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Just Say No to Professor Pinker and (shudder) President Gingrich

Texas didn’t make it into the top ten listing of “conservative” states, according to the latest Gallup poll.  I am not sure what to make of this read on the land of my childhood.  I am, frankly, completely baffled by what “conservative” means these days.  Corey Robin has a new book I need to read that will likely help.  But, in the meantime, I am paying particular attention to the rhetoric around “progress” and “technology” in this Republican primary season.  This makes for some whacky reading, as Newt Gingrich seems to match dear old Gene Roddenberry in his unbridled faith in technology to make our world a shiny, happy place.  (Or should I say to make the solar system a shiny, happy set of places?)  When Gingrich starts in about colonizing the moon, for instance, he seems less “conservative” and more, well . . . “progressive,” only we don’t usually use that word for someone who also wants to teach impoverished children a lesson by making them clean toilets.  Yet there are some time-worn, icky connections between faith in scientific progress and disdain for people who seem not to progress.

Thinking on this, two stories came to my mind, back from my days on the bioethics circuit.
The first was a panel on genetically testing embryos at the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins, in 2005, during which I sat to the right (literally and figuratively) of Newt Gingrich.  You can view the video here – scroll down to the “panel discussion” option.  What strikes me most about this exchange, as I view it again now (besides the fact that I seem anguished and in need of a good backrub) is that Newt followed up on my awkward profession of faith by lecturing the audience (and me) about Adam and Eve, Prometheus, and how reproductive bioetechnology runs along a continuum from contraception to genetic engineering.  (My remarks are around 57:00 and his remarks are around 59:00.)  In 2005, I didn’t know much about Gingrich, except that he had formerly headed up a deeply divisive and wrong-headed battle against social spending for single mothers, so I was scrambling a bit to piece together what makes him tick.  Sitting there, I wondered if maybe he wasn’t so much a “conservative” when it comes to bioetech, as a pro-business technophile.  Americans had already crossed the boundary of procreative chance, he suggested, “100 years ago” (presumably again referencing contraception) – and what we need now is a framework to discuss, accept, and regulate the panoply of options facing families when crafting children.  Gingrich reiterated the usual argument for testing embryos genetically: to do so would help families to avoid untold suffering.

When I heard on the news that Gingrich has a for-profit think-tank on health related matters and read that he has a boyhood fascination with a scientifically enhanced future for humankind, some gears clicked together.  Like Gene Roddenberry, Gingrich is inspired not so much by the nitty-gritty, daily work of human solidarity, but by a big picture arc upward, toward the enhanced future, fueled by technology.  As his now notorious (at least in liberal circles) remarks at Harvard about school toilets indicate, Gingrich’s passion for scientific ingenuity may be read as congruous with his lack of patience with poor people.  During a time when the economic arc is wobbly, poor people, with their interminable suffering, seem a dangerous drag on the population.

What should we call such “conservatism”?

The second story has to do with Steven Pinker, whose paean to human progress is out in the form of a book entitled Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined.  (It has a catchy cover you shouldn’t miss.) I have not read the book yet, and probably won’t, in large part due to the story below, but also due to the review by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker.  Pinker’s evidently dense book draws on various statistics to show that humanity is becoming less violent, overall, but, as Kolbert reports, he has to bracket what some of us would term human evil.  His case for an upward arc of progress has precisely to do with the advance of “civilization” through reason, over arcane notions of localism, superstition, and tradition:

. . . episodes that one would think are more relevant to a history of violence are simply glossed over. Pinker is virtually silent about Europe’s bloody colonial adventures. (There’s not even an entry for “colonialism” in the book’s enormous index.) This is a pretty serious omission, both because of the scale of the slaughter and because of the way it troubles the distinction between savage and civilized. What does it reveal about the impulse control of the Spanish that, even as they were learning how to dispose of their body fluids more discreetly, they were systematically butchering the natives on two continents? Or about the humanitarianism of the British that, as they were turning away from such practices as drawing and quartering, they were shipping slaves across the Atlantic? And what does it say about the French that they liked to refer to their colonial project as ‘la mission civilisatrice’?

And, as Kolbert notes, when dealing with a regime that just about everyone names as evil, Pinker just plain doesn’t make sense:

Though he hesitates to label the Second World War an out-and-out fluke, he is reduced to claiming that, as far as his thesis is concerned, it doesn’t really count. Accidents happen, and the Nazis’ rise to power was one of them. A series of unfortunate events ensued, but it’s important not to rush to judgment. “There is no indication that anyone but Hitler and a few fanatical henchmen thought it was a good idea for the Jews to be exterminated,” Pinker notes. In any event, “when a genocide is carried out, only a fraction of the population, usually a police force, military unit, or militia, actually commits the murders.”

This chilled me, given a creepy encounter I had with Professor Pinker at Harvard as a part of an event on “Re-engineering Human Biology.”  This story requires some background.  At the risk of losing my own dear reader by dropping too many names, here we go.  Michael Sandel is a professor at Harvard.  He served on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics.  While on the Council, Sandel wrote an Atlantic cover article that made a bit of a splash, recommending against a trend toward designer babies.  (The article draws heavily on the work of William F. May, with minimal acknowledgement of such.  May is a gracious man.)  Sandel held a conference at Harvard around the time that his little book edition of the Atlantic article came out.  I was one of the “just say no to eugenics” scholars invited to come and, well . . . say no.  After my remarks on the societal pressure toward hyper-controlled procreation, Pinker and Richard Posner pressed me with a question.  As best I can recall the exchange, it went like this:

Pinker:  If you had an encounter with a man at an establishment that you don’t usually frequent, and you found yourself pregnant, wouldn’t you have a moral obligation to terminate the pregnancy?
Me: [both a bit grossed out and also determined to make him say more] What exactly do you mean by a bar I don’t usually frequent?
Pinker: You know what I mean.
Me: No, Professor Pinker.  I don’t exactly understand what you mean.
Pinker: [a bit exasperated] You know, a bar across the tracks.

I responded that, by his utilitarian logic, I would have more of a moral responsibility to terminate a pregnancy if the tryst were with an investment banker from New Canaan.  (This satisfied neither Pinker nor Posner.)

The exchange revealed blatantly the elitist assumptions that usually flow just under the surface of discussions about technological progress and national identity.  There are some whose lives are marked for the future and others whose lives are marked as barriers to progress.  And it is the job of the best and the brightest, at places like Harvard, to determine what should happen to those who live “across the tracks.”

In her review, Kolbert notes that Pinker is the least morally coherent in his discussion of technology and modernity.  In order to pat our modern, collective selves on the backs for our newly peaceful ways, we have to pretend not to notice how we have used our hands to beat plowshares into really, really effective swords:

In addition to trade and democracy and control over body fluids, a key feature of modernity is rapid technological innovation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the development of tools of destruction. In terms of the weapons we carry–or have our drones carry–Westerners are more violent than any other group that has ever come along. And we have passed these weapons on, often to devastating effect . . . And along with the deadly weapons have come the deadly ideas. Though Pinker would like to pretend otherwise, Fascism and Communism are inventions that are every bit as modern as women’s rights and the eurozone. When you add Mao and Stalin to Hitler, the death toll from mid-twentieth-century atrocities rises to well over a hundred million. Before Pol Pot invented the killing fields, he studied in Paris, where he developed a taste not just for Marx but also for the classics of French literature.

Julian Savulescu, a world-renowned and very well-funded eugenicist from Oxford (U.K.) was a keynote speaker at the conference.  He is one of many prominent figures who are fascinated by the prospects of a better future through technology.  This form of argument seems potentially to act like the Borg, taking over “liberal” and “conservative” conversations about how to form a more perfect union.  Kara Slade just sent me this gem of an announcement, which seems to sum up well a trend that has me truly in a what-the-flying-burritos mood.  The conference asks “Can we enhance the moral brain?”  Yes, I would respond.  We can.  Over time and with grace.  Not in labs.  And not even through primaries or primarily through presidential elections.  Not through grand, scientific or political schemes for fixing my neighbors and their children. But through patience and daily interactions of common cause, at an awkwardly bilingual PTA meeting and at a strained Bible study, wherein the “teachers” find themselves taught.  In local community organizing and in congregation-with-congregation pot-luck suppers – the ones that have us not quite sure even where to start, because our differences seem so vast.  These are the networks of human connection that give me hope for whatever it is that Christians call “the future.”  I am not sure whether that makes me conservative or liberal.  I am pretty sure I don’t care.

In closing, I will reach out a bit to those who long for a President Gingrich due to his sheer, geeky passion for a science-fiction future.  Try on this argument.  While the Star Trek franchise is really cool – a utopia with nuance and texture – perhaps the most intriguing struggles come as deeply ingrained cultures meet on Deep Space 9, a narrative world marked more by unlikely friendships and surprising vocations than by light-speed travel to new worlds.  Or, to put the same matter a bit differently, the abiding question “Is Data human?” may be best answered by his capacity not for ingenuity, but for empathy.   May there be more of that all around.

  • http://www.profligategrace.com/ Kara

    The cover of Pinker’s book truly is astonishing – a painting of the binding of Isaac.  Given the story he tells, it’s a very strange choice.  Especially for those of us who love “Fear and Trembling”…

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