Are Americans Ready for Democracy?

Most of the nation's people identify themselves first by tribe or religion, and are all too ready to spit on the cultures of others, says Firouz Folani.

By Firouz Folani

Institute of Near-Western Studies

TEHRAN, Feb 24, 2011 -- As a wave of "people power" this month toppled dictators throughout the Americas, citizens of Africa and the Middle East—the world's prosperous democracies— felt joy and sympathy. Nowhere was this more true than here in Iran. But with the fall of the dictatorship in Washington, it's time for us, the world's one remaining superpower, to lay sentiment aside. We have to ask the tough questions: How can we be sure that the next American regime won't be even worse? How can we be sure, for that matter, that Americans are ready for democracy?

Officially, of course, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria, Turkey and other rich democracies support free speech, personal liberty, the rule of law and fair elections for every country on earth. But we have to balance our democratic ideals with a realistic assessment of our interests (and the world's) in resource-rich North America.

Why do I have my doubts? Because Americans lack our Judeo-Muslim traditions of brotherhood, peaceful assembly and debate. Far from thinking of the greater good of their society, most Americans embrace a tribal ethos of "what's in it for me and my clan?" Their loyalties tend to divide along tribal and regional lines. In recent years, for example, elected officials have mooted the idea that their state should (a) secede from the federal union (Texas), (b) create its own currency (South Carolina), and (c) enforce only those national laws with which its ruling warlords agree (Montana).

In this climate, many, if not most of the nation's people identify themselves first by tribe or religion (as in "Italian-American," "African-American," "Baptist" or "Red Stater"). Members of these tribes gather often throughout the year to celebrate themselves, and they're all too ready to spit on the cultures of others. When a national election is called, one-third to one-half of those eligible do not not bother to vote.

With their feeble sense of nationhood, Americans fall back on an individualism so extreme that their laws hold that even business corporations are people, with the same free-speech rights as a flesh-and-blood human being. Unfortunately, fully half the homes of these tribesmen are stocked with firearms. And Americans have been known to bring their weapons to ostensibly peaceful political rallies. In fact, political assassination has been a recurring problem in the United States for more than a century. Even in 2011, Federal officials who ventured into the untamed Western deserts have been threatened and even shot.

You might be tempted here to say that democracy is messy, and that the Americans should just be left to muddle along as best they can, and learn their lessons without our interference. Unfortunately, North America is a vital source of uranium, soybeans, situation comedies, inspirational speakers and other resources without which the global economy would collapse. Moreover, the country possesses a sizable cache of weapons of mass destruction. For both those reasons we and the other peace-loving nations of the world cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. If Americans are incapable of electing a sane and responsible government, the whole world will feel the consequences.

The heart of the problem, of course, is religion.

I disagree with some of my conservative friends who claim that Christianity is an inherently violent faith (we all know the litany: it has an instrument of torture for a symbol, the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc). Yes, if you read through their Holy Book you find a lot of alarming stuff, but I am satisfied that the vast majority of Christians read these passages metaphorically. For most, their religion is almost as peaceful and civilized as our own.

That said, the United States abounds in fanatics who don't share this view. They are all too eager to turn the democratic process to their own nefarious ends. Many will claim to have renounced the gun for the ballot box, but can we trust them? Consider one Sarah Palin, an imam from a wild northern region where the central government's hold is weak. Last year, her election literature contained images of targets on the territories of opponents, and she has said that the secular state should base its laws on a Christian version of Sharia. Obviously Iran, Nigeria and the rest of the G7 cannot tolerate such a person in charge of America's nuclear arsenal.

Some say not to worry, because Americans, now that they're free, will vote in a government of moderates, who will move toward a healthy secular society. Extremists, they say, have little support and cannot win. But I am not so sure.

Outside the large cities where foreigners are welcome, a majority of Americans don't "believe" in evolution and many are not shy about expressing distrust for any religion but their own. True, religious fanatics are not a majority, even here. But they're well organized and determined. Often, too, they run social-service organizations that feed, clothe and shelter people, performing the functions that the feeble secular government cannot. That impresses people who might not otherwise share their zealot values.

Given Americans' poor grasp of democratic principles, it is not inconceivable that one or more of these militants could win at the ballot box. And, of course, an election won by the Tea-liban would be the last election permitted. Equally obviously, the country would then have to be liberated by the international community, at great expense in blood and treasure.

For all these reasons, I believe we have to face the hard facts: Much as we aspire to a peaceful, democratic world, we know some peoples are not yet ready for democracy, and the Americans are one of these. Our policy, then, should aim for an authoritarian strongman of the sort Americans understand and respect—someone who can flatter their national pride and keep their well-armed warlords under control. This people needs a few decades of practice before they'll be mature enough to govern themselves. It may not be politically correct, but we have to accept that fact.

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Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

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  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

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. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. 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.