Scythe: A Worthy Successor to the Hunger Games

For those who study their history, the fact that all-controlling government “utopias” prove to be anything but is no surprise, yet the youth are often schooled to believe that such utopias should be desired if only the “right” people are in power. Actually, this isn’t so much something the young need to be taught, rather than is a youthful belief that arises from the desire to change things for the good. This desire for positive change is something that makes the young so hopeful…and so stupid. As we grow older, we realize true positive change only comes with time, if it comes at all. Rarely is it instantaneous. And as we age we often become cynical about human-run institutions. Often, these institutions do more harm than good. Given too much power, governments tend to turn murderous on a jaw-dropping scale.

One of the ways to deter the young against eagerly campaigning for more government power over their lives, is to have them read and watch stories in which the true nature of such a “utopia” is revealed in all of its gory detail. Dystopian series such as The Hunger Games conclude that any side that has too much power should be considered dangerous to the common man. The Hunger Games is far more effective in showcasing this phenomenon than say the movie V for Vendetta. V showcases an oppressive Right-wing government, but fails to concern itself with the main problem, which is authoritarianism in the form of totalitarianism, an all-powerful, centralized government of any side that must not be questioned. The Hunger Games shows the true story, which is that both Right and Left can be authoritarian, and hints at a political truth, the scale is not R vs. L, but is collective tyranny vs. personal freedom.

Scythe, by Neal Shusterman, is only book one in his new series, so I can’t yet judge the series as a whole in comparison to The Hunger Games, but so far I find Scythe to be a worthy successor. First, there is the necessary government dystopia, masking itself as a utopia as usual. Humans have conquered death by superior technology. Imagine that. They are also run by an internet “cloud” of human knowledge that that records and catalogues everyone and keeps everyone safe. Secondly, despite having their needs cared for (in the Hunger Games this depends on which district you live in), the general populace lives in fear of being murdered by their government. Scythes are the de facto government in place of a president, king, and/or parliament, and they have given themselves authority over death. The reason for this is blandly stated that people must die sometime, but behind that lies the boogeyman of our current time, overpopulation of humanity is the worst thing that can happen to the world. Thirdly, teens are conscripted into the order of the Scythes to become licensed killers, not unlike Katniss and Peeta being forced to kill other kids in the Capitol’s Hunger Games. Both societies are essentially bored with their existence, and these killings are entertainment, both a reflection of the fights in the Roman Colosseum, and a beacon warning us of the dangers of our present society’s boredom and malaise.

A quick, straightforward read, Scythe cuts to heart of the issue in the journal writings of the longterm Scythe members. They live by a number of commandments, feel called to do their work, and are more akin to a religious order than an actual governmental body. The main characters, Citra and Rowan are recruited to be apprentices in the order precisely because they find killing people abhorrent. They soon realize that this abhorrence is not shared by all Scythes and that just as in the governments of old, human corruption and greed reigns in the Scythedom. Just as Katniss and Peeta have to think outside the box to beat the system, so do Citra and Rowan.

As a whole, the Scythe world seems a simpler world than The Hunger Games one, but the board is just getting set up. Scythe is superior in some ways–it’s told in 3rd person instead of 1st, has no love triangle, and makes the slaughters less a game and more of a mission, yet fails in others–at times the story and world seem too simple and non-emotive, and a love story is only hinted when it should have been fully realized. Glaring, is the existence of the Scythedom in the first place. À la The Giver, we get the feeling–or maybe we are just hoping–that there is a big reveal coming, both about the origins of the Scythes and the “cloud” god/government. The biggest similarity to both stories is the truth that when it comes to power, any side, no matter how sanctioned, can prove to be the wrong one when human life is at stake.

Along with believing in utopias on earth, the young often see freedom or liberty as doing whatever you want whenever you want. Grownups know that true liberty and true freedom require core values and adherence and discipline to them.  None of the main characters in these stories are hedonists. They believe in protecting the weak and even that they themselves have a duty to do so. They are unwilling to use violence and only use it if they must. They revere human life, and even the corrupt human institutions, only bringing down either or both if it becomes absolutely necessary for them to do so. These stories do not glorify anarchy, but hold life and liberty dear.

Scythe is setting itself up to be one of the more thought-provoking young adult series of recent years. Like The Hunger Games, it stands apart from so many of the others, most of which are purely fluff and fantasy. There is a silence behind the story of Scythe. It is as if humanity in it holds their breath, waiting for all of the pennies to drop, or rather, for the guillotine blade to fall. They have conquered death to no purpose and still run from it, quaking in fear when the very human grim reaper is at their door. They have thrown off religion and God only to make technology their god. No matter how hard they try, they can’t shake the truth: One day or another, somehow or another, everyone dies.

You Have to Go Back, Chapter 1

Author’s Note: For the past few year The West has been in a crisis, mostly of its own making, of immigration, perhaps invasion. Countries, communities, cities, and towns all over the Western world are being overrun with peoples, some malicious, some not, who are rapidly changing The West into something else. We are at great risk of losing everything completely by making a virtue into a vice. The virtue, we can say, is “kindness to strangers,” yet we are being so kind that we are being corrosive both to ourselves and to the strangers. We are not teaching the new people our values that we hold as dear, no, we are instead taking on their values in order than no one be offended.

The “Alt-right,” if you’re heard of it, is a pushback against the idea that The West should not have its own countries, its own societies. A main stance this pushback has taken is that of “You have to go back.” That is, the strangers who are not of our culture and values must go back to their homelands. They are not Western, just as we are not of their countries and cultures. It is actually, a very similar stance to the more left-sided idea of “anti-colonialism” where non-Western societies are pushing back against Western influences and sometimes Western peoples in their own countries and cultures. The main idea is that each people, each nation, should have its own place to live, that they are not required to take on another people into their land, no matter how needy those people may be. Today this has become a sentiment many Westerners hold because the push for “diversity” or “multiculturalism” is only focused on one group, mainly, white, mainly white men. It is only the white man who must take in and accommodate everyone else. This is insidious, as the only result can possibly be the extinction of the white man.

What does the argument “you have to go back” really mean? What would it mean for any society, say, even one plagued by a vice like alcoholism? Does it matter if the invaders taking over a society are better, or at least think themselves better than that society – i.e. in this case, the invaders do not drink – or does the statement hold true no matter the circumstances? And, so I wanted to pursue this in a story where a society is invaded, not by a culture that is worse, but by a culture that is better. Too often, I think of story ideas that honestly are a bit beyond my skills, and this may be one of them, but I’d thought I’d try and see how the results turn out.  –Pixie

You Have to Go Back

Chapter one

They rode into Armadillo at the setting of the sun, ten men on horseback, both animals and men weathered and worn, although clean, strangely clean. Paulo lifted his head from the horses’ water trough where he’d fallen the night before in a drunken stupor. Feeling a little sorry for vomiting in the water, at the back of his mind he realized it was a miracle he hadn’t drowned himself. But then, he was only ten, and Papa said drunkenness was a state one grew into. Papa should know. He was forty and always drunk and had avoided an untimely death many times.

Paulo brushed his sweaty black bangs out of his eyes and stared up at the first man on his finely brushed horse. The man’s companions waited silently behind.

“Are you strangers?” Paulo asked, swaying a little.

“Most certainly” The man spoke in a broad way and tipped his ten-gallon hat up to see the child before him more clearly. Paulo squinted, then turned and ran up the boardwalk into his family’s saloon on the right, his leather boots pounding loudly on the wood. He whipped the saloon doors back and tried not to retch at the smell of booze, sweat, and piss that summed up the dank interior. Papa lay on top of the bar, his sleeping form reflected in the mirror behind.

“Stop your shouting, kid.” Rosa peered down at him from the top of the stairs. She was dressed in her tight working clothes with their full skirts. At first she appeared beautiful, but as Paulo ran up to her on the stairs he could see how torn and stained her dress was, how oily, crusty, and gray her hair, how pancaked and flaked her makeup. Rosa had been his mother’s friend. Mother was buried out back between crates of liquor and a rotting garden. Mother had never learned how to drink properly.

“Men!” Paulo cried. “Men have come to town!”

“Oh?” Rosa raised an eyebrow. “Well then, boy, wake your father and we’ll show them a right Armadillo hospitality.”

“But–“

“Now, get on with you.”

Paulo made a face and scrambled back down the stairs. He hopped up on a scratched stool and shook his father’s shoulder, begging him to wake up. After giving Paulo a few blows around the face, his father opened bleary eyes and sat up, putting a hand to his back. “Not noon Paulo. The sun’s got an hour to go.” How his father knew that without even looking outside, Paulo was never sure, but Paulo knew the sun was more than high in the sky and even past noon, but he didn’t dare correct him.

“Men are in town.”

“Men?”

“A gang, Papa, a gang with money.”

“Money?” Papa smiled while holding the side of his head. He rolled over to drop on the floor behind the bar and straightened his vest and shirt sleeves. “Well then, Paulo, you lead them right in here and we’ll show them what Armadillo’s all about.”

So Paulo invited the strangers to come inside, watching with interest as they tied their horses up at the railing, using intricate knots that he wouldn’t have known existed. With knots like those, thought Paulo, he wouldn’t have to run after the customers’ horses when they broke free every evening. He’d get a lot more tips and beer for that.

The strangers were all tall and slim, some with long hair some with short, but Paulo noticed right away how clear their skin was, how bright their eyes. They had no paunch around their bellies like the citizens of Armadillo and they moved swiftly where his fellow citizens moved slowly and carefully. At first, Paulo couldn’t work out why they were different, their skin color and hair color was the same as Armadillans and they spoke the same language only in different intonations. But as the men sat on the stools that lined the bar and stared at Papa with level eyes, it became clear. These men did not drink.

Paulo felt a queer trickle of fear down his back, and his theory was confirmed when Papa offered the leader a whiskey. The leader asked for water and coffee. All on down the bar the ten men asked for water, coffee, or both. They paid readily and quickly enough, so Papa took their coin and muttered how he’d perfected morning coffee, joking it was the best way to get a head clear after a night of revelry.

“Revelry?” The leader stroked his fine beard. Both Paulo and Papa were baffled to realize the men didn’t know what they meant, but then, they didn’t drink.

“What kind of man doesn’t drink?” Paulo thought. So uneasy was he, that he ran around the bar to whisper to Papa that the man weren’t like them, that they didn’t fit in Armadillo.

“They’re strangers, son, that’s all. One coin is as good as another.”

Normally, Paulo considered, Papa was scornful of those who didn’t drink, like the preacher up the road. The preacher came to town seven years ago and new he drank as much as anyone. Papa had teased him into it. Everyone had. And the preacher had stopped being so shocked that every member of his congregation, old or young, was drunk most of the time. At first, his sermons had focused much on gluttony and no one wanted to listen, but now that his sermons were on other things, the town members were regular attendees and brought their drinks and cards with them. The preacher had been excited to have them there, but Paulo’d seen a strange look in his eyes after awhile, and finally the preacher had given into Armadillo and had taken up drink.

After that, the preacher had become the loudest mocker of anyone who’d said they’d had enough. Just yesterday the preacher had teased Rosa for not having another glass of wine when she complained of a splitting headache. Everyone got in on the fun, even Paulo, and he’d had a swallow or two of wine along with her.

“Headache gone now, Rosa?” The preacher had teased.

“Nope. Worse than ever!” She’d joked back and everyone had a laugh together. This was their community and Paulo loved it.

End of Chapter 1.

Doctor Who: Midnight

David Tennant is my favorite Doctor. His Doctor is generally a cheerful, god-like hero. It’s no surprise then, that my favorite episodes of the show Doctor Who are ones from the seasons starring Tennant. “Midnight” from season four is one I like to watch again and again. This episode lands in the timeframe when Donna is the Doctor’s companion. Donna may have never been a love interest for the Doctor, but she understands him in a key way that his other companions do not: Without his companions, he’s scary–at least this Doctor is. While the Doctor may keep companions around to fend off loneliness, the real reason may be that they keep him grounded in reality, something necessary for a true hero to remain so.

As far as episodes go, “Midnight” could be written of as a filler episode, having not much to do with the long-term plot of the series. If one had to cut an episode due to time constrains, “Midnight” would be a good choice as it wouldn’t affect the series as a whole and is rather forgettable coming after the epic episodes of “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” However, taking a closer look, “Midnight” has quality in its own right and deserves to be showcased as more than just filler.

The episode starts with Donna and the Doctor on vacation on a planet called Midnight. Donna’s busy sunbathing, so the Doctor decides to take a tour out to look at the planet which appears to be incapable of supporting life. In itself, the plot would make a great horror movie, but at the same time apart from the Doctor Who universe “Midnight” has little meaning and in fact is only truly scary because of who the Doctor is.

Tennant’s Doctor is always rather curious and chatty, so he wastes no time in getting to know the other people on his tour ship. They are all humans and although this may be the future, they are not depicted as being much different from those in Doctor Who’s present day London. Three are on a family trip, one just broke up with a lover, two are scholars, etc. When the ship unexpectedly stops due to a malfunction, Doctor Who is eager to help and invades the cockpit to talk with the pilots and maintenance men. In what will prove to be a foolish move, the Doctor encourages the men in the cockpit to lift up the sunscreens so he can take a look at the planet. Although they think him merely curious, the Doctor’s real goal is likely to spot a way out of their dilemma. Still, he’s thrilled they are looking on an area of the planet that no one has ever seen before. It is towers and mountains encrusted in diamonds and all uninhabitable due to the proximity of the sun. One of the pilots spots a shadow sliding towards their ship, causing a prompt closing of the viewing screens.

Back in the main cabin, the Doctor finds himself having to settle down the increasingly hysterical passengers who are all afraid they will run out of air before help gets to them. Both the flight attendant and the female scholar are key in helping him calm everyone down. This foreshadows how the two women will ultimately play a role in saving everyone at the end. Why these women are able to see what the rest of the group does not, the writers give no answers, only that perhaps one is thoughtful in a unique way and that the other has genuine concern and care for her passengers. These are both qualities that are easily found in each of the Doctor’s companions.

Just as the passengers are relaxing something knocks on the walls of the ship, presumably trying to get in. Hysteria rises again, ending with the cockpit getting ripped away from the ship and the lights turned out. As everyone comes back to their senses and gets the lights back on, they realize that one of the passengers, a Sky Silvestry (Lesley Sharp), who was extremely afraid, has been so traumatized that she cannot speak. It doesn’t take too long for the Doctor and passengers to figure out that whatever being was outside is now somehow in this woman. Applause to the actress who created a chilling character within such a short amount of time. Her performance as she mimics and manipulates the other passengers is riveting. Not only does she shine but allows Tennant’s Doctor to shine as well, not to mention the other passengers. This is the sort of scene that really tests actors–closed room, no specials effects–as well as the writing, both of which are very good in “Midnight.” It is a scene that I can imagine would be of good use in an acting class or workshop.

With this discovery of an entirely unknown and new creature in the universe, here the Doctor’s penchants for both curiosity and hubris conspire to within a hair’s breadth of his complete downfall. We see him at first having control of the situation and then quite suddenly stuck, unable to do anything to change or affect events around him. His life is at stake with no way out. We know that if Donna was with him, this would not have happened. If Donna was with him, she would have held him back, and in the end it is the two stand-in companions, the flight attendant and the young scholar who save the day, one by contradicting the lie that is gaining power in the room, and the other literally giving her life to save the passengers and perhaps the entire universe. The Doctor is extremely shaken by this whole experience and this may be the part where he becomes too cynical to recover. Though he shares what happened with Donna, I didn’t come away with the impression that she really understood just how dire circumstances were or what an amazing sacrifice the flight attendant made. The attendant didn’t just save one life or a group of lives, she saved all of the lives in the Doctor Who universe.

A space tale about an undiscovered malevolent being could be an exciting movie, but this episode has such tension because it’s about Doctor Who. The new creature is frightening precisely because of who the Doctor is. The Who universe would not be able to thrive, much less exist, without its main character. “Midnight” foreshadows this particular Doctor’s end, should he continue to be companionless, and it is this factor combined with his reckless curiosity and growing self-pride that ultimately leads to his regeneration into someone new, kinder, and smarter.

Of all the Doctor Who episodes from Tennant’s run on the show, “Midnight” truly seems to encapsulate his character. It’s an episode that can be watched again and again, not only for the fine acting and writing, but for the lessons on group dynamics and the false appeal to compassion. Can there be any worse phenomenon in the universe than someone advocating for a clear, present danger to be welcomed unquestioningly into a benign group? Some evils are not to be understood nor negotiated with, but only to be defeated. It is no wonder that the Doctor found his life rightly questioned in the next instant. True love, true compassion, is giving one’s life for one’s friends, in this instance the flight attendant sacrificing herself for her passengers. She saved the Doctor, but shamed him beyond all repair, and although he is unarguably at his worst in “Midnight” it is by far my favorite episode.

 

Fortitude 2015: Living on the Edge of the World

For fans of mystery and especially horror genre stories the best ones often take place at the “edge of the world” or rather the “edge of civilization.” The stories usually involve a limited number of people either living in or visiting a secluded spot where there is little relief from isolation and loneliness. Needless to say, these stories are often bleak and rarely have happy endings.

When the trappings of modern civilization are swept aside the lie that humans are basically good can be properly addressed. The number of people doesn’t matter, and in fact, less people around can lead to more vicious transgressions. Now, this could merely be a cosmopolitan disdain for small town life–and could be viewed in that lens–but it’s really purposeful isolation from broader humanity that’s being criticized, not merely small towns. The idea, I suppose, is that people who choose to live in secluded places have personal problems and inner demons that they wish to hide away. I would go further than that and speculate that these characters (at least those in the stories) have a profound sense of their own guilt and are afraid of what they would do living among more people. Then again, maybe they just like being alone.

Fortitude (2015) is set on an island in the arctic. The closest mainland is Norway and the scenery is gorgeous. What a setting! The story makes the island-glacier bittersweet in its beauty, drawing it right up against the evil in people and the evil in the earth. Sometimes we forget that our Earth itself, although beautiful, is tainted and corrupted. The very land supposed to sustain us can just as often kill us.

Like most other stories of this kind, Fortitude is set in a town with a few hundred people eking out lives in barren places. We are first introduced to the purposely flawed characters, then shown their indiscretions and weaknesses, then thrown into the larger plot as people start dying. Why anyone finds this entertaining, much less myself, I’m not sure. Sometimes we find it fun to be scared, sometimes we are eager to see what kind of person will make it to the end. Who will be the last one standing? Will they be like us and if so, would we also have a chance of winning out under such circumstances?

I generally liked Fortitude, but thought the ending too hopeless and drawn out. We’ve come to a point in our entertainment history where shows, not movies are the thing. Episode after episode can be devoured while the tension mounts. Trouble is, in too many of these stories, the tension is not held or increased due to too many episodes or too long of episodes.  Often the first couple of episodes are great and then the story meanders. In Fortitude‘s case too much time is spent dwelling on people’s faults rather than figuring out and fighting what was going on. For thrillers, a good policy is to have events happen faster than the audience thinks expects them to happen. Keep the audience on their toes. Of course this can backfire, but slow-burn really only works when the writers actually know how to consistently up the ante (AMC’s The Killing did this well in S1-3).

Fortitude increases the tension for a few episodes, drops it, forgets about certain characters or storylines for an unforgivable amount of time, and then tries to up the thrill level only when we’re already bored. It wasn’t a bad story, but it could have been as heart-stopping as some of the scenery was. It also had a non-ending–that is, Fortitude‘s writers left the forgone conclusion up to the audience without actually showing it all. If it had been a better-told story, this could have been brilliant, but really it just came off as the makers of the show tired of the whole thing and wanted it to end. And they strangely killed off Stanley Tucci’s (The Devil Wear’s Prada) character well before the ending. His character kept much of the plot going, so I don’t understand this decision, nor do I understand the uneven lengths of time devoted to the two researchers who end up being the ones to root for. We follow the sheriff mostly, but he’s already set up as an untrustworthy character. Until Stanley Tucci’s arrival, the audience doesn’t really have anyone to properly latch onto.

The acting was generally good, especially the mayor and the police team, but no one really stood out except for Tucci. The other characters could have been played by any number of actors. Maybe I just find Tucci’s American acting style more relatable, but I thought he did the best job. The taxidermist played by Ramon Tikaram (Jupiter Ascending) also had a lot of intrigue going for him that ultimately never paid off. Most of the characters seemed poorly drawn and so humdrum. Few had any dreams or plans or happy family life. Fortitude aimed more for depressing than thrilling and I think that choice was a mistake.

While I have criticized much about Fortitude, I found it generally entertaining and a puzzling story, but I would only recommend it to those that sincerely love these serial killer, edge of the world stories where most of the characters die. They are really not for everybody.

I am looking forward to watching S2 with Dennis Quaid to see the changes they’ve made in their story approach and to be able to compare the two.

Missing 9 review

Spoilers ahead.

The premise of the Korean show Missing 9 sounds great.  It’s a bit of a LOST takeoff, a group of people survive a plane crash only to be stranded on a deserted island where-in Lord of the Flies antics ensue.  I bring up LOST as an immediate comparison because for fans of that show it is impossible to not to see similarities, not only in the plot premise, but also in how the story is told.  (The Missing 9 creators are clearly replicating at least the flashback-present time switchback).  Missing 9, however goes more the direction of Lord of the Flies (and perhaps some Swiss Family Robinson) than heading off in the LOST no man’s land of science fiction. Although it would have been fun to see the Korean version of LOST with island monsters, time jumps, and the whole lot, not going in that direction is actually a strength of Missing 9.  At least initially.

For the first few episodes the fairly simple plot of Missing 9, the brief history of the celebrities and employees of Legend Entertainment, their plane crash and subsequent stranding on a deserted island somewhere off the coast of China, works. And it even still works once the people are pitted against each other on the island.  Where is fails is that one character ends up being a murderer bent on killing anyone who gets in his way.  For episode after episode he is the sole bad guy and the sole conflict the rest of the survivors have to fight against on the island. The plot rapidly gets old at this point and I actually stopped watching it and simply read through plot summaries of the rest of the show. Talk about mediocre ending.  I’m all for characters ending up happy, but partying with a murderer, even if he is soon to go back to prison, is a bit too much and actually makes light of what he’s done wrong.

Other things I liked about Missing 9 were the flashback scenes where everyone is dressed in beige or brown. It was an intriguing concept and it’s a shame it didn’t seem to go anywhere other than serve as a marker for which scenes were in the past. The soundtrack was better than most, both thrilling and nostalgic. The acting was also outstanding, especially the leads, Jung Kyung Ho (Falling in Love with Soon Jung), who is a very solid actor that exhibits old school charm (think Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant) and has complete mastery of both comedy and drama, and Baek Jin Hee (Pride and Prejudice (Kdrama)) who was a spot-on heroine and “average man” for the viewer to follow. Kim Sang Ho (City Hunter) is always a pleasure to watch and brings a subtle grounding to the production. His characters are always relatable and always seem to have good hearts. Choi Tae Hoon’s villain had a good progression of onscreen presence, but never really became a totally “love to hate” bad character that would have shot him to acting stardom. If they had cast Choi as the lead and Jung as the murderer, that would have given the show an amazing dynamic because Jung does have eyes that just pull one in. He would make a terrifying and thrilling villain and Kim’s character would be completely torn over love-hate as would the viewers. I also think that Choi would have faired better playing the lead as it would have necessarily forced him to have more expression on his face.

Missing 9 sounded like a must-watch, but ultimately failed to deliver. Better K-drama thrillers are Signal (2016) (probably the best TV thriller I’ve ever seen from any country) and Tunnel (2017).

On the Subject of Vaccine Safety

Out of curiosity, I recently watched the documentary Vaxxed. On its surface, the documentary appears to be anti-vaccine, but it’s not quite that. It is actually pro-vaccine, but questions the safety of vaccines, and especially the current schedule of vaccines for kids. After realizing Vaxxed was directed by Andrew Wakefield, I wanted to dig a little deeper.  Wakefield’s study back in 1998 was debunked, right?  He’s sort of a con artist, right?  If so, why, so many years later, is he continuing to try and inform people that at least for some of us, vaccines appear to be unsafe?

Let me tell you, I’ve read a whole slew of items on vaccines the past couple of weeks, books from the library, stuff on the internet, articles, studies, and so on.  I will tell you now that it is like going down a rabbit hole.  Just looking into Andrew Wakefield’s story alone is mind-boggling. Did he commit fraud? They say he did, he says he didn’t. He never claimed a direct connection with the MMR vaccine to autism, but was looking into a possible gastrointestinal (GI) effect that in turn caused autism. After hearing stories from parents who said their children were fine one minute, and not speaking the next, shortly after getting the MMR vaccine, Wakefield wanted to see if there was some kind of connection with GI issues, as all or most of the kids in the study had bowel issues.  The trouble is, in the press release for the study, he claimed a direct connection with the MMR triple vaccine, and he advocated using only the three separate vaccines for Measles, Mumps, and Rubella until further studies could be done.  Instant hoopla from the media.

There are a lot of troubling things about Wakefield, to be sure.  His study only had 12 children in it (though I’ve read/seen things elsewhere indicating there were 40+ other kids in the study). There are claims he faked some of the results to get what he wanted.  When one journalist, Brian Deer, actually took the time to investigate Wakefield (I know, what a novel idea, right?) he found that Wakefield had a patent for a potential vaccine to compete with the MMR vaccine. Wakefield claims this vaccine wasn’t really to be a vaccine at all, but a treatment for those whose GI systems have been adversely affected by vaccines (yet it is labeled in the patent form as a vaccine). Brian Deer is himself a bit of a sensationalist in his writing. He has an elaborate website detailing all of his stories. He has thrown a lot of accusations at Wakefield, which ended up getting Wakefield’s medical license revoked and his paper on the study redacted from the Lancet journal that printed it (you can still read the study on their website). Deer has his TV spot regarding Wakefield on Youtube, and I have to say, that although he may be correct, there’s still an seedy undertone to the whole thing, especially an interview with a really senile old man in the American South. This man is supposedly connected to Wakefield, but it was a very bizarre exchange to say the least. Wakefield and the others on his Vaxxed team (Del Bigtree a journalist who worked on the show The Doctors) don’t do their side any favors by often hosting meetings that seem a little to much like an old-time healing revival. In this whole story, Wakefield and Bigtree come across as being very well-spoken and charismatic, whereas Deer is the awkward, straight-talking journalist hunting the truth. There’s a sensationalist major motion picture somewhere in there.

So in watching Vaxxed, some of Wakefield’s interviews and interviews of other advocates for better vaccine safety (some are outright anti-vaccine), and then reading and watching what Brian Deer has to say, it’s difficult to figure out where the truth lies. I mean, Deer supposedly filed the complaint that ultimately got Wakefield’s license taken away. That strikes me as odd, but I don’t know if this is a common practice of journalists to in essence report their subjects to the authorities or to just publish the story and let the cards fall where they may. I also get the impression that just as the media didn’t really question Wakefield initially, neither do they question Brian Deer. This is troublesome, because it’s ultimately a failure of the media and journalism as a whole. When did the media become so lazy? Maybe they always have been lazy and we’ve just chosen to overlook it. And maybe I just haven’t done enough reading on this subject yet.

Aside from that whole story, the issue of vaccine safety is something people have instant opinions about, but if we’re honest, don’t really know much about. We want to believe the health care industry, the doctors, the drug companies, and the government all have our best interests at heart. But I think in our current time of universal deceit, especially from the media, we don’t know as much of the story as we should in order to make an informed decision. We want and do trust our doctors, but looking at the bigger picture, what if the doctors themselves have been lied to about the safety and/or effectiveness of vaccines? What if we all have been lied to? I bring this up due to Vaxxed’s biggest claim, that of having been contacted by a CDC whistleblower named William Thompson.  Thompson supposedly has a lawyer for whistleblowers and currently is still working at the CDC, though perhaps not in the same capacity.

According to Thompson’s phone calls (which were recorded without his knowledge), the CDC in doing their study (in which he was an administrator) to hopefully refute Andrew Wakefield’s study results, they deliberately hid and changed data that indicated a percentage of correlation (not causation) between the MMR vaccine and autism, especially when it comes to black males.  Some have asked that Thompson be hauled in front of Congress to give testimony.  To this date, I don’t think that he has been called.  This claim, that the CDC’s study actually found a high correlation with MMR and autism in black males is directly related to the current Measles outbreak in Minnesota.  Somalian mothers are worried about them getting autism from vaccines and so have not been vaccinating their children.

Let me add that lost in all this is that we are not really talking about a direct connection from the MMR vaccine to autism, but a connection between the vaccine causing GI issues that result in autism. Let me additionally add that anyone thinking rationally would come to the conclusion that the CDC’s study should be questioned every bit as Wakefield’s should. Their study was done at a time in which the drug companies, government, and health industry were under enormous pressure to restore the good name of all vaccines in public opinion. Vaxxed also states that the head of the CDC during this study shortly after went to work for Merck, one of the main drug companies making vaccines.

Now, if at that this point one was still “all in” for vaccines and trusts the CDC study, one really wouldn’t look much further, but I have looked further, and I really don’t know what to think.

One the one hand, it’s clear to me that vaccines in general do work to keep away certain diseases. However, after doing more reading, it has also become clear to me that this general idea is easily questioned, and for good reason. Take the flu vaccine. Why do so many people get vaccinated each year and still get sick?  Well, we know that the flu has many strains, so it could be a person vaccinated against one strain ends up catching another.  A second and probably more important reason is the timing of the vaccines. I don’t think it’s widely publicized enough that one should not get any vaccines if they are in any way sick or under the weather. The big push for the flu vaccine each year comes in fall/early winter, a time when everyone is stressed out, when the weather is getting colder, and when there is less sunlight.  All three elements tax many people’s immune systems. This can make someone susceptible to the very vaccine that is supposed to prevent illness.

Incidentally, I have found out that you can get the disease even if you have been vaccinated, and you can also possibly spread or be a carrier of the disease shortly after getting a vaccine. This was something I didn’t know, but then, this is the first time I’ve really looked into the criticisms of vaccines.

The main issue anti-vaxxers or those who question the safety of vaccines is the immune system component. Again, this was also something I didn’t know. I never knew the actual reasons and the basis of their arguments. Yes, I’d heard of the side effects listed on the vaccine inserts, and yes I’d heard of the stories of children and some adults being adversely affected by vaccines, but I never really understood the full argument against them. Most people know how vaccines work. The virus is introduced into our bloodstream and instigates our immune system making antibodies that will protect us against the virus if we ever are exposed to it. The argument against the safety of vaccines is this: Ultimately they overtax our immune system, something that most likely comes with a cost (possible auto-immune issues or GI issues that cause auto-immune symptoms).

We can see this line of thinking about the immune system is correct because the first argument pro-vaxxers jump to is that of: what about the poor children or others who can’t get vaccinated due to compromised immune systems?!? Leaving the moral dilemma of choosing one child’s well-being over another aside, that argument is somewhat conceding the point. These individuals have flawed immune systems. They are always at risk and are vulnerable whether vaccines exist or not. In fact they are so vulnerable they cannot even take the very vaccines that may save them. And why, again? Because vaccines tax the immune system. That is how they work.

Another interesting tidbit I’ve learned is regarding Measles. People don’t die from the Measles, per say; they die from pneumonia or some other such illness due to their immune system being so compromised. Measles also greatly drains the Vitamin A in a body. This is what causes blindness in some who get the disease because they already have depleted levels of Vitamin A and with the Measles it becomes almost nonexistent.  In places like Africa, vaccines aren’t going to work for the starving kids there until they are healthy, most often needing Vitamin A and other supplements. Once again, vaccines don’t work on compromised immune systems.

Let’s also take the idea of herd immunity.  On the face of it, herd immunity makes sense. If everyone is vaccinated, then the disease cannot be passed along and can even be eradicated from a certain location. But that doesn’t really hold up if indeed a vaccinated person can still get the disease and if vaccinated people can pass along the disease. And if the trade-off to a disease free life is a compromised and overtaxed immune system being passed down from generation to generation, this may ultimately lead to a society’s ruin. The herd immunity argument also brings up questions of freedom. If herd immunity is the only way for vaccines to work, then shouldn’t everyone be forced to get any and all vaccines available? Most liberty-loving people balk at such an idea, even if they think vaccines are completely safe.

Add to that the current fashion for “No Borders,” a policy instantly destroying any hope of herd immunity in a particular country (see Minnesota Measles outbreak begun by a “foreign” traveler).

It gives one even greater pause to learn that the current vaccine schedule is 60+ for kids and higher for adults (they are inventing more and more vaccines for all age groups). When exactly do we reach the point of too many vaccines? Have studies been conducted on the effects of getting multiple vaccines on a body? Throughout a lifetime? How about a developing baby’s body?

Another aside: I had no idea that we are now giving babies the Hepatitis B vaccine on the day of their birth. This is done despite there being no immediate risk (i.e., the baby’s parent’s do not have Hep B) to the baby and that it is usually a sexually transmitted disease, or something passed on by dirty drug needles.

Are anti-vaxxers really the crazy ones, here? Is there no point at which we can question the validity and effectiveness of vaccines, or at the very least, the need for more of them?

Let’s go back to Andrew Wakefield. So maybe he’s a con artist. But what about other studies (and the anti-vaxxers claim they are out there both before and after Wakefield’s time) on GI and Autism? What if, in the process of vaccines taking our immune systems for a workout, the balance of our bodies is damaged, including the GI equation? This is not even to mention the other harmful elements in a vaccine that may adversely affect our immune system and our gut. I don’t know many people who would deny they feel and function better when they eat healthy foods. If someone has difficulty digesting their food it can drastically affect their body, and, yes, brain function, as they may not be getting the adequate nutrition they need.  I know this from personal experience as I grew up with major GI problems myself. In America in particular, our diet is often vitamin depleting, so we have these nutrient-deprived bodies that are getting more and more vaccines all the time, and I have to wonder if our immune systems are having trouble keeping up. In addition, is this problem is being passed on to our kids and then getting compounded when they get vaccines as well?

Wakefield’s big thing was to administer the vaccines singly and over a more reasonable time frame, giving young children’s bodies the time to adjust, indicating that as late at 3 years old would be a much better time to administer especially the MMR one. This isn’t unreasonable in general, but it could be very unreasonable if you’re a drug company planning a schedule of 60+ vaccines before the child turns ten. No way are you going to get parents and kids coming in 60 times just to get a poke in their arm. That problem is even better solved by creating multi-vaccines, like the MMR, that vaccinate for a few different diseases at once. So it’s really no surprise that after the excitement around Wakefield’s statement, they did away with the single vaccines both in the UK and the USA, leaving parents with no choice but to give their children the triple MMR shot.

And somehow parents aren’t supposed to wonder if they’re being lied to?

Add on top of that the fact that drug companies cannot be directly sued (at least in the US) for harmful effects of their vaccines. If you’ve heard of the “vaccine court” that’s essentially what the government put in place (thanks a lot, Reagan) in the 1980s. You go to the government entity and they decide if you are owed monies and how much. And where do they get these dollars, pray tell? A tax on each individual vaccine, more if it’s the multiples (if I recall it was $0.75 for a single and $2+ for multiples). The vaccine court has dished out billions to vaccine injured parties and their families, and the government keeps the rest. If there was a perfect scenario for corruption, this is it. Neither the drug companies nor the government have the incentive to withdraw a single vaccine from the market. At best, they would wait until there are so many people adversely affected (I think it’s supposed to be half the population will have Autism in the near future?) and so much harm done that they would be forced by the public to take such vaccine off the market. The vaccine court is similar to a huge failing of the Catholic Church: insisting that all priests be celibate and unmarried. They essentially set themselves up for failure, and the eventually public outcry was entirely predictable, especially since the truth of the child abuse was deliberately hidden for a long time. If that’s the Church, how can we  then place any and/or more faith in secular government and public institutions? We already know that both the government and large corporations lie to us. It’s really not much of a stretch to consider they may be lying to us about vaccines, especially when a jaw-dropping amount of money is at stake.

At the end of all of this reading and watching, I go back and forth between both camps.  Vaccines are good, vaccines are bad. Vaccines are flawed, but still useful.  It’s thrilling to read books like Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio and think, yes, how wonderful for those children at the time, and then disconcerting to find that Polio was already on the downhill before the vaccine was largely implemented, and that after its invention the definition of “polio” was changed. So “polio” is eradicated, but we now have Guillain-Barré and other syndromes. Most people wouldn’t equate renaming a disease to it being eradicated. Anti-vaxx sites will claim this has happened with other diseases, that they are renamed to show how much the vaccine is “working.”

If you’ll notice, I haven’t cited any sources for this article and that is because, if you are curious about the whole discussion on vaccine safety, go out and read and watch and make up your own mind.  Nothing I write will ultimately convince you either way. A lot of information is available on the CDC’s website, on the NIH website, on the vaccine court’s website, etc. We have Andrew Wakefield’s story. Did you know that a number of his colleagues were exonerated from blame? Was the study really Wakefield’s long con or is something else going on? If there’s one CDC whistleblower, are there others? What is the connection between our immune system and GI issues? How much do GI issues affect our bodies and our brains? What adverse effects, if any, do vaccines have on our immune systems?  On our guts? Is there a gut-brain health connection? If the choice regarding vaccines is not between certain death from a disease and a healthy long life, but a choice between probable immunization from a disease that you may or may not be ever exposed to or even be permanently damaged or die of and the possibility of getting an auto-immune disorder for life that makes even eating an ordeal, what would you choose? What would you choose for your children?

As much as I want to believe that vaccines are ultimately safe, the very fact that they do harm some, gives me pause. The fact that they are such “holy” artifacts to our society that the companies that make them cannot be sued, gives me pause. The fact that our government is making money on the vaccines gives me pause. The fact that Andrew Wakefield may have falsified his results, gives me pause. His results were only seriously questioned after Brian Deer’s reporting and complaint. How many other scientific studies, both in favor and against vaccines were, have been, or are currently falsifying their results?

The anti-vax sentiment is merely part of a larger one: The disillusionment of public confidence regarding institutions. We have a media that outright lies to us on a daily basis. We have a government that often lies, too, and worse, they are not being held to account by said lying media. Vaccines are one of the last holdouts in public confidence. With the passing of Obamacare, faith in the health industry as a whole (not to mention Congress) is rapidly failing.  It’s only a matter of time before the public starts to question vaccines on a massive scale.

People immediately take offense over vaccine safety. They jump to anger ahead of any other response when anyone questions vaccines. Those who question God in Bible study don’t even get such a response. On comment boards, pro-vaxxers eerily mimic those in the the pro-Global Warming (or whatever it’s called these days) camp. They say the “science is settled” and that people who question vaccines are “deniers.” Pro-vaxxers often wish a horrible disease-ridden death on anti-vaxxers and their children or anyone who merely questions the safety of vaccines. Why is this? Is this not a huge red flag in some way? Before doing all of this reading, I reacted with certainty, too. Weren’t anti-vaxxers needlessly putting other people at risk? Hadn’t that all been debunked? Yes, it has been debunked, but only if one has confidence in large corporations, our government, and our public institutions. I can say I don’t have confidence the way I used to. These large entities are only as good as the people who run them, and if those people do not possess integrity, or moral excellence, it is very probable these entities are corrupt and should be seriously questioned, not blindly followed, even, and perhaps especially, when it comes to vaccines.

However I think about vaccines today (and I go back and forth as I do more research and reading), I can at least say I am informed, that I understand the arguments on both sides, and that I am not blindly following. If you are pro-vaccine, I highly recommend you start researching the other side and really look at their arguments. Look at the studies, too, if you find you can trust them. Anti-vaxxers, or those who question vaccines, be brave enough to question the claims your side is making. Understand that the pro-vaxx sentiment is largely emotional, but so is the anti-vaxx side. The generation now in their sixties grew up with a major media, government, and drug company campaign regarding Polio. The March of Dimes, the iron lungs, the horror stories of what happened to the children. This campaign of propaganda (the benefits of the vaccine aside) was pushed largely when our parents and/or grandparents were young children. Ever see a child completely melt down if their parent has a single cigarette? Yeah, that’s what I mean. Most older people also may have no idea just how many vaccines kids are supposed to get these days. What was two or three back in their day, is 60+ today.

For me, this is the biggest issue with vaccines:  In the future there will be more and more of them, and more combined – 10 in one shot, then 20! Whispers about mandating them or that unvaccinated children are somehow “unclean.” Little to no incentive for either the drug companies, the health industry, or the government to pull in the reigns. Where does it stop? How does it stop? How do we even reach the place where we can calmly  discuss if it should stop?

–P. Beldona

The Useful Idiot: The Circle

Absolute freedom and absolute tyranny both can be defined and enforced starting with the individual.  If the individual is not free, neither is society as a whole. If individuals are tyrannical without resistance, society eventually becomes tyrannical. Both the left and right sides of the political spectrum often use the term “useful idiots” to refer to those individuals who are fanatical to a fault in believing in the cause of their respective sides. These individuals are useful in the sense that without them tyranny would not gain a foothold and fools in the sense that they willfully ignore the truth and fail to anticipate the larger picture for the future.

The Circle by Dave Eggers (now a movie starring Emma Watson) tells the story of one useful, unthinking idiot, generally a progressive, but only in the sense that she wants to be part of the “in” crowd. The readers gets the feeling this twenty-something, Mae, would joyfully promote whatever was deemed to be popular and eagerly becomes part of and instigator in what can best be described as a “happy” fascism (see Hitler happy face on Jonah Goldberg’s bestseller Liberal Fascism). Her story instantly brings to mind the timeless quote by C.S. Lewis:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

I read The Circle in about a day and a half. The book consumed me and I think not unlike the unhealthy way that media in general can consume an individual’s attention. It is a horror story in the purest sense, relating our own eagerness to create hell on earth and highlighting that whatever technology humans create, there is always, always a downside. That Egger’s writing reels the reader into being able not to do much but read the story, he is genius in recreating the addictiveness of entertainment and the desire to “know.”

The Circle fits into two story genres for me, the first and perhaps more benign one of young people (often women) obtaining a dream job in which the company consumes their life, draining and using them up all for the almighty dollar. This story belongs alongside The Firm and The Devil Wears Prada as much as it also belongs with 1984. The second category, those stories of totalitarianism is what makes The Circle rise far above the first genre.  In reading the story, those who are well-read or have seen totalitarian films or movies will find instant parallels to 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Minority Report, The Giver, Antitrust, and thousands of other, similar stories.

Mae’s useful idiocy in The Circle is truly amazing. The Circle is a modern tech company with tentacles in every conceivable human endeavor, clearly symbolic of Google, Facebook, Apple, and the like. The story is so horrifying because the consuming nature of social media and modern technology has become evident to all. People spend thousands of hours a year (including myself) scrolling through news feeds, trying out new apps, liking and disliking, and commenting on topics we know little about. We see daily how our privacy is constantly infringed upon, whether it be yet another requirement in airport security or cameras installed (with or without our knowledge) in our neighborhood. This is presumably all to keep us safe, but leaves us more vulnerable than every to tyranny.

Useful idiots are hard to resist because together they make up millions and millions of people.  Technology makes it easy to become disconnected to reality. Just think of all the people rapidly accepting the Transgender movement without question. It’s easy to take on a cause online. One doesn’t have to think or research or actually comprehend the larger picture. With social media, it is also increasingly easy to think that “online” equals reality. Think of when Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls in Africa. What was our response?  The #bringbackourgirls hashtag for Twitter. The Circle parodies this perfectly as Mae “frowns” at a militant group terrorizing another country and then becomes concerned that the militant group will, first of all care that she is virtually frowning at them, and second of all, take steps to stop their behavior. Laughably, she also worries that they will physically try to target and attack her due to her one “frown” among millions of others.

To perhaps highlight just how unthinking Mae is, Eggers shows her as a young woman eager to sleep with almost anyone, even those she’s really not attracted to. This relates directly to the social justice nonsense that people are some how “-ist” (racist, agist, sexist) if they have preferences along race, gender and so on for romantic partners. Just as Mae feels bad if she doesn’t instantly reply to any message from anyone around the world in The Circle system, it’s no jump to figure she would feel just as bad rejecting any of the same people’s sexual advances. One of her partners seems to only use her for sex and then suddenly, inexplicably, relies on her to save the planet from tyranny. Mae isn’t the only useful idiot, just the one we happen to follow in the story.

The part where The Circle implements “instant democracy” is profound. Mae herself still can’t just immediately mark or voice her opinion. She (who has a lot of influence and power by this time) waits until others have given their “smiles” or “frowns” before she herself chooses the most popular option. If there was one thing I could change about modern education it would be to have a class clearly discussing and explaining to young minds just what democracy is and means. Pure democracy isn’t much different from mob rule and the only reason the young champion it is because they are young and are being taught by totalitarians. If all of one’s opinions match perfectly with those already in power, it is easy to think that pure democracy is a great thing. It’s easy to think that the governments have every right to force their citizens to speak or even to think a certain way.

The true horror of The Circle is that it is an all-knowing, all-seeing, mandatory participation system created and run by humans. If atheists think God is awful or should be disbelieved for demanding holiness, they should consider the alternative: humanity trying to be God.  This is the “god” that Satan would have for the world. In this Tower of Babel system, people have no chance to opt out, no rest from interference from their fellow humans, and perhaps most importantly, no forgiveness and no real love.  It is an evil that Boromir of Lord of the Rings would say “does not sleep.”

As harsh, or rather as just as God is, for love of us, He made a way out of punishment and eternal damnation. In Hell, there is no God and no forgiveness. Hell’s inhabitants have no relief from the evil they have done and that is the basis of their torment. We joke that everyone online is permanent, but it’s really no joke, and past information on people (especially of a political nature) is often used as a weapon against them and by all sides.

The invasive tracking of the individual in The Circle also brings to mind biblical prophesies like that in Revelation in which people are forced to wear the “mark of the beast” to buy or sell anything. The ironic thing about constant surveillance and tracking is that it is at the same time very inept. If the NSA tracks our every keystroke, in looking for the criminals, their haystack is impossibly huge. In addition, even though the information is in the “cloud” or “ether,” it still needs a physical space to be stored and itself uses a ton of physical resources. Talk about a burden on nature.

The Circle was so horrifying to me because it’s not so much telling the future, but telling what’s going on right now. The good thing is that people are becoming tired of social media. The bad thing is, once the next big social media site has a foothold, the obsession will start all over again. It’s at once great and also terrifying technology. People are peer-pressured into only sharing positive things online. People are increasingly (myself included) mistaken in the importance of their own opinions and thoughts. People are pushed into holding up only the popular or politically correct views and are more and more afraid of listening to any other views. In fact, young people especially, are starting to believe that any view that doesn’t conform with their own, or that of their college professors, is dangerous, and–even more remarkably–as physically dangerous to their person. This is where the “snowflake” accusation comes into play. We are attempting to make the world into a place where no negative or bad thing is spoken, seen, heard, or felt.  However, as any realist knows, this is futile. It is impossible to erase all of the bad things in the world and it is impossible to make utopia. This experiment is bound to fail in the long run, and worse than failure, will likely end with totalitarian oppression that must be overturned with physical violence. If one side will not listen to the other, if we “don’t use our words” as Stefan Molyneux often says, “we must use our fists.” This is no more clearly shown in episodes like that of the Berkeley riots against anyone on the “right” side of the political spectrum, and the rise of Antifa, purportedly a group against fascism, but fascistic itself and prone to physical violence against anyone who merely disagrees with them. Brave new world indeed.