Thursday, August 27, 2020

Move Protests to the Ballot Box

 It's time for protests to move from the streets to the ballot box. While non-violent protests arise out of the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, in the current political climate a disturbing trend has developed. Overreaction of law enforcement with aggressive responses to peaceful protests has inflamed the process, resulting in escalation to more destructive activity. The underlying peaceful protests appear to be overshadowed by opportunists and other bad actors with conflicting motives, leading to a lack of clarity about the perpetrators of vandalism, looting, and other violence. Are these the actions of the protesters, of common criminals, or perhaps even of others who wish to cast the protesters in a negative light?

This plays into the hands of Donald Trump and his supporters as they push an agenda based on "anarchy in the streets." It has led to justification of further escalation of law enforcement response, of the criminalization of protesters, peaceful or not, and talking points in campaign speeches and rallies. The perversion of events is exemplified by VP Pence's statement during his RNC speech spotlighting the murders during the Kenosha protest, while conveniently omitting that it was the murder of two protesters by a presumptive right wing extremist.

The most effective intervention to address violence against minorities in our nation would be a resounding defeat of Donald Trump in the upcoming election. Continuing protests in the street risk jeopardizing the chances of that victory. With only nine weeks left until the November 3 election, a moratorium on demonstrations should be declared. The time and energy spent on demonstrations would better be deployed in constructive activities to ensure the integrity of the election and prevent voter suppression. This could include volunteering to staff the polls in place of the many elderly poll workers who are at the greatest risk from COVID-19 and are likely to opt out of election duty to protect their health.

Sunday, June 14, 2020


Hate isn’t about the need to suppress “bad apples.” Discrimination is too often justified on the basis of obnoxious behavior by a few members of a group. Hate and oppression is the result of “othering,” perceiving others as different from oneself in appearance, culture, or beliefs. Othering is the root of everything from genocide to religious persecution. It’s cultivated by despots in order to acquire and hold power. It’s embraced by individuals as a means of self-validation. When we “other,” we’re saying, “I’m good because you’re bad. I’m valuable because you’re not.”

Discriminatory and violent policing of African Americans has been justified by some with the observation that black people commit more crimes. That they are more often arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for crimes is at least as much a result of this perception as of an actual increase in crime rate. And any real increase in crime rate among this population is a direct outgrowth of desperate economic circumstances. Poor people may be driven to steal to feed their families. Rich people steal for greed or sport.

Expelling Mexicans from our country has been justified by pointing out high profile crimes by immigrants or by naming high profile gangs. Their real offense, however, in the eyes of the haters is looking and sounding different. White males have committed many horrible crimes, including serial killings, domestic acts of terror, and many acts of sexual aggression. Heavily armed gangs of white males have created civil unrest that targets minorities with sometimes lethal results. White collar crime is a euphemism for stealing from others by gaming the system. Should we therefore propose to expel all white males in order to eliminate these threats?

Rwanda is an object lesson in othering. In the early part of the 20th century, Belgian colonialists taught half the population of Rwanda to hate the other half. They began by defining the physical characteristics that they claimed distinguished Hutus from Tutsis and assigned official racial identities to every Rwandan. No matter that these distinctions were so arbitrary that even members of the same family were often assigned different racial identities. They then set up a power structure based on these distinctions that bred such resentment that it resulted in two genocides within half a century. Epithets, such as “cockroach,” were one of the tools with which Hutus were encouraged to despise their Tutsi neighbors. And when the last genocide was over, the veil of hate lifted somewhat, and many of the perpetrators were horrified to realize what they’d done to their former neighbors, friends, and even family members.

Science fiction uses gruesome imagery to spotlight the threat of aliens from other worlds, a metaphor for the enduring othering pervading human culture. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a particularly poignant example in which the enemy is an insect-like race designated the “buggers” and presumed to be bent on our destruction. The title character grows up to realize that he’s been instrumental in the genocide of a noble race of creatures that were just trying to defend themselves from us. And we can expect that sentient AIs risk becoming the next underclass to be oppressed upon the assumption that they mean harm to carbon-based humans.

Lest we go down the path of Rwanda and of Nazi Germany, we must call out othering for what it is and renounce it. It’s time we realized that we’re all more alike than different, right down to our genomes. It’s time to correct the inequities in circumstances and opportunities in our culture and the inequities in how we treat one another. It’s time to replace hate with compassion.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Arresting Aging: An Existential Threat

Scientists are closing in on the Holy Grail of aging research: the capacity to arrest aging and extend the lifespan to hundreds of years. Recent genetic studies have identified mutations in a pair of genes that humans share with roundworms, each of which modestly extends the lifespan of the roundworm, but which work synergistically to magnify the effect. Drugs are in the early stages of development to alter the cellular pathways governed by these genes. If successful, people could remain youthful and healthy for centuries, with reduction or elimination of a host of age-related diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Among the benefits would be the capacity for long distance space travel and the ability to accumulate vast knowledge with extended lifelong learning.

But with noble pursuits often come unintended consequences with dark implications. An early effect could be a striking increase in the divide between the rich and the poor. Such treatments are likely to be costly and, at least at the beginning, available only to the wealthy. So added to differences in quality of life would be a priceless difference in longevity. This raises both moral issues and the likelihood of intensifying class warfare and social disorder.

Extending the lifespan of even a fraction of the population would eventually lead to unsustainable demands upon resources and the environment. Even with advances in food technology, feeding everyone would eventually become impossible. The poor would be the first to suffer, but eventually everyone would be at risk of starvation. And as we continue to consume all manner of goods, the mountains of waste we create will grow huge, even if we master the arts of recycling and creating biodegradable products. We will increasingly risk polluting our waters and food sources, impacting health in unforeseen ways that could introduce terrible new chronic diseases and disabilities that could last as long as we do.

Assuming that we don’t all agree to stop reproducing, an outcome with its own dreadful implications, the population will inevitably find ways to curb itself. One obvious outcome would be a drastic increase in violent conflict, including international warfare, civil wars, class wars, and genocide, perhaps inflicted by the privileged upon the poor in order to retain the resources to sustain their vastly extended lives. And if we fail to keep our numbers in control, the earth will inevitably develop an immune response to fight our infestation, perhaps in the form of more robust infectious diseases to which even the superhuman among us would succumb.

Even if we succeed, against all probability, in navigating the solutions to these problems, how would we adapt to life without end? Would there be some point for most of us, once we’ve run through our “bucket lists” to our satisfaction, that we would decide that enough is enough? Endless life might not be all that we would envision and could eventually become a burden that we would yearn to end. In the prescient 1973 science fiction film “Soylent Green,” teeming humanity has outgrown the limits of its resources, euthanasia has become the universal prescription for ending lives, and recycling human bodies as food has become a key strategy for preventing starvation.

Our capacity for innovation is increasing exponentially. Are we about to outsmart ourselves into oblivion or will we learn to predict the consequences of our discoveries and choose wisely what we pursue?