Thursday, March 17, 2005

Orange and Green

Whether you're wearing Catholic green or protestant orange, today is St. Patrick's day. St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland after having been imprisoned by Druids and, as the tale goes, drawing strength as a crusader from his imprisonment. He probably didn't chase any snakes away because they weren't there in the first place, and probably died on March 17.

For those of us with Irish blood like myself, the day has some meaning. For me it's a chance to focus a little bit of my energy on the Emerlad Isle, or Eire, its Irish Gaelic name. The continuing struggles in Northern Ireland and whether Sinn Fein will ever divorce itself from the politically undermining forces of the I.R.A. aside, Ireland is more important to America than we allow.

First, I've been there. It's gorgeous. Often misty and dew-draped. Richly and brightly green. Just like I thought it be. Its forests burst with ferns and dripping foliage. Its rolling meadows with stacked-boulder frences are roamed by scraggly-haired horses and bold sheep branded with colored spray paint. Its people are the most welcoming I've ever met: warm as if my wife and I were neighbors; honest as if we were family; blunt as if we were pubmates (which we often were). I was enlivened by the Irish human spirit, singular in its humility and its raw grace. Americans, ancestorally Irish or not, can learn from this.

Second, while politics and the attendant incidents of violence color Ireland's religious heritage, its heritage should not be overlooked for what it is: openly accepted and acknowledged, and still vital in contemporary society.

Americans by-and-large seem to have forgotten or perhaps miscategorized the religious heritage of this country.

In Ireland, it seems that everyone talks openly about God. Every other person I met was either paying tribute to God for a perceived blessing or asking God for assistance, out loud, as part of regular conversation. For instance, one might say, "We'll be lookin' to th' West for a break in th' clouds, God 'elp us." Or, "God's will, Shelby'll gettin' inta th' advanced Irish class."

(That said, I also heard the F-word spoken so often in regular conversation--by men, women, and children--that I was amazed. And amused. I was refreshed, actually, because they don't treat that word--which I suggest is free of any blasphemous or otherwise heretical connotations--with kid gloves like we do.)

I am convinced that invoking God is not just tradition in Ireland. The Irish, by-and-large, realize (as in "have made real") their religious heritage and live with that knowledge.

I wish Americans of all stripes were more comfortable with the idea of religion, took their religious heritage more seriously, and considered more carefully what the founding fathers were after when they considered "religious freedom," the Bill of Rights, and their visions of America. Everyone--whether faithful or skeptical or atheist--would better inform the political and legal debates in this country if they were intellectually honest about America's religious heritage.

Third, and finally, the Irish demonstrate why being funny and telling great stories is so important. They love life. Yeah, yeah, there's a lot of gloom and blues in those great Irish tales, but the vigor for life, the yearning for life, the passion for life, pours out of them. We should remember this and take the time to sit, drink, eat, and talk. Tell stories. And laugh more together.

There's a lot more to be said, I know.

For now, Síochán leat. Peace be with you.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Dirty Thumbs

Because I'm so entirely annoyed right now about the ANWR decision, I've decided to lighten up this place with an observation I made back in December that deserves posting here:

I wash my hands every day. In fact, I wash them about 5 times a day. I don't do this because I'm obsessive-compulsive, although perhaps I act that way when I eat M&Ms only in even numbers. I do it because I don't want to get sick. And, as an added bonus, I'm soothed by the warm water.

I most often wash upon returning from errands at lunch. I come back from the downtown TJ Maxx feeling like I should sanitize.

Despite my disciplined washing, I often forget my thumbs. When I realize they've been neglected, I hop to it.

Now I want you to think about the last time you washed your thumbs. Not "washed" as in "happened to glance them with a whispering of water and soap intended for fingers pointer through pinky." I mean, grabbing that big, curved, wider-than-thou sucker and scrubbing the daylights out of it. Unless you're a surgeon or a person who hitchhikes in gale-force winds near a sewage pond, I bet you haven't washed them purposely EVER. Am I right?

OK, maybe you did once in the mid-nineties after you painted your living room. But, since then?

Our thumbs are opposable for a reason. For every use of the hand, the thumb is usually participating. For every finger task, the thumb at least provides backup, and at most is an equal partner in the endeavor. So it gathers bacteria and sludge from around the way. And it needs to be cleaned before it heads back to work.

I say all this assuming the people who read it already wash their hands. If you don't, please start. I'd rather not hack up Rhode Island-sized lugers because I happened to walk into a coffee shop behind you after you pawed the door open with your personal five-digited germtopia.

And for all you people who sneeze INTO your hands, instead of into the corner of your arm or a Kleenex: 1) thanks for not exploding into the airspace but: 2) make sure you wash twice. And scrub up your arms a bit, too, eh?

A Sad Day for Northern Alaska and the Rest of Us

The Senate voted 51-49 to leave the ANWR drilling proposal in the budget, thereby taking it out of filibuster range and guaranteeing exploratory drilling.

It's a sad day for the flora and fauna of the North Slope and a sad day for the country.

I am convinced, without a shred of doubt, that marring this beautiful wilderness will in no way justify the few barrels of oil that might come out of any commercial operation that eventually is established. And, what seems to have been ignored is that . . .

ANWR IS A WILDLIFE REFUGE.

Shame on the Senate.

And the most shame on those who only see the world in dollars and cents. They ruin it for the rest of us who understand the value of nature for nature's sake.

I'm barely keeping all of my multi-syllabic cuss-word phrases to myself.

---

Here's what althippo said. The scariest thing about it is the truth it holds:

"Years from now, in an advanced civilization in a country that may not even exist right now, someone will give a lecture to a rapt and incredulous audience. At some point the lights will be dimmed and the slide show will start.

The first slide will perhaps will be from the Banerjee exhibit, the one that that was nixed at the Smithsonian last year.

'This was Alaska,' begins the lecturer. 'In the early 21st century, the leadership of the United States, one of the wealthiest and more powerful nations in the world became so drunk with greed and hubris that they destroyed a wildlife refuge. And this is what it looks like now.'

When the next slide is shown the audience gasps. One begins to wail.

The lecturer continues: 'I'm sorry if this disturbs you. It disturbs me as well. This is what greed looks like. This is what hate looks like. Never doubt that there are real living people who want to destroy the earth. Doubly so if they can profit from it. And if they ever happen to come to power, this will be the result.'"

---

It's Always Fried Chicken

Jimmy Ray Slaughter, 57, was injected with a lethal dose of chemicals today in an Oklahoma prison. He was convicted of killing his girlfriend and their 11-month-old daughter in 1991. He proclaimed his innocence as he died.

This sounds like a post about the death penalty, I know. But it's not. Although I have ethical concerns about the death penalty that I might discuss in another post, this post is about something else: food.

CNN posted the story about this execution today and ended it with this sentence: "For his final meal, he requested fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cole slaw, biscuits, apple pie and cherry limeade."

What does it say about America that this it is what the reader is left with at the end of a story about a convicted killer himself killed by the state?

(And cherry limeade? What was he thinking? Not to mention that every story like this seems to mention the last meal, which, not by any coincidence I'm sure, includes fried chicken.)

Is this some kind of "reality TV" moment gone bad? We need to know all the sweaty details? Or are we so obsessed with what we eat and why and who eats something else and why and why a dying man would choose fried chicken that this is somehow important?

Is this just fluff--a little light reading, a quaint aside to make us feel somewhat connected as humans to this story--to help us leave the story on a good note? Or is there something insiduous and more cosmic about the "big choice," the last meal, the fried chicken?

Or am I just hungry?

The Teddy Roosevelt Ethic

Today, althippo writes in a comment to his latest ANWR piece describing the very few Republican votes needed to remove the issue from the budget:

"There's a lot of sensible people that should be opposing this.

With all the space that Marshall Wittman takes up opposing the lefty agenda, I don't understand why he doesn't use a single sentence to evoke Teddy Roosevelt's belief in preserving the national landscape.

More generally, do Republicans want to surrender their duty to protect the environment?

While I try to understand various positions on a controversial issue, this one really baffles me."

The problem is that numerous Republicans do not consider protecting the environment a duty.

If they did--if this were some kind of conviction for them--they would not allow themselves to be senselessly vulnerable to the few remaining interest-holders who promote more drilling on the coastal plain.

And, I suspect, those Republicans who do consider protecting the environment a "duty" are the ones who actually go outside. Who hunt, fish, hike, kayak, mountain bike, camp, run, whatever.

There's the famous anecdote about T.R. leaping off his galloping horse into his pack of dogs that had swarmed upon a flushed mountain lion. T.R. scatters the hounds, then wrestles the cougar to the ground and kills him with his hunting knife.

Republicans need not be so hard-core to understand the importance of the ANWR issue. They need only spend some time with their children in a park or at a campsite and absorb the wonders of nature through their eyes.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Do These Genes Fit?

Today, AJM writes about "chimeric experimentation" and God's disdain with humans using their brains to create mouse-human hybrids that AJM calls "moumans." AJM writes: "Humans are not like other animals. God gave us dominion over His creation. We have used that dominion, in the fullness of time, to obtain mastery of the genome . . . and to conduct chimeric experimentation."

As an aside, I'm not going to confront AJM about humans' "dominion" over everything else. Some Christians (and others, I suppose) have over centuries interpreted that to mean that humans should manipulate Nature to every conceivable end, needlessly consuming everything and eventually destroying the planet. But I know that AJM believes God entrusts us with the responsibility to care for the Earth as we receive its bounties.

That said, I don't know much about this phenomenon called chimeric experimentation. I don't know its contours or its history, but I certainly understand the implications for bioethicists and theologists alike. What should we do with these big brains and opposable thumbs? It's an age-old dilemma: science fiction writers of the early Twentieth Century imagined the creation of half-breed humans/monsters (not to mention humans/machines) and Greek mythologists evisioned clove-hoofed minotaurs.

But those folks didn't know about the universal interchangeability of genetic material. Now we do. Human DNA works perfectly with mouse DNA. DNA is DNA. RNA is RNA. It's species-non-specific. (A question is why God would give us such malleable stuff in the first place. What do the Creationists think? As opposed to those of us who are theistic evolutionists or pure, naturalistic evolutionists? While we may not be "like other animals" in some ways, we certainly and remarkably share in most ways our biology.)

Harvard researchers in the early 1980s inserted human oncogenes into mice chromosomes, thereby producing human cancer in mice so they could test drugs on the animals. Did medical ethicists and others shiver, looking down the long road at whose threshold they then stood? Sure. With good reason.

AJM's point that our ability should not drive our activity is oft-repeated and true. And I speculate that it's well-accepted in the medical sciences. Indeed, breast cancer, Parkinson's disease, and ALS research; vaccine development; basic microbiology: all depend in some ways on genetic research and genetic engineering. This is genetic manipulation that is, by-and-large, well-accepted. The benefits are clear.

I note that the debate looms over stem cells because it is intertwined with the abortion debate. That is understandable, regardless of which side you're on. I leave that for another day.

I'm not sure what to make of the "chimeric experimentalists," as much as they're made out to be devils incarnate, playing God. While the benefits of human brain tissue growing in mice might not be evident, are they possible? What if such research eventually resulted in a cure for Alzheimer's? AJM suggests it doesn't matter, for somewhere these folks have crossed a line. And, in a science-fiction leap rare at Dojustly, he goes Sci-fi on us, envisioning mice-human hybrids as scientists themselves, experimenting on us! I can see it in black-and-white on the big screen in a smoke-filled cinema in 1952, the audience, mouths agape, wearing 3-D glasses.

But where is that line? Doctors have inserted pig's hearts into transplant patients (to little avail) and regularly attach artificial limbs, including working artificial hands (to much success). Have these techniques crossed a line? What about organ transplant from human to human? What about infusing an Ebola victim with an Ebola survivor's blood--full of antibodies? What about something as simple as giving antibiotics to a sick child? The list goes on and on.

When are we being human, taking care of other humans? And when are we "playing God"? All of it involves manipulating our natural environment and manipulating other organisms.

I understand that one question is where our manipulation of DNA and chromosomes crosses a line.

But another--far more important--question is at what point we should or should not use our considerable brain-power to prevent otherwise natural and often fatal consequences of our souls' existence in purely biological vehicles.

Where is the line?