Archive for the 'Politics' Category

The illusions of ideology

There are too many ideas rattling around in my slightly warped mind to stop blogging, so I’m going to try to balance writing stuff with learning medicine, for now…

I made the mistake of watching some of the Super Bowl last night. Not because I wasted a couple of hours watching teams I care nothing about, but because I saw Barack Obama’s latest ad. Here’s the transcript:

We want an end to this war and we want diplomacy and peace. Not only can we save the environment, we can create jobs and opportunity. We’re tired of fear; we’re tired of division. We want something new. We want to turn the page. The world as it is is not the world as it has to be.

That sounds inspiring on the surface, but look a bit deeper and it becomes chilling. There are a lot of things that “we want,” but in reality, can “we” achieve them without making unintended sacrifices? History is riddled with wrecks left behind by idealists of days past. Lenin and his comrades justifiably wanted to break the shackles of centuries of monarchic oppression, but in the process, they killed more people–millions more–than Ivan the Terrible ever contemplated. A professor at the University of Wittenberg–a monk, no less–fanned the flames of religious dissent sparked by a corrupt Medieval Church, leading to countless lives being lost in the “Wars of Religion.” Communists or Protestants, Fascists or Puritans–the labels matter not–men since the beginning of recorded history have sought to make the world other than it is, and the results have uniformly confirmed that the world remains as it is when the battle is over. We in the United States aren’t immune, either: with malice toward none, more than half a million men gave their lives to keep a hypothetical union together from 1861-1865. Step back some four score and seven years before that, and another generation of men fought and died to form that same more perfect union.

What makes such an illusion–that we can change the world–so attractive? I suspect that it’s because we know, deep down, that what Obama said is very true: that the world is not as it has to be. But, there’s a catch: we–on our own–can’t transform it. We, being fallible, can never foresee what our striving to “save the enviroment” or “make peace” or “heal division” will bring. But there is Someone who can, has, and will change the world to as it ought to be. Secular messianism can never replace the real thing.

So, what does this mean? Should we never seek to change anything? Should we accept everything that the world dishes out? Hardly. But, with humility, we should look toward the Cross, and realize that only by imitating Him–being united with Him–can we truly change the world. Our secular politicians should stick in the secular realm rather than invoke utopian dreams. There’s a reason why St. Thomas More called it utopia, not eutopia.

Actions have consequences

Something I’ve been pondering on lately:

Every one of our actions could have unintended, serious consequences. History is full of casual events that have enormous causal significance.

Take, for example, the Battle of Gettysburg. If General Lee hadn’t believed an untested spy about the location of the Union Army, or if General Ewell hadn’t been afraid to take initiative and seized Cemetery Hill at the start of the battle, or if Lee had listened to General Longstreet and not attacked the then fortified Union position–not once, but twice, or if Colonel Chamberlain hadn’t made an audacious, nearly suicidal charge into the Confederate ranks to prevent the Union Army from being flanked, then the South would likely have won Gettysburg, and proceeded to Philadelphia or Washington, effectively ending the War Between the States.

What might the North American continent look like today if silly mistakes or outlandish risks hadn’t been taken?

We could take any major event in history and pry it apart like so.

It should make us wonder about our own actions. Sure, we’re not fighting in a major military battle, but what good might we be leaving undone? If we think that, say, one more person praying in front of an abortion clinic might not make much difference, just look back in history. What if, as you stand by the highway praying, a friend drives by who’s struck by your witness as she is agonizing over what to do with her unintended pregnancy?

And I thought mandatory health care was bad

Now, the Conservative Party in the U.K. is proposing that care be denied to people who don’t stop “unhealthy lifestyles.”

Do they really think that’ll cause people to change? I once saw a patient who had had half of his larynx and a lobe of his lungs taken out on separate occasions for lung and larynx cancer, and still smoked a pack a day. Such disincentive might lead to some people eating healthier and stopping smoking, but for everyone that does that, five will end up sicker or dead from lack of care.

Mandatory health care?

Heaven help us if John Edwards becomes president. I think I might actually pull for Hillary.

What a spectacularly bad idea: mandatory preventive care. I don’t even know where to begin. On the surface, it makes some sense. A substantial percentage of our GDP is spent on health care that would not be necessary if folks took better care of themselves. Some part of that would be reduced if diseases were caught early and corrected. To make people go to the doctor would lead to physically healthier lives. But at what (non-monetary) cost?

Stay tuned. I have some time to post for once….

Stem cell research in NC

My bishop today asked North Carolina Catholics to contact their legislators regarding a bill supporting embryonic stem cell research that is making its way through the State House.

Here’s my contribution:

Dear Representative X,

As one of your constituents, I recently discovered that the State House is considering the “Stem Cell Research Health and Wellness Act,” HB 1837, which has been recently sent to the Appropriations Committee on which you serve. I would like to point out two areas in particular for your consideration as your committee considers this bill: the failure of this bill to adequately address ethical concerns about embryonic stem cell research, and the lack of support for other kinds of stem cell research which avoid the insurmountable ethical problems with embryonic research.

The bill as currently written would make it state policy that embryonic stem cell research could be conducted only on cells derived from “excess” embryos donated after in vitro fertilization treatment. On its surface, this appears to be an admirable solution. However, it does not address the primary ethical concern that many of your constituents have with such research: that it destroys a human embryo. Whether created for the purpose of stem cell research or for in vitro fertilization does not change the basic fact that embryos are destroyed to produced embryonic stem cells. If you consider an embryo to be a human life, this can never be condoned, even if miraculous treatments be generated as a result.

Our legislature could, however, endorse and fund research designed to circumvent this problem. Researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, for example, have derived cells with many of the properties of embryonic stem cells from amniotic fluid. With the support of our state, these scientists and many others like them may generate ways to produce cells with many, if not all, of the benefits of embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos in the process. In addition, adult-derived stem cell research shows great promise in medical therapeutics. By focusing on areas of research that do not contain ethical pitfalls, we would set an example for the rest of the country to follow.

I acknowledge that my requests may sound like pleas to limit the creativity of scientists. But, as a molecular biologist by training, I have come to understand that what we can pursue must be tempered by what we ought to pursue. Embryonic stem cell research may be a panacea for all I know, but to save lives at the expense of countless others is a cure that we cannot risk. This policy debate turns on whether a human embryo is a human life. That is something that science cannot answer, so we should err on the side of caution.

If you’re in North Carolina, please go write your state representatives. It doesn’t take much time, and it just might make a difference.

Quote of the Day

The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils. In seeking to do so, it encounters obstacles which are deeply rooted in human nature. One is that by the very order of things such evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred: At each stage in their onset there is room for doubt and for dispute whether they be real or imaginary. By the same token, they attract little attention in comparison with current troubles, which are both indisputable and pressing: whence the besetting temptation of all politics to concern itself with the immediate present at the expense of the future. Above all, people are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles and even for desiring troubles: ‘if only’, they love to think, ‘if only people wouldn’t talk about it, it probably wouldn’t happen’. Perhaps this habit goes back to the primitive belief that the word and the thing, the name and the object, are identical. At all events, the discussion of future grave but, with effort now, avoidable evils is the most unpopular and at the same time the most necessary occupation for the politician. Those who knowingly shirk it, deserve, and not infrequently receive, the curses of those who come after.

Enoch Powell

Betrayal of the base

Peggy Noonan has written exactly what I couldn’t put into words about how betrayed I have felt by the Bush administration. Go read it all.