THE SCENE (a.k.a. |
Comments on current ideas and events
Week of August 6, 2001
WATCH THAT COMMISSION: To those who know how to translate the lingo, Leon Kass is signalling that he plans to stack the president's bioethics commission with people who share his "just say no" stasist worldview. "The goal [of the commission] is to develop at the highest level, the deepest and most comprehensive understanding of the issues, and we are striving for wisdom, not just cleverness," he tells Liam Ford of the Chicago Tribune. While in normal speech, "wisdom" connotes good judgment informed by experience, in this context it means favoring classical philosophical traditions over Enlightenment individualism. And the stab at "cleverness" is a swipe at applying science to solve human problems. This is Plato vs. Bacon.
Some readers may think I'm being unfair. After all, Kass denies any plans to stack the commission. He tells Ford, ""There are several ways of running commissions. One is to stack it with your people, make them homogeneous, and force a consensus. Another is to make them heterogenous, so that you can only come to the lowest common denominator. We're not going to adopt either. This is an opportunity to allow wise and thoughtful people to try and develop at the highest level an explanation of the issues involved, and the president can then choose among them."
OK, so Kass says he doesn't want a homogeneous commission and says he doesn't want a heterogeneous one. That doesn't leave many options. What could he have in mind? Expect a commission that looks "diverse" but isn't really. There's evidence Kass is only too willing to take advantage of the press and president's ignorance of how thinkers line up. A reader points me to this passage from Saturday's New York Times background article by Katherine Seelye and Frank Bruni:
Later that afternoon [Bush] met with two bioethicists, Dr. Kass and Dr. Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center for Bioethics. It was at this meeting that his thoughts began to gel, although not in the way he expected.
In other words, when the president of the United States asked Kass to bring along someone who disagreed with him, he did quite the opposite. He brought along someone whose views, both on the issue at hand and on medical progress more generally, mirror his own. Callahan's egalitarianism puts him on the left of the traditional spectrum, which provides a cover for this false "diversity." (My earlier take on this meeting is here. Ron Bailey's review of Daniel Callahan's book, False Hopes is here.)
The reader who sent me this virtual clip is a biomedical researcher who sympathizes with Kass's opposition to cloning and prenatal genetic modification but supports embryonic stem cell research. He was shocked by Kass's tactics: "Callahan opposed to the destruction of embryos? Kass must have been shocked—shocked! This smacks of an incredibly underhanded, 11th-hour attempt on Kass's part to sabotage any compromise. You keep your eye on that guy!"
I've been watching him for years. The question now is whether anyone else will. So far, the Chicago papers are the place to go for serious coverage. Thanks to reader Tim Henderson, who sends in this profile by Dave Newbart of the Sun-Times. "I am not a Neanderthal,'' Kass tells Newbart. "A simple nostalgia for the past is foolish. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't address the problems of modernity.'' ("Modernity" does not mean the 21st century. It means the period since the Scientific Revolution and the rise of liberal individualism.) Says Tim, "'I am not a Neanderthal' sounds suspiciously like 'I am not a crook'." [Posted 8/12.]
SITE NEWS: As you can tell from the previous item, readers' contributions are essential to this site's quality. I also appreciate all the virtual clips related to my current book project. And, of course, thanks to readers who've sent payments via Amazon, PayPal, or check to support this site. If you'd like to send a check, please ask me for the mailbox address. I also appreciate all your emailed comments and topic suggestions. While I can't reply to every note—which ones I answer is pretty random, depending on what else is going on in my life—I do read them all. As for the traffic, I'm happy to report that July was the site's best month ever, with about 21,000 visits to this page. Please spread the word. [Posted 8/12.]
EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT: Jack Kelley of USA Today offers a gripping first-hand account of the suicide-bomb massacre in a Jerusalem pizza restaurant. He was just yards from the restaurant, and had seen the bomber enter. USA Today still hasn't recovered its brand image from its early days of "We"-filled hype news, but it publishes some of the most interesting stories around. [Posted 8/11.]
LEON THE UNDECIDED: Robert Wright of Slate posts the first non-Reason-staff article pointing out that Leon Kass is an anti-biotech fanatic. The article contains two revelations. The first, unfortunately, is that Wright was too busy or lazy to do his homework and read Kass's most recent New Republic article, much less his book. The second, hiding in plain sight, is that Kass is portraying himself to reporters as an open-minded man of unsettled views—"A Philosopher Fully at Ease in Uncertainty," declares the headline on the New York Times mini-profile. This is a complete crock, as any reporter who had done a modicum of research would know. Kass got where he is by having strong views and arguing them in public. But, unlike the religious pro-lifers, he is apparently enough of a Machiavel to pretend otherwise when it advances his political influence. [Posted 8/10.]
BAD BLASTOCYST: This Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon takes on the debate over when life begins, and quite a few others. Don't look if you're from the "That's not funny" school of serious issues. [Posted 8/10.]
FREE AGENT RESILIENCE: The conventional wisdom may keep pooh-poohing the rise of "free agents," who work not for a single employer but for themselves, but this important trend, and the mentality behind it, keeps right on going. (Dan Pink's terrific book, Free Agent Nation, explores the phenomenon and its social, political, and personal implications.) The latest evidence is, amazingly enough, this in-depth New York Times piece by economics correspondent Louis Uchitelle. The article documents the effects of a "just-in-time work force," in which companies are "continually tailoring their work forces to fit the available work, adjusting quickly to swings in demand for products and services."
Free agents allow that flexibility. Uchitelle cites a forthcoming study of more than 3,000 companies showing that "on a typical day these companies—a cross-section of corporate America—used temps and contract workers to meet 12 percent of their manpower needs. On peak days, their use reached 20 percent."
And the free agent attitude—what Rutgers professor Charles Heckscher calls the "professional ethic," as opposed to the old "loyalty ethic" of Organization Man days (see my review of Heckscher's book White-Collar Blues)—makes not just companies but individual employees more resilient. "Employees are developing the view that their only job security in the future must be based on their ability and their competence, and not on keeping a job at some particular company." Motorola human resources vp Gary Howard tells Uchitelle. Laid-off employees are more likely to help each other find work, since it's no longer embarrassing to be job hunting. And, knowing they'll need workers in the future, companies like Motorola go to great lengths to maintain good relations withthe people they lay off. [Posted 8/9.]
WOMEN'S RIGHTS: My latest New York Times column looks at research on the connection between economic development and the extension of full property rights to married women. [Posted 8/9.]
SPLIT DECISION: President Bush decides in favor of limited federal funding for research on stem cells derived from embryos, giving biologists a short-term victory and laying the groundwork for future restrictions on genetic research. His speech contains this misleading passage: "Researchers are telling us the next step could be to clone human beings to create individual designer stem cells, essentially to grow another you to be available in case you need another heart or lung or liver." While not technically inaccurate, this language strongly suggests a full and possibly conscious body ("another you") to be carved up for organs. It is deliberately inflammatory rhetoric, surprising in a speech whose tone was so measured elsewhere. The actual prospect, which may or may not ever come to fruition, is to grow individual organs that match yours, not "another you."
More ominous, although not entirely unexpected, is Bush's choice of Leon Kass, the right's Jeremy Rifkin, to head "a president's council to monitor stem cell research, to recommend appropriate guidelines and regulations and to consider all of the medical and ethical ramifications of biomedical innovation." (For the approach to expect from Kass, see the latest Weekly Standard cover story, which condemns even research on adult stem cells because it portends "morally problematic eugenic uses" and serves "an inflamed desire for comfort, health, and longevity that impels us forward, that makes us justify what initially seems unjustifiable, that blinds us to the truth about human mortality and finitude, and about the dark side of our disease-ending civilization.")
Why Kass? I'll leave it to Washington reporters to figure out exactly how he got Bush's ear, but the obvious explanation is that he's the only Republican bioethicist available. No bioethicist from the party's more libertarian wing has entered the public fray, assuming such a bioethicist even exists.
This raises a point I'm often asked about: Would it be better to have one political party that advocates a consistent dynamist (or more narrowly libertarian) line? I think not. It's better to have dynamists active in both major parties, so that when new issues arise there will be voices at the table saying no to the technocratic impulse to regulate, control, and ban. We were lucky that when the Internet burst onto the scene there were many Democratic technologists with essentially libertarian instincts. They had a significant positive impact on Clinton administration policy. We have not be so lucky with biotechnology and Republicans. [Posted 8/9.]
RELIGIOUS PLURALISM: Drew Clark contributes an interesting Slate piece to the discussion of ethics and embryo research. From their own religious traditions, he notes, there's nothing inconsistent about the anti-abortion, pro-embryonic stem cell research positions of Sens. Orrin Hatch and Gordon Smith. Both are Mormons, and LDS theology holds that human life exists in spirit form before conception and that a person's life on earth begins when that spirit is united with a body and implanted in a womb. Human life does not, in other words, begin at conception. When Gordon Smith compared stem cells to "the dust of the earth—they are essential to life, but standing alone, will never constitute life," he was drawing on his own religious tradition.
Drew, himself a Mormon, may exaggerate the pivotal role of these two senators. But his article points up an important fact: This is not a religious-secular debate, but one in which different secular and religious traditions are lined up on both sides. As pointed as the secular debates have been, it's striking how dismissive the loudest religious voices are of those traditions they do not share. Drew notes that "Richard Doerflinger, the associate director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, later described Smith's theory as 'amateur theology.'" He comments that "if Doerflinger didn't know that he was implicitly dismissing the theology of the nation's fifth-largest denomination, the amateurism was his own."
Regardless of one's views of when personhood begins, describing biblical interpretation as "amateur theology" shows utter contempt for religious pluralism, deriding not only Smith's LDS faith but all Protestant traditions. The majority of Americans subscribe to those traditions, all of which are premised on the "priesthood of all believers" and the primacy of scripture and the believer's ability to understand it. "Amateur theology" is, in a sense, what the Reformation was all about. Unfortunately, most reporters and commentators are too ignorant of Americans' many religious traditions to recognize when they clash. [Posted 8/8.]
ENVIRONMENTAL OPTIMISM: The latest environmentalist to notice that things are getting better, not worse, is Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician at the University of Aarhus in Denmark and the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. In this article in The Economist, Lomborg argues against "the litany" of environmental fears:
• Natural resources are running out.
Lomborg's conclusion: "The trouble is, the evidence does not back up this litany."
Lomborg's book grew from research he did originally to debunk economist Julian Simon's work after reading an article about him in Wired. "Three months into the project, we were convinced that we were being debunked instead," Lomborg told Nicholas Wade of The New York Times. "Not everything he said is right. He has a definite right-wing slant. But most of the important things were actually correct." [Posted 8/8.]
MYTH MAKING: My emails have been buzzing with news that the next Star Wars movie will be called...Attack of the Clones. That should certainly raise the level of the current biotech debate. As my friend Todd Seavey writes, "Just in case there was any doubt, a generation of children will now surely grow up thinking of clones as mindless, armored automatons who serve a dark master and attack normal, decent folk. Coupled with the previous film, in which the villains were trade-obsessed tax protesters with a leader named 'Nute,' the once-noble Star Wars films are quickly degenerating into a force for authoritarian propaganda. But of course, I will still see the damn thing." [Posted 8/7.]
NAMING FASHIONS: The Wall Street Journal's Tunku Varadarajan writes this week about the surprising prominence of a Sanskrit name, meaning moon, in recent news stories about a young woman who is not a Hindu but an American Jew. He dislikes the altered pronunciation, which is typical when names travel from language to language. (Compare Sharon Stone's first name to Ariel Sharon's last name, which is pronounced the "real" way.)
I bring this up not just as an interesting example of cultural dynamism but as an excuse to plug the fascinating book, A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change, by Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson. What's interesting about names is that they are subject to definite fashions—the most famous of which may be the rage for Heather in the early 1970s, leading to the movie Heathers and a cute joke in Blast from the Past—but without the commercial aspects of, say, clothes. Everybody can afford the same names, and nobody is advertising them on TV. By using birth records to analyze how name choice evolves over time, Lieberson gains important insights into the relation between personal preferences and social patterns of taste. He also offers a lot of fun information along the way.
Lieberson convincingly argues that, while social influences are important, tastes have internal dynamics of their own. Our expressive choices are not simply a product of corporate manipulation, media influence, or social status seeking. Sometimes parents give their kids the names of movie stars, but just as often they don't. At least in the United States, there's little evidence of a "trickle down" effect in which names start with upper class parents and are copied by lower-status families. Rather, naming reflects a complex process of differentiation and imitation (you want your kid's name to be individual but not weird), evolving conventions (girls' names that end in -a are currently popular), and boredom and innovation. Newly popular names tend to catch on among people of all socioeconomic groups at roughly the same time. For the most part, these changes are gradual and aesthetic, not symbolic or ideological. Writes Lieberson:
The usual assumptions about names in particular, and fashions in general, are questionable. When approached correctly, tastes exhibit orderly processes and understandable movements over time that, I confess, are an aesthetic joy. Fashions are less influenced by external events than is commonly assumed, often changing because of internal mechanisms that—once established—operate independently of society. These internal mechanisms force changes in tastes even if the social order itself is constant. I remind readers of the contrast between this perspective and the almost automatic disposition at present to assume that an external change must account for a new taste or the decline of an older one. Social commentators make more of "reflection theory"—the notion that cultural events reflect the social order—than is justified. And their reliance on this theory leads to the search for substantive significance behind each new fashion ("substantive" in the sense that each new fashion is thought to reflect a particular development in society). Although broad social developments do affect fashion and taste, their influence is neither as common nor as overwhelming as these commentators would have us believe. Reflection theory ignores the role of internal mechanisms and therefore the fact that changes will occur even when external social conditions remain constant. Cultural analysts today generally use far less extensive evidence than is available for names, with the result that seemingly plausible speculations based on reflection theory are rarely challenged.
What, you may ask, is this reflection theory and why might it be wrong? One nice explication is from Anne Hollander's brilliant book, Sex and Suits. She makes an argument about the shapes of clothing similar to Lieberson's findings about names. It's conventional wisdom to say that the giant shoulder pads women wore in the 1980s were "power suits" that armored professional women new to the male-dominated workforce. Women's clothes, in this view, reflected their social situation. Big shoulders "meant" that women were assuming male characteristics to match their new, formerly male, social roles. Hollander notes anomolies in this costume that suggest something more purely formal at work:
Those big female shoulders of the eighties were often worn with androgynous-looking pants and short hair, supporting the idea of masculine imitation; but they were simultaneously worn with full manes of hair, short tight skirts and high heels. Both formulations seem to have more to do with old and new media imagery and with the state of form in fashion during the preceding epoch than with aspects of feminism....Visual changes must depend on what is already there to look at; they can't seize a meaning from the atmosphere and try to match it with a shape. In the continuum of fashion, the shape must evolve from the previous shape, opposing or distorting or confirming it.
People often ask me what my new book project, on the role of aesthetics in the economy and society, could possibly have to do with my previous interests, explored in The Future and Its Enemies. Where's the politics? Here is one answer: Like the many other processes discussed in TFAIE, fashion is an open-ended, evolutionary process in which individual creativity meets individual desire, with unpredictable results. And authorities who believe that individuals should not make such unruly decisions, or can't be responsible for their own tastes, ostracize both fashion in general and the markets that carry its commercial products. [Posted 8/7.]
HURRAY FOR C-SPAN: Bravo to C-Span for its excellent, multihour telecast of the National Academy of Sciences' panels on cloning research and ethics. The thoughtful, complex discussions I saw on TV bore little resemblance to news reports that emphasized the most eccentric and extreme researchers. It's legitimate to report on those who claim they'll produce a human clone any moment now, but not without reporting on the mainstream of cloning research. [Posted 8/7.]
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