Is Obama More Puritanical Than Romney?

Sure he is, according to Walter Russell Mead.  Mead's Meadea, of course, is one of the most savvy and erudite blogs around.

One reason, it appears, that Mead is voting Romney is that he's paranoid about all things puritanical.  Left-wing Puritanism is a greater threat to our liberty than right-wing Puritanism these days.  That's because the puritanical right is so unfashionable and less and less effective.  The opposite is true of the puritanical left.  Mead's judgments here, of course, might be questioned.

My own more fair-and-balanced judgment is that being puritanical is an indispensable component of being American. It can be both good and bad, and it's mainly good when properly checked by our devotion to personal or individual liberty. If it weren't for our puritanical streak, we Americans would be too libertarian, too indifferent to the well-being of our fellow citizens and fellow creatures.

If it weren't for our libertarian streak, we'd be too intrusive and meddlesome; we wouldn't leave each other alone in peace and freedom at all. 

We don't want to be as sexually repressive as the Puritans, who wanted to punish adultery with death and even make kissing in public illegal.  But we don't want to be so sexually amoral that we're indifferent to how our sexual choices affect our lives as social and relational and familial beings.  

We surely don't want laws that command the practice of the virtue of chastity.  That fearful coercion might make chastity not really a virtue at all.  But we don't want to forget that chastity is a virtue that makes a basic contribution to the flourishing of members of our "eusocial" and yet highly self-conscious species. So we might want even public education to be somewhat pro-chastity.

Commentators are so psyched up by Romney's prowess as a debater and his alleged lying about taxes and whatever that nobody much is noticing the words he spoke that got the highest rating on the approval-meter lurking beneath the candidates on the CNN screen were all about the Declaration, the Constitution, rights, and all that.  Romney's constitutionalism impressed Americans most of all.  

Those words were a judicious mixture of our libertarian (or Lockean) and our puritanical heritages.

Rights are first of all individual rights, and everyone knows that our founding Puritans weren't about protecting them.  They violated the right of conscience and other rights with their tyrannical and often ridiculous laws.

But Romney altered the emphases of the rather libertarian Mr. Jefferson in at least a couple of ways.  He highlighted that the right of liberty was mainly for religious liberty, by which he meant the liberty of churches to function as institutions.  He didn't say anything Jefferson would have necessarily disagreed with, but he was surely more insistent that freedom of religion is freedom for religion as an organized body of thought and action.

And in discussing the pursuit of happiness, Romney connected happiness with the performance of duty.  His puritanical suggestion was that we are happy both in our freedom to follow our dreams and in performing our duties to others and God.  So he hinted, at least, at the puritanical connection between happiness and practicing the personal virtue of charity. Our dreams aren't or shouldn't be solitary dreams.

For John Locke, what distinguishes free persons from the other animals is the pursuit of happiness.  We are moved by a kind of uneasiness that pushes us along in pursuit of an elusive happiness that ends only in death.  Our libertarians, we often and rightly hear, are pretty lame in their indifference to what all our freedom is for. Being happy is, most of all, being in love in the present, not constantly sacrificing the here-and-now for some indefinite future.  Our Puritans, whatever their shortcomings, thought they knew what happiness is.

President Obama, in his acceptance speech and many other places, has said that our liberty is limited by our common conception of citizenship.  America is in many ways a project we share in common; we don't achieve our successes and so we shouldn't experience our failures alone.  In that respect, our president's words echo the original puritanical concern for the quality of public life and provision for the unfortunate. Obama, in his way, agrees with Romney that our dreams aren't or shouldn't be solitary dreams.

Mead is surely right that Romney's neo-Puritanism flows from being embedded in the Mormon church.  The original intention of that church was to be in some ways as theocratic as the Puritans.  It is, I have to emphasize, not theocratic now, and it is not pursuing its charitable goals through political means.  No American institutional religion of any significance is now.

Mead is equally right to see the progressive Obama as heir to the intrusive nationalism that began in New England and surfaced among the abolitionists, the prohibitionists, the suffragettes, the regulatory, redistributive reformism of the welfare state, and the Civil Rights movement.  It continues with the paternalistic intention of regulating the details of ordinary people's lives with their health and safety in mind.  Nobody can deny that the egalitarianism animating much of this intrusiveness has achieved much that's good and enduring, but sometimes at the price of being too personally intrusive and undermining the virtues that flow from our localism, federalism, families, churches, and free economy.

I'm going to stop short of Mead's judgmentalism by saying it's worthy of wonder that no one is talking more about the especially strong puritanical dimension found in each of our two admirable candidates.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

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

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less
  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
  • When it opens next year, it will be the largest plant of its kind on Earth.
  • Concentrated solar power solves the problem of how to store electricity in ways that solar pannels cannot.
Keep reading Show less

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.