Michael Eric Dyson: Dr. King Then and Now

  Michael Eric Dyson:  Well, I wanted to take advantage of the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s death to do a sustained and critical reflection on his life, what his life meant but especially what his death meant, how his death had an enormous impact on American culture, on the African American quest for self-determination in America, for the broadening of the boundaries of American democracy, and for the redemption of the American soul. So I thought this was the perfect time to delve in to those areas and to deal strategically and systematically as much as possible in a book with Dr. King’s thought about his own death and to track for others just how existentially it was a burden that we tend to elevate him to the level of an icon and a demiurge, but Dr. King sweated, bled, cried, struggled, was depressed. And I wanted to communicate that real sense of struggle that he had, that real sense of engagement with the horrors and the demons of American resistance to his ideas and his vision because we tend to believe now in retrospect that he was loudly applauded and largely embraced when the exact opposite was the case. So this was a time to reflect upon his legacy, talk about how far or near we are to the promised land and then look at some of the leaders who have emerged in his shadow.

Question: Why do we have a distorted vision of Dr. King’s life?

 

Michael Eric Dyson:  Well, I think we have a distorted vision of Dr. King because need him to be useful to us in ways that ameliorate our situation but also mollify our consciences. In one sense, Dr. King is a drug we take. He’s also a language we speak. He’s also an ideal after which we strive. And when somebody is that complicated and converges in that many different ways it opens up possibilities of extraordinary investigation of his or her life but also exploitation of their legacies. And in this case I think that we need in many parts of America to see Dr. King as somebody who believed what we believe. Many white Americans wanted to make him clawless. Many black Americans wanted to make him flawless. White Americans wanted to make him clawless for the most part because there was enormous guilt after the death of King. After all, one man held the gun but many more believed it was a good idea or believed that Dr. King was a troublemaker, a dangerous person. The second in command of the FBI said that he was the most dangerous Negro leader in America and the most effective, and as a result of that he had to be gotten rid of. They sent notes to Dr. King, letters, suggesting that he kill himself. This is very much incomprehensible to many people now that the government itself would intervene in such a nefarious fashion to suggest to an American citizen that he or she could consider suicide to get rid of oneself in order to remove him- or herself from the American scene. And so Dr. King was such a figure who could be used I think for many white Americans as this ideal representation of the aspirations of America and especially in terms of democracy so they wanted him clawless because his danger, his puncturing the holes-- puncturing holes in to this mythology of American perfection, his notion that democracy-- that patriotism must be a critical one, that is to say it wouldn’t be an uncritical celebration of America or a valorizing of the existing or status quo but to challenge it out of love for nation. So many wanted to remove the claws, the difficulties, the conflicts, his criticism of Viet Nam, his ability to say that poor people must be taken care of and that America for the most part with the Civil Rights Bill and the Civil Rights Act had not- and the Voting Rights Act--excuse me--had not really done something that was serious and significant for the masses of poor people. So therefore in order to exchange this King who was a teddy bear, a cuddly figure, they offered to him lesser prizes, a national holiday. To be sure, black and white people in a racial coalition among many others worked for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to be a national holiday but the concession on the part of the establishment was to in one sense get rid of King, to silence him through softening him, but that of course I think in many ways hasn’t worked. On the other hand, black people wanted him flawless because they saw the unprincipled assault upon King and they wanted therefore to assert his perfection, but by asserting his perfection they lose sight of how Dr. King must look to younger people now who figure well, I could never be like him because he was a perfect guy. And sometimes we make him perfect so we can dis Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton or whatever figure we happen to turn to now to contrast them negatively to Dr. King, but everything negative that was said about Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton or has been has- was also said about King. So those two- those competing interests make it a very difficult sale.

 

Recorded on: May 16 2008

Michael Eric Dyson discusses public perception of Dr. King from the 1960s to now.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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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.
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. 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.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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