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Even a blind hog...

Most everything about the Bush administration is embarrassing or much worse. Its foreign policy aspires to imperialism, not to antiterrorism; its environmental policy is a Xerox copy of the oil & gas lobby's "favors to ask for" list; its Enemy Number One now that Saddam Hussein is out of the way is the idea of open government at home.

But even a blind hog will root up an acorn every once in a while (thanks, Edward Abbey).

This Administration's acorn is the President's advisory council on bioethics.

Yes, I know. It's chaired by Leon Kass, and he's an anti-abortion conservative, and many liberals don't like him or the Council. The liberals have it wrong. In an Administration that's stunningly anti-intellectual, mean, and petty, the council is an oasis of thoughtfulness, wisdom, and good citizenship.

It's not perfect. As its critics point out, it has been ignoring some of the most important bioethical problems facing our country, such as the increasing inaccessibility to basic health care for a substantial number of our citizens. Nevertheless, the Council deserves credit for focusing on issues that are completely ignored by almost everyone else. These issues are those of the problems posed by technology, and perhaps more importantly, by our unquestioning faith that new technology will always make things better.

Faith in technology is to us what Catholicism was to Europe in the Middle Ages. It's a religion that's so widespread that it's invisible. No one can think about the world in any other way. But just as medieval Catholicism was both good and bad, building great cathedrals but also sending young farmers off to fight the Crusades, our faith in technology benfits us as well as harms us. More importantly, our faith is a historical contingency. We take it for granted, but there is a time when it didn't exist, and there will probably be a future in which it ceases to exist, at least as the all-dominating worldview that it is today.

President Bush's advisory council on bioethics is to us something of what Copernicus was to the Dark Ages. At a time when no one can even comprehend the possibility that the solar system might not be revolving around us, the council raises the possibility. Leon Kass deserves a lot of credit for this. Who else besides tree-hugger Bill McKibben and hillbilly Wendell Berry calls our attention to the risks of trying to build a world that's without any trace of given nature, that's entirely and everywhere a product of human design? Kass, of course, isn't plainly "right" or "wrong." But he's asking the right questions.

That an administration this bad should produce such a valuable advisory council never ceases to amaze me.

Comments

Are you sure that faith in technology's saving power is really all that widespread? I think it's hard to assert that "no one can think about the world in any other way." Why the widespread backlash against human cloning and genetically modified foods?

Just because people have reached a different conclusion than you does not mean they aren't thinking about it.

I agree that unquestioning faith in technology is not universal, but I believe it's as widespread as I made it seem in my post.

The backlash against genetically modified foods was more of a media creation than a real public backlash. And regardless, it's not having a real impact anyway. Just today the European Union finally caved and is allowing GM food imports.

As for cloning, there's a bit more substantive resistance to that. But I think it's drowned out by the widespread eagerness, for example, to alter germline DNA to make non-cloned people live forever.

There were dissenters from Catholicism even in the Middle Ages. Trouble was, they were such a minority, they had essentially zero influence.

Carey,
I agree that putting controls on cloning and genetic engineering is a good thing. However, the Bush administration has gone too far regarding stem cells. What Bush essentially did was tell the quadripelegics (sic?) diabetics, and Parkinson's sufferers of the world that a ball of undifferentiated cells was more important than they are. It makes me sick. As far as the anti-abortion movement is concerned, I would have much more respect for them if they were to care about these babies as much after they were born (most don't, hence their opposition to subsidized day care, universal health insurance for minors, AFDC, you name it)
As far as genetic engineering is concerned, I haven't seen the administration make any changes on that front. As you have pointed out, we are still cramming those GMOs down the throats of the world.

I agree that there are some new technologies that should absolutely be developed. We've always tried to come up with innovative cures for diseases; I see no reason why we should stop with stem cells.

My only point is that technology isn't good per se, and the fact that the Council is actually recognizing this fact, and trying to separate the beneficial from the harmful (even if they get it wrong sometimes), is a good thing. And a rare thing.