Political Discourse for Adults: Introducing Praxis

Back in 2004, Jon Stewart famously hijacked CNN’s hyper-partisan “Crossfire” show, calling on the hosts to “stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.” Rather than fostering real debate on the issues of our time, Stewart zinged, “Crossfire” offered “theater” and “partisan hackery.”  

“Crossfire” was cancelled a few months later, but the quality of political discourse on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News has not risen appreciably in the seven years since the on-air fracas.  

To paraphrase von Clausewitz, cable news shows are still, by and large, the continuation of politics by other means. We have one network on the right, another on the left and CNN playing host to talking heads from the right and the left. The result is a lot of mediocre punditry, heaps of shrill bloviation by invited guests and some very smart horserace analysis and giant iPad-esque “Magic Map” manipulation by people like CNN’s John King. But only rarely do we hear reflective, intelligent, reasoned discussion on the issues of the day.  

The same is true of much of what passes as political commentary on the web. There are of course quite a few smart blogs out there. But for every Big Think, Harpers or Hannah Arendt Center blog, there are dozens of places where thoughtful, informed, in-depth analysis gives way to the incendiary and the ideological.

A word or two about the name of this blog. In his Eudemian Ethics Aristotle presents “praxis” as the fundamental capacity that distinguishes rational adult human beings from children and beasts:

Hence whereas in the case of the other animals the factor of force is simple, as it is in the case of inanimate objects, for animals do not possess rational principle and appetition in opposition to it, but live by their appetition, in man both forms of force are present—that is, at a certain age, the age to which we attribute action in the proper sense; for we do not speak of a child as acting, any more than a wild animal, but only a person who has attained to acting by rational calculation. (1224a28-30)

Lending it a more political valence, Hannah Arendt presents praxis as a defining characteristic of human action in the public realm. Seyla Benhabib summarizes Arendt’s position well in The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (2000):

Praxis, speech and action, is the actuality, that is, the most accomplished ontological reality of beings such as humans are. Beasts have no praxis because they have no words; gods need no praxis because they have no need for company, for togetherness. Only bodily, dependent, and finite beings exist through words and deeds.  Their mode of being is in the space of appearance created by the web of narratives and unfolding through the reality of words and deeds. (xliii)

In Praxis, I will offer contributions to the public discourse that look more deeply into unplumbed questions and unexamined assumptions of contemporary issues. I will use my training in political philosophy and law to shed different light and offer new perspectives on questions of religion, race, equality and education, among many other topics. My academic scholarship in political science strives to bring theory and practice together in revealing and mutually critical ways, and I will do the same -- in more concise, more timely and more accessible terms -- in my Praxis posts. My pre-Praxis pieces on Big Think give a sense of this approach. I’ve written about the implications of Rawlsian theory on the Occupy Wall Street movement, drawn upon Locke and Supreme Court jurisprudence to weigh in on the fight over contraceptives and critiqued Santorum’s stance on the separation of church and state by revisiting JFK’s speech

My hope is that Praxis will be a forum for individuals to reason together, revealing themselves and staking out an identity in the virtual world with an eye to understanding and improving the world itself.  I welcome your comments on my posts (and on the thoughts of other Big Think readers) and invite you to propose new topics when an issue seems to cry out for deeper examination.  

Follow me on Twitter: @stevenmazie

Image courtesy of Panos Karapanagiotis/Shutterstock.com

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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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