Eric Foner Weighs In on the State of the Union

Question: Where are we as a nation?

Foner:    We seem to be in a kind of crisis right now.  It’s impossible to know exactly how this will work out, and we certainly lack political leadership.  Our leadership has created crises rather than try to solve crises.  We are engaged in two wars, both of which are very unpopular, and where there’s really very little end, no end in sight, particularly, of any, you know, anything that might be seen as a real resolution to the problems out there.  Our economy, obviously, at the moment, is in a very, very big mess and it’s heading downward.  Our democracy, even though, this year, the presidential campaign seems to have engaged large numbers of people who had been indifferent or alienated from politics, still, large numbers of people do not vote.  Money, obviously, is dominant in our political system.  You know, Lincoln didn’t need millions of millions and millions of dollars to run for office back in those days.  And so, I think there are serious problems in our political life, our economic life.  Our political leadership is really the problem. 

Question: Is the American political system broken?

Foner:    I think the American political system has a lot of problems.  If it’s broken, I think it can be fixed.  I think there is, in this country, a deep respect for democracy, and I think that’s one of the wonderful things about this country.  You know, Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States in the 1830’s and wrote his great book, “Democracy in America,” described democracy as “a habit of the heart.”  Habit of the heart.  It’s not just a set of political institutions, it’s not a voting system, it’s something that lives within people, and that’s one of the reasons why you can’t just march into some other country and say, hey, now you’re democratic.  It’s got to grow organically out of the culture, out of the history, out of the society, and we are a people who believe in democracy, but our system is broken to the extent that it is so based on money nowadays that the politician, the servant of the people must become a servant of those who give money, and if there was some way of changing that, I think it would make our system a lot healthier.  You know, I lived in England for several years.  In England, they dissolve…  when there’s a general election coming up, they dissolve Parliament, and, 30 days later, there’s an election.  They have a 30-day campaign period.  In the United…  And by the way, there are limits on how much any party can spend, and television is required to give free time to all the parties.  Now, in this country, we have a permanent election cycle, right?  This presidential election has been going on, it seems, for years.  The amount of money is unbelievably enormous.  If we could go a little closer to the British system, I think our democracy would be a lot more healthy.

Question: Are the parallels between Lincoln and Obama valid?

Foner:    Almost anybody can find a parallel with Lincoln, if they look hard enough.  Obviously, they’re both senators from Illinois.  Lincoln didn’t have a lot of national political experience when he ran for president.  None at all, actually.  He’d been a member of Congress for one term back in the 1840’s, he run twice for the Senate and lost both times.  Twenty-some odd years before, he’d been a member of the Illinois State Legislature, but that really doesn’t give you a lot of national experience.  He was known as, like Obama, for speeches, for his Lincoln-Douglas Debates, for his speeches about slavery in the 1850’s.  He was known as someone who articulated very brilliantly commonly held ideas in the North about slavery, the expansion of slavery, the future of slavery.  So, yeah, there are parallels between Lincoln and Obama in terms of how they got into the national spotlight through eloquence, through rhetoric, and also the fact they didn’t have a lot of national experience when they were running for president.  So, yeah, one could make those comparison.  We’re in a different era.  I don't think Obama needs to go back to the 1860’s to figure out what he ought to be doing.  It’s a different country now, but certainly, if he can learn something from Lincoln’s ability to convey his ideas effectively and inspirationally to the populace, I think that will serve any president well.

The author enumerates the problems that plague the US but sees much

opportunity for correcting them.

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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.
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  • 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. 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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