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March 01, 2004

JACOB LEVY ON THE BIOETHICS COUNCIL STACKING:

I'm all in favor of political theorists with University of Chicago connections who write about Montesquieu, really I am. But these changes have the clear intent and effect of making the advisory council more intellectually homogenous and less likely to air any dissent from Kass' essentially religious and anti-science views.

The Straussian link to foreign policy is deeply overstated. That to the bioethics commission is much less widely-known-- other than to longtime readers of Virginia Postrel's blog-- but much more real. The President is at complete liberty to replace members of the council; there's no procedural irregularity here, no wrongdoing. Just a very bad idea, and one that illustrates the administration's approach to science and research questions. After Kass was appointed chair of the council, much was made of the overall intellectual balance of the group. With the spotlight gone, that balance is getting replaced with something else altogether.

Indeed.

UPDATE: Phil Bowermaster observes:

I was, at best, lukewarm on George W. Bush until September 12, 2001. I have been a staunch supporter ever since, believing that he has done exactly what was needed by taking the war to our enemy. I understood that the war had to take precedence over everything else, but I'm beginning to wonder...does President Bush understand that? If he does, then why is he pandering left and right? The smart thing would be to move to the center on all these social issues and keep his support solid. As it is, in November I plan to hold my nose and vote for Bush. The fact that I have to put it that way indicates that he has, indeed, wasted the good will that I had for him.

A President is bound to alienate some supporters with some things that he does. But it certainly seems as if I've been hearing this sort of thing from a lot of people, on a lot of different issues, and often put far more negatively than Phil does. It makes me wonder what, exactly, the plan is.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jim Bennett emails:

It strikes me that the Kass bioethics council is Bush's equivalent of Clinton's National Monologue (er, "dialogue") on Race -- both DOA for not being genuine dialogues between the two widely-held poles of opinion on the subjects under discussion. There is no national consensus on either cloning or affirmative action, and to have a national exercise that excludes one of the poles makes the whole thing pointless at best and offensive to many.

Indeed.

MORE: I've gotten a number of emails -- interestingly, all seemingly from University of Chicago alumni -- saying that I'm being too hard on Kass. I don't think so, as this has been the modus operandi from day one:

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.

This smacks of dishonesty, to me, and his behavior since has been consistent.

STILL MORE: David Bernstein offers perspective.

MORE STILL: Reader Karl Bade observes:

Has Phil considered that W is pandering precisely because the war takes precedence over everything else? Why does Phil think that moving to the center on social issues will keep his support solid? If conservative evangelicals sit at home this November, there won't be enough moderates in this country to make up for it. If Phil wants to argue that the evangelicals should understand that the war takes precedence over everything else, fine. There are a number of responses to such an argument, but it would be an interesting debate. I would note in passing that W is acutely aware that his Dad alienated conservatives for the sake of obtaining domestic support for the Gulf War, and it earned GHWB an early retirement, which was followed by eight years in which our response to terrorist attacks was minimal.

Yes. And while I'm happy to complain here, I freely admit that I might have the politics of what's going on here all wrong -- there's a strong tendency to confuse doing things one dislikes with acting politically dumb, and the two aren't necessarily the same. From where I sit, though, it seems as if Bush is in danger of getting the worst of both worlds -- moving far enough right to alienate non-evangelicals, without giving the evangelicals enough to inspire them on election day. But I'm no expert on that sort of political calculation. Of course, it's true that there are all sorts of people vulnerable to criticism on these issues:

Many of the same types who would criticize Bush for including religious opinion on a scientific panel debating the use of fetal cells - are those who refer to transgenic crops as "Frankenfood" .

Biblical scholars have no place in scientific discourse, but Mary Shelley does?

I don't mind Biblical scholars on a panel. (Or science fiction writers, though Shelley may prove unavailable. . . .) My complaint about this panel, though, is that it's stacked to produce the recommendations that Leon Kass (and, presumably President Bush) want. As Jacob Levy notes, there's nothing illegal about that -- but on the other hand, there's nothing admirable, or persuasive, about it, either.

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