Why Are the Loudest Among Us Also the Most Insecure?

Democracy is happening like never before, and it's exploiting our deepest fears and failures.

Watching the Republican debate last Thursday was, like chapters past, a pertinent lesson in vitriol and fear. This year’s debates are the rubbernecking of the modern political process: the more mangled and disastrous a crash, the more we gawk. The contest has become little more than trying to bark the loudest and show whose fangs are sharpest. 

From Ted Cruz’s elaboration on the effectiveness of carpet-bombing (all the while swiping at Barack Obama) to Marco Rubio’s apparent dozen-Red Bull cocktail pre-gaming to Jeb Bush claiming his father is the greatest man alive, these debates are the human equivalent of chimp pantgrunting. And with the alpha male absent from the stage, the rest of the gang took no issue in ganging up on Cruz.

This is not to say that national security is not important. It is an essential point of discussion for both parties. The religiosity with which it is approached by the GOP, alongside the sanctimoniousness each candidate displays, is exploiting a cultural weakness, however. By towing the line of Manifest Destiny that has infected the American brain for centuries, we’re merely reaching for an unrealistic apex from an unfathomable gorge.

In Global Brain, Howard Bloom discusses the differences between Spartan and Athenian societies. Sparta was effectively ruled by dictators (or at least had a dictatorial culture) for much of its vaunted history. Progressive Athens enjoyed cosmopolitanism. Athens was no slouch in terms of warriorship, but when it came to the military, Sparta, with its genetic selection (men were expected to pass along their wives if they found more manly men) and intensive focus on battle, organized its affairs around warfare.

It’s not a surprise that Republicans are playing the Spartan card. Bloom writes,

"Rome chose Athenian democracy in the centuries of its rise, then switched to Spartan harshness when it faced barbarian onslaught and decline. The chaos of the Dark Ages triggered a retreat to Sparta’s fortresslike mentality."

Empires no longer rise and fall over centuries. America’s power is not exactly waning — our military checkbook remains relatively boundless — but, like all superpowers before us, there will be a day of reckoning. 

Research shows that being an alpha male wears on the immune system: Chimp leaders exhibit elevated levels of cortisol. America the alpha country is both oblivious to its major cracks — the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill is barely getting attention; Al Jazeera covered the Flint disaster nearly a year before mainstream press picked up on it — and fundamentalist in its demands of greatness.

Ignorance and urgency make for a toxic cocktail. Alpha Donald Trump has laid out no pertinent plan for much of anything, but his genius is in exploiting our penchant for Spartanism. Facts are irrelevant. The media is a paid arm of the government. Even the religious mostly overlooked his "2 Corinthians" gaffe. Build a wall along the Canadian border as well; their French-inspired socialist tendencies could be a future danger.

What’s most interesting about this fiasco is not that Trump and Cruz, an establishment figure the establishment loathes, are leading. The outsider has been breathing down the necks of this two-party system for decades. Their ascensions were inevitable. What might be unique is that this display of Spartan bigotry and violence is a self-inflicted wound. It is happening because of democracy, not in spite of it.

Lycurgus was communing with the Oracle at Delphi when penning the Spartan Constitution. The three mystical virtues of his culture became equality among Spartan citizens (though not outsiders), austerities, and military fitness. It is a very Republican agenda, even if such equality is reserved for a portion of the electorate.

America likes to tout its democracy as being the best in the world. While there is dismay on both sides of the aisle, democracy is playing out like never before. Even "both sides" was a design failure. Until the 1970s the Democratic and Republican parties chose their candidate. Democracy only happened between their choices. Iowa’s sacredness is a mere 44 years old, but it did kick off a truer democratic electoral process.

Yet within those small spheres less democratic voices reign. Bloom points out that those who are the most fundamentalist are also the least confident. I’ve known religious people that are impossible to provoke. Their faith is a matter of introspection. It is the uncertain and overly sensitive — those that feel that American values are being stolen even when no such robbery exists — that feel the need to scream the loudest.

Manifest Destiny cannot exist without a creator promising such a destiny. In the 19th century, this philosophy fueled the murder of countless Native Americans and the implementation of impoverished wages to low-class workers in building our nation’s infrastructure. The same attitude prevails today in security, immigration, religion, and beyond. All of this is rooted in a deep fear that America will one day no longer be the alpha — a much more likely destiny than an infinity of domination.

Recent research shows that the more thunderous a monkey’s scream, the smaller his testicles. Democracy might not be pretty, but it certainly is loud.


Image: Andrew Kline

Derek Beres is a Los Angeles-based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor. Follow him on Twitter @derekberes.

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But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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