Robert Fisk on the Language of Power

Robert Fisk in an institution, a warrior and a stalwart of old media. While writing for an English daily newspaper, The Independent, he spent over three decades reporting on the Middle East and has witnessed changes befall politics and journalism at a remove that has allowed him to remain critical. In a speech recently given at the annual Al Jazeera forum, Mr. Fisk lamented coded political speech—“peace process” for Israeli/U.S. occupation of Palestine, “troop surge” for needed reinforcements, etc.—and its entry into the everyday parlance of journalists worldwide. “There is no battle between power and the media,” he says. “Through language, we have become them.”

One enabler of journalism’s failure to hold authority accountable—most evident through manipulative retellings of modern history to suit political ends, from America’s supposed allegiance to Britain during World War II and the subsequent “special relationship” to the uncritical acceptance of winning Afghani “hearts and minds” (Vietnam? Ever read about it?)—is the pressure put on news sources to fill hours and hours and pages and pages with words. Closely related is the control which governments have over information, whether in Russia or the U.S., about their own activities like troop movements, clandestine policies, etc. Simply put, when there are a lot of mouths to feed, you’re gonna stay close to your momma, and this is just what happened during the run up to the Iraq war: news institutions forced to be more competitive than ever with ever-diminishing budgets took what they were told and called it breaking news rather than political lies, which is simply what they were in many cases.

Fisk is correct to say that politics at its highest level is a struggle for power—just look at how the U.N. works. He says that “when it comes to history, we journalists really do let the presidents and prime ministers take us for a ride.” Fisk again brings up what he sees as an obvious parallel between Vietnam and Afghanistan: the campaign to win hearts and minds. He is a defender of capital-T Truth at a time when news reports prefer to talk of competing narratives. The problem, Fisk recognizes, is that the most powerful narrative wins out, which in many cases means the most violent and deceptive narrative forced upon a citizenry. Truth and Justice have a complicated relationship, to be sure, but one generally aids the other.

Take for instance this L.A. Times opinion piece where researchers found that if more people understood how the burden of war falls disproportionately on the poor, they would be more critical of the motives that lead to war. Why? Because it is a demonstration of injustice, an injustice that, empirically speaking, is an essential characteristic of war. I agree with Hemingway and Hitchens that the free world is good place and one worth fighting for, but here we do not enter into a discussion of utilitarianism.

Fisk’s solution is simple but likely to be taken as naïve by those who think themselves and the world to be a terribly complicated place and always beyond comprehension. Read books, Fisk says. Read them deeply, especially history books. Fine, but his solution should have emphasized that the direction of the news has turned away from editorial gatekeepers toward the audience who can hold authority accountable through blogs and other new media when old media is laid up again like a lame lap dog.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia, user Alan Liefting.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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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. 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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