26 October 2007

Being sick can make time for reading otherwise worthless columnists

Another thing I did while I was sick was sit around and read the paper. Thoroughly. In fact, I read two papers. Thoroughly. Because we get both the Washington Post and now recently the New York Times home deliveries. We'd cancelled the Times delivery back in the dark days of dissertation deadlines, when both papers often sat wrapped and stacked in not so neat clear and blue plastic piles in our front hallway. Ahem. Now in the heady days of post-doctoral bliss (and indeed that "we" a few sentences back is not royal, it's plural) both papers come thumping on the doorstep (generally) before seven a.m.

So I was reading the editorial page of the Post, when I noticed that one of their numerous conservative columnists was pushing yet another piece of ill-framed and unwieldly arguments across a few columns like so much shit rolling through the gutter. Yes, it was Michael Gerson opining on James Watson, our addled Nobel laureate of DNA code-cracking fame. What a coincidence, I thought, since I'd written about Dr. Watson about a week previously. Gerson was Bush's chief speechwriter for about five years and is largely responsible for the ridiculous scare phrases that Bush used to justify his illegal invasion of Iraq back in 2003 (remember the "don't let the smoking gun be a mushroom cloud" bullshit? pure Gerson). He cut his teeth working for the rabidly anti-egalitarian "Heritage Foundation," and somehow the Post allows him to spew filth twice a week on their pages.

Gerson of course didn't see Watson's gaffe as a problem for the usual consumers of racist eugenicist claptrap, but rather a problem for "liberalism":

Watson is not typical of the scientific community when it comes to his extreme social application of genetics. But this controversy illustrates a temptation within science -- and a tension between some scientific views and liberalism.

The temptation is eugenics. Watson is correct that "we already accept" genetic screening and selective breeding when it comes to disabled children.

Oh. Well, maybe I can accept it so far, since you could read Gerson as tacitly acknowledging that it's only a problem for liberals because conservatives already agree with Watson's racist argument. But you only have to read a little further before you realize that Gerson has actually just set up a straw man argument that he labels "liberalism," and he doesn't even do a very good job of it:

This creates an inevitable tension within liberalism. The left in America positions itself as both the defender of egalitarianism and of unrestricted science. In the last presidential election, Sen. John Kerry pledged to "tear down every wall" that inhibited medical research. But what happens when certain scientific views lead to an erosion of the ideal of equality?
OK. Not hard to spot the first one, right? That little slip between "unrestricted science" and Kerry's attitude toward medical research. Gerson would probably have us believe that Kerry was looking to bring back Josef Mengele as head of NIH. The second one though is more important, and it's that moronic conflation, so common among conservatives, of "equality" and "identity." To ask for equal rights is not to assert that everyone is identical down to every last molecule of their bodies. Of course you could scientifically ascertain that some people are taller, some are shorter, some are stronger, some are weaker, but one doesn't go about handing out political rights based on such distinctions.

Sure, you could argue that Gerson, behind his straw man argument, is really scared that more genetic research will lead to attempts to "perfect" the race (like many of us, he's probably seen Gattaca), not that it hasn't been tried before. Those attempts generally come from the conservative side of the table, you know, the ones who at one time or another are trying to keep immigrants from the "wrong places" out of the country because they'll "mongrelize" America, or who tried to keep anti-miscegenation laws on the books to maintain the "purity" of the white race.

However, Gerson tries to slip it by us one more time, arguing that because progressives trust in science so much yet believe in egalitarianism (which again he sees as somehow opposing one another), they might yield to the temptation of creating a master race:

Watson and many scientists assert a kind of reductionism -- a belief that human beings are the sum of their chemical processes and have no value beyond their achievements and attributes. But progressives, at their best, have a special concern for the different, the struggling and the weak. When it comes to eugenics, they face not only a tension but a choice -- and they should choose human equality over the pursuit of human perfection.
Ahhh, he shows some real concern over the plight of the progressive, which is nice, except he's the only one who ever asserted there was a danger of progressives advocating for genetic manipulation to "weed out" the potential weaklings, etc. (seriously, Michael, it's pretty clunky to shove eugenics into the progressives' laps, as if that's a big progressive talking point -- keeping in mind that I do cede to him that back in the teens and twenties many individuals aligned with the capital P Progressives, like Margaret Sanger, were enamored of eugenics). Mainly, eugenics has been wielded by the conservative movement, who in the US argued that feeble-minded immigrants and their biological inferiority made them susceptible to Bolshevism. I kid you not -- a political outlook linked to one's genetics.

Unfortunately in today's world, most of us realize that it's the progressives in this country who tirelessly work to protect the rights of the downtrodden (physical, economic, or otherwise) already in this country. It takes real chutzpah for a neocon like Gerson to tell progressives they should side with "human equality"; after all, it's Gerson whose rhetoric has been essential to dehumanize Arabs (especially Iraqis) and to ensure the linguistic success of Bush's hubristic war of political eugenics, attempting to install democracies from the barrels of guns.

I have a seriously hard time trying to take seriously moral advice from a man so closely linked to the most corrupt, blood-stained, morally bankrupt administration in the US with the exception of Richard Nixon (and maybe Andrew Jackson).

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