Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The end of race as we know it?

John H. McWhorter and Glenn Loury debate on Blogging Heads

The Stupidity of Dignity- Steven Pinker
This spring, the President's Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The Council, created in 2001 by George W. Bush, is a panel of scholars charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation, including drugs that would enhance cognition, genetic manipulation of animals or humans, therapies that could extend the lifespan, and embryonic stem cells and so-called "therapeutic cloning" that could furnish replacements for diseased tissue and organs. Advances like these, if translated into freely undertaken treatments, could make millions of people better off and no one worse off. So what's not to like? The advances do not raise the traditional concerns of bioethics, which focuses on potential harm and coercion of patients or research subjects. What, then, are the ethical concerns that call for a presidential council?...

The sickness in theocon bioethics goes beyond imposing a Catholic agenda on a secular democracy and using "dignity" to condemn anything that gives someone the creeps. Ever since the cloning of Dolly the sheep a decade ago, the panic sown by conservative bioethicists, amplified by a sensationalist press, has turned the public discussion of bioethics into a miasma of scientific illiteracy. Brave New World, a work of fiction, is treated as inerrant prophesy. Cloning is confused with resurrecting the dead or mass-producing babies. Longevity becomes "immortality," improvement becomes "perfection," the screening for disease genes becomes "designer babies" or even "reshaping the species." The reality is that biomedical research is a Sisyphean struggle to eke small increments in health from a staggeringly complex, entropy-beset human body. It is not, and probably never will be, a runaway train.

A major sin of theocon bioethics is exactly the one that it sees in biomedical research: overweening hubris. In every age, prophets foresee dystopias that never materialize, while failing to anticipate the real revolutions. Had there been a President's Council on Cyberethics in the 1960s, no doubt it would have decried the threat of the Internet, since it would inexorably lead to 1984, or to computers "taking over" like HAL in 2001. Conservative bioethicists presume to soothsay the outcome of the quintessentially unpredictable endeavor called scientific research. And they would stage-manage the kinds of social change that, in a free society, only emerge as hundreds of millions of people weigh the costs and benefits of new developments for themselves, adjusting their mores and dealing with specific harms as they arise, as they did with in vitro fertilization and the Internet.

Worst of all, theocon bioethics flaunts a callousness toward the billions of non-geriatric people, born and unborn, whose lives or health could be saved by biomedical advances. Even if progress were delayed a mere decade by moratoria, red tape, and funding taboos (to say nothing of the threat of criminal prosecution), millions of people with degenerative diseases and failing organs would needlessly suffer and die. And that would be the biggest affront to human dignity of all.

The prize Hillary isn't owed;
Women, we are told by some people who say they know them, are not amused. Women, or at least those whose consciousnesses have been properly raised, supposedly think that the impatience being expressed about the protracted futility of Hillary Clinton's campaign is disrespectful. They say that if the roles were reversed — if Barack Obama's delegate arithmetic were as hopeless as hers — people would not be so insensitive as to try to hurry a man off the stage.

But they would. And some people, claiming to speak for African Americans, would be explaining that African Americans find it all disrespectful. In identity politics, ritualized indignation about imagined affronts is highly choreographed and hence predictable.

In America, however, nothing ages as fast as novelty, and efforts to encourage Clinton to pack it in are heartening evidence that the novelty has worn off: The female candidate is like all other candidates. This is what equality looks like — life as an equal-opportunity dispenser of disappointments.

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