WHO DIED AND MADE YOU GOD? That's the question many are asking bioethicists these days, according to a story in Sunday's New York Times. It's a good question. It's not like God was especially good as a source of answers for moral questions (the Inquisition comes to mind as an example of this approach's flaws) but nowadays bioethicists are increasingly asked to take the place of religion. And they're not God, or godlike. They're just officious people with graduate degrees. They've become part of an overarching ethics establishment with no particular claim to legitimacy and with substantial evidence of feathering its own nest at the expense of the interests it's supposed to protect. This problem isn't unique to bioethicists, but they suffer from it as much as any others.
MORE ON THE CONTROVERSIAL LEON KASS: Ronald Bailey joins Virginia Postrel's concerns about the appointment of the highly partisan Leon Kass to head George W. Bush's bioethics commission. As mentioned below, I agree. This is like putting Neal Horsley in charge of a commission on the ethics of abortion. Will the press focus on Kass's precommitments on this issue?
TERRIFIC column by Dorothy Rabinowitz on the continuing madness of the Amirault witch-hunt in Massachussetts. Now that their case has been discredited by evidence that the children "victims" were coached and browbeaten into saying exactly what the prosecution wanted to hear (chilling excerpts provided) the prosecutors have brought these victims back for a press conference. Now they're reporting entirely new, and even more fantastic, episodes of abuse -- episodes never mentioned earlier in depositions or at trial. Sadly, these former kids (they're practically grownups now, over a decade later) probably sincerely believe that this stuff happened. They're victims all right -- victims of prosecutorial brainwashing. If child abuse is horrible because of the lifelong anguish it can inflict on its victims, then isn't virtual child abuse -- in which the lifelong anguish is inflicted without the actual abuse -- nearly as bad? Not much chance that the prosecutors will be held accountable, though. Historians will look back on the Amirault case and the other episodes like it the same way they look back on the Salem witch trials. (Hey, that was in Massachussetts too...). The WSJ and Dorothy Rabinowitz deserve medals for bravery in an era when anyone who decries such horrors is at risk of being deemed a pedophile-lover. When will the federal Department of Justice investigate this case? And when are state bars' ethics commissions going to start disciplining prosecutors for offering obviously manufactured testimony, and for refusing to back down when they're caught? If a plaintiffs' lawyer did this sort of thing in a tort suit, he or she would be disbarred. Why should prosecutors, who can take people's lives and liberty, not just their money, be held to a lesser standard?
THE BULLMOOSE is joining Josh Marshall in attacking President Bush's stem cell decision. Well, not really. Marshall says (wrongly, I think -- see below) that Bush's speech was terrible. Bullmoose thinks that it's the tepid response of the pro-lifers that's terrible. Bush has betrayed them, says the moose, but they don't care so long as they maintain access. I think that's unfair. In truth, despite all the posturing, the stem-cell issue is peripheral. It is to the abortion debate what Quemoy and Matsu were to the Cold War: something you can argue about precisely because it is peripheral. Bush isn't going to concede much, if any, ground on the abortion front where it really matters -- he won't be vetoing any partial-birth abortion bans, for example. (I think he should veto such a bill, because regulating abortion isn't a legitimate part of the commerce power but that's neither here nor there.) In truth, there's a lot of consensus on the middle ground in the abortion area: most people know you can't really outlaw it, and don't really want that anyway, but they don't really like abortion and don't mind if it's moderately hard to get one. This situation is deeply unsatisfying for people who like nice, clean ideological divisions. But most voters, and most politicians, aren't those sorts of people.
EVEN MORE PROBLEMS FOR THE FBI: According to this story, FBI agents and prosecutors allowed informants to plot and commit serious crimes, including murder. A similar scandal has been unfolding in Boston. Now, I understand that when you have informants in criminal gangs, by definition they're going to be committing crimes. But at the same time, "informant" status has been used, apparently not uncommonly, as a "get out of jail free" card. At some point it looks less like assisting an investigation on the part of the informant, and more like complicity on the part the government. The ability to, er, overlook crimes is an inevitable part of law enforcement and prosecutorial discretion. It's also one that is enormously susceptible to corruption, abuse, and bad judgment. Once again, it appears that the FBI isn't up to the job.
BIOTECH STOCKS TUMBLED IN RESPONSE TO BUSH'S SPEECH. But why? Nobody's entirely sure. Certainly most observers would have expected (heck, did expect) the opposite. Well, some of it makes sense. Geron Corp. took a hit because it has been claiming that it has the rights to all the stem cell lines in existence -- except that that number adds up to less than the 60 that President Bush claimed. Apparently, others exist, but the NIH won't say who has the others, citing the need to respect business confidentiality. StemCells, Inc. took a major drubbing. That's apparently because it doesn't experiment with embryonic stem cells. I suppose that means that it would have gone up had Bush's decision gone the other way -- though given the herd mentality of markets, it might have been dragged down in that case, at least in the short run, by general stem-cell pessimism. Best take comes in this article with the following quote: "If they can't kill it [stem cell research] now, they're certainly not going to be able to kill it when we prove it can cure diseases." Yep. Go to it, guys.
ANOTHER interesting angle: The same Times article also notes how little people in the field know about each other's work. This is an unfortunate consequence of today's mania for intellectual property and industrial secrecy, and the revelation that so much is unknown by major players in the field makes me just a bit leerier of investing in biotech as a sector. In the early days of electronics, I think people had a much better idea of what was going on across that field. All this secrecy is likely to retard the industry's growth -- something that policymakers and courts, and investors, should keep in mind, if companies don't.
SO FAR SO GOOD FOR BUSH: Quickie polls show support for his decision, and he's getting a pretty substantial degree of support even from conservatives who don't really agree with him. BUT you're beginning to see some concern about his naming of Leon Kass to chair the ethics commission. Kass is a tremendous partisan on this issue, and there's some question whether he can transcend his own views to act as an impartial chair. Kass seemed to be trying to address those concerns on NPR a few minutes ago, which means he's hearing them too. IS BUSH STACKING THE DECK? Maybe, but maybe not. As far as I can tell, Bush never heard much from ethicists who think stem-cell research and cloning are good things. Such ethicists exist, though they are probably in a minority. But in part, that's because of a built in conflict of interest: ethicists who say that things are "morally troubling" make more work (and CNN opportunities) for ethicists. Ethicists who don't are like lawyers who say there are no serious legal issues involved in doing something: in danger of working themselves out of a job.
NICE COLUMN BY JOHN KASS IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE: It's about the decline and fall of Illinois Gov. George Ryan. According to Kass's column, Ryan's fall is based on a Faustian bargain, trading morality for power, that happened to result in the death of six young children at the hands of one of the beneficiaries of the license-bribery scandal that reigned when Ryan was Secretary of State. It seems like the kind of bargain a lot of politicians make. Ryan just (eventually) got caught.
WHO IS A JOURNALIST? That's the question raised by the case of Vanessa Leggett, a freelancer currently being held in jail for refusing to share information with the Department of Justice. This isn't especially important for First Amendment purposes, as journalists don't actually enjoy any more in the way of First Amendment rights than anyone else. (Professional journalists don't like to admit this, and are constantly trying to get special treatment for the "working press," but there you are.) An interesting letter in today's Washington Post points out that many news accounts of Leggett's case are wrong: they say that she has never published anything. In fact, she turns out to have at least one publication -- a chapter in a book published by (drum roll, please ... or maybe a rim shot is more appropriate) the Department of Justice.
Of course, the real relevance of being a "working journalist" isn't legal. It's political. If Leggett worked for the Post or even the Clarksville (TN) Leaf-Chronicle the national media and journalist-rights groups would be rallying to her side in a way wholly different from what's going on here. Advice to freelancers working on controversial stories: First, get yourself a website, so you'll have something published. (Er, like this one....) Second, join as many interest groups as you can, so that you can call on them later. It's not much, but it's better than nothing. Freedom of the Press doesn't just belong to those who own one, but it does belong chiefly to those who can frighten off officious government types. The courts are a last resort.
STILL AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Read the stem cell post below from 6:57 a.m. PT. Then read this item by William Saletan of Slate, posted there at 7:44 a.m. PT. Advantage: InstaPundit!
BELABORING THE OBVIOUS: According to the Washington Post, the Centers for Disease Control have released a new study saying that school violence is most common at the beginning of the academic year and in February. This is hardly news, as many private experts have been saying this for years. The item is more informative as to the increasing desperation of the CDC, a cold-war relic (it was originally created for biowar defense) that is trying to stay relevant (and funded) by attaching itself to various hot-button social issues that can be redescribed as diseases. (Its recent unsuccessful effort to define gun violence as a disease is another example). Violence is a behavior, not a disease. Personally, I'd be happier if my tax dollars were being spent on, say, West Nile Virus, Dengue Fever, or AIDS. Cure those, and let somebody else worry about behavioral problems.
MORE ON BUSH AND STEM CELLS: Did Bush "thread the needle" on this one? Jonah Goldberg seems to think so, and I think so too. In fact, the stem-cell debate seems to be doing to pro-lifers what partial-birth abortion did to NARAL: it's marginalizing the farther reaches. Just as it's hard to sanitize the gruesome partial-birth abortion procedure, it's hard to gruesomize stem-cell research. A cluster of undifferentiated cells isn't a person in most people's minds, any more than an acorn is an oak tree. I know this from experience: my wife and I had several miscarriages before our daughter was born. There was nothing good about those experiences, but they didn't amount to a millionth of what we would experience if our daughter died. Most people have similar experiences and views (we don't have funerals for miscarriages, after all). Speaking of my wife, she gave Bush good points for presentation -- and especially brevity: "It was only ten minutes," she said approvingly. "Clinton would have gone on for an hour."
NOSTALGIA is a funny thing. This letter in today's L.A. Times expresses the writer's sadness at the removal of oil wells from the Farmer's Market area. Apparently, they are a fondly remembered part of the writer's childhood, kind of like the CITGO sign near Fenway Park is for many Bostonians. Will people someday be nostalgic for the offshore rigs dotting the Gulf Coast?
BUSH IS BEING SAVAGED by prolifers for his stem-cell decision. But this angry column by Rod Dreher in the New York Post speaks the most important truth: prolifers have nowhere else to go. They'll grumble, but they don't want to elect a Democrat. Paradoxically, Bush's very political weakness here is a strength in terms of keeping his coalition together. If he had won big last election, the prolife saber-rattling might actually lead to a lot of people splitting off to Buchanan or some other standard-bearer. But the closeness of the last election makes that so obviously stupid that it won't happen. A big winner here is Sen. Bill Frist, whose compromise efforts were largely embodied in Bush's approach. Frist, a heart surgeon best known for saving the lives of occasional heart-attack victims at the Capitol with CPR, is quietly staking out a lot of important turf, putting his medical expertise and low-key charm to work in the medical/biotech sectors. Interestingly, when he was elected most people thought (to varying degrees of approval or disapproval) that he would be a water-carrier for the hard-right Christian conservatives and prolifers. It hasn't worked out that way.
GERM WARFARE: Good oped in the New York Times today on germ warfare, by Christopher Chyba of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation. His point is that the nuclear-era nonproliferation approach probably isn't worth a lot when dealing with germ warfare, since batches of pathogens can be cooked up in basements or garages, effectively beyond observation. Instead he suggests we need to invest in disease surveillance and general public health measures, noting that these would not only help protect against biological warfare or terrorism but would also produce substantial benefits against natural disease outbreaks, an important issue now that international travel is spreading diseases around the world outside of their native ranges. I might add that a powerful biotechnology capability is important too: the more advanced the basic biotech infrastructure, the faster we would be able to mount a response (vaccines, medications, etc.) to a new disease outbreak, whether of natural or artificial origin.
SOME FURTHER THOUGHTS: I was watching Alan Keyes in the FoxNews followup blatherfest. Keyes is playing right into Bush's hands, going over the top comparing this research to Josef Mengele's torture-experiments in Nazi death camps. The more Keyes talks, the more reasonable Bush looks. It's kind of like Clinton and Sister Souljah. It couldn't be a better triangulation if it had been planned that way. Say, you don't think . . . ? Nope, if it had been planned, they would have made sure Keyes was on CNN, not Fox.
INSTAPUNDIT CALLS IT AGAIN: Yep, see below. I'm sure the Europeans are fuming. The speech was well-done, and Bush will score politically from it. On the other hand, by naming a commission to be chaired by Leon Kass, and by limiting the number of cell lines that can be experimented on, Bush isn't really giving that much to scientists. Bush will get a quick media buzz as he stakes out the center on this. But will we get the worst of both worlds: not much research, but the ongoing anger of hardcore prolifers? Certainly anything that gives Leon Kass more of a voice in the development of this technology (see below) is a bad idea.
HOW FAR HAVE WE COME? I was reading Jack McCall's terrific World War II oral history when I ran across a passage describing what happened to two (male) Marines caught having sex on a troopship headed for Guadalcanal: "They were hauled out in their skivvies and left on deck in an open cage. . . . They were fed only bread and water, and they were left to sit there, all day long in the sun, as an object lesson of sorts, for everyone to look at and laugh at. Some people threw things at them; others spat at or cursed them as perverts. 'They were treated like animals,'" one Marine recalls. More of the same followed when they reached land, until a chaplain intervened. The two were shipped off, presumably to Leavenworth. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a disgrace, but it's better than this kind of treatment, which McCall suggests was unremarkable at the time. (McCall's book is a terrific piece of work, comparable to Stephen Ambrose though (as this item illustrates) somewhat less rose-tinted.) If something like this happened today, does anyone doubt that the CO would be relieved posthaste? And probably brought up on charges? Or am I too optimistic about that last?
BIG BUSH STEM-CELL PREDICTION: I predict that he'll support stem-cell research. Why? Well, not for the obvious reasons (the media will beat him up if he doesn't, and conservatives are split anyway) but because of the infallible Bush predictor: The Europeans are against it. Now, it's true that not everything that Bush does irritates the Europeans, but if you're unsure which way to go on a prediction, the "does it annoy the Euros?" question is likely to settle the bet. Am I right this time? Stay tuned.
MORE ON THE LEFT-RIGHT DISTINCTION'S OBSOLESCENCE: Talk-show host Myles Kantor has a column today in FrontPageMag bashing Castro for his brutal laws against homosexuals -- and then comparing those American states that still outlaw homosexual sodomy to Castro and suggesting that they should exercise an American spirit of liberty. "If government can criminalize sodomy, this entails the authority to criminalize anything. One need not be homosexual to appreciate the ominous
implications. As a heterosexual American, the precedent anti-sodomy laws establish for political carte blanche alarms me." You used to hear things like this from the Left. You don't very much anymore. How come?
MARIJUANA ON THE RIGHT: If you want still more evidence that the old left/right distinctions are obsolete, look no farther than the National Review Online where a pot-legalization debate has raged. Today Richard Cowan makes the case for legalization by noting the harm that the Drug War has done. And he's right. Compared to the damage done by a few befuddled potheads, the Drug War with its militarization of law enforcement, bloated and corrupt bureaucracy, and gradual erosion of constitutional protections against search and seizure, and even speech, has been a national disaster. The benefits, if any, have been tiny. What's funny is that only the right-wingers seem to have the courage to argue for legalization. The Clinton Administration -- presumably because of the "I didn't inhale" nonsense -- never had the guts to buck the Drug War in even the smallest way.
AND ANOTHER THING ABOUT CLONING: The battle against cloning in Congress includes a lot of Republicans who are vociferous supporters of federalism and limited government. Most of those people are supporters of legislation that would criminalize even scientific research involving cloning. Those folks should ask themselves this question: where in the Constitution does Congress get the power to regulate scientific research? Congress might be able to regulate commercial cloning services as interstate commerce, but scientific research just plain isn't interstate commerce. And after the Supreme Court's recent decisions in the Lopez and Morrison cases -- striking down the Gun Free School Zones Act and the civil remedy parts of the Violence Against Women Act -- it's hard to argue that scientific research can be regulated because it has a "substantial effect" on interstate commerce. And even if some gullible judges could be persuaded otherwise, is it honorable for people who claim to support federalism and limited government to shed their principles just because this is something they care about?
MORE BAD NEWS ABOUT THE FBI: Ruby Ridge, a tragic scandal that dates back to the first Bush Administration, just won't go away. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals held that sniper Lon Horiuchi could be tried for murder in state court, though charges were dropped immediately thereafter. The latest is a report in the Washington Post that agents investigating the debacle were punished for trying too hard to investigate the wrongdoing of favored senior officials. The FBI has always had excellent worker bees and dreadful managers, and the "old boys' club" at the top is legendary. But with the Bureau constantly expanding its mission into things like computer crime (broadly interpreted), counterterrorism, etc., etc., these problems become more serious.
MISSING IN ACTION -- ARGUMENTS AGAINST CLONING: It's hard to refute most of the arguments against cloning, because most of them aren't made. For example, you can read Leon Kass and Daniel Callahan's recent piece in The New Republic from one end to another without getting a morally coherent argument as to why cloning is bad. (Note to Kass: "Slippery Slope" arguments are well and good, but you must still establish that the bottom of the slope is a bad place.). Still, there are some common themes that are worth unpacking here:
1. Cloning doesn't work well enough. It's too dangerous and is likely to produce deformed babies. Deliberately producing a child that will suffer serious genetic problems is unspeakable. This is the best argument. But (1) it's not an argument against cloning, just an argument against cloning with poor technology -- if cloning worked perfectly every time, this argument wouldn't hold at all; and (2) we don't consider it "unspeakable" for people who are at risk of spreading hereditary disease to have children -- in fact, the Catholic Church, a major opponent of cloning, does not endorse birth control in order to prevent such an event. Nor are there laws against it -- and if there were, people would consider those laws to be "eugenics" laws, which are bad.
2. Cloning will work too well. It will produce so many successful clones that it will replace sexual reproduction, leading to a loss of genetic diversity. The inconsistency with the argument above is obvious. Also, it won't lead to a loss of diversity: at least, if everyone alive cloned him or herself once, we'd have exactly as much diversity as we have now. I suppose if someone produced six billion copies of Bill Gates we'd have a problem. But, really, how likely is that?
3. Cloning will produce soulless zombie tools of the corporate power structure. No, it won't. George Lucas aside, clones won't be any more soulless than identical twins. And they won't be zombies unless something else is done to make them that way -- like, perhaps, making them sit through "The Phantom Menace" a few hundred times.
4. Cloning is "playing God." What's that? Heart transplants were once "playing God." Now they're medicine. Ditto with In-Vitro Fertilization and, long ago, vaccination. "Playing God" is a synonym for "gives me the willies." (see below).
5. Cloning is against God's will. No, it isn't. So there. Seriously, this isn't really an argument, but an attempt to shut down argument. It's also dubious theology. Given Adam's creation by God "in his own image," Eve's creation by modification of a bit of Adam, and the command to go forth and multiply, it's as arguable that God likes cloning (and related biotechnology) as that God is against it. And that's if you care what Yahweh thinks. Lots of people, of course, don't.
6. Clones are unnatural. Tell it to an identical twin. Besides, smallpox is natural; smallpox vaccine is not. Why are "natural" things privileged?
7. Cloning gives me the willies. This is, I think, the core argument. Leon Kass thinks that the "revulsion" that we feel -- or at any rate, that he feels -- is a meaningful ethical guide. But many people felt revulsion, no less sincerely, at the thought of eating with black people, or of homosexuals, or of jews. And, of course, many of us have a different intuition than Kass, feeling no revulsion at all. Why are the gut feelings of Kass, a man who says we already live lives that are too long and too healthy, privileged?
There may be a persuasive and well-founded case against cloning, but it hasn't been made yet in the public sphere. And the prevalence of sloganeering and "mad scientist" references makes me doubt that cloning opponents have much more than you see above.
COINCIDENCE? Bill Clinton gets a $10 million book contract. The next day, Salon.com gets a new infusion of cash from an unnamed investor or investors described by an anonymous source in Business Week as people who "have a certain affinity for Salon." Nahh. Couldn't be.
GIVING IN TO THE "LAME SIDE" OF THE FORCE: After leading the charge to unleash cheesy digitally created characters on a defenseless world (Jar Jar Binks is surely more annoying than anything any mad scientist has ever created), George Lucas has announced the name of the new Star Wars movie: "Attack of the Clones." That will surely help add to the sophistication of the debate. I may be wrong (and I hope I am), but I envision the clones as soulless combat soldiers of the Imperial Stormtrooper variety.
Yeah, I know, it's just "entertainment," -- though with regard to the last movie I use that term loosely, not least because of Jar Jar. But as J.C. Watts' comments about "mad scientists" during the House debate on cloning legislation demonstrate, the mad-scientist stereotype has a lot of resonance in our culture, even if it is mostly a cliche of lazy entertainers. Mad scientists, though, have been pretty thin on the ground in real life, despite the frequency with which they appear in bad movies. Mad politicians we've had in plenty, but I suppose those are so common in real life that they don't do much to help audiences escape reality.
At any rate, clones aren't going to be soulless killers any more than identical twins are, a point that identical twin (and non-soulless killer) Richard Cohen made very well in an excellent column yesterday.
Well, it looks like the Department of Justice is finally going after the music industry for antitrust violations. Expect more of this kind of thing in the future, and not just with regard to the music sector, but with regard to all entertainment industries. Here's how it shakes out from the Bush Administration's viewpoint: First, the entertainment industry genuinely breaks the law: there's lots of payola and other anticompetitive practices, as extensively documented in Salon over the past several months. Second, it's unpopular with two groups of voters Bush needs: old people, who don't like its products, and young people, who don't like the industry because of its stands over things like Napster, DVDs, and so on. Third, it gives lots of money to Democrats, and its leaders spend a lot of time bashing Bush.
The question is, how sophisticated will the Bush administration's assault be? With care, the administration could launch an assault that would split artists from studios and labels, further dividing and demoralizing a major source of Democratic support -- and maybe even splitting off some people who will decide they like the Republicans after all. Is Bush that smart? Is Ashcroft? Is Karl Rove? Stay tuned.
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