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Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Ebola problem

Could Ebola be the kind of event Strauss and Howe had in mind when they predicted a great crisis 20 years ago--a threat that forces our society to mobilize and literally adopt new values to cope with it?  I believe that it could, although my worthless, amateur opinion is that the chances of avoiding a self-sustaining outbreak in the United States such as has occurred in West Africa are still quite good.  The example of Senegal, where several cases crossed the border but no new ones have now occurred for 40 days, is encouraging.  But it occurred to me, oddly enough, that the crisis has something in common with the crisis that Franklin Roosevelt faced 74 years ago in the fall of 1940, as I detailed in No End Save Victory.

The threat then was a political virus--Nazi and Japanese totalitarianism--transmissible by military force. Today it is a virus, transmittable by close contact.  But what is rather interesting is that the problem Roosevelt and the country faced in 1940 and well into 1941 was the same as the one we face today: keeping the threat away from the western hemisphere.  Roosevelt at that point thought it quite possible or even probable that the Nazi virus would spread into the British isles, and that was why he bargained with Churchill to secure an arc of bases in the western Atlantic from Newfoundland to Trinidad, and why he decided to occupy Iceland in the middle of 1941.  In the same way, our priority is to keep the self-sustaining outbreak of Ebola where it is now, in West Africa.

To do this, it seems to me, some very serious thinking may be called for.  I am in no way speaking authoritatively here; I am no epidemiologist, although I have always had some feel for numbers and statistics.  It seems to me the outbreak could grow sufficiently in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to make banning travel out of those countries a real option.  The CDC currently argues that this would force people to travel outside their borders in uncontrolled ways, but they could be kept out of the United States, which they need a visa to enter, and out of other advanced countries via air travel, which obviously is the easiest way for an infected person to cross the ocean undetected, as one already has.  Another alternative deserving consideration, it seems to me, would be to set up secure holding areas in those nations for people wishing to travel, where they would have to spend the weeks necessary to ensure that they are free from infection.  It is equally possible, however, that we have to do the critical work right here at home.

So far, it seems that Thomas Duncan infected only two people--both of whom are nurses in the hospital where he was treated.  This becomes, in one sense, more reassuring every day.  The nurses are already sick, but no one whom Duncan was in contact with before the hospital admitted him has gotten sick.  Hospitals are already notoriously easy places to get dangerous infections--probably one of the easiest places to do so in our society.  One reason, I am reliably informed, is that some hospitals at least have cut back on their cleaning staffs when budget crunches hit.  It seems to me that particular hospitals in any metropolitan area have to be designated to treat possible Ebola cases, that they set up special areas in which to do so, and that the number of people allowed into those areas be kept to an absolute minimum.  Obviously they have to wear protective gear at all times.  Medical personnel who come into contact with Ebola patients may have to accept limitations on their movement, as the second infected nurse obviously should have, and they should probably be monitored for infection continuously.

These are defensive measures, designed to contain Ebola where it is.  But it behooves us as well, for a great many reasons, to do what Roosevelt did beginning in the second half of 1941, and organize a coalition to wipe the epidemic out at its source.  The world needs a volunteer corps of public health workers who will organize quarantines and medical care in the three most affected countries to try to keep the spread of the disease to a minimum.  The situation right now seems to be as discouraging as the parallel spread of Nazism was in the spring of 1940: in at least one affected country, hospitals have stopped accepting patients.  There are a number of armies in the world, including our own, that can set up temporary field hospitals.  We need new, creative thinking to handle something that the world has never successfully dealt with.  Ebola spreads much less easily than the influenza epidemic that killed tens of millions in 1918, but it also has a mortality rate of 50%, much higher, I believe, than that killer flu.

The real goal, however, should be the one that Roosevelt adopted in the second half of 1941: to eliminate the disease.  That means treatment, a vaccine, or both.  And these are needs, like the threat of German air power in 1940, that we are disgracefully poorly equipped to meet.  Big pharma is notoriously uninterested in either new treatments for infections or vaccines.  Already people are dying from antibiotic-resistant bacteria of various kinds, because no new antibiotics have been developed for so long.  Vaccines are used only a few times per person at most, and they also create legal liability issues.  I don't know whether a better defense against HIV could have been developed by now, but it's fair to say that the drug cocktail which infected people now take for the rest of their lives is exactly the kind of treatment big Pharma loves, since it provides a steady stream of income.  This is an opportunity for the drug  companies to redirect their efforts, and if they take it it will have a big long-term benefit, perhaps, for us all. Alternatively, either the US or a coalition of governments could set up a public laboratory to work on these treatments, funded by taxpayer dollars.

Last spring I wrote a series of commentaries on Thomas Piketty's book, Capitalism in the 21st Century.  I noted his finding that inequality in advanced nations had been substantially reduced in the middle third of the twentieth century, largely because those nations had to mobilize so much of their resources for common efforts.  War was the biggest of those efforts, but not the only one.  The Ebola epidemic is a tragedy, but it is also a chance to do something similar on a smaller scale.  We are not used to discipline for the common good.  We need to learn once again that it can be necessary for our survival.

Friday, October 17, 2014

An announcement

Readers,

      Last week I was contacted by an editor at Time's website about contributing there.  She had become of fan of this site.  After a week's negotiations, we are apparently set to go. Indeed, I have submitted my first piece today.

      Have no fear: access to my posts on time.com will be free. I don't expect to be posting weekly there, so when I do, I shall simply post a link here.  I had hoped to be able to do that today or tomorrow morning but things seem to be moving a little more slowly than I had thought.  If nothing develops shortly I shall try to write something else over the weekend.

       It is your loyal support over the last ten years (really!) that has made this possible. Thanks.

DK

Friday, October 10, 2014

Coming to pass?

     In 1996, William Strauss and Neil Howe published The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. Drawing on their earlier work in Generations: The History of America's Future, they predicted that a great crisis would strike American life sometime around the year 2005.  On pp. 272-3, they tentatively predicted five ways in which this might come about.

      1.  A state, nearing bankruptcy, lays claim to its federal tax payments, setting off a constitutional crisis.

      2.  A global terrorist group "blows up an airplane," leading to American retaliatory strikes, and terrorist threats to blow up an American city with nuclear weaspons.

       3.  The President claims emergency powers after Congress refuses to pass a budget, forcing a government shutdown.

        4.  After an epidemic of a new communicable disease hits American cities, the President mobilizes the National Guard to impose quarantines, and large-scale violence breaks out.

        5.  Anarchy breaks out in the former Soviet Union, threatening local war and the lives of American citizens. (They specifically postulated a civil war in Lithuania.)

While none of these events, obviously, has occurred in exactly the way they speculated they might, I think it is fair to say that all but the first either happened in some form, or are well on their way to happening as I speak.  To this list I would add the possibility of a large-scale cyber-attack in response to sanctions imposed upon Russia or, perhaps at some later date, China.   More importantly, however, the mood of crisis within the United States is not passing away.  It is getting worse.

Thus, despite thirteen years of trying fruitlessly to roll back Islamic militance in the Middle East with American military power, the Obama Administration has reacted to the beheading of two Americans in exactly the way ISIS hoped it would: by launching another war.  Having reached the United States and killed one American resident, Ebola is now causing panic and some are calling for closing our borders to travelers from affected West African states.  Today's New York Times reports that the Republicans, in a last blitz of campaign ads, are claiming that the Obama Administration cannot handle the problems of our out-of-control world.  They are calling for stronger action, both to close borders and to destroy ISIS in the Middle East.  This might mark the beginning of a critical new trend.

A great deal, it seems to me, is going to depend on next months' elections.  Republican control of the Senate is now the more likely outcome, but far from a certain one.  Should it occur, I suspect the last two years of Obama's presidency will rival the last two years of Andrew Johnson's as one of the most turbulent in American history.  Mitch McConnell recently told a Koch brothers-sponsored conference that in that event, the Republicans will use the power of the purse to defund every part of the federal government that they do not like.   Yet the Republican call for stronger government is a countervailing trend--all the more so since the world is out of control and nowhere near stability.

I feel sure there will be more individual Ebola cases in the United States, and it is possible that new cases are already incubating in Dallas it, like HIV, gets into the right (or wrong) population at the right or wrong time.  The war with ISIS, meanwhile, is not likely to go well.  I personally don't think ISIS is likely to mount a major terrorist attack in the US, but if they could, there would undoubtedly be a strong push for some devastating action in return.  And Putin could try to pull off a quick occupation of one of the Baltic states at almost any moment, calling our bluff (which is all it is so far) and leaving NATO in disarray.  If one or more of these events takes place,  it seems possible that in the 2016 election each of the two candidates might be trying to persuade the nation that he or she has what it takes to take drastic action abroad and at home to deal with a new set of problems.   Hillary Clinton might have the chance to be not only the first female president, but also one of the most powerful and impactful presidents in our history.  This would be an enormous departure from either her husband's or Barack Obama's administration, but times are changing fast.  Republican candidates are also beginning to talk tough, and it will be interesting to see exactly what they propose.

I am not proposing these scenarios optimistically.  It has been a very long time since our political class was as unimpressive as it is now.  Increasingly it is the product of an educational system that tells its graduates very little about what the world is really like, and how people have managed to improve it in past eras.  Private wealth as been getting stronger and public authority weaker for a very long time.  We also have a very substantial body of opinion that will shrink from any kind of drastic measure to solve any problem, out of hostility to the very idea of coercive government.  Things have gone far enough, however, to say bluntly the Strauss and Howe's works have been born out as prophecy, as well as history.  The outcome, which they were much too wise to predict, remains undetermined.

Friday, October 03, 2014

The Hegelian President

Presidents can be distinguished by their ability to dominate the news and set the tone of national discussions.  Among those who did this throughout their terms were Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and even Richard Nixon.  Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush both managed this for a few years of their presidencies, but eventually lost that art.  One might have thought, based upon his oratorical skills, that Barack Obama might also have become the center of national attention, but such has not been the case.  He lost the rhetorical initiative to the Republican Party early in his first term, and despite his re-election, he has never regained it, largely because, since 2010, the whole country has known that he has little chance of backing his words with deeds.

 A little more than a week ago, President Obama gave a speech to the United Nations which is certainly written for the ages.  Like many of his predecessor's speeches, it is based upon a particular version of history in which American values are destined to triumph.  And in fact, dissenting voices among the foreign policy elite who would question its assumptions are as rare as they have ever been during the whole of my lifetime.  The speech received, once again, relatively little attention, but it is worth it to take the time to examine its key passages, analyze their assumptions, and measure them against reality.


"And for America, the choice is clear:  We choose hope over fear.  We see the future not as something out of our control, but as something we can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort.  We reject fatalism or cynicism when it comes to human affairs.  We choose to work for the world as it should be, as our children deserve it to be."

This is, of course, a restatement of the principles of the Enlightenment that have governed American political life since the eighteenth century.  The problem, of course, is whether "concerted and collective action" is still possible, either at home or abroad--and the answer is certainly not clear. Let us now turn to the President's remarks on a few key specific issues.

Ukraine

 

 "We believe that right makes might -- that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones, and that people should be able to choose their own future. , , ,And we call upon others to join us on the right side of history -- for while small gains can be won at the barrel of a gun, they will ultimately be turned back if enough voices support the freedom of nations and peoples to make their own decisions."

This, it seems to me, expresses the liberal fantasy dear to the hearts of academics like Samantha Power, now our Ambassador to the UN.  Essentially it argues that wrongdoing cannot succeed in the world if we can mobilize international public opinion on behalf of right.  Economic sanctions represent the limit of the actions which the President and his European allies are prepared to take, and they clearly will not force the Russian government to undo the annexation of Ukraine.  The crisis in that nation will most likely end either in a messy compromise that leaves the central government weak and much of the country open to Russian influence, or perhaps even in a change of borders.

Terrorism

" But in this century, we have faced a more lethal and ideological brand of terrorists who have perverted one of the world’s great religions.  With access to technology that allows small groups to do great harm, they have embraced a nightmarish vision that would divide the world into adherents and infidels -- killing as many innocent civilians as possible, employing the most brutal methods to intimidate people within their communities.
"I have made it clear that America will not base our entire foreign policy on reacting to terrorism.  Instead, we’ve waged a focused campaign against al Qaeda and its associated forces -- taking out their leaders, denying them the safe havens they rely on.  At the same time, we have reaffirmed again and again that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam.  Islam teaches peace.  Muslims the world over aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice.  And when it comes to America and Islam, there is no us and them, there is only us -- because millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our country.
"So we reject any suggestion of a clash of civilizations. Belief in permanent religious war is the misguided refuge of extremists who cannot build or create anything, and therefore peddle only fanaticism and hate.  And it is no exaggeration to say that humanity’s future depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along the fault lines of tribe or sect, race or religion."

While I agree with the last sentence of this passage, I cannot be as optimistic as the President.  Even here in the United States the electorate is deeply divided by race and religion.  The impartial principles of western civilization that regarded every person as a citizen under the law and religion as a private matter have been in retreat for close to half a century in the Middle East and elsewhere.  The President, however, once again went even further, telling Muslims what their religion does and does not allow.  Like the Old Testament and the New, the Koran can be read either as a peaceful document or as a call to arms against unbelievers or a warning of apocalyptic conflict.  (I am thinking of the book of Joshua in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the new.)  Such declarations at the UN should come from Muslim leaders, not Christian American ones.

"As an international community, we must meet this challenge with a focus on four areas.  First, the terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded and ultimately destroyed.
"This group has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria.  Mothers, sisters, daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war.  Innocent children have been gunned down.  Bodies have been dumped in mass graves.  Religious minorities have been starved to death.  In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world.
"No God condones this terror.  No grievance justifies these actions.  There can be no reasoning -- no negotiation -- with this brand of evil.  The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.  So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death."

Here was a declaration of all-out war to the death against ISIL, a much more formidable organization than Al Queda ever was, based upon the premise, once again, that the United States and its allies are now strong enough to prevent mass terrror anywhere in the world.  Such power has never been exercised by any government or coalition--except coalitions that included nations that practiced mass terror themselves.  

"T  It is time for the world -- especially Muslim communities -- to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL.
"It is one of the tasks of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world.  No children are born hating, and no children -- anywhere -- should be educated to hate other people.  There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they’re Jewish, or because they're Christian, or because they're Muslim.  It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source, and that is the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.
"That means cutting off the funding that fuels this hate.  It’s time to end the hypocrisy of those who accumulate wealth through the global economy and then siphon funds to those who teach children to tear it down.

The President and I have something in common: it was only in the kind of "modern, multicultural world" that he describes, and specifically within the United States of America, that either of us could ever have been born.  His language echoes statements made by Franklin Roosevelt during the war that shaped the world in which we have spent our whole lives.  But who exactly are the "civilized peoples of the world" who are going to enter into the compact he has in mind?  The use of that phrase suggests that there are also uncivilized peoples--who exactly are they?  The Muslim world progressed as far towards modernity as it did during the twentieth century, it seems to me, because of the overwhelming prestige that western civilization then enjoyed--in part because of its military supremacy.  We cannot however, even if we would, recreate an imperialist coalition to regain control over troubled areas of the Middle East, and nearly every nation in that region is already on one side or the other of the Sunni-Shi'ite divide.

"That means contesting the space that terrorists occupy, including the Internet and social media.  Their propaganda has coerced young people to travel abroad to fight their wars, and turned students -- young people full of potential -- into suicide bombers.  We must offer an alternative vision.
"That means bringing people of different faiths together.  All religions have been attacked by extremists from within at some point, and all people of faith have a responsibility to lift up the value at the heart of all great religions:  Do unto thy neighbor as you would do -- you would have done unto yourself.
"The ideology of ISIL or al Qaeda or Boko Haram will wilt and die if it is consistently exposed and confronted and refuted in the light of day.  Look at the new Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies -- Sheikh bin Bayyah described its purpose:  “We must declare war on war, so the outcome will be peace upon peace.”  Look at the young British Muslims who responded to terrorist propaganda by starting the “NotInMyName” campaign, declaring, “ISIS is hiding behind a false Islam.”  Look at the Christian and Muslim leaders who came together in the Central African Republic to reject violence; listen to the Imam who said, “Politics try to divide the religious in our country, but religion shouldn’t be a cause of hate, war, or strife.”"

Again we see the idea that simply stating what is right will make it happen.  I suspect Obama, like many millions of other young Americans, learned this idea in universities, which have become pathetically detached from reality.

"There is nothing new about wars within religions.  Christianity endured centuries of vicious sectarian conflict.  Today, it is violence within Muslim communities that has become the source of so much human misery.  It is time to acknowledge the destruction wrought by proxy wars and terror campaigns between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East.  And it is time that political, civic and religious leaders reject sectarian strife.  So let’s be clear:  This is a fight that no one is winning.  A brutal civil war in Syria has already killed nearly 200,000 people, displaced millions.  Iraq has come perilously close to plunging back into the abyss.  The conflict has created a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists who inevitably export this violence.
"The good news is we also see signs that this tide could be reversed.  We have a new, inclusive government in Baghdad; a new Iraqi Prime Minister welcomed by his neighbors; Lebanese factions rejecting those who try to provoke war.  And these steps must be followed by a broader truce.  Nowhere is this more necessary than Syria."

The new Iraqi Prime Minister is an unknown quantity who has not been able to fill the two most important positions in his government, the ministers of defense and of the interior.  And we have made a truce in Syria much harder by insisting that Assad must go.

"And here I’d like to speak directly to young people across the Muslim world.  You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder.  Those who call you away from this path are betraying this tradition, not defending it.
You have demonstrated that when young people have the tools to succeed -- good schools, education in math and science, an economy that nurtures creativity and entrepreneurship -- then societies will flourish.  So America will partner with those that promote that vision.
"Where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy, societies are more likely to succeed.  And that’s why we support the participation of women in parliaments and peace processes, schools and the economy.
"If young people live in places where the only option is between the dictates of a state, or the lure of an extremist underground, then no counterterrorism strategy can succeed.  But where a genuine civil society is allowed to flourish -- where people can express their views, and organize peacefully for a better life -- then you dramatically expand the alternatives to terror."

This is right out of the playbook of the most influential president of the twentieth century, George W,. Bush.  The Middle Eastern countries, it says, can move immediately and seamlessly from their current state to modernity.  But this is not what has happened in several critical cases.

"And such positive change need not come at the expense of tradition and faith.  We see this in Iraq, where a young man started a library for his peers.  “We link Iraq’s heritage to their hearts,” he said, and “give them a reason to stay.”  We see it in Tunisia, where secular and Islamist parties worked together through a political process to produce a new constitution.  We see it in Senegal, where civil society thrives alongside a strong democratic government.  We see it in Malaysia, where vibrant entrepreneurship is propelling a former colony into the ranks of advanced economies.  And we see it in Indonesia, where what began as a violent transition has evolved into a genuine democracy. 
Now, ultimately, the task of rejecting sectarianism and rejecting extremism is a generational task -- and a task for the people of the Middle East themselves.   No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds.  But America will be a respectful and constructive partner.  We will neither tolerate terrorist safe havens, nor act as an occupying power.  We will take action against threats to our security and our allies, while building an architecture of counterterrorism cooperation.  We will increase efforts to lift up those who counter extremist ideologies and who seek to resolve sectarian conflict.  And we will expand our programs to support entrepreneurship and civil society, education and youth -- because, ultimately, these investments are the best antidote to violence."

After all this, the President steps backward and argues, correctly, that the people of the Middle East will have to make these changes themselves.  How, exactly, we are going to reach their younger generations is not clear.  We have not been able to offer our own younger generations a reasonable chance at employment--from college graduates to the children of the old working class.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Truth, fiction, and Masters and Johnson

   For the past two years my wife and I have been watching the Showtime series Masters of Sex, which purports to portray the careers of Dr. William Masters and his research collaborator, and later wife, Virginia Johnson.  The series is set in the late 1950s and, like Mad Men, wants to take advantage of a kind of perverse, love-hate nostalgia for that bygone era.  It is highly entertaining and often, of course, titillating, but I felt from the beginning that, like Mad Men, it reflected far more of the present than it did the actual experience of the past.  I finally decided to find out, and got the original book, Masters of Sex, by Thomas Maier, out of the library.  It's a gripping, well-researched account, drawing on interviews with Johnson, with many people who knew one or both of them intimately, and on an unpublished memoir written by Masters.  It turns out that the show, from a historical point of view, is much worse than I thought.

    The first problem, I regret to say, is Michael Sheen, the fine British actor who has starred as Tony Blair and David Frost in very succcessful movies, and who is also an executive producer of the show.  It is abundantly clear that the real William Masters, while emotionally reserved, was a very verbal, physically impressive and charismatic man who impressed nearly everyone who came into contact with him.  Sheen, alas, has chosen to play him as a somewhat pathetic twit.  While his skill as a doctor and surgeon and his empathy for his patients showed through in some of the early episodes, he generally comes across as a person with no EQ whatever, to use another anachronistic term.  And this is important, because it also allows the show seriously to misrepresent the impact he had on his university and on his staff.

The problem with these retrospective dramas about the 1950s and early 1960s is that they focus upon characters with whom today's audiences can identify--usually women and minorities--to show how hard it was for such people to make their way in a white male-dominated world.  Masters qualifies as a sympathetic figure professionally, although not personally, within the show, because he's trying to explore the forbidden subject of sex.  Masters was indeed pursuing a forbidden subject, but many of the powerful men of the 1950s were smart enough and understanding enough to give him critical support.  The Catholic Archbishop of St. Louis, a liberal, joined the board of his research institute.  The head of Washington University Medical School knew about and approved his work.  But in the TV show, his administrative superior, played by Beau Bridges, is instead of closeted homosexual whom Masters blackmails into supporting his research, after he learns about the man's sexual orientation from a male prostitute.  That was not the only cooperation Masters got from the establishment.  The police commissioner of St. Louis declared a moratorium of arrests for prostitution while Masters was interviewing and filming local prostitutes, and police chiefs in other cities did the same.  Masters's initial presentation of his filmed results to his colleagues did disturb some of them, but they did not begin screaming at him during the talk, because educated people in those days simply didn't do that sort of thing.  His patron, the head of the Medical School, assured him there was nothing to worry about, since although he had heard some verbal complaints after the presentation, no one had submitted anything in writing.  The main reason Masters left the university and set up his own institute was that it refused to give a paid position as a researcher to Virginia Johnson, who never even earned a college degree. (Of this more in a moment.)

In the show, Masters is forced to leave the university hospital, joins another one but leaves it quickly after a fist fight with another doctor, and then finds a temporary home at a Negro hospital.  Then he finally sets up his own institute, conveniently located in a shabby building which is said to have housed the local Communist Party of the USA.  There is not a word of truth in any of this, nor in the episode in the show in which Master's wife, Libby, gives birth to her first child in the same Negro hospital.

The whole portrayal of Masters's personal life is full of inventions and inaccuracies.  By all accounts, he and his wife Libby had a thoroughly traditional 1950s marriage within which she played her role to perfection.  The show's writers decided to add some drama by moving the Masters's difficulty in conceiving a child--which was real enough--to the late 1950s, when the show is set.  In fact, one of Masters's own fertility treatments allowed Libby to conceive twice in the early 1950s and they had two children by the time the show took place.  The show has Libby stereotypically complaining that Masters's insistence on pursuing his sex research is ruining their lives after he is fired from one hospital after another--a total fantasy, of course, since the firings never happened.  It also clearly suggests that she conceived only because some one else's sperm was substituted for Masters's, which there does not seem to be any reason to believe.  (I think that the Masters's son Howie, who was a major source for Maier's book and treated his parents' marriage very even-handedly, must be rather angry about the portrayal of his parents.)  The show also invents a bitter conflict between Masters and his widowed mother that seems to have no basis in fact.

The show gives a tremendous role to Virginia Johnson in the design of their research, but it leaves out a crucial event, one that would have in my opinion made for great television.  Masters handled the early stages of his research himself, recruiting men and women who were willing to masturbate or have sex on camera. (The cameraman, by the way, was the permanent illustrator of the medical school, not the out-of-work aspiring filmmaker who was written into the script.)  One day Masters was having lunch with a female volunteer, a grad student, who introduced him to the idea that a woman might fake an orgasm.  She then said to him, bluntly, that if he was really going to make sense out of sex, he simply had to have a woman collaborating with him throughout his work.  Masters discreetly advertised for an assistant, and Virginia Johnson, a secretary in the medical school, was selected.  She was bright, curious, ambitious, and very sexual herself--the perfect collaborator, in short, for the study.

Now it is also true that at some point after they had begun working together, Masters suggested to Johnson that they begin having sex themselves.  The reason he gave, however, was not to gather more data, as the show seems to indicate, but in order to protect them both against the temptation to have sex with any of their subjects, and simply to provide an outlet for the sexual desire which watching their subjects inevitably aroused.  Interviewed decades later by Maier, Johnson (who is still alive) acknowledged that this looked a lot like sexual harassment.  But she did not seem really to regret or resent it.  She did continue to see other men, but there is no evidence that Masters suffered a potency crisis or had impotent encounters with prostitutes as a result, as is portrayed on the show.  As a matter of fact, the reason Masters eventually left his wife and proposed marriage to Johnson was that she had fallen in love with a wealthy donor to their institute, and he realized she might marry him and bring their collaboration to an end. It was that that he could not face,and he persuaded Johnson to marry him.  Eventually, in a cruel act of betrayal, he dissolved their marriage and wed the love of his youth, who had become a widow.

The writers also introduced another fictional character, Dr. Lilian DePaul, a gynecologist who is dying of ovarian cancer and trying to study the disease.  Her complaints about her status as a woman and her treatment by other doctors come right out of the 1970s or later.  Now there were women M.D.s in the 1950s.  One of my own pediatricians was one, and an aunt by marriage was an anesthesiologist in a major metropolitan area.  My aunt was certainly not a stereotypical woman of her generation: she was tough, determined, and never afraid to express her opinion about anyone.  I'm sure she encountered sexism, but I never heard her discuss it, despite entire summers spent in her house.  I was told by a surgeon who was a mutual friend that when he, in the midst of an operation, would call her by her first name--as he surely called his male colleagues as well--she would answer calling him "doctor."  One can criticize the professional women of that era for failing to argue more about how they were treated, but it is a fantasy to assume that they felt exactly what women do today.

What disturbs me so much about Masters of Sex and Mad Men is that their insistence upon projecting contemporary issues and characters into the past obscures the positive aspects of the 1950s and 1960s.  It was an era in which women and men were accustomed to subordinating some of their individuality for the good of the institutions in which they lived and worked, including their families. That allowed those institutions to achieve a great deal.  Masters and Johnson, for instance, vastly expanded the frontiers of knowledge about a subject of critical importance to human happiness, and their clinical work (which has not yet figured on the show) transformed thousands of lives.  One can make the same point about Mad Men, which not once, as far as I can remember, showed its characters designing an ad campaign that was anywhere near as eye-catching or entertaining as the best work of the real ad men and women of the 1960s.  I am not denying that many women in particular had to endure a great deal in that era.  One can in fact see that much more clearly in the 1960 film, The Apartment, than in any contemporary tv show.  But the women mostly put up with it, and yes, hard as it may be to recognize today, that helped institutions function.  We have assumed since the 1970s that the cost wasn't worth it.  Eventually we may have to rethink even that, and we all may have to surrender more personal autonomy to make institutions work.



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