and Coulter made a living off of exploiting for humor.  However, that’s the exception more than the rule today.  Let’s face it: 90% of the mock-worthy stunts today come from the conservative side of the aisle. From things like “legitimate rape” to believing gay marriage will embolden North Korea’s pursuit of the bomb. How can you NOT make fun of the hypocrisy or people like Larry Craig? Or Sarah Palin? Pat Robertson? The jokes write themselves. Outrageous comments made by every local bigot or moron with an “R” after his or her name can spread across Facebook faster than an STD. I thought Ann Coulter’s tweet about Sandra Fluke getting impregnated by Bill Clinton backstage at the Democratic Convention was funny. But let’s face it: it was a dated Lewinsky joke re-spun. The jokes are mostly coming from the Right these days, and I think she knows it. This is why the sharp humor has, for the most part, degenerated into cheap shock value.

My response to Justice Roberts’ question on DOMA

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: So 84 Senators -it’s the same question I asked before; 84 Senators based their vote on moral disapproval of gay people?
MS. KAPLAN: No, I think — I think what is true, Mr. Chief Justice, is that times can blind, and that back in 1996 people did not have the understanding that they have today, that there is no distinction, there is no constitutionally permissible distinction -
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, does that mean — times can blind. Does that mean they did not base their votes on moral disapproval?
MS. KAPLAN: No; some clearly did. I think it was based on an understanding that gay — an incorrect understanding that gay couples were fundamentally different than straight couples, an understanding that I don’t think exists today and that’s the sense I’m using that times can blind. I think there was — we all can understand that people have moved on this, and now understand that there is no such distinction. So I’m not saying it was animus or bigotry, I think it was based on a misunderstanding on gay people and their —
JUSTICE SCALIA: Why — why are you so confident in that — in that judgment? How many — how many States permit gay — gay couples to marry?
MS. KAPLAN: Today? 9, Your Honor.
JUSTICE SCALIA: 9. And — and so there has been this sea change between now and 1996?
MS. KAPLAN: I think with respect to the understanding of gay people and their relationships there has been a sea change, Your Honor.
JUSTICE GINSBURG: How many States have civil unions now?
MS. KAPLAN: I believe — that was discussed in the arguments, another 8 or 9, I believe.
JUSTICE GINSBURG: And how many had it in 1996?
MS. KAPLAN: I — yes, it was much, much fewer at the time. I don’t have that number, Justice Ginsburg; I apologize.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: I suppose the sea change has a lot to do with the political force and effectiveness of people representing, supporting your side of the case?
MS. KAPLAN: I disagree with that, Mr. Chief Justice, I think the sea change has to do, just as discussed was Bowers and Lawrence, was an understanding that there is no difference — there was fundamental difference that could justify this kind of categorical discrimination between gay couples and straight couples.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: You don’t doubt that the lobby supporting the enactment of same sex-marriage laws in different States is politically powerful, do you?
MS. KAPLAN: With respect to that category, that categorization of the term for purposes of heightened scrutiny, I would, Your Honor. I don’t -
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.

Overall I think that Roberta Kaplan did a good job during this banter with Chief Justice John Roberts. Although, as it played out, he was clearly coaxing her down a path so that he could spring his point: that BECAUSE gay marriage is becoming more and more accepted (and certainly more accepted than it was in 1996 when DOMA came into being) the whole “increased scrutiny” of Equal Protection under the 14th Amendment is a weak point. Kaplan did kind of fall into a trap here, for she was left to concede that the tide probably has turned in political clout and the power of public opinion.

But let’s back up. I think the biggest opportunity Kaplan missed was earlier on in this exchange. Roberts starts with a sort of mock astonishment question that in 1996 84 out of 100 educated US Senators were 100% (“solely”) motivated by moral disapproval toward gay people. He is goading her, and she knows that probably this was not entirely true, although in Jesse Helms’ case and others it was raw homophobia (Kaplan: “some clearly did”).  Her response is a bit choppy and you can tell that Roberts and Scalia were rather underwhelmed by her phrase “times can blind”. Had I been responding to Justice Roberts I would have probably said “either moral disapproval or political expediency“.

Whether 84 Senators truly felt in their heart of hearts “moral disapproval” of gay people is irrelevant. At the very least they felt a majority of their constituents did. These 84 senators, plus President Clinton, believed signing DOMA was the better choice for their political careers.  Its morality or constitutionality took a back seat. They signed into law unprecedented federal meddling into something that had for 200 years been left to the states: the powers of marriage, divorce, and custody. Equal Protection’s heightened scrutiny is meant for exactly situations like this: to avoid scapegoating a minority group, it doesn’t matter whether it was out of deep animus or political cowardice (I think we can all agree it’s the latter in Bill Clinton’s case?). Whether said minority group is currently out of favor with the public or (as Roberts snarkily put) the public is “falling over themselves to endorse” is irrelevant.