Monday, August 04, 2014

Good Guys vs. Bad Guys :
Bringing the Conflict Home

Suppose, in a major American metropolis in the 1960’s, the City government decided that it would try to improve its run-down black neighborhoods by utilizing eminent domain, evicting the residents who had lived there for decades, razing their homes, and offering the property to developers from out of State. Modern homes are built and bought by people from around the Country who had always wanted to live in this city because of its long and rich heritage. Perhaps some of their grandparents had even lived there!

Those evicted are not happy about their involuntary removal, and black rights groups from around the Country took up their cause, urging them to ‘fight back!’ Initially, the resistance involves spray-painting graffiti in the new neighborhood, yelling insults at the new residents, and throwing stones at their cars. The police naturally get involved and set up sub-stations on the avenues between the old residents and the new. They stop and frisk the black youth for minor infractions, arresting some, trying to “send a message.” Black families are incensed by this presumption of guilt and set up community action groups to protest. Some out-of-state black activists come in to participate, and during a series of demonstrations, they attack the police, burn down a number of the new homes, and there are deaths on both sides before the rioters are repulsed.

Bad blood has now developed between the old residents and the new and their police protectors. After several years of sporadic fighting that periodically claims innocent lives, the Mayor decides that there needs to be more strict regulation of the contact between the old and new residents. Playgrounds are fenced off; police are stationed at bus stops to monitor the movements of the black youth, licenses for black businesses are delayed, infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate in the black neighborhoods. A succession of Governors tries to resolve the tensions, but a succession of Mayors, dealing with budgetary issues, decide to condemn more old-neighborhood buildings, selling the property off to new developers to raise revenue. The Governors, while urging a peaceful resolution, are also seeking re-election and provide State funding and training to the City police so that they can expand their peace-keeping presence.

In the deteriorating neighborhoods embittered black youths form gangs and ally themselves with gangsters from around the State. They arm themselves and decide to ‘teach Whitey a lesson.’ They engage in random drive-by shootings, uncaring whether politicians, police, little old ladies, or school kids are the victims: White is White. The City sends SWAT teams into the neighborhoods. Doors are kicked down, innocent families are terrorized, some are killed when they resist. Homes are bulldozed to create a firebreak between the neighborhoods. The Mayor decides that water and electrical service will only be provided during certain hours of the day, and black workers trying to get to their jobs in other parts of the city must endure long queues and humiliating searches before they are allowed to proceed.

Some black neighbors try to organize alternative civic groups to the gangsters and militant activists, but they are marginalized. The State and City government demand that they “rein in” the gangsters before they will work with them. Nothing less than zero violence will be accepted before they will talk. Militant groups from outside the State mock them as “Uncle Toms” and raise funds and provide gang propaganda, urging them to strike back against the people who have stolen their neighborhoods. Moderates are openly mocked; their stores are boycotted and firebombed, some are abducted and executed by thugs as a warning to the others. White Supremacy groups have gotten involved in the controversy, urging citizens to take up arms against the Darkies – it’s simple self-defense! - and even getting members elected to the City Council. A hundred black barbarians are not worth one civilized White man, they declare!

The gangs have established networks of gun runners with gang-bangers in other cities; the City police have munitions supplied by the State under the authority of the Governor. Gangs unify and escalate attacks on any whites they can strike at, in cafes or on buses; the police begin to bombard the black neighborhoods with military-grade weaponry including artillery and air-support. The police chief prevents the press from getting near the conflict, citing prejudicial reporting.

The question is: is it Moral and Just for the City government to carpet-bomb the black neighborhoods into submission regardless of casualties to get the gangs?

Of course I am talking about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. And no, this is not a completely exact analogy.

I have no answers. All I know is that a lot of innocent people are getting killed by uncaring and manipulative governments and gangs, and everybody is declaring that ONLY one side or the other bears ALL of the guilt for the tragedy.

I call bullshit on that position.
 

Wednesday, October 02, 2013


Today is the Future

 

The background buzz had been increasing for months with articles in the papers and excited chatter among family and friends, but now the impending reality stood before me. The behemoth then-named brontosaurus rose up above me next to stegosaurus, and t-rex was still under construction in the nearby hanger. My fifth grade class was on a field trip to a fiberglass artisan’s workshop near Hudson, N.Y. where they were constructing full-sized dinosaurs for the Sinclair Petroleum exhibit at the New York World’s Fair which would be opening in a few short months.

We had all heard tales of the 1939 World’s Fair from our aunts and uncles, those hopes and dreams running into the harsh realities of the Second World War. The Cold War, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Assassination of the President had followed, but now the Space Race and new electronic technologies were inspiring the global civilization, and the upcoming fair was due to showcase the changing world. Better Living Through Chemistry! Our Friend the Atom! Bringing Good Things to Light!

My class roamed among the life-sized saurians, touching their flanks and examining the exposed frameworks over which layers of fiberglass were laminated. Scattered boulders of volcanic pumice accented the statues while they waited transport to Flushing Meadows, and my teacher chastised me for chipping off a lava fragment as a souvenir. I may still have that bubbled lump in a box somewhere.

Then, to international fanfare, the 1964 World’s Fair opened, with the stainless-steel Unisphere the focal point about which a jetpack-wearing daredevil flew orbits! Every Sunday the New York Daily News color magazine section would print gorgeous full-page pictures that highlighted an exhibit, glowing colors splashing the sides of pavilions or illuminating the Fair’s many fountains. My brothers and I eagerly anticipated our families and our classes traveling to behold these wonders with our own eyes.

Finally the day came, and the parking lot looked like the rows of cars lined up at a drive-in theater, only bigger. The globe of the Unisphere gleamed in the sun and colorful flags fluttered in the breeze. The buildings were something out of science fiction, truly “The World of Tomorrow!” They lined great fountains into which visitors flung coins for luck and were composed of domes, planes, rotundas and turrets. The scents of exotic foods wafted on the breeze, and an international chatter of voices delighted the ear. America was the crossroads of the planet! Heroic sculptures depicted men flinging stars across the sky, and full-size replicas of spacecraft stood erect around rippling, glassy buildings.

I clicked away with my Kodak Brownie 127 camera which I had received for my First Holy Communion, winding on fresh rolls of film and dropping the exposed film into pre-paid mailers for development and printing. The resolution might not have been great, but the images would resurrect memories for decades to come. Then came nightfall, and alas that the price of color film was prohibitive! Fortunately bright postcards and Ektachrome slides were available by the rack full, because the Fair was transformed into a fairyland of colored lights and beams streaming up into the sky! The GE dome was an expanse of swirling colors and the panels of the Tower of Light were transformed into rearing planes of glowing crystals. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Commander Cody could not hold a candle to this exhibition, and I have only described the architecture! Let us discuss the wonders of science!


Drop a dime in the slot and out popped a neutron-irradiated coin to insert into a souvenir holder and carry in your pocket when you visited the Atomic Energy Commission! Nuclear power would be “Too Cheap to Meter!” Walk through jungle and mountaintop and desert environments and smell the indigenous odors sprayed into the air at the Coca-Cola exhibit! Walk through a sound-deadening corridor that made your ears pop in the Bell Telephone pavilion on your way to the videophone which would periodically take a call from Walt Disney across the continent in Anaheim, California! Watch lab-coated jugglers in the DuPont exhibit pull long polymer strands of nylon out of beakers, or combine flasks of colorless fluid that suddenly glowed yellow-green like the tail of a firefly! Miracles and Wonder! Period-piece android families complete with tail-wagging dogs told the tale of advancing home-convenience items as the audience rotated around GE’s Carousel of Progress. Cities of the future, undersea and on the moon, were practically close enough to touch in the GM and Ford exhibits, and their prototype automobiles looked like they could take off and fly, as one of them would periodically drive out into a lake before returning to dry land.

The news entertained us with stories of runaways who slept in the Coke pavilion, fishing the coins out of fountains on which to sustain themselves with hotdogs, hamburgers, Belgian waffles, and cola. The free economy was transforming the world!

No one was talking about Vietnam. Not loudly, yet.

We knew that this marvelous world was coming to pass; my father brought home portable cassette recorders for his sons, then a color television. Party-line telephones were vanishing, and the newspapers printed pictures of the new, smaller computers that were only the size of bank desks! Cars were available in multiple hues, the roar of jet airliners thundered in the sky, and Polaroid cameras produced pictures virtually instantly – just don’t forget to apply the fixer! The Soviets and Americans competed to send men into orbit with eyes set on the Moon, and there was anticipation of satellites replacing the trans-Atlantic cable to carry conversations across the Big Puddle. In South Africa Dr. Christian Barnard transplanted a heart into an ailing patient. Oh, brave new world! Bi-planes would annually fly over our neighborhood, spraying DDT to eradicate those annoying mosquitos, and we waved to the pilots as the dust settles around us. Toy stores carried walkie-talkies, no longer the province of the military; and the robotic Great Garloo did your cable-controlled bidding. Colorful bug-like transistors were quickly replacing the tubes glowing within the radios, TVs, and “Hi-Fi” record players. AM radios could now be carried in your palm. Did anyone doubt that we teetered on the edge of Utopia?

How did we arrive at this pinnacle? The General Electric audio-animatronics told us about the last century, and Bell Telephones and International Business Machines displayed the evolution of electronic and calculating devices. Westinghouse encouraged visitors to inscribe their names in a register to be included in a time capsule that would be buried next to a similar container from 1939 to present the 20th Century to the world of the year 6939. The Traveler’s Insurance exhibit presented dioramas of “The Triumph of (White) Man,” from cave dwellers to the walls of Ur, the Roman Empire( subtly promoted Christianism), and the Renaissance thinkers observing and calculating the celestial realm. You could purchase the stirring soundtrack on a red vinyl 45 rpm record to remind yourself that you were a jewel on the crown of creation.

In two years the festivities concluded and visitors packed away their assorted souvenirs and pamphlets which that they might view with nostalgia in later years. Most of the exhibits were razed and Flushing Meadows was planted as a park, the Unisphere still gracing the center, a few sturdier constructions left to perhaps be utilized at some future date.

The Future did not come as advertised although the marvelous technology highlighted at the World’s Fair was, in retrospect, quaint, far outstripped by its future’s reality. As communication and transportation brought nations closer together, it brought them into fricative conflict. The marvels of chemistry and medicine have disturbed our environment and challenged our ethics. Poor policies were implemented and mistakes were made. Utopia has receded like the chimera it has always been. But the experience of walking the lanes and corridors of the World of the Future for these brief two years in the middle 60’s still gleams like a bright dream. We can erect tower in short years and send robots to the Outer Planets. We can do whatever we set our minds to do.

But grownups need to be mindful that the choices we make can turn our dreams into nightmares.



Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Baselines for
Bioethics

Imagine that you are running for your life.

Your body is trembling with adrenaline, your heart is thudding, panic-stricken, and your breath comes in hot, quick gulps. Suddenly your pursuer sinks sharp hooks into your flesh, bringing you up short. You are picked up and dashed to the ground, breaking your back. As you writhe helplessly, your assailant begins to rip chunks out of your body. Death cannot come soon enough.

Is this a scene from a horrific slasher movie? No, this is the daily experience of prey in “Nature, red in tooth and claw” as carnivores pursue their meal. When extremists among promoters of vegetarianism declare that “Meat is Murder!” we would do well to remember the natural background against which their arguments are made.

There are well over a million carnivorous species on our world, more if you include omnivores who eat both meat and vegetation. By their teeth and their alimentary tract will you know them. We ourselves are omnivores, eating venison as naturally as we do tubers and leaves. We do not need to eat meat, of course; but it is generally a richer source of protein than is easily found in the vegetable kingdom.

What about the ethical issues, though? If we are so superior to other species, aren’t we obligated to express ourselves in a kinder, gentler, more humane manner? Unfortunately, much of our “superiority” is just an expression of being one of the top predators in the food chain. Our self-reflective intelligence is only a very recent development in our evolution, and to argue that we are free of a few million years of instinctual behaviors is anything but self-reflective.

We have generally decided that one of the ideals of civilization is to minimize pain, suffering, and death, although we tend to be self-serving as to when and toward whom we apply this ethic. Just a surely as do our chimpanzee cousins and our domestic feline companions, we sometime enjoy cruelty as if it is an entertaining game, justified largely because tormenting other animals – including our own species – is simply something that we can do. Additionally, it serves as a signal to others: Beware! We can do this to you, too!

One of the primary reasons that we have domesticated animals is simply so that we don’t have to chase after them. They’re in a supervised pasture, a coop, a barn. They are protected from other predators until we decide that it is time to use them for their labor or kill them for our food. I would argue that this is not automatically any crueler than their natural, untamed lives would be. How we treat them during that captivity, and how they meet their end, however, can be.

There are good reasons to minimize, if not eliminate, meat as part of our diet. Factory-style meat production certainly presents an ethical challenge: although it provides a cheap and easy assembly-line of meats, it depends on putting the animals in deliberately painful and unhealthy conditions and using medications and hormones to keep them alive and make them extra-productive. When we eat meats derived from this process some of these chemicals build up in our bodies, adding to the witch's brew of absorbed pollutants that may destabilize our own health. And, speaking of pollution, the lakes of animal waste from this sort of livestock productions present festering bodies of danger to the public health.

Also from the health perspective, an easily available supply of meats can provide too much of a tasty thing, ingesting excess calories and saturating ourselves in fats and related circulatory-clogging organics.

Domesticated meat-production is also a rather inefficient way to produce this choice protein. It requires up to 16 pounds of vegetable protein to produce one pound of beef and 3 to 6 to make one pound of fowl; 3 to 15 pounds of water to produce the same; and 78 calories of fossil fuel to produce on pound of beef, 35 calories for one pound of pork, and 22 calories for one pound of poultry. There is more protein-laden vegetative food to go around than there is of meats.

There is also the question as to just how primitive and predatory we personally wish to be. Disregarding "animal rights activists," most people accept the seasonal rituals of hunters who exercise observational patience, go for "quick, clean kills," and eat their quarry, but disdain those who hunt for sport or trophy. The personal administration of death-dealing can change one's perspective; we have recently heard how Facebook pioneer Mark Zuckerberg is experimenting with only eating meat that he has personally killed. I suspect that if we all had to live with such constraints our meat consumption would plummet. Could I kill a fish or a fowl? Probably with not too much difficulty if I were initially chaperoned in doing so. But a mammal like a cow, goat, deer, or pig? You mean, a member of the same Class to which we belong, mammalia? Not likely unless it was a survival scenario.

There are science-fiction procedures being developed today to grow meat without having to kill a living animal that would be more environmentally-benign and potentially healthier if the nutrients could be adjusted to add vitamins and reduce fats and glycerides. While some people might call this gross, it is much less so than slicing the throats and spilling the blood of a conscious animal before hacking its corpse apart; I would order a pound and a half of vat-grown fillet without batting an eye before touring a typical slaughter house.

Meat is tasty, and there is nothing unnatural about eating it. It may be a good decision to not eat it, or al least much less than we do. But for the nonce, I am at the top of the Food Chain; someday in the next forty years I expect that I will be at the bottom, food for the bugs and worms and microbes. I don't begrudge them their meal; so I will choose that upon which I myself dine, in full awareness of my choices.

Bon Appétit


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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Advance Directives


Eleven years ago an idiot doctor correctly diagnosed me with Lyme disease but incorrectly treated it. As a result, the spirochetes ate a piece of my heart, and I now require a battery and a microchip to help it keep pace. Without this device I am conscious, but not much good beyond that, as weak as a kitten. Thank Ifni for modern medical technologies!

I have also undergone a number of medical procedures in the last several years including an appendectomy, hernia repair, and pacemaker replacement, and one of the newer anesthetics that has been used functions rather like a light switch; you’re conscious, then you’re not, then you are once again, with no sensation of transition and never noticing that you vanished for the last hour.

The recent deaths of several people I've known and my advancing age got me to thinking about mortality. I don’t believe in a hereafter, and the contemplation of Death used to give me the willies. However, these medication experiences have alleviated that anxiety. If the “on” switch is never flipped after having been turned “off,” well, oblivion is not half bad. Don’t Fear the Reaper.

Ah, but the process of dying is a whole different issue. Tubes, wires, indignities, fear and pain; these are not so pleasant to contemplate. Falling asleep in an easy chair after a nice glass of wine and just never waking up would be fine. But we are not given a choice, are we? In fact, even in civilized circumstances, we are not allowed a choice. There are few places where voluntary euthanasia is permitted. There is supposedly something noble about terminal suffering.

Suppose I am in my end game and circling the drain; will my pacemaker delay my departure and prolong the agony? Do I get to point to that device in my chest and say “Turn it off, Doc!” if that will hasten my death? Do I need to document this with Advance Directives? I suppose I’d best do so and not leave it to chance, but it seems ludicrous that I might need to do this. If it is my life, why can’t it be my death as well?

I suspect that as do many things, it is something that discomforts others and is given a fig-leaf of cover by religious sensibilities. No, it’s not really my life, it belongs to a Deity. Never mind that I consider that superstition. One must jump through hoops to opt out of the traditional systems and beliefs.

One only need google Karen Ann Quinlan and Terry Schiavo to recognize that the real thing to fear is other people's beliefs. Be prepared, because there will always be someone who thinks that they are deputized to act in what they decide is your best interest. Be on guard, and lay your plans somewhat beyond a simple retirement. You may be reluctant now, but you may be powerless then.