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Raj Patel: Proud to Be An American

January 9th, 2010 admin No comments

“I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”

Let America Be America Again” — Langston Hughes

I’ve never actually attended a Moonie mass wedding, but I imagine it’s much like the ritual of becoming a US citizen. In the Masonic Hall in San Francisco yesterday, I was one of 1,245 people from 103 countries who faced a stage, put our hands on our hearts, and with one voice betrothed ourselves not one another or the Reverend Moon, but to a flag. There was something faintly cultish about it all.

To become a US citizen is to be invited into a very exclusive cult, of course, one whose armed forces can now call on me to bear arms. And there was no shortage of military themes in the proceedings. In general, when people sign hymns to bombs bursting in air, I tend to run the other way. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still a step up from the rituals of my previous national anthem. In Britain we sing God Save the Queen, a song so interminable and with lyrics so ponderous and toe-curling – “Happy and glorious, Long to reign over us … Thy choicest gifts in store, On her be pleased to pour” – that in the time it takes to go through it once, you can not only have memorized the Sex Pistols version, “God Save the Queen, The fascist regime, … No future, No future for you, No future for me,” but begin fervently to wish it to come true.

No Sex Pistols for us new US citizens, though. The ceremony closed with a video of Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be An American,” which was accompanied by lots of breathtaking images of American pastoral beauty, intercut with images of armed men and women. It seems it’s impossible to be a proud American without expensive military hardware. Like other nations, this one doesn’t have an entirely glorious history, founded as it is on that hardware pointed at Native Americans, then slaves, then striking workers, civil rights activists, immigrants and global justice protesters.

Our Master of Citizenship ceremonies, a nice man from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services, put all that behind us. He reassured us that the US was better today for our membership in it. “But,” he said, “we’ve got a lot of problems in this country. Now that you can vote, we’re going to need your help to vote to help to make them better.”

He’s right: there are problems. More than one in six Americans are going hungry, there’s record inequality, stagnant wages for middle and working class Americans, incarceration rates are high, health care levels low. If African American women’s health care levels were counted as a country, they’d be doing worse than Uzbekistan.

The uncomfortable wobble in the middle of our official’s sentence betrays a deeper truth, though. Voting isn’t going to solve problems this big. It rarely has. But what he neglected to mention is that this is a country forged from struggle. The catalyst for the Boston Tea Party, at least as Pulitzer prize-winning historian Arthur Scheslinger tells it, came not because of ‘taxation without representation’ but, rather, a widespread opposition to the increasing monopoly of the East India Company. In other words, US history began with a people’s fight against a corporation so powerful, it was the Wal-Mart of its day. Likewise, emancipation, universal suffrage and civil rights weren’t won through voting, but through direct action for social change, involving protests for equality, democracy, and justice.

It’s this America, where democracy isn’t something you let other people take care of on your behalf but something that you’re empowered to do yourself, which I joined yesterday. I didn’t need a certificate from the government to do it, just as I didn’t need a marriage certificate to love my wife. The citizenship certificate is a sign of commitment – and I want that commitment to be public. Not least because if in being democratic I am arrested, I won’t get deported back to Britain.

In civic groups, churches, schools, unions and cooperatives, it’s this democracy that’s alive and thriving. It’s invariably pitted against the power of large corporations and the state, against the most public embodiments of America.

There’s a painful ambiguity here – I loathe the militarism, corruption and injustice that America represents, but I celebrate the genuine democracy, equality and freedom that can already be found growing in every corner of the country. It’s this tension that Langston Hughes caught exactly in his beautiful poem, “Let America Be America Again.” As the rock guitars blared over the hall of newly minted citizens and the video screens showed images of aircraft carriers and star-spangled banners, I kept this fragment of Hughes’ poem in my heart.

O, yes,

I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

Raj Patel is the author of “The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy” (Picador).

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William Bradley: Doctor Who: The Long Goodbye

January 7th, 2010 admin No comments

“He will knock four times.”

And so, the finale for the great tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, came round at last. It was the end of a long goodbye, which itself was part of a long goodbye.

For those who have not seen it, there are spoilers ahead.

After something of an uncertain start in “The End of Time, Part 1,” the finale in “The End of Time, Part 2,” over New Year’s weekend, was much more assured.

Before dealing with the Doctor’s death — yes, he regenerates, but he regards it as the death of a self, namely his, referring to his regenerated self as “a new man” — let’s deal first with the storyline.

“He will knock four times.”

The Narrator, played by former James Bond Timothy Dalton, it swiftly turned out, was far more, the head of the Time Lords. Time-locked by their fellow Time Lord, the Doctor, for their atrocities at the end of their epic war with the Daleks, they sought a way out, finding it by causing the sound of drums to be permanently implanted in the mind of the young child who would become the Master. That enabled them to track him through time and space, finding him on Earth, manipulating him to use his powers and the technology he’d seized from the foolish billionaire who’d had him resuscitated in a harebrained scheme for immortality.

In the meantime, the Master has captured the Doctor and Wilf (81-year old Bernard Cribbins plays the sky-gazing grandfather of former companion Donna Noble; his character shares a bond with the Doctor), only to have them escape in comic fashion to the Vinvocci ship there in orbit above Earth to salvage the tech stolen by the billionaire. The Master, who has turned everyone else on Earth (besides Donna, who is immune since she’s part-Time Lord from the relaunched Season 4 finale, and Wilf, who was inside a special chamber) into a replica of himself — even Barack Obama! — turns all the resources of Earth to searching for the Doctor but cannot find him, as he’s shut down all systems on the ship.

The Doctor and Wilf — who has again been visited by the vision of the Woman in White, urging him to take up arms — have another heartfelt conversation. Wilf, like the Doctor, certain that the Master will be the cause of the Doctor’s prophesied death, urges him to take the old revolver he kept from his 1940s service with the British paratroopers. But the Doctor, who hates guns, will have none of it. Even if it means his death. Besides, he has nearly gotten through to the Master at the beginning of the episode, when he said it would be his honor to travel the universe at his side. Isn’t it enough to see the universe rather than try to own it, he’d argued. And the Master had seemed very intrigued, till the drumming in his head took over again.

The tenth Doctor begins his finale with a lighthearted attitude.

Then the Master broadcasts that the Time Lords are returning, which prompts the Doctor to return to Earth in a fun action sequence. The Doctor, who now takes Wilf’s old revolver from the paras, pilots the alien ship while Wilf and one of the Vinvocci — in a big nod to Star Wars — man the guns to shoot down the torrent of missiles that the Master unleashes against them. As the ship roars over the English mansion in which the Master is about to greet the return of the Time Lords, the Doctor leaps out, revolver in hand, and crashes through the skylight. Yet he’s too physically stunned to fire, and the Time Lords are arriving. Wilf, meanwhile, prevails upon the Vinvocci to land the ship so he can help the Doctor, only to flee at the Doctor’s suggestion, though into an isolation chamber to the Doctor’s dismay.

Along with the arrival of the Time Lords through an event horizon reaching into the mansion there is, overhead, the arrival of the massive Time Lord planet Gallifrey itself, which will clearly rip the Earth apart. Not that the Time Lords care, as their plan is to ascend beyond the physical plane of existence, and to hell with the billions of people on Earth, not to mention the trillions elsewhere who will perish as the space-time continuum is destroyed.

At first, the Doctor is bound to shoot Dalton’s Time Lord President, who chides him as a murderer at last. Then he thinks to shoot the Master, for the link is in his head. As the Master sadly realizes. Then he spies the Woman in White, immediately recognizing her (for I think she’s his mother) and she looks toward the contraption that facilitated the Time Lords’ arrival. Which he then destroys with a shot.

The Master rules the Earth in “The Last of the Time Lords.”

Dalton’s President makes ready to kill the Doctor as he and his cohort begin to recede back into the Time Lock, but the Master, angry at having been manipulated through his life, and more than a little sympathetic to the Doctor, attacks him with energy bolts. The President falls, the Time Lords and Gallifrey fall back into the Time Lock, and the Master disappears.

The epic crisis has been weathered and overcome, and the show is only two-thirds through. Roll credits? Sadly, no.

Relieved to see that he has survived, contrary to his understanding of the prophecy seemingly linked to the four-fold drumbeat in the Master’s head, feeling increasingly confident, the Doctor looks around as the musical score swells and then plunges as he hears a quiet knocking sound. Four knocks. And again, four knocks.

It’s Wilf, knocking on the glass of the isolation chamber. He’d like the Doctor to let him out. But to do that, the Doctor must enter the chamber himself and let Wilf out, and in so doing take a massive dose of radiation.

Fond as he is of Wilf, the Doctor rages at first against this monstrous irony, and at Wilf, at first seeming to agree with Wilf that he should leave him to his fate inside that chamber he never should have entered in the first place. But he can’t, in the end, leave Wilf to die, so he enters it, freeing Wilf, taking what both believe will be a a highly lethal dose of radiation.

The original 1963 theme for Doctor Who.

When he emerges, the Doctor seems fine. But then his wounds of battle fade and, despite Wilf’s enthusiasm, it’s clear to the Doctor that the regeneration is beginning. He takes Wilf home in the Tardis and, telling him he will see him one more time, sets off on what he calls his “reward.”

And what is his reward? His reward is a reward for Doctor Who fans as well as the Doctor, for he is off on a sentimental journey, seeing important people in his life one last time before his regeneration into the eleventh incarnation.

He sees former companion Martha Jones and Mickey, who began as Rose Tyler’s feckless boyfriend and became much more. And Captain Jack Harkness, the intergalactic con man-turned-immortal, chief of the new Torchwood. (Torchwood, of course, being the arguably more adult spin-off of Doctor Who, name of the Torchwood Institute established by Queen Victoria to combat extraterrestrial menaces, and, originally in the real world, an anagram used to hide production of Doctor Who.) And Wilfred and his daughter, with Donna in the near distance. And the great granddaughter of Joan Redfern. And, finally, inevitably, Rose.

Martha, looking smashing if hard-edged in black leather, and Mickey are on the run, hunting and being hunted by a rogue Sontaran. They are also, surprise, married. And, unknown to them, about to be shot by that self-same Sontaran. Till the Doctor knocks him cold. Martha and Mickey see the Doctor, staring at them, perhaps disapproving. Then he goes.

In another nod to Star Wars, the Doctor finds longtime associate Captain Jack in a Whovian version of the Star Wars bar scene. Jack is drowning his sorrows, still recovering from the shattering events of Torchwood’s excellent “Children of Earth” miniseries. He gets a note from the Doctor, standing at the other end of the bar. The note contains the name of the man next to Jack, the young ensign from Who’s “Voyage of the Damned” Christmas special two years ago. Jack, ostensibly omnisexual but really a gay character, salutes the Doctor and chats the young fellow up.

The Doctor next arrives outside a large church. It’s Donna’s wedding day. He still can’t see her, as it might bring her memories flooding back and burn up her mind, but he can and does see Wilf and and his daughter, Donna’s mother. Wilf is, naturally, delighted. Even more so when the Doctor presents a lottery ticket for Donna’s wedding present, purchased with a loan from Donna’s late father.

Next the Doctor is in a book store where an author is signing copies of her book. Someone we haven’t met but who looks familiar named Verity Newman is signing copies of her book, A Journal of Impossible Things, based on a journal owned by her great grandmother, Joan Redfern. Joan was the nurse in 1913 England that the Doctor, living as a human to try to avoid a confrontation which can’t be avoided, fell in love with. (Verity Newman is named after Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman, the first producers of Doctor Who, back in 1963.) The journal of his dreams belonged to the man Joan knew as John Smith, and Verity has written a book based on it. The Doctor wants to know if Joan was happy in the end. She was.

The Doctor and Rose say goodbye at Bad Wolf Bay in the Season 2 finale.

Finally, the Doctor goes to London in January 2005. It’s right after the New Year and he’s watching, only watching, someone he’s not yet met at that point. It’s Rose, his former companion and lost love. He’s failing now, and standing in the shadows as she passes by, coughs and staggers a bit, drawing her attention. He tells her she’s going to have a great year ahead, for it’s the year she meets him, albeit in his earlier ninth Doctor incarnation, none of which he says. She’s fresh, bright, and charming, and clearly ready for the adventures she’s about to encounter. She disappears into her building with a final smile.

Is it all quite sentimental? Yes, highly so. And wonderful nonetheless.

And now it’s time. An Ood appears in the street before the Doctor, telling him that his people will sing him to his sleep. The Doctor enters the Tardis, which sails into space above the Earth. He cries out that he doesn’t want to go. He’s not going quietly, there’s no peaceful acceptance of the inevitable, or British stoicism. He’s angry, frightened even. There’s much more he wants to do. And the regeneration comes on.

It’s violent this time, perhaps because of the radiation he’s carried within. Actually, it’s like the quickening in Highlander, a light show with crackling energy pouring out of him, causing explosions. David Tennant’s face disappears in the flow of energy and becomes that of Matt Smith.

The eleventh Doctor has arrived. He’s younger, confused and excited all at once as he grasps what has happened to him and is happening now. The violence of his regeneration has shattered the Tardis’s systems. The little blue police box, that old-style phone booth that is so much bigger on the inside is hurtling downward toward the Earth, crashing.

The new Doctor is thrilled. He shouts out: “Geronimo!” Clearly the Doctor has a new catchphrase to replace the tenth Doctor’s “Allons-y.”

And the episode is done.

“Allons-y,” incidentally, is French for “Let’s go.” “Geronimo!” is something frequently shouted as one takes a great leap. It comes from the American paratrooper tradition, inspired seven decades ago by a Western film about the great Indian chief.

What to make of the farewell of the tenth Doctor, played with such verve and grace by David Tennant, probably the most popular of all the Doctors?

Well, it wasn’t brief. But for all its drawn out nature, it was in many ways so much the better. Tennant is so good in the part that it’s sad to see him go.

In a real sense, the tenth Doctor’s finale has been going on for more than a year, even longer than the ending(s) of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

After taking over from the very fine Christopher Eccleston, who relaunched the series as the Doctor with writer/producer Russell T. Davies at the helm, Tennant had three full seasons (the Brits call them series), and another year of specials. The latter because he took to playing Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, a filmed version of which also aired on the BBC during the holidays.

He could have had his finale with the end of his third season, in a three-episode arc with a conclusion aptly titled “Journey’s End.” All his companions joined together, in a frankly overly complex plot, to help him fight a threat to “reality itself.” And the Doctor was shot and nearly died/regenerated. Yet he continued on, this time alone — with latest companion Donna returned home with memory wiped to avoid her own demise — through five more special episodes.

In 2008’s Christmas special, “The Next Doctor,” he went to Victorian London at Christmas time, only to be caught up in a wild adventure involving another fellow who believes himself to be the Doctor. (And who was naturally teased as Tennant’s replacement.) An air of melancholy sets in amidst the picture perfect Christmas setting as we learn why this man has come to believe he is the Doctor. And again as the Doctor refuses, at first, to share a Christmas dinner, preferring his growing loneliness.

For Easter 2009, the Doctor, again traveling alone in the Tardis, had a rather madcap adventure involving a red London double-decker bus, a desert planet, and an aristocratic young cat burglar. A perfect companion for the Doctor, actually, in the form of Michelle Ryan (who clicked in a way she did not as American TV’s Bionic Woman). Yet, despite their chemistry and good teamwork, the Doctor turns down her request to “Show me the stars.” He’s lost too much with previous companions, and doesn’t want to risk having his heart broken again. And as this rather picaresque adventure ends, with Lady Christina driving off into the sky, an air of foreboding as a woman tells the Doctor, like the Ood two years earlier, that his “song is ending.” And then: “It is returning. It is returning through the dark. And then, Doctor … Oh, but then … He will knock four times.”

David Tennant is Catherine Tate’s English teacher, two years ago for Comic Relief.

November’s special, “The Waters of Mars,” found the increasingly melancholy Doctor on Mars on a very special day in history, that of the mysterious destruction of humanity’s first Mars base. He sees the onrushing doom, keeps saying he has to leave what is “a fixed point in time,” which he dare not change. But in the end, he snaps and goes back and saves people who were supposed to have died, a pair of “little people,” as now arrogantly he calls them, and one decidedly not, one of the most famous women in history, the Mars base commander, whose death inspires her granddaughter to pilot the first interstellar mission.

There is a cost, a terrible one, and a terrible lesson, and by the end the Ood are there on a snowy London street, with the Doctor saying he’s gone too far, wondering if it’s his time to die.

Then of course we’re to “The End of Time,” and the great misdirection move that is the return of John Simm as the Master. As a political writer, I loved Simm as the manic politician who tricks the voters into making him prime minister of Britain. His performance then was operatic, as it is here. If he hadn’t been made insane as a gambit by the leader of the Time Lords, he could have been a great ally of the Doctor’s, rather than his nemesis. Which is only part of the pathos of this ending.

“The End of Time, Part Two,” which got predictably high yet non-record ratings in Britain, set a record for BBC America getting a total of 1.47 million viewers over the three weekend airings on the channel. This is the largest audience ever for a show on BBC America, beating “The Waters of Mars,” which was shown just before Christmas.

So we know there is a large and, at least in America and probably elsewhere, growing audience for Doctor Who with David Tennant. But for the eleventh Doctor, played by relative unknown Matt Smith? We don’t know.

Here is the new Doctor.

His beginning seemed fine, if necessarily brief. He’s in his late twenties, to Tennant’s late thirties, and we know that his first companion is played by a 21-year old redhead who looks like a teen.

Of course, the Doctor can be any age, so long as he has the spirit and intellect of the thing.

New showrunner Steven Moffat has written some of new Who’s best episodes, winning three Hugo Awards in a row for such classics as “The Girl In the Fireplace” and “Blink.” His temperament is rather darker than that of Russell T. Davies, who re-launched Doctor Who with a certain splashy ebullience that sought to overcome lapses in logic with dash and energy. And usually worked well at that.

“Don’t blink!”

Davies will run the new season of Torchwood, after his own highly successful walk in the dark with the last year’s brilliant “Children of Earth” miniseries.

And Moffat is likely to embrace the verve as well as the vicious in his version of the show. The eleventh Doctor’s energetic new catchphrase “Geronimo!,” along with glimpses of him in preview footage as something of an action hero indicate that the show won’t be all intellect. And composer Murray Gold is staying on. He’s contributed much of new Who’s sense of splash-and-dash, as well the hearts-on-sleeves quality of much of show with the tenth Doctor.

The science part of the science fiction was never the strength of the Davies-helmed new Who. Tennant’s tenth Doctor sometimes waved off an expected wave of Star Trek-style technospeak either with a bit of inspired babbling or with a humorously dismissive “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” non-explanation.

David Tennant’s farewell to Doctor Who.

Davies’ Doctor Who excelled not so much as accurate scifi as emotional storytelling within a science fiction frame.

With Tennant as his Doctor, he had someone with crackling energy, a lover of life who pursued his immense curiosity with the enthusiasm of a child. And an actor who also explored what it might be like to be a 900-year old being who travels constantly across time and space, exploring, winning and losing, his two hearts bursting and breaking along the way.

Someone who, himself homeless with the loss of Gallifrey, adopted Earth as his home away from home, revering humanity with all its pinnacles and pitfalls.

This is why this Doctor clings to this life, though he knows he will regenerate. This is why, to borrow from Dylan Thomas, he does not go gentle into that good night, and, instead, burns and raves at close of day as he rages against the dying of the light.

This Doctor’s journey has ended, and those of us who have watched it unfold, imperfect as it has been at times, are the better for it.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes … www.newwestnotes.com.


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The Year Of Health And Politics

January 4th, 2010 admin No comments

No, this isn’t yet another Top 10 list. But looking back at 2009, I do think it’s worth looking at a few of the major health stories we covered here.

One thing I won’t list is the efforts on the health reform bills currently making their laborious way through Congress. It was one of the most important health stories of the year, but we don’t have an ending for it yet.

The other health story of the year, and no surprise to anyone who reads Daily Kos regularly, was the 2009 H1N1 (aka swine flu pandemic), the first in 41 years. Oh, it’s not just me saying so. It’s also HealthDay, CNN, and news editors in Canada:

The H1N1 virus was the top Canadian news story of 2009, according to 70 per cent of the country’s editors and news directors in The Canadian Press’s annual survey of newsrooms.

“It was a coast-to-coast story that people followed with interest no matter where they lived in Canada,” said Lesley Sheppard, managing editor of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, in Moose Jaw, Sask.

But equally important, especially for the contrast and the long term implications was this story: On Cancer Screening, Politics, and Communication. As I wrote on the Arena today:

This past year has two particular health stories outside of the health reform efforts: pandemic (excellent reviews by the bloggers and the press) and mammogram guidelines. Both have deep implications for how our health system functions. But the most interesting observation is how the former (pandemic preparedness) has thankfully not been politicized. Alas, the same cannot be true for the latter. Despite that, evidence based medicine and the need to establish guidelines for what works and what does not are essential to health quality improvements as well as cost control (doing well by doing good), and good sense will prevail. All political parties and persuasions should be pushing for that, and in the end, we will adopt evidence based medicine and improve the system in the next year and years to come.

I want to highlight some of the work done at Flu Wiki by our volunteer bloggers and newshounds, who chase down stories from all over the world, but I also want to point out this excellent summary of how the pandemic seemed to those who were looking for it to happen (Real-world lessons learned.)

Interestingly, in his year-end summary, Donald McNeil writing for the NY Times notes some things that were tough decisions, but decisions that panned out:

…the relatively cautious decisions by the nation’s medical leadership contained the pandemic with minimal disruption to the economy.

For example, in the early days, they ignored advice to close the Mexican border and pre-emptively shut school systems. They released part of the national Tamiflu stockpile, but did not give it to millions of healthy people prophylactically, as Britain did. They ordered vaccine made with a 50-year-old egg technology rather than experimental methods. They bought adjuvants — chemical “boosters” — that could have stretched the first 25 million vaccine doses into 100 million, but did not use them for fear of triggering a backlash among Americans made nervous by the messages of the antivaccine movement.

To alert the public without alarming it, a stream of officials — from doctors in the navy blue and scrambled-eggs gold of the Public Health Service to a somber President Obama in the White House — offered updates, at least twice a week for months.

But the last paragraph is the important one:  

Dr. Frieden said he thought a victory over the antivaccine movement had been scored. Nearly 60 million people have been vaccinated, including many pregnant women and children, with no surge in side effects.

John P. Moore, an AIDS researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College, was less sure. Dr. Moore, who spent years fighting AIDS denialism, has called skepticism about flu vaccine “an unholy alliance of the left and right” because it joined the liberal natural-medicine proponents with anti-big-government conservatives.

“It’s hard to say if it hurt or helped,” Dr. Moore said, pointing out that polls still show a large minority of Americans rejecting the vaccine. “As with AIDS, people have to die before others understand the consequences of ignoring science-based medicine.”

Dr. Frieden is, alas, wrong, if he thinks facts will simply trump opinion, at least not without effort. Only day to day discussions in doctors offices and by officials on a recurring basis will fight the well-funded anti-vax misinformation machine. Well informed people have the right to be skeptics, but the organized for-pay misinformers do us all a disservice, particularly high risk patients who need their vaccines. This one was a publicly paid for vax, no extra charge, but the billions invested in novel manufacturing techniques are yet to pay off, though they are getting closer to reaching fruition.

Was this a less than feared outbreak? Absolutely, though it hit children especially hard. H5N1 (bird flu) is the mother of all flu strains (greater than 60% mortality at the moment), and worse things than swine flu are still out there. But complaints about hurricane warnings because the storm wasn’t as bad as feared are equally misplaced. Well, at least those that deny the possibility of pandemics have been quiet for a few months (don’t count on it lasting any longer than that.)

As for mammograms and guidelines, nothing highlights the dangers of politicizing medicine like that topic does. But what’s important is the concept that everything we do in medicine is right because it’s the US and we do everything best. This “medical exceptionalism”, as highlighted by National Geographic with their “cost of care” graphic, is simply not true.

The United States spends more on medical care per person than any country, yet life expectancy is shorter than in most other developed nations and many developing ones. Lack of health insurance is a factor in life span and contributes to an estimated 45,000 deaths a year. Why the high cost? The U.S. has a fee-for-service system—paying medical providers piecemeal for appointments, surgery, and the like. That can lead to unneeded treatment that doesn’t reliably improve a patient’s health. Says Gerard Anderson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies health insurance worldwide, “More care does not necessarily mean better care.”

But how do we get control of costs? By not spending it on things that don’t work, just because we always have. That means taking hard looks at futile end of life care, looking at cheaper ways to do things (like importing drugs from Canada), relying less on antibiotics that are inappropriately used. In other words, using evidence based medicine to determine what works and what does not (P.S., vaccines work and are very cost effective.) That’s exactly what the new mammogram guidelines do: suggest recommendations based on currently available data, even as they ruffle entrenched interests and entrenched thinking.

The reaction and blow back, which has been considerable, are less aimed at the actual guidelines (”talk to your doctor if you are woman under 50, because we really do not know what’s best”) than the way they were presented (somewhat naively in the midst of health reform debate, immediately hijacked by the “death panel” faction of the Know Nothing Party.) But if you really are serious about quality improvement and cost control, task forces like the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) are essential in sorting through facts and opinion. And the more the process is politicized, the worse the country is served.

Don’t expect that to change any time soon. But serious health reform proposals will incorporate evidence based medicine to enrich and improve our lives. And get used to being challenged about what you think you know. That’s going to become an everyday part of our lives.


Your Abbreviated Pundit Round-up

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

Saturday and it’s still 2010. Isn’t it over yet?

WaPo:

Democratic senators rallied around President Obama’s pick to head the Transportation Security Administration on Friday as new details emerged indicating that key lawmakers already knew when they voted in November to advance his nomination that he had mischaracterized a personal incident in his testimony.

Holy crap. They’re not folding. Maybe they actually learned something during the health care debate.

Michael Richman: The Redskins suck.

Bob Herbert: No, it’s the Jets that really suck. They fool you into thiunking they don’t, and then…

Brendan Miniter: Bob McDonnell, the GOP’s great hope.

As for the damaged Republican brand, one message voters sent with Mr. McDonnell’s election is that they don’t want the GOP to repeat its mistakes from the past decade. Mr. McDonnell seems to have received that message, saying that it was important for him to run on fiscal issues, because “we’ve got to hold the line on taxes and we’ve got to cut spending.”

Lindsay Beyerstein (The Nation): What’s next for health care reform?

Donald McNeil:

Although it is too early to write the obituary for swine flu, medical experts, already assessing how the first pandemic in 40 years has been handled, have found that while luck played a part, a series of rapid but conservative decisions by federal officials worked out better than many had dared hope…

For example, in the early days, they ignored advice to close the Mexican border and pre-emptively shut school systems. They released part of the national Tamiflu stockpile, but did not give it to millions of healthy people prophylactically, as Britain did. They ordered vaccine made with a 50-year-old egg technology rather than experimental methods. They bought adjuvants — chemical “boosters” — that could have stretched the first 25 million vaccine doses into 100 million, but did not use them for fear of triggering a backlash among Americans made nervous by the messages of the antivaccine movement.

See, it’s just like Y2K. Do a lot of work and it will turn out less than feared (and the work will help with ancillary things, like preparing for the next one, shoring up infection control and hospital surge capacity, and other things that can be used for any disaster.)


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Earl Ofari Hutchinson: Bestowing Sainthood on Pius XII Ignores a Heinous Past

December 24th, 2009 admin No comments

Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to press harder to make Pope Pius XII a saint is not a hostile act against Jews, it’s an abomination. The Vatican’s mute silence on the Holocaust under Pius’s watch aided and abetted it. The Vatican added more insult to Pius’s disgraceful World War II silence when it ducked and dodged repeated demands that it fully disclose all Pius’s correspondence and actions while the slaughter raged. Six years ago the Vatican hinted after repeated demands from Jewish scholars and leaders that the Vatican would release more of its World War II-era files on Pope Pius XII. It didn’t. So far, the Vatican has released a handful of carefully scrubbed wartime documents that reveal almost nothing about the Vatican’s dealings with Hitler.

It was virtually an article of faith during the decade I attended Catholic schools that Pius XII would one day be canonized a saint. The priests and nuns routinely punctuated their prayers with paeans in praise of the goodness and greatness of Pius XII. They urged us to pray for his continued health and well-being. In the decades since his death in 1959 Pius XII’s march to sainthood has been wracked by fierce debate over his dealings with Hitler and his refusal to speak out on the Holocaust.

There was great hope that this would change when John Paul II took over the Vatican reins. Over the years, he raked Catholics over the coals for saying and doing nothing about colonialism, slavery, and the pillage of the lands of indigenous people. But his continuing unwillingness to confront the Vatican’s complicity in Hitler’s Holocaust was another matter.

Vatican defenders cloud Papal guilt in the Holocaust by incessantly reminding that the Nazis murdered thousands of Catholics in and outside of Germany who aided the Jews. They also remind critics that Pius XII poured millions into relief for war refugees, gave sanctuary to Jews inside the Vatican, and played a huge role in post war recovery efforts and the restoration of democracy in Western Europe.

In 1998, the church made a mild stab at public atonement for past injustices when it formally apologized for centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism and the failure to combat Nazi persecution of the Jews. But the Vatican made no mention of Pius XII’s stone silence on Nazi atrocities. And it’s this continuing blind spot that riles many Jewish and church scholars.

The Vatican continues to keep silent on its Holocaust involvement for a painful reason. Its silence was not due to the moral lapses of individual Catholics, or that the church was ignorant of, or duped by, Hitler’s aims. It was a deliberate policy of appeasement crafted by church leaders. Before he ascended to the papacy in 1939, Pius XII was the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany and secretary of state during the crucial period when Hitler rose to power, and knew full well what Hitler was up to.

In his well-documented work, “Hitler’s Pope: the Secret History of Pius XII.” John Cornwell, Jesus College, Cambridge University professor notes that the Vatican signed its ill-famed concordat with Hitler in 1933 to prevent him from grabbing church property and meddling in church affairs. In return the Vatican pledged the absolute obedience of Germany’s Catholic priests and bishops to Hitler. As Pope, Pius XII sent a letter praising “the illustrious Hitler,” and expressing confidence in his leadership.

Even as evidence piled up that thousands of Jews were being shipped to the slaughter in Nazi concentration camps, Pius XII refused to reverse the Vatican’s see-no-evil, hear-no-evil political course. He ignored the pleas of President Roosevelt to denounce the Nazis. He declined to endorse a joint declaration by Britain, U.S and Russia condemning the killings of Jews, claiming that he couldn’t condemn “particular” atrocities. He was publicly silent when the Germans occupied Rome in 1944 and rounded up many of the city’s Jews. Many were later killed in concentration camps. He continued to send birthday greetings to Hitler each year until his death. He did not reprimand the Catholic archbishop of Berlin for issuing a statement mourning Hitler’s death.

Pius XII’s one and only known pronouncement during the war on the mass murders was a tepid, vaguely worded statement denouncing the deaths “of hundreds of thousands.” By then there were millions, and he did not mention Hitler, Nazi Germany, or the Jews in the statement.

In an Alice in Wonderland twist on reality, Vatican defenders say that airing old dirty laundry and fingering the culprits within the church that turned a blind eye toward Hitler’s ravages could damage the many efforts the church has made to heal the rift between Jews and Catholics. But the call for Benedict to bare the Papal chest on church sins for the Holocaust is not an academic exercise in moral flagellation. The thousands of Holocaust victims still alive bear the eternal scars of the Vatican’s Hitler-era acquiescence to genocide. And the modern day killing fields of Congo, Sudan, Rwanda and Cambodia are grim fresh reminders that the world still has not rid itself of the horrors of genocide.

John Paul II’s apology a decade ago for the sins of Catholics against the oppressed and Benedict’s many denunciations of the Holocaust was a step forward toward exorcising the wrongs of the past. But bestowing sainthood on Pope, Pius XII who said and did little while Hitler murdered millions is a huge step backward.


Earl Ofari Hutchinson
is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.

More on Genocide


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Emily Henry: Rage Against the Machine Get Christmas Number One Spot in the U.K.

December 21st, 2009 admin No comments

The war that has waged for dominance of the Christmas singles chart in the U.K. has been decided. In the blue corner, “X-Factor” reality pop T.V. show winner Joe McElderry, with his Miley Cyrus cover (Yes, Miley Cyrus cover) “The Climb”, stands shaking at the knees a few thousand copies behind his competitor, according to HMV. In the red corner, pulsing with ’90s angst, Rage Against the Machine are enjoying the sweet smell of victory with their 1992 semi-hit “Killing in the Name.” The two songs are as different as ebony and ivory, but without the harmonious relationship. In fact, the feud has been more a contest of “cool” versus “cushy”: those who are willing to drop an “F” bomb 17 times versus the teary-eyed and inspired.

But what has made this battle so interesting isn’t the contenders themselves. It’s the rallying of the troops. Every year the “commercial” hit is pitted against a niche, cooler underdog. The tidal wave of music consumers are more-often-than-not barely slowed down by “real” music lovers who, unfortunately for their much-loved bands, are more inclined to swap, create, or “acquire” than flock to the shops. This time, however, a neat little Internet gimmick known as “social networking” has allowed the conventional greasy-haired, black-shirted unconventionalists to band together in the virtual realm and take on the beast of popular music (even though, it might be said, Rage Against the Machine isn’t exactly obscure or unpopular).

The campaign to oust Simon Cowell’s pop machine has been steadily growing on Facebook since December 13th, thanks to the group “RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE FOR CHRISTMAS NO.1“. “Fed up with Simon Cowell’s latest karaoke act being Christmas No.1?” asks the group. Then buy “Killing in the Name” as a “protest to the X-Factor monotony”. The group has attracted more than 450,000 members (2 percent of the U.K. Facebook population) in the two weeks of its existence.

In the campaign for Rage Against the Machine to get the Christmas No.1 spot, a salute is owed to Facebook for its ability to organize the disorganized. Simon Cowell and his music manufacturing machine have been reminded of the fact that no one man decides the fate of the music industry. It is a democratic process. “The silent majority has spoken,” said my 15-year-old brother via his Facebook status. Rage has been accomplished against the machine. At least, that’s the idea, right?

However, like most attempts to stick-it-to-the-man, the effort is futile in the long run. Cowell is not cowering because his grand scheme has been undone. As one Facebook RATM group member points out, “Rage Against the Machine is under Simon’s Sony deal anyways, so no matter what, he’ll still be getting money.” Come to think about it… bringing another Sony band under the radar at Christmas time was an excellent idea for the record label. No matter who won the battle of music ideology, Sony won the war. And the profits are no doubt mounting. For Cowell, and Sony, and Rage Against the Machine (who, let’s face it, originally only got to number 25 in the charts with “Killing in the Name” and will find an ever-appreciated popularity boost in their stocking this year) Christmas has come early. Thanks Facebook!

On the downside, Joe McElderry is suffering a slew of rub-it-in-your-face comments from RATM fans on his Facebook page. “I’ve just read that British Airways are after cabin crew, Joe,” says one gloating commenter. “So the list of future employment options are.. Tescos, Burger King and now B.A.” Another user simply says, “Britain thinks your a Number 2.” It’s a harsh way for a fresh-faced 18-year-old to start his music career… but at least Facebook users will have successfully cremated any sense of naivety left in Mr. McElderry before Christmas Day. (By the way, Joe, Santa isn’t real…)

Friday was the last day for Brits to buy their way to victory. By midnight GMT, all the votes were cast. Tom Morello told the Sun newspaper: “This really does seem like the biggest ‘which side are you on?’ moment in the history of UK music.”

A nice idea, Tom. But in the end… we’re all on the same side, no matter how rowdy the crowd get. Perhaps ebony and ivory, “cool” and “cushy”, Rage and Joe, live together in perfect harmony after all.

Read the preamble to this article on A Day Like This.


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Patrick Barkham: The plight of Britain’s ancient trees

July 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

We are home to some 100,000 of the oldest trees in Europe. But is our neglect and ill-treatment in danger of killing them off?Above crumpled grey roots like the enormous feet of a prehistoric elephant, leaves form a vaulted roof as

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One giant leap for a greener Britain

July 21st, 2009 admin No comments

Only an Apollo-like effort of imagination and action will help us move to a low carbon economyForty years since the Eagle landed on the moon, the idea of a new Apollo project has become shorthand for how we should tackle climate change: politics forcing

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Britain will subject everyone who works with kids to multiple, repeated police-checks

July 19th, 2009 admin No comments

Britain’s pedophile-phobia has reached new heights of insanity — now everyone who comes into contact with a child at school has to have a police background check and get certified as genuine non-pedophiles. But not just once — over and over again; a different certificate for teaching karate, escorting field trips, or giving a presentation on careers day. Because, you know, you might not be a karate-teaching pedo, but you might be a field-trip pedo. Everyone’s included from Members of Parliament to authors giving a reading. Charlie Stross has some good commentary on the potential dangers all this background checking creates:

As you can imagine, the authors are upset. As Philip Pullman puts it, “It seems to be fuelled by the same combination of prurience, sexual fear and cold political calculation,” the author of the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy said today. “When you go into a school as an author or an illustrator you talk to a class at a time or else to the whole school. How on earth — how on earth — how in the world is anybody going to rape or assault a child in those circumstances? It’s preposterous…”

Even the simplest of databases have been found to contain error rates of 10%. (The HMRC database in this study contains merely first, second and surname, title, sex, data of birth, address and National Insurance number — nevertheless 10% of the records contain errors.) Other agencies are even more prone to mistakes. For example: my wife recently discovered that our GP’s medical records showed her as having been born outside the UK rather than in an NHS hospital in Manchester. We don’t know why that error’s in the system, and we’ve got the birth certificate and witnesses to prove that it is an error, but imagine the fun that might ensue if the control freaks in Whitehall decided to enforce record sharing between the NHS and the Immigration Agency …! (Hopefully they’re not that stupid, but who can tell?)

The point is, if 10% of government database records contain an error, than the probability of a sweep of databases coming up with an error rises as you consult more sources. And there are a whole bundle of wonderful ways for errors to show up. If your name and date of birth are the same as someone with heavy criminal record, a CRB check could label you as a bad guy. If your social security number is one digit transposition away from $BAD_GUY, see above. If the previous owner of your house was a child abuser, see above. If your street address is one letter/digit away from a street address occupied by a criminal and some bored clerk mis-typed it, you can end up being conflated with somebody else. And the more sources the CRB checks, the higher the probability of a false positive result — that is, of them obtaining a positive result (subject is a criminal) when in fact the subject is a negative.

This is not a hypothetical worry. As of last November, the CRB had falsely identified more than 12,000 people as criminals, according to the Home Office. (Raw parliamentary answer here.) These are the disputes that were upheld, that is, ones where the falsely mis-identified were able to convince the CRB that their record was incorrect. These are false positives which have been conclusively identified as such. While the identified false positive rate is around 0.1%, the true figure is certainly much higher: because there will be a proportion of individuals identified as false positives who are in the unfortunate position of lacking the documentation to prove their innocence.

False Positives and the Database State


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Martin Lewis: Tweet The Beatles! How Walter Cronkite Sent The Beatles Viral… in 1963!

July 18th, 2009 admin No comments

2009-07-18-Walter.jpg

As we mourn the passing of the remarkable Walter Cronkite — my mind goes back to the first time I met him — and how I learned about his unheralded, but crucial, role in the breakthrough of the Beatles in America.

For the title of this essay is true in its broadest sense. Walter Cronkite set in motion the 1960s equivalent of the Beatles going viral.

A full two months before Americans “met the Beatles” on the Ed Sullivan Show — Americans met them on Cronkite. He made the decision that “tweeted” (via TV in those days) the Fab Four to the American masses — and triggered the series of remarkable events that led to 73 million people tuning in to see them on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday February 9th 1964.

Yes I know that the popular misconception is that the Beatles achieved their U.S. breakthrough because of the Ed Sullivan Show. But that is actually completely erroneous. Think about it… How could four totally unknown foreign kids command a then record-breaking TV audience of 73 million — which was 40% of the US population? The equivalent of a TV audience today of 123 million.

The answer is that the Beatles weren’t unknown in the U.S. by February 9th 1964. They had already been #1 on the U.S. charts for three weeks when that first Sullivan show aired. And that was almost entirely because they had been “tweeted” across America by Walter Cronkite on his TV news broadcast on a chilly winter night in 1963.

It was a chilly winter night 37 years later that I had the privilege of meeting this legendary broadcaster. Monday November 13, 2000. It was in New York City at the Manhattan Center. The Creative Coalition was honoring Cronkite and my pal Paul Shaffer with awards for their contributions to the arts. I was there lending a hand in the production of a musical tribute to Paul — a performance by one of Paul’s musician heroes — jazz great McCoy Tyner. Once I had ensured that McCoy was happily set-up for his performance — I made my way to the VIP reception where Walter Cronkite was holding court as a procession of well-wishers came by to pay their respects. I waited as folks such as Christopher Reeve, Richard Belzer, Ron Reagan and William Baldwin trooped by and greeted this American icon.

When my turn came to be introduced, I found myself immediately charmed by his twinkling eyes and warm presence. I asked him his recollections about the Beatles and he told me of a telephone conversation he’d had with Ed Sullivan after Sullivan had seen the Beatles on his news broadcast two months before their arrival in the US. I wanted to hear more — but awards show receptions aren’t conducive to long conversations — so I made way for the next admirer — intrigued by what he’d told me.

Three years later I found myself working with friend and fellow Beatles aficionado Steven Van Zandt on a grand salute to the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ first visit to the U.S. — which we dubbed The Fab Forty. I’m a well-known Beatle-nut, but you can never know too much about the Fab Four, so as part of my research for our grand event I voraciously re-read every published account of that 1964 trip. I found myself increasingly fascinated by the incredible set of events that led to the Beatles’ US breakthrough.

One new book titled The Beatles Are Coming did a very effective job of piecing together the story and it inspired me to write an essay at the time that distilled all the known research and recently unearthed facts of this momentous event in pop culture.

It helped bring into focus for me that — alongside Beatles manager Brian Epstein — one of the true heroes of the Beatles’ initial success in America was undoubtedly Walter Cronkite.

I remember conveying this revelation to Walter Cronkite’s dependable longtime right hand — Marlene Adler. Steven and I were about to throw a raucous Beatles 40th anniversary party at New York’s Hard Rock Café. I instinctively knew that our bash would not be a setting where the then 87-year-old broadcaster would be comfortable. Too loud… Too crowded…

So instead I sent him a copy of the DVD that had just been released of all the Beatles performances on the Sullivan show with a note that congratulated him on his essential part in the story. Marlene told me that “Mr. Cronkite” as she unfailingly called him, was indeed incredibly proud of his role in the Beatles’ breakthrough in America. As he had every right to be.

I realize that Walter Cronkite’s role in the Beatles’ breakthrough is still comparatively under-sung. So I have dusted off my essay from five years ago, tweaked it a little — and I present it here as my little tribute to the late — but in Beatles terms incredibly early – Walter Cronkite.

HOW WALTER CRONKITE HELPED THE BEATLES
 CONQUER AMERICA

The story of how the Beatles first became successful in America is a fascinating tale – filled with astonishing coincidences. And more than a little help from Walter Cronkite… It’s a story that very few people know.

They went from being virtual unknowns to mega-star status in just six weeks. On Christmas Day 1963 – practically no one in the US had ever heard of them.

By Sunday February 9th 1964, interest in the Beatles was so intense that a record audience of 73 million viewers tuned in to see the group’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. (That was a staggering 40% of the US population at the time. The equivalent today of an audience of 123 million.)

How did it happen? Was it the music alone? The novelty of the haircuts? A nation yearning for something uplifting after the tragedy of President John Kennedy’s assassination? A brilliant marketing scheme by their record company?

All of those elements played their part. And there was definitely a marketing campaign prepared by Capitol Records. But the Beatles also owe their initial success to a series of extraordinary events triggered by a decision made by Walter Cronkite.

It was a decision that resulted in a major TV segment about the Beatles airing on his CBS news broadcast on December 10th 1963 – two full months before the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. That TV segment inspired an enthusiastic 15-year-old schoolgirl living in Maryland to do something that caused the record company’s entire carefully-calibrated timetable to be suddenly thrown out of the window and be brought forward by three weeks – much to the benefit of the Beatles.

This narrative explains the entire story in chronological sequence.


April 1st 1963 – October 31st 1963

In this 7-month period the Beatles go from being comparative unknowns in the UK to the most successful entertainers in British history. They become a phenomenon selling millions of records. They also conquer Europe.

But the Holy Grail of American success eludes the Beatles. Though there have occasionally been British records that have climbed the US charts – no UK act has ever achieved sustained success. So US record companies are naturally skeptical about the Beatles. Capitol Records – the US affiliate of the Beatles’ UK label (EMI) – itself rejects the Beatles four times during 1963 – despite their British success. Two small independent American record companies (Vee-Jay and Swan) release Beatles records – but with no success. At this point their manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin are beginning to despair. Then fate takes a hand…

Friday October 31st 1963

A chance encounter changes the Beatles’ fortunes forever. Influential American TV variety show host Ed Sullivan is traveling to London Airport and his arrival is delayed by a riot of youngsters who are there to welcome the Beatles home from a tour of Sweden. Sullivan is intrigued by the fervor for this British rock ‘n’ roll group with the strange haircuts – and considers booking them for his show. Though at this point he probably envisions them making a single appearance as a quaint novelty act. A group of long-haired kids from stuffy old England having the temerity to try and play America’s own music…

Tuesday November 5th 1963

Beatles manager Brian Epstein travels to New York for a previously-scheduled business trip. He arranges to meet Ed Sullivan on Monday November 11th and Tuesday November 12th. Though the group has no American record deal or prospects – Epstein persuades Sullivan to book his group for what will be an unprecedented three consecutive appearances on the show. Even more remarkably – without making a firm commitment on the point – Sullivan agrees to consider Epstein’s passionate insistence that his unknown artists should headline the three shows. The first two shows are set for Sundays February 9th and 16th. (The third show is subsequently scheduled for February 23rd)

Mid-late November 1963

Epstein telephones the President of Capitol Records in Los Angeles and asks why the label keeps rejecting his group. Intrigued about a group whose recordings he has never heard (the rejections have been by a subordinate) the label president – Alan Livingston – decides to appraise the Beatles’ latest record. He listens and then decides to over-rule his staff and sign the group. Skillfully using the promotional opportunity he has created of the three upcoming appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show – Epstein persuades Livingston to commit to a substantial promotional budget to launch the group. He convinces Livingston to spend $40,000 – a gigantic sum in those days for promotion. ($40,000 is the equivalent today of $250,000)

Saturday November 16th 1963

Determined to spark American interest in their upcoming US debut, Beatles manager Brian Epstein persuades Alexander Kendrick – head of the London bureau of CBS News – to shoot a news story for America about the phenomenon of Beatlemania that has engulfed Britain. So on this day – CBS sends a news crew to the quaint British seaside resort of Bournemouth where they film a Beatles concert and thousands of screaming teenage fans. They also grab a few soundbites from the Beatles. It will be the first major TV news story and interview with the Beatles to air in the USA. The film is edited in London and flown to New York to be broadcast.

Friday November 22nd 1963

It is customary then – as now – that TV news divisions amortize their costs by airing filmed news stories in more than one show. CBS News would often air a film segment on its mid-morning CBS Morning News – and then repeat it that night for the different audience that would watch the CBS Evening News. The Beatles film story airs on this day on CBS Morning News – hosted by Mike Wallace. Just two hours later President Kennedy is assassinated and all normal programming is suspended. There is no CBS Evening News that night – and the film can containing the Beatles segment is put away on a shelf…

Wednesday December 4th 1963

Capitol Records issues a barely-noticed press release announcing that it has acquired US rights to a young British music combo called The Beatles. Following conventional wisdom that it is pointless to issue new product in the holiday season – the Beatles’ first Capitol release “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is scheduled for Monday January 13th. The Beatles are set to make the first of their three Ed Sullivan Show appearances just three weeks later – on Sunday February 9th

In those days – even the most successful new record would usually take a minimum of 6-8 weeks to climb the charts. So the most optimistic expectation of Capitol Records (at the time the release date was chosen) was that the first Beatles record MIGHT reach the Top 75 by February 9 – the date of the first scheduled Ed Sullivan appearance. And then those three Ed Sullivan appearances might then help propel the Beatles’ record further up the chart.

There was certainly NO expectation that the Beatles might reach #1 by the time of their arrival in America. That would have been an insanely ludicrous aspiration. Nor that there might be any airport welcome, screaming fans or record-breaking TV audience. None of that would be remotely likely to happen in the short 3 weeks between the scheduled record release date and the date of the first Sullivan appearance. The forthcoming Ed Sullivan Show appearances are perceived as a device that may help make Americans become aware of this brand new group. That it might actually turn out to be a platform for the group to head into the stratosphere (having already reached #1 in America) is such an impossibility that it is just not on anyone’s radar.

Tuesday December 10th 1963

Just as TV executives in 2001 waited for an appropriate passage of time to elapse after 9/11 before resuming normal programming – so TV news executives in 1963 waited for the right time to introduce lighter stories to relieve the deep post-assassination gloom. On December 10th – CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite feels that a nation recovering from the tragedy might be warmed by a light-hearted story. He recalls that there had been a fun film story from England about some long-haired musicians that had been shelved a few weeks earlier because of the tragic events in Dallas. He decides to air the story that night. It is a fateful decision for the Beatles…

Watching Walter Cronkite present the 4-minute story about the Beatles on the CBS Evening News that night is a 15-year-old schoolgirl living in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her name is Marsha Albert. And the chord that the Beatles strikes inside her – is about to accelerate the coming Beatles invasion to warp speed…

Wednesday December 11th 1963

Excited by the music of the Beatles that she experienced on the CBS Evening News – Marsha Albert writes to her local deejay – Carroll James, a disc jockey at Washington’s WWDC radio station. She asks: “why can’t we have music like that here in America?”

Thursday December 12th 1963

DJ Carroll James receives the letter. He too had seen the broadcast on CBS Evening News. He has never heard of the group. And he is oblivious to the fact that an American record company is planning to release a record by this British group in a month’s time. The radio station policy is to try and please its listeners. So he resolves to find a disc by the Beatles. Since they are a success in their British homeland – he phones a contact in the DC offices of the British national airline (then named “BOAC” – now named “BA”.) The friend arranges to have a member of the BOAC flight crew (then named “stewardesses” – now named “flight attendants”) bring a copy of the latest Beatles record to Washington. A stewardess brings a Beatles disc to Washington two days later.

Tuesday December 17th 1963

Having received a copy of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” from England – Carroll James decides that its US premiere should be introduced by the young girl who had requested the record. He contacts Marsha Albert and invites her to the WWDC studios. She introduces the record with the words “Ladies and gentlemen for the first time on the air in the United States – here are the Beatles singing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’” (An audiotape of this historic moment has survived and can be heard here)

The oft-used expression “the phones lit up” does not begin to describe the reaction that WWDC experiences. Listeners phone in repeatedly to request the song. Carroll James and the radio station react by placing their solitary copy of the record in heavy rotation. The frequent playing of the record elicits even more listener response.

Wednesday December 18th 1963

Listeners start bombarding Washington record stores with requests for a record and artist that none of the stores have even heard of. The grassroots reaction has begun…

Thursday December 19th 1963

Executives at Capitol Records HQ in Los Angeles discover that a major Washington radio station is giving very heavy airplay to an imported copy of a record not due for release for another month. Anxious that this breach will damage its carefully timed game-plan – the first reaction of the record company is to request that the station STOPS playing the record! When the station indignantly refuses – the record company even hires an attorney to threaten a “cease and desist” order on the defiant station. Fortunately for the record company – and the Beatles – a wiser decision is made…

Friday December 20th 1963

Capitol Records President Alan Livingston ruminates that since record companies spend most of their time trying to get radio stations to PLAY records – that threatening a lawsuit to try to STOP a station playing a record is foolish. He makes a radical decision. Though the Beatles’ record is not scheduled for release for another 3 weeks – and record companies never release new product in the period between Christmas and New Year – Livingston thinks that the incredible reaction in DC to the disc warrants the most unconventional of approaches. He orders that the record be rush-released on the very earliest date.

Because the manufacturing elements are already at the factories in preparation for the mid-January release – the company is able to effect the release in just one short week. Christmas leave for the staff of Capitol Records is canceled – and the machinery goes into overdrive.

Thursday December 26th 1963

The day after Christmas, radio promotion men from Capitol Records commence delivering the disc to radio stations in-person. The reaction is instantaneous. In New York City for example – the records are delivered at approx. 9am. By midday, three of the most influential radio stations (WMCA, WABC and WINS) are playing the record as incessantly as the Washington station. Major stations in other cities rapidly follow suit.

A crucial benefit of the spur-of-the-moment decision to rush-release the record the day after Christmas is about to manifest itself. During the Christmas vacation kids are out of school and at home – able to listen to the radio all day. That winter, most schools do not recommence till Monday January 6th – so for ten consecutive days that shook the American world – kids hear “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on their radios. (Had the record been issued on January 13th as originally scheduled – kids could not have heard the record at anything like the same frequency.) The impact on America’s kids of exposure to so much intense airplay of the Beatles soon becomes apparent. Record sales take off like wildfire. The speed is beyond anything conjured up by the phrase “going viral”

Friday January 10th 1964

Just two weeks after its first release – sales figures indicate that the Beatles have sold over ONE MILLION records in the US. It is a staggering number by a previously-unknown artist. Especially from another land. Clearly the kids are reacting instinctively to something in the music. The Capitol Records marketing campaign hits full stride now. Millions of stickers bearing the legend “The BEATLES Are Coming!” are distributed. But the campaign does not CREATE Beatlemania. It simply fans the flames of what is already there. It builds on a genuine grassroots reaction to what kids are hearing on their radios…

Thursday January 16th 1964

On this day executives at leading industry trade journal Cash Box compile the sales statistics for the record charts that will appear in the next issue of the paper. The Beatles have leapt from #43 to #1. After being on sale for exactly three weeks – the Beatles are top of the American charts! The issue of Cash Box goes on sale on Saturday January 18th (with a cover date of January 25th) The rival trade publication Billboard lists the Beatles at #3 for the same week – and at #1 the following week. The word is officially out. The Beatles are obviously an unprecedented phenomenon.

Friday January 17th – Thursday February 6th 1964

For the next three weeks – three crucial weeks – Beatlemania explodes in America. Newspapers and magazines write reams of analysis of the phenomenon. Late-night TV hosts make jokes about them. A nation still aching from the gaping, emotional wound of President Kennedy’s assassination finds a diversion. And the media reflects all this. Even though there is no MTV, no cable TV, no Internet – everyone in America knows that The Beatles Are Coming!

Friday February 7th 1964

The day finally arrives. Thousands of screaming kids waving banners descend on the newly-renamed John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to welcome the new conquerors. The day is dubbed B-Day to signify the Beatles Invasion – which will soon become a British Invasion.
Hundreds of cynical New York journalists crowd into a packed conference room at the airport to fire questions at this new teenage phenomenon. The universal attitude at the beginning of the press conference is that the peculiarly hirsute Beatles and the hysterical reaction to them at the airport is just another teen fad – like the Hula-Hoop. Questions are fired at the Beatles expecting them to be the stereotypical pop singers who will grunt laconic, monosyllabic answers. No one expects the exuberant, witty, self-deprecating charm of the Beatles. Gales of laughter greet their good-natured attitude. By the end of the televised press conference the Beatles have won over the toughest room in America – New York’s press corps. After that – the rest of the nation is a breeze…

Sunday February 9th 1964

The Beatles perform six songs live on The Ed Sullivan Show. The show had received 50,000 ticket applications. Only 728 lucky people get tickets. 73 MILLION people watch on TV. A staggering 40% of the population. (Equivalent today to an audience of 123 MILLION.)


WHAT IF…

If the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” had been released as originally scheduled on January 13th – at a time when America’s kids were back at school – it is virtually impossible that the record could have been heard enough to generate the unprecedented momentum that drove the record to a million sales and the top of the charts in just three weeks…

If the Beatles had not been at #1 by the day they arrived in America (let alone #1 for three crucial weeks BEFORE they arrived in America) then there would never have been thousands of screaming teenagers to greet them at Kennedy Airport or outside the Plaza Hotel in NYC. Or hundreds of media scrambling to cover the Beatles at their JFK press conference. Without that hoopla – there is absolutely no chance that a record-breaking 73 million viewers would have tuned in that Sunday night.

The Beatles would still have succeeded in America. Of that there is no doubt. Their exuberant music and giddy optimism was an unstoppable force. But the sheer SPEED and MAGNITUDE of their breakthrough owes much to the unusual set of circumstances outlined above.


The heroes of this story? (apart from the Beatles of course)…

BRIAN EPSTEIN – the manager who would not take no for an answer. And who convinced Ed Sullivan to book his unknown group for three consecutive appearances as headliners. Then persuaded Capitol Records to sign and promote his band. Today he is an almost forgotten hero. You can help remedy that by signing the petition to have Brian Epstein inducted into the ‘Non-Performers Section’ of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

WALTER CRONKITE - the news anchor who wanted to cheer up America after the Kennedy assassination – and chose just the right tonic for the nation.

ED SULLIVAN – the TV host who didn’t ‘get’ the music but who instinctively understood the phenomenon – and gave it the unprecedented platform it deserved.

MARSHA ALBERT – the 15-year-old schoolgirl from Dublin Drive, Silver Spring, Maryland – who cared enough to write a letter to her local deejay…

CARROLL JAMES – the deejay who cared enough about a letter from a listener to arrange that an airline stewardess would bring him a record from London. And then refused to back down when a record company attorney instructed him and his station to stop playing the record.

ALAN LIVINGSTON – the record company president who signed a band already rejected four times by his own company – and who had the instinct to radically change an entire marketing campaign just 5 days before Christmas.

The rest is history…


Acknowledgment: This overview of the Beatles’ American breakthrough draws on information in an excellent book titled “THE BEATLES ARE COMING! The Birth Of Beatlemania In America” by Bruce Spizer. (498 Press)


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