Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has just called stem cell research "Orwellian." (His specific language seems to apply to in-vitro fertility treatment as well.) Reuters reports:
"I believe it crosses a very bright moral line to take sperm and eggs in the laboratory and start creating human life," Romney told reporters. "It is Orwellian in its scope. In laboratories you could have trays of new embryos being created."
It's of course ironic for any Republican to invoke Orwell, since were Orwell alive today, he would be absolutely skewering them. Many a smug conservative over the years has tried to characterize Animal Farm and 1984 as solely critiques of the Soviet Union, but these are shallow readings that allow conservatives to pat themselves on the back while ignoring any reflection about themselves or about our own systems of governance and the media. Orwell, of course, was anti-bullshit above and beyond anything else, and the abuse of power has never been limited to only one nation or ideology. And while 1984 was intended as a cautionary tale, Karl Rove saw it as a how-to manual.
But it's unfair to lump Romney entirely in with all the Bush crew, since his views have never exactly coincided with theirs. However, for about a year now, he has attempted the interesting balancing act of trying to maintain his moderate credentials in liberal Massachusetts while simultaneously pandering increasingly to social conservatives in the national audience.
But I shall not oppose Romney's presidency due to his latest pandering. No, I shall oppose him because of his ignorance of classic science fiction. We must draw the line somewhere!
Romney talks about stem cells as "Orwellian," a term that most often refers to the future society depicted in 1984. However, 1984 deals primarily with the use and abuse of language, media and social structures, all to better control the perception and thought of the populace in a future totalitarian society. Romney really should have said "Huxleyian," referencing another famous dystopian novel, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In Brave New World, society is stratified into a caste system according to genetic make-up, with "Alphas" ruling the roost over "Betas" and others of "inferior" genetic stock. The government, of course, regulates all human birth and grows everyone in labs, with quotas for how many Alphas versus Betas they make, and with normal sexual intercourse and reproduction an oddity.
How could Romney possibly have missed this? Did he really think that "Huxleyian" doesn't send the same dire chill down the spines of reactionary social conservatives, who Fox News tells us is one of the most literate and well-informed demographics in our large, diverse nation? Can such a man really be trusted with the future of our nation?
While I fully expect that the majority of Americans will be ignorant of science fiction, if Romney wishes to make it as a national candidate, it would behoove him to bone up on the subject. Nor should he regulate himself only to the classics. Pulpy science fiction, and flat out bad science fiction, both provide a wealth of ideas undreamt of by the comparatively unimaginative Orwell and Huxley. Reagan seemed to believe his missile defense project, "Star Wars," would create something akin to a science fiction force field. These days, it's instead a "bullet hitting a bullet," but missile defense continues to be the pointless mammoth pork project that will not die, regardless of how many failed tests and rigged demos the manufactures provide. That is a legacy, and true national leadership. Similarly, clearly someone in the White House is not afraid to read really bad science fiction. Who can forget Bush's call to send a man to Mars? Who can forget his dire warnings about the encroaching terror of human-animal hybrids? Who can forget how the nation rallied to him over both these initiatives, giving him a sizable boost in the polls, and cowing the Democrats? Democrats must only read Danielle Steel, or something equally useless, like Dickens, evidenced by their continual, tiresome whines about the plight of the poor and the need for a decent living wage. Who can be bothered with such matters when there are foreign lands to invade? What's the point of having the coolest military toys on the planet if we can't show them off? Why should we bother talking about universal health care, when we should outfitting sharks with laser beams on their frickin' foreheads?
Are you listening, Governor Romney? We must keep attentive to the crucial science fiction gap. When we stop reading science fiction, the terrorists win.
Reuters also reports that Romney has followed in the ranks of other Republicans by offering "an amendment that would have banned the creation of embryos for research purpose." This is, of course, a political pander offering a solution for a non-existent problem. No embryos need to be created for research, and no one has proposed this, not only because it would be unethical, but because there's a vast supply of embryos from fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded (most reports put the number at about 400,000). Romney's move, consequently, is actually much more "Orwellian" than what he decries, since what he's really offering is the same old politician's bullshit.
Laser beams, Mitt. I'm tellin' ya.
(Literary and cultural ignorance seems to be a recurrent theme for conservative political pundits and politicians. When then-candidate for Chief Justice John Roberts said his favorite film was Doctor Zhivago (based on the celebrated novel by Boris Pasternak), Fox pundits expressed concern that "it was a little Commie." Of course, Zhivago, like Pasternak himself, was a victim of the Communists! But all things Russian must be bad, and all Soviet-era novels must praise the Soviet state, goes the thinking – why bother reading the book, watching the movie, or even reading a summary? Bush claims to have read Camus' The Stranger and "three Shakespeares" this summer, but he's not the only Republican who needs to brush up on his reading. However, in the meantime, terrorists can vie with Martians for who hates "our freedoms" the most, or who most direly needs our women.)
Update: D'oh! I may have spoken too soon on one item – Reuters recently reported, this very day, "U.S. Interceptor Downs Missile in Test Over Pacific." The test itself cost $85 million. I'll be interested to see more details, since some previous tests have been rigged demos. Missile defense is deserving of its own, serious, substantive post, but I'll mention a few items here: I'll be genuinely impressed if they can get a viable system to work. Even if it does work, the question is, is it cost-effective, and much more importantly, is it the best use of our resources? Isn't the best "missile defense" making sure we secure any loose nukes in Russia and other parts of the world, with good police work, good economic policy and good diplomacy? Realistically, how much of a threat is a missile attack, versus a "dirty bomb" or biological attack? Finally, if whether by accident or design, defense contractors have finally developed, or are close to, a viable system, bravo – but there's still the question of how much wasteful spending and mismanagement accompanied the project, and that remains an extremely serious, continuing concern. The Pentagon has consistently failed audits and throws good money after bad, some of that due to the usual bureaucratic dance of "spend it or lose it," but when your annual budget is roughly $400 billion, and $1 trillion in funds cannot be accounted for, you've got problems. Simply properly managing funds for the Defense Department would free up billions of dollars for other use. One would hope that the sincere proponents of missile defense – those who aren't working for defense contractors - would support that.