July 2006

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Just one more Sunday with my daughter, dwindling now. Another week of work and daycamp, then a return drive to NC on Saturday, and our month together for 2006 will be over.

This time it went so fast. That’s a cliche, I know. But it did.

At the amusement park last week, kids lined up to ride the big swing ride over and over again. Parents tired of riding it with them, as I did, and so we all stood and watched, our necks crooked upward at our children flung in the wide circle. The sun was starting to drop, and some of us had cameras out trying to pluck images of our children from the screaming, sweaty orbiting ring, one frame at a time.

Cameras flashed. Parents yelled up “yes, I see you! hang on!” Then another flash. And we all had that frozen smile on our faces, the one where the mouth is all joy and wonderment, but the eyes behind the cameras say “I will keep this moment, this moment will never change” (flash) “stop” (flash) “yes, stop there and there” (flash) “and that moment, that smile, I’ll keep that one” (flash) “and that one too! oh god so many look at them pass, too fast” (flash) “too fast, too fast.”

The New Yorker has a very good article on Wikipedia this week. It acknowledges both the positive and negative aspects of the site. I have to agree that Wikipedia will ever supplant the usefulness of a peer-reviewed traditional publication, but it will serve as a useful foil.

Over breakfast in early May, I asked Cauz for an analogy with which to compare Britannica and Wikipedia. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as ‘American Idol’ is to the Juilliard School,” he e-mailed me the next day. A few days later, Wales also chose a musical metaphor. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as rock and roll is to easy listening,” he suggested. “It may not be as smooth, but it scares the parents and is a lot smarter in the end.” He is right to emphasize the fright factor over accuracy. As was the Encyclopédie, Wikipedia is a combination of manifesto and reference work. Peer review, the mainstream media, and government agencies have landed us in a ditch. Not only are we impatient with the authorities but we are in a mood to talk back.

One point the article makes clear is that Wikipedia is, if defined mainly by writing activity, a community where people discuss things. The talk and discussion pages get more use than the actual articles. And that’s part of what I really love about it. Wikipedia (like the Web in general) records and makes explicit all the tacit conversations that go into collective truthmaking.

Evidently the guy who started Wikipedia with Jimmy Wales, Larry Sanger, is now working on a new project — a hybrid of Wikipedia-like opennness with editorial peer review. Depending on how that’s handled, it could be extremely powerful. And why couldn’t Wikipedia be the breeding ground of what eventually ends up there?

Anyway, the article also makes the point that Encyclopedias have always been challenges to hegemonies …

In its seminal Western incarnation, the encyclopedia had been a dangerous book. The Encyclopédie muscled aside religious institutions and orthodoxies to install human reason at the center of the universe—and, for that muscling, briefly earned the book’s publisher a place in the Bastille. As the historian Robert Darnton pointed out, the entry in the Encyclopédie on cannibalism ends with the cross-reference “See Eucharist.”

It’ll be strange to look at something like Wikipedia one day and think of it as a dusty, traditional way of sharing knowledge. But for now, it’s fun to watch the fight.

O Solo Veto

The world is going to the crapper in the Middle East right now, so in a way part of me wonders why I’m obsessing over this issue, but it’s important. Like everybody else I’m wondering how President Bush has managed never to veto a single thing in all his years in office.

I mean, if you’d hired a quality control officer in your company and, unlike every q.c. officer before him, he’d not found a single bit of quality to control and said “well I got the factory to change everything to my specifications before it got to the point where it had to be sent back” would you be suspicious? I would. Either the guy is a genius who just reinvented your quality capabilities or he’s slacking. And there aren’t that many geniuses in the world.

Anyway, this stem cell thing … there are many reasoned arguments on both sides. I’ve heard some very decent and rational people explain how, if you define life as beginning at conception, an embryo is a human being and therefore should be protected under the law. Fair enough. But if that’s the case, why do we dispose of so many of them?

According to the legislation that was vetoed, there are thousands of them disposed of every year. The legislation only sets boundaries saying we can use the ones that would’ve been disposed of for research, and only if the donors agree to it. These would never be implanted in a woman. If they’re all human life, why are they being disposed of to begin with?

Part of U.S. Congressman Mike Castle’s letter to Bush:

* The stem cells were derived from human embryos that have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, were created for the purposes of fertility treatment, and were in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking such treatment. Prior to the consideration of embryo donation and through consultation with the individuals seeking fertility treatment, it was determined that the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded.
* The individuals seeking fertility treatment donated the embryos with written informed consent and without receiving any financial or other inducements to make the donation.

This logic goes unmentioned in the administration’s denouncements.

What we’re really witnessing is a calculated pandering to ignorance. I don’t think Bush is pandering, though — I think he really believes each blastocyst is a human child crying out for a uterus. He’s swallowing whole the dogma spoon fed to him by Rove, especially. (Rove, who has been distorting the science to begin with — and we know Bush won’t actually read anything for himself, so whatever Rove says, Bush takes as gospel.)

This is frightening to me because of the implications — that even with a Republican majority in Congress passing this bill, the President still sees it as his responsibility to be the voice of his version of God for our nation. I can’t find the link right now, but it’s on record that at least four senators who spoke against the bill invoked God’s name saying the Creator would be very displeased and would do bad things to America if we passed it.

Ben Franklin and the rest of them are rolling in their graves.

The pandering is possible because of the semantics involved. What do we mean by “life” and “child”? Who gets to decide if a blastocyst is a child or not? Obviously, in reality, it’s more complicated than “cell a plus cell b equals Junior.” Nature doesn’t treat it that way; even the Bible doesn’t treat it that way (it refers to life as “breath” not blastocysts; so much of scripture is misquoted, mistranslated and misinterpreted to support all kinds of views that I’ve given up trying to even discuss it in those terms with anyone). And evidently our own laws don’t treat it that way either, because the law allows the discarding of these blastocysts in fertility clinics.

This is a way for an administration that has championed so much death to doubletalk their way into being all about life, to hold onto their shredding political base by pandering to the ignorant, superstitious and misguided who keep putting them in office.

I don’t necessarily mean “ignorant” as an insult, either. Everybody can’t be an expert on everything. People are busy with their regular lives. In an information saturated world, we depend on sound bites to navigate the terrain. I confess that, listening to the bits and pieces coming over the airwaves, I too figured using embryos for research sounded creepy to me. But being informed about it with an open mind goes a long way toward understanding it’s not so simple, especially when you weigh the benefits.

The NIH has an excellent overview here.

Over four hundred thousand blastocysts are out there, frozen, and a tiny fraction of them are ever “adopted” for attempted impregnation. Plus, if I understand Castle’s letter quoted above, only cell groups that are flagged by donors as ok for research would ever be used.

It’s a slippery ontological question: who decides a group of cells is a human person and who doesn’t? If someone is brain-dead, and the family insists the person is alive enough to still be the person they knew, should the government be allowed to pull the plug anyway? Probably not. Then why would the government be allowed to decide the converse — that a microscpopic blastocyst is a person when the people who created it say it isn’t? It’s uncomfortable to discuss, but necessary.

However, rational discussion is impossible with the rampant disinformation and ignorance being spread (by both sides, in some instances, but the *science* and logic are on the pro-research side, it seems to me). The most ridiculous stuff is coming from the silly portion of the right wing, such as Limbaugh claiming that you have to have abortions to get stem cells.

Why am I angry about this? Because of the same reasons that most of the country should be up in arms about it. Because I have people I love who could be helped by this research — the brightest light in the dark tunnel of medicine for so many people with diseases that don’t respond to anything as simple as a miracle vaccine. It’s the same reason Arlen Specter breaks with his more extreme Republican brethren on the issue on the Senate floor. Because for him it’s a matter of life and death, but not in the sense of superstition and theory:

There are some 400k frozen embryos, and the choice is discarding them or using them to save lives; Sen. Brownback and I had a debate where he challenged me on when life began, and I retorted, suffering from Hodgkins cancer myself, the question on my mind was when life ended, and life will never begin for these embroys because there are 400 thousand and notwithstanding millions of dollars appropriated to encourage adoption, only 128 have been adopted; so those [potential] lives [of the remaining embryos] will not begin, but many other lives will end if we do not use all the scientific resources available.”

This is real-world thinking. The kind of thinking that stands up and makes adult, difficult choices about the reality of the world around us. My stepfather (with Alzheimer’s disease) and others close to me with things like immunological disorders could be helped by this research. My daughter and I just sent flowers to a funeral of a loved one who died from complications after a stem-cell procedure that could’ve been improved if the research hadn’t been stymied for the last five years.

But any such morally responsible thinking is precluded by the insidious manipulative drivel piped into the conversation by dogmatic fundamentalists who believe the cells from our bodies belong to the government, not us. And they’re so effective at this twisting of logic, that even my own mother (my ailing stepfather’s wife, who has to face their last years together under the weight of Alzheimer’s) is convinced that her President is a saint who would never do her wrong.

Yeah, that’s why I’m angry.