Does the U.S. Need to Choose Between Being Moral or Militaristic?

America has a split personality, and the country it wants to be is constantly being foiled by the country that it is. In an ideal world, says Jelani Cobb, there is a way of using power that does not entail the oppression and exploitation of other people. But how do we get there?

Jelani Cobb: There’s the kind of power that comes from having military advantages and having a large army and weaponry and so on. There’s the kind of power that comes from having moral authority and having people invested in your cause – people believing that you are representative of somehow a better future in some ways. There’s a tension between those two kinds of ideals. There are people who point to the United States having this sprawling military empire and bases all around the world as the basis for American power and there are people who look at this as a kind of, excuse me, people who look at this as an example of a society struggling to be democratic, to operate and organize itself as a democracy.

 At the beginning of his presidency and during the campaign Barack Obama relied more on the latter than the former.  He famously when he was campaigning for senate seat in Illinois talked about his opposition to the Iraq war. He did say he wasn’t opposed to all wars, just dumb wars and he categorized this as a dumb war. But when he talked about the United States what he really dwelled on was the strength of the U.S. as an example. Which was ironic but people then said that the people accused him of not thinking the United States was exceptional and not embracing the doctrine of American exceptionalism. And what he actually did was voice that doctrine but had kind of separated it from the chest thumping, djangoistic narcissism that we think of exceptionalism as.

When we look at the way his presidency has evolved it’s been a kind of complicated balance of that moral authority and then the military might. And you saw that transition immediately. Like early in his presidency when he used SEAL Team Six to take out the individuals in Somalia on the coast of Somalia who had kidnapped Americans.

For some people it seemed paradoxical for this person who had talked about hope and change to kind of use military might in that way. The people who also thought that kind of same idea about him and the approach they took to nullifying the threat that Osama Bin Laden posed by flying into the sovereign territory of another country and using the military to kill this person and remove him.

There is in an ideal world a way of using power that does not entail the oppression and exploitation of other people. I just don’t know how we get to that world. And in the context of that I don’t know what you prescribe in place of that.

 

America operates on two kinds of power: moral authority – through which citizens and members of the international community invest in the United States’ message of a better future – and military might – the stark opposite of morality, whereby presidents overreach their authority and breach sovereign territory to meet their own objectives. Barack Obama represented the tension between these ideals, espousing morality in speech while engaging the US’s military might in action. The country America wants to be is constantly being foiled by the country that America is. Journalist Jelani Cobbs asks: can America have it both ways? Is it noble to try, or merely hypocritical? Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His latest book is The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.


Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His latest book is The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.

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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.

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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. 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.