TCS Daily


Experimenting with Freedom

By James Pinkerton - June 28, 2002 12:00 AM

In the 17th century, the Puritan John Winthrop declared that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be "a city on a hill," the New Jerusalem. In the 18th century, the "shot heard 'round the world," fired at Concord Bridge on April 19, 1775, heralded the start of the American Revolution. In the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau lived here; his famous meditations on conscience and civil disobedience -- "Under government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for the just man is in prison" - embodied the Abolitionist spirit that led to the Civil War, which historian James McPherson calls "The Second American Revolution." And of course, Thoreau's influence lived on past his death in 1862, inspiring the many protest movements of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, Thoreau's neighbor and contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was just as influential. His idea-driven, idealistic Transcendentalism -- "We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn" - prefigured the whole pantheon of post-Christian thinking, from environmentalism to New Ageism. Through the centuries, the one constant of thinking in this part of New England is a kind of righteous high-mindedness - or, if one prefers, self-righteous meddlesomeness - that gets worked up over an endless procession of causes, everything from animal cruelty to alcohol to tobacco to global warming.

Now, at the twain of the 20th and 21st century, still more ideas are bubbling up in the Bay State. What might be called the academic-ideological complex, the university-spawned forest of ivory towers, is still exhaling new and sometimes unsettling thinking.

Last fall, Advanced Cell Technology, just down the road in Worcester, grabbed headlines when it announced that it had succeeded in cloning human cells. That news set off a storm of political and ethical controversy, accelerating efforts at the White House and on Capitol Hill to ban cloning.

Yet to the surprise of many observers, those efforts have failed so far. On June 18 the Senate voted 65 to 31 to bar consideration of an amendment from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) that would have blocked issuance of patent protection for cloned human beings, or the technology created to produce them. Brownback's amendment was furiously opposed by the biotech industry, one of whose champions is the senior senator from Massachusetts. The Brownback proposal would "eviscerate this research," Teddy Kennedy roared. Kennedy's side prevailed, the second defeat in a week for Brownback and the cloning prohibitionists. Now, in the Democratic-controlled Senate, the way seems clear for less strict legislation that would allow human cloning for "therapeutic," but not "reproductive," purposes.

But the Republicans who control the House have a different bill, banning all kinds of cloning. With sentiment strong on both sides of the debate, it's no sure bet that any legislation will emerge from the 107th Congress that will be acceptable to President Bush, another opponent of all cloning. If so, then the ironic outcome of this feuding could be a continuation of the laissez-faire status quo, because currently no federal law forbids cloning.

In the meantime, as so often happens, the underlying idea rushes ahead of the politicians. Cloning of plants and animals has long been practiced, and it was always unlikely that regulators and red-tapers could prevent the technique from spilling over into the human realm. Indeed, a headline in the June 21 edition of the Boston Globe reads, "Clone research quietly builds in world's labs." The article detailed the spread of the practice, not only in Massachusetts, but around the world, notably in England and China. "You're not going to be able to put a lid on the jar or put the genie back in the bottle," one researcher told the Globe, proving that biotechers can recombine metaphors, as well as DNA.

Simultaneously, other ideas have emerged from Massachusetts' post-industrial matrix. On June 21, Robert Reich - remember him as Bill Clinton's noisy Secretary of Labor? - now running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, announced that he supported gay marriage. Not just Vermont-style "civil unions," which the four other Democrats running for the nomination all support, but outright down-the-aisle-together marriage rights for same-sex couples. It's "a civil rights issue," Reich declared, evoking Massachusetts' long tradition of social progressivism.

To put it mildly, not everyone agrees with Massachusetts' definition of progress, but that's always been the case. But it's noteworthy that even the likely Republican gubernatorial nominee, Mitt Romney, supports a domestic partnership law that would give gay couples equal access to health benefits and survivorship rights. In other words, it's a cinch that the next governor of Massachusetts, whoever he or she is, will be gay-friendly, and that the Bay State will be at the vanguard of yet another social revolution.

The variation within American life and society is thus destined to expand. That is, if biotech research continues, unfettered by restrictions, it's only a matter of time before someone carries it beyond better crops, beyond cows' milk that can be spun into spider webs -- all the way to different kinds of humans. The changes will be subtle at first, concerning, most likely, corrections of genetic defects.

And in the meantime, Massachusetts' continuing experiments in new social formations will continue, too. Is gay marriage a blessing or a blight? It's likely that evidence, pro or con, will start to emerge soon from Massachusetts. And so the men and women of Massachusetts will continue to march to the sound of their own drummer, echoing Thoreau's evocative metaphor.

But where will it all end? Eventually, we will see the creation of whole new life forms, not all of them necessarily human. What to do with this sort of "diversity"? One jokily optimistic take on the future is the new Disney animated movie "Lilo and Stitch," now playing at a theater near all of us. Stitch is a genetically engineered mutant from outer space, "born" with six legs and spikes on his back - and a personality that's even pricklier. Even his alien makers describe him as "the flawed product of a deranged mind." But after crash-landing on Earth, he neatly retracts the excess bumps and appendages; mistaken for a dog, he is adopted by Lilo, a little Hawaiian girl. Things start out rough - "You wreck everything!" she tells her new pet - but eventually, the critter from another planet learns to fit in, make friends, and even be part of a family. Is that the path of the future? That we all learn to get along, no matter what we are and where we're from? Let's hope so. The message of "Lilo and Stitch" is a lot more encouraging than that of, say, "Independence Day."

OK, OK, cartoons aren't necessarily the best guides for the road ahead. But the movie is clicking on all its lithium crystals, Roger Ebert called it "a jewel," and it out-box-officed the much-hyped "Minority Report" on its first day of release. So maybe the positive reception of the film is an indicator that American audiences are ready to consider, with open and tolerant minds, changes wrought by technology and sociology.

And so back to Massachusetts. One needn't abandon all critical judgment - many will maintain that it's completely legitimate, for example, to scorn the fiscal policies of "Taxachusetts" - to acknowledge that biological and cultural experiments, ongoing in the Bay State, might possibly make healthier and happier people. No doubt some will always oppose cloning and the sanctioning of same-sex relationships, but Concordians never shrank from debate and dispute. "I will not hide my tastes or aversions," wrote Emerson. "If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own." Not everyone likes the Concord Grape, either. But peaceful experimentation, in matters small and big, is part of the enduring essence of freedom.

 

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