We've been wandering around a bit, quagmired in contemporary politics. I regret that, but the news just keeps on throwing in our faces examples of the Culture War. I do hope soon to finish my linear thoughts about "Modernity and its Enemies", before launching into a new topic... "Science and Religion in the 21st Century."
(That one ought to be provocative enough for anybody!)
First, as I try to clear the decks, let me call attention to Senator Bill Frist’s paper on "BioShield" issues at the Harvard Medical School on June 1. http://frist.senate.gov/_files/060105manhattan.pdf
Why would I call attention to a recent speech presented by a man who, if he were president, would probably make George W. Bush look like Nelson Rockefeller?
Because we will never get modernism moving again so long as we give in to a bad habit encouraged by indignation junkies of both left and right - screaming at strawman caricatures of our enemies, instead of engaging those opponents, as they are. Take the fellow you despise most. He (probably) does not envision himself as evil, or even unreasonable. Rather, he feels he is a very likeable and intelligent and generous soul, with a clear bead on what is needed in order for civilization to thrive.
Read Sen. Frist's speech. You'll find that you agree with more than 90% of what he says in this piece. Despite the "culture war", there is a lot of shared moral consensus. So how can we be far apart?
Well, for one thing, he never mentions other parts of his agenda, so let me spend just one paragraph addressing those ghosts at the banquet, before going back to what's actually in his speech.
Take, for starters, a value system that begins by defining his opponents as baby killers, thus ensuring that, no matter how much good they have done in the world - civil rights and all that - Jesus will never like them. Then there is the ritual debasement of words like "freedom," "patriotism" and "free enterprise" so that - purified of any context, they can serve as amulet-totems of just one political faction. (Implying that opponents must hate them.) Add to this a clear insistence that market capitalism is best operated not by small business, but by an elite aristocracy, freed of all accountability. Also, a belief that Planet Earth is just a temporary, expendable stage set for a scripted apocalyptic play that will soon draw to a close. (And that's a goooood thing).
(In fairness, Frist would surely dislike the way that I described these views, though it's all pretty much on target.)
But hold. None of those things are in his speech.
Rather, there is a very clear and intelligent portrayal of the increasing fear, shared among many public health experts, that we are about to see a breakout of
Asian Bird Flu into the general human population.
Even if such an outbreak does not take place naturally, a deadly and virulent pandemic is clearly just the sort of thing that our civilization's enemies will seek to achieve, sooner or later, as we enter the Biological Century. Conjuring images from the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, Frist talks about a far worse version, spread through a much more crowded world by rapid air travel - or disseminated deliberately - starting with a fatality rate more than triple what it was in 1918.
Yes, modern civilization has weapons for fighting back. We have better medicine. We have the tools of biological science, which are becoming more adept at rapidly detecting and characterizing new viruses and creating vaccines to combat them. Frist admires this trend. (This despite the fact that many of Frist's neoconservative colleagues, such as Francis Fukayama, are waging a general assault upon science.) In any event, medicine and science do not, at present, seem ready to cope with such a pandemic. Not if it hit tomorrow.
Frist wants a "Manhattan Project for the 21st Century" to help get us ready for the day after tomorrow.
Frist does a very good job of ringing alarm bells, so I want to comment carefully. First on what he leaves out and then on what he is really after.
We have an image that citizens in teeming cities will react to such an event with panic, breaking emergency isolation protocols (if public health officials had the guts to use them), scurrying about spreading illness, the way it happened during the Black Death. At best, a major urban outbreak will shut down cities and trigger economic breakdown or starvation. In a moment, I will speak to how this patronizing image serves the interests of the 'Protector Caste'. But first, is it really true?
I'm no pollyanna. The scenario painted by Frist and many other worriers is daunting and horrible. But we are also better off now, in ways that go beyond the benefits of modern medicine.
For example, the average person is more fit and healthy than even young soldiers were in 1918, with fewer "dings" on their health cards. Moreover, would people scurry about and flee, as in the Middle Ages? Or seek shelter in the safest place of all, their own modern, spacious homes, offering plenty of room for voluntary self-isolation during a pandemic.
Many necessary tasks, farming, trucking and even stocking supermarket shelves can be done without elbow-to-elbow contact, and packaged foods, while ecologically wasteful, offer real barriers to disease transmission. Moreover, while we are not yet in the era of true telecommuting, people may accomplish a lot with today's crude methods, especially if offices are visited in shifts that keep the population densities in any room relatively low.
Moreover, reported death rates from Asian Flu are misleading. Viruses tend to mutate to forms that ensure best spreading. In the case of AIDS, this tendency made a plague worse, by increasing its symptom-free latency period. But in the case of any flu bug, the same trend will likely push it toward lower - or more normal - levels of lethality.
None of which makes me complacent. Having said all that (and there is much more that could be said), let me turn and add that I agree with Sen. Frist's main point. We should, indeed, be spending more on research! Much more. A prudent civilization - one that is rushing pell mell into an uncertain tomorrow - should be poking sticks into the road ahead, to find the quicksand pits and punjee stakes.
Science is our best "stick". It not only assists the protector caste at its job of *anticipation* but also helps the great mass of citizens to do *their* job... becoming robust and resilient, so that they can calmly step in when the paid protector caste inevitably fails.
Which it will, inevitably, sooner or later, as it did on 9/11. As it has been doing more and more, lately. (Elsewhere see how I point out that citizens, rather than acting like sheep on 9/11, were the only ones who reacted swiftly, effectively, and got it right, that day.)
Certainly much good skill would arise from the application of money and moral impetus toward pre-fighting 21st Century diseases, but what is missing from Sen. Frist's speech are the details about his proposed "Manhattan Project for the 21st Century". We do not hear what kind of agency he would establish, how it would operate or who would control it.
Alas, given the track record of Frist & co., we can already tell what traits the effort will have.
It will be a closed shop of the Security-Industrial Complex, controlled by a consolidated hierarchy of interlocking directors from biotech and government, many of them switching chairs in choreographed (and profitable) rhythm.
It will be obsessed with secrecy.
While supposedly emphasizing science, it will keep "boffins" in their place, isolated from the top tiers of authority. Diverse or conflicting viewpoints will not be welcome.
It will have a wing that explores weaponized disease "just in case," in order to better understand possible enemy methods. A combination of obsessive secrecy plus inevitable leaks will result exaggerated, sensationalized or scandalous revelations and rumors, with the result that nobody on Earth will believe any peaceful assurances. Thus, other nations will quickly follow suit.
Discoveries that lead to intellectual property and patent rights will somehow slide into the hands of the corporate partners of this vast enterprise, while costs are accrued by the taxpayer-financed side. (The famed effect: "privatization of benefits while costs are taken public". Some tricks just never seem to get tired.)
Above all, the interests of the protector caste will be favored. Those possible palliatives and solutions that involve stimulating an increasingly competent and self-reliant and knowledgeable citizenry will - unconsciously or consciously - be squelched.
This last aspect will continue, even after the inevitable scandals result in Sen. Frist's enemies taking over the "Manhattan Project for the 21st Century". Even if (at the extreme) lefty radicals like Ralph Nader sweep into power. (Shudder.) Because patronizing philosopher kings of the left are little better, in their hearts, than those of the right. The same drives and temptations are there, given different terminology. And indeed, many on the far left are just as anti-science as neocons are. Even when pushing a supposedly scientific endeavor, they would commit many of the same mistakes, especially if they were as flushed with total power as Sen. Frist's side has become.
In summary: I do not expect to stop something like Sen Frist's "Manhattan Project for the 21st Century" from coming about. I do not even want to. We probably need it.
But when the day finally comes that we are hit hard by something terrible, I will bet you whatever spare change that you and I have left, that it will be the man and woman on the street who not only do the suffering, but who will carry the weight of getting us through all the crises and to the other side.
PS... I just can't take my mind off that novel I recommended earlier. JITTERBUG by Mike McQuay (1984), a somewhat paranoid novel about a future world devastated by a horrible disease controlled by terrorists. It is so creepily on target that I doubt you'll find a copy. Certain interests have probably bought up all the used copies floating around. If only someone would reprint.