Wednesday, July 15, 2009

That's not what animal-husbandry means, Senator

Last week, Sam Brownback, introduced Senate Bill 1435, entitled the "Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act of 2009." After finding that:
(1) advances in research and technology have made possible the creation of human-animal hybrids;

(2) human-animal hybrids are grossly unethical because they blur the line between human and animal, male and female, parent and child, and one individual and another individual;

The bill forbids making or transporting human/animal hybrids and establishes a punishment of One million dollars and ten years in prison for any mad scientists who break the law. Though, it would be hard to convict anyone under this bill, since mad scientists have an automatically recourse to the insanity plea. In introducing the bill, Brownback, who is a member of the same party as Larry Craig, David Vitter, Sarah Palin, Mark Sanford, and Michelle Bachmann, emphasized the need to protect human dignity.

When Bush called for a ban on human-animal hybrids in his 2006 State of the Union address, calling it one of "the most egregious abuses of medical research," most people were baffled. After all, wasn't Manimal a good guy? It didn't take long to discover that human-animal hybrids were a peculiar nightmare of the same faction of the religious right that made banning stem-cell research an article of faith for the Republican Party, even though most members of the GOP hadn't heard of the concept before 2001.

Just two weeks ago, Bobby Jindal signed a similar ban into law in Louisiana. Since that time there has not been a single werewolf attack in the Magnolia state. Brownback and twenty other members of the Senate decided it's time to take a record of success like that and go national.

While the fears of the voters Jindal, Brownback, and company pander to sound like so much comic book fantasy, there is just enough reality in the concept to keep them going for years. There really is a line of research that involves inserting genes from one species into another to better understand the control mechanisms within cells. Observing a petri dish full of hybrid cells is a much better way to understand genetics than purposefully initiating mutations in human births, or that in doing nothing and waiting for possibly fatal mutations to happen. Biologists have been pursuing this type of research for over twenty years and have bred bacteria that can produce interferon, insulin, and human growth hormone.

The Brownbacks of the world care less about understanding life and developing successful therapies that they do about pandering through fear. This type of politics is based on stoking the Luddite paranoia of their supporters by confirming their worst fears. Fear serves to bind followers to their leaders and keep them from straying. In passing bills like this, they assure their followers that the threat--in this case posed by scientists and godless liberals--is real and that only their swift action prevented the unthinkable.

For the dynamic to work best, the feared threat must not only be unthinkable, but also not very well thought out. The worst threats are those that remain in the darkness, where we can't measure their full extent. Brownback and the others alarm their followers by telling them "we must stop this ungodly mixing or... you know." The followers each get to fill in the blank with their own particular demon.

Political observers often point out that this kind of communication between leaders and followers is done in a sort of code. Much was made of Bush's use of Biblical language in this respect. The most important massage that Bush communicated to the religious right was simply that he was one of them. A wink, a nod, a secret handshake, and the right phrasing was all it took to convince millions that he was one of them, that he shared their values and concerns.

Brownback's bill tells a certain group that he and his co-sponsors understand and share their fears. But, with the fears hidden and barely defined, should we believe that it's all about mad scientists and cartoon monsters? Brownback's blog says: "Creating human-animal hybrids, which permanently alter the genetic makeup of an organism, will challenge the very definition of what it means to be human;" "This legislation is both philosophical and practical as it has a direct bearing upon the very essence of what it means to be human;" "The issue is that when you make changes in the germ-line, such changes are passed along to one’s offspring;" and "Tampering with the human germ-line could be the equivalent to setting a time-bomb that might detonate many generations down the line." At issue is purity and the preservation of the human race.

What other fears might his language connect with? A quick look at the sponsors of the bill and their home states reveals something about what some of those fears might be.
  • Sam Brownback - Kansas
  • Jim Bunning - Kentucky
  • Richard Burr - North Carolina
  • Saxby Chambliss - Georgia
  • Thomas Coburn - Oklahoma
  • Bob Corker - Tennessee
  • John Cornyn - Texas
  • Jim DeMint - South Carolina
  • John Ensign - Nevada
  • Lindsey Graham - South Carolina
  • James Inhofe - Oklahoma
  • Mike Johanns - Nebraska
  • Jon Kyl - Arizona
  • Mary Landrieu - Louisiana
  • Mel Martinez - Florida
  • John McCain - Arizona
  • James Risch - Idaho
  • John Thune - South Dakota
  • David Vitter - Louisiana
  • George Voinovich - Ohio
  • Roger Wicker - Mississippi

Of the twenty-one sponsors, only four are from states outside the greater South (former Confederate and border states). This is region that still bears a burden of infamy for its past concerns about preserving the purity of the race and the dangers of mixing.

I'm not claiming Brownback, or any of the co-sponsors, are making a direct or conscious appeal to racism. Their anti-science and anti-modern message is enough reason to condemn them without adding other charges. But the uglier appeal is there. In recent years, the Republican Party and movement conservatives have been painting themselves into a racist corner and have come to regret it. How many votes will their sliming of Sonya Sotomayor and their encouragement of anti-immigrant groups lose them in the next round of elections?

Now more than ever, the Republicans should be cautious about saying anything that could be interpreted as pro-racist. The problem for them isn't that Democrats and liberals might call them racist. Gotcha politics and faux outrage is a game that both sides play and that accomplishes nothing except to numb people to real outrages and destroy confidence in the political system. the reason they should be cautious is that, in appearing to give comfort to racists, they might give comfort to racists. Hate crimes are on the rise.

There are real monsters in the dark, but these weren't manufactured by mad scientists. These monsters are made from fear, resentment, and ignorance. Shining a light into the darkness is one of the best ways to banish the monsters, but a good laugh is also powerful. It's hard to take someone seriously, as a threat or as a leader, once they have been made ridiculous. Brownback may be a pandering demagogue, but he's also a buffoon. Let's take this opportunity point and laugh and say, "That's not what animal-husbandry means, Senator."

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