Sunday, June 08, 2003

One of the first things they teach high school freshmen -- assuming that the kids haven't absorbed the lesson by then -- is that, when writing an essay, you have two elementary goals: First, construct an argument to persuade your reader that you are correct; and, second, make sure that you actually constructed an argument.

The first is widely considered to be the harder of the two: We've all had an argument at some time or other, and brought facts and emotional ideas to bear to win; yet even Christ lost some arguments, in the sense that folks thought he was nuts (even if he ended up winning the war). Yet, in truth, it is making sure that you've actually rendered a coherent argument -- that you stayed homed in on your greatest point while making smaller, contributory ones -- that marks the difference between writing and musical prose.

Manifestly, however, it is apparent that some columnists (cough, Maureen Dowd) never truly internalized this lesson.

Mr. James Pinkerton is such a one, as well (or at least, so his writing seems to suggest). I don't do fiskings, for the most part, for a host of reasons; however, it has been some time since I graded a paper, so we'll try that.

The new hit movie "Bruce Almighty" has millions of Americans thinking about - or at least laughing about - playing God.
I would accept this opening sentence from a sophomore English essay, albeit with a grimace; as of the senior year in high school, it is too simplistic an opening to be acceptable.

But let's leave Jim Carrey and his record-breaking movie out of the equation for the moment.
No, let us not. Or more accurately, let us choose a better segue; if you insist on starting your essay in this manner, you should be prepared to at least incidentally incorporate it into your thesis with a bit more panache than this.

In the real world, concerns about playing God are rising as new biotechnology makes more cures possible.
Rather banal, and dragging on, but not wholly objectionable.

And so here's the real question: who is playing God? Those who seek to save and improve lives through miraculous and controversial techniques? Or those who wish to prevent the use of such techniques?
This is a non-sequitur. To "play God," traditionally, is to arrogate power to oneself such that only the Divinity has any right to wield; it is unclear how those who seek to prevent the use of "miraculous and controversial techniques" are playing God. Quite the contrary: In the same way that Moses, with God's aid, conquered the Pharoah's magus, so might the ones who seek to stop the rampant abuse of power be working God's will. Or not. Rhetorical excess is not helpful when one has not even explicitly rendered one's thesis.

The issue continues to torque up as new discoveries ramp up. The newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun revealed that a team of researchers in Japan has found a gene in embryonic stem cells that seems to switch cancer "on"; the hope is if such a switch can be found, it can be switched "off." The periodical Cell observed that scientists in Scotland and Japan have found a "master gene" in embryonic stem cells; this gene, dubbed "nanog," might yield the secret of "pluripotency" - eternal youth, for lack of a more explanatory term.
Except, of course, that "pluripotency" actually means, literally, many powered (plurus + potens), and that, in this context, it means the ability of a stem cell (or any other cell in a similar state) to transform itself into any specialized form.

Aging in a cell occurs because of shortened telomeres at the ends of chromosomes. It is unclear how pluripotency would reverse this fact. Please insert a footnoted explanation in your rewrite.

Just on Tuesday, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that scientists at the Scripps Research Institute and the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation have identified a technique for prompting embryonic stem cells in mice to grow into brain cells. The idea would be to apply the same technique to humans, thus alleviating such brain disorders as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Hasn't this been done before?

Most Americans aren't following these specific stories too closely, but the cover of Newsweek, which asks, "Should a Fetus Have Rights?" puts these and other hot-button concerns into one package. The magazine notes, for example, the increasing trend toward the "humanization" of the fetus, thanks to ultrasound, enabling prospective parents and others to see their unborn child in close detail. Such images not only increase the "quease" factor in abortion, but also undergird the trend toward treating the fetus as a child for legal purposes. The most spectacular example of this trend is the tragedy of Laci Peterson, the eight-months-pregnant woman who was allegedly murdered by her husband. But prosecutors have chosen to charge Scott Peterson, in addition, with the murder of the fetus, who has been named Conor. "Conor was a person," insists Laci's mother. If that assertion is deemed to be the truth - that an unborn baby is the same as a baby - then abortion rights will be jeopardized, as every fetus could be given not only a name, but also legal status as a human.
I appreciate the rather large factual background, but is there a point coming here somewhere?

And not only will abortion rights be at risk, but so will embryonic research. And that will mobilize a counter-trend. The same Newsweek story cites a Connecticut couple, Pieter and Monica Coenraads, parents of a daughter suffering from Rett Syndrome; Monica Coenraads was so opposed to abortion that she refused amniocentesis. But now that she has a daughter suffering from a debilitating neurological disease, she sees the fetal issue somewhat differently. "My conscience tells me that for me personally having an abortion would not be the right thing to do. That same conscience tells me that stem-cell research is needed," says Monica. Indeed, Mrs. Coenraads is now an activist on behalf of the embryo-based research aimed at helping her daughter and 15,000 other children with the same malady.
A fine example, but do tell: Where is the "counter-trend"? For surely, it is not a massive resurgence of pro-life attitudes that drove Mrs. Coenraads to her current position, but rather the suffering of her daughter, and her (inconsistent) morality?

No doubt a huge clash is coming, as two groups with heartfelt views - pro- and anti-stem cell research - square off in the public square. Each side will be armed with its special pictures. The anti-stem cellers will have "baby pictures," featuring not only nearly-born fetuses, but also 8-cell blastocysts; the pro-stem cellers will have their own images of sick children and others, of all ages, with severe ailments. And of course, the debate will be international, as well as domestic; already much of the cutting-edge research has migrated offshore, as the Scottish and Japanese datelines in the above-mentioned news accounts suggest.
I take issue only with the choice of the verb, to migrate. This implies it was here originally, but has left. Might it not instead have originated in Scotland and Japan, two nations with advanced scientific cultures of their own?

In the meantime, Congress slogs along, trying to come up with legislation that satisfies the need for reverence for life and the need for research to save lives. So far, no success.
By my analysis, we are now thirty-four percent finished with this two-thousand word essay. Were this a high school term paper, you would now qualify for no more than a C. Some factual background establishes your broader perspective, and gives light to your arguments; too much makes a reader (such as this one) begin to question why he should bother considering your argument. On your re-write, please try to present your thesis within the first three or four hundred words.

But because the issue is destined to get hotter, it's worth pausing over some of the major players seeking to shape the debate. One such is Leon Kass, a professor in the Commission on Social Thought at the University of Chicago who chairs the President's Council on Bioethics. As Kass says, "Among the most urgent of the Council's intellectual tasks is the need to provide an adequate moral and ethical lens through which to view particular developments in their proper scope and depth."

OK, fair enough. Let's look for a moment through Kass's moral and ethical lens. The obvious place to start is a book Kass published last year, Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. In it, he reviews issues of bioethics from organ sales to assisted suicide to cloning. And while his conclusions cleave toward those of the man who appointed him to the post, George W. Bush, Kass can turn a phrase, as when he laments, "What looks like compassionate humanitarianism is, in the end, crushing dehumanization." In other words, technology may save lives, but it costs souls.

Kass realizes that he faces a daunting task of bringing 'round his critics; he prefaces his tome with this lament: "I fear that nothing I can say will prevent many readers of this book from regarding it as a Luddite tract, and me as hostile to science and technology, or as a natural pessimist, or someone simply fearful of the future." Doth he protest too much? Or is he merely unconvincing in his denial that he is future-phobic?
Out of a sense of generosity, I will assume that this is your thesis, or at least a hint at your argument.

It is worth noting, Mr. Pinkerton, that the rather elementary "five paragraphs, first intro, three argument, one conclusion" form taught in our schools is a descendant of the original French form, and contains within it much wisdom. Though it might seem puerile to you, it might help you in your writing to return to that form, or at least to echo its spirit.

You see, we are not all gifted with an infinite amount of time in which to bask in your wisdom. I, for example, have work to do (a concept, based on your writing, with which you are apparently unfamiliar). I cannot spend forever waiting for you to make your point; indeed, having now arrived at your point, I am forced to conclude that you did not know it when you started.

This essay began as a fairly clear argument over the morality and logic of placing social and legal controls over certain experiments and techniques. It appears to be turning into an ad hominem attack on Mr. Kass. While the two are doubtlessly related, they are not identical.

Furthermore, as a rule, you tend to produce intellectual discord when you suddenly re-route your argument. The point of an essay (from the French essayer, to try) is to present, succinctly and intelligently, an argument for a reader to review; to engage his mind; and to persuade him of the relentless logic of your position by trying, in the judicial sense, your argument before him, with facts, logical inferences, and conclusions. You will inevitably fail in this when you leap from point to point; where there should be burgeoning order, you have instead created unmitigated chaos.

Anti-modernism had already become apparent in an earlier book of Kass's, co-authored with his wife, Amy A. Kass, in 2000. That work, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying, is an anthology of wisdom about human interaction featuring the work of thinkers and authors from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Tolstoy to Sullivan Ballou, the Union officer who wrote a duty-before-love letter to his wife just before he was killed at the battle of Bull Run in 1861; the Ballou letter was immortalized in Ken Burns' 1990 epic for PBS, "The Civil War."

It's hard for anyone with a sense of civilization to argue with all the wisdom that Kass & Kass assembled, but it's also hard to argue that the clock can be reversed as far as the Kasses wish to winch it back. In Wing to Wing they offer a "partial" list of changes that "hamper" courtship and marriage. Get ready, because here it comes: "the sexual revolution," "effective female contraception," "the ideology of feminism and the changing education and occupational status of women," and the "destigmatization of bastardy, divorce, infidelity and abortion."
If one is to argue that another's arguments are without merit, it is incumbent upon the essayist to explain why they are without merit. You have used one thousand, one hundred and thirty-three words to this point in your essay, and I fear that you are no closer to an actual argument than when you started.

At this point in the essay, you should be doing one of two things: Explain why the diversion into the Kasses' writing is relevant (without simply assuming that your audience shares your predelicitions and presupposed ideas; it would then not be an argument, but a chorus); or, in the alternative, explain why the Kasses are wrong in their work. Your grade will improve if you perform the former, and may improve if you effect the latter.

Simply put: Tell me what this has to do with the first six hundred words of this essay.

Let's go over some of the items in that last clause.
No, let us instead go over why this is related to your larger point, or why I should care about your idea. Not to be too snide about this, but if my youngest sister, a senior in high school, produced this drivel, I would weep, then take to it with a red pen, regardless of whether it had already been graded.

"Bastardy" is in the dictionary, even if the word is so antiquated that my Microsoft Word program regards it as a spelling error. "Bastardy" is a great word for condemnation, but is it a word for persuasion? As for divorce, it is obviously antithetical to marriage, but what is to be done about the reality of bad marriages, including such doleful phenomena as spousal and child abuse?
And what is to be done about the reality of this essay's almost inhuman efforts at failure? This is a tangent-within-a-tangent; you are not now arguing about Dr. Kass's position(s) on bioethics, or (dare to dream) anything to do with bioethics, but rather with a few lines from a book Dr. Kass wrote with his wife, on a subject not related to bioethics. You are, in short, descending into mere ad hominem, and, what is worse, irrelevant ad hominem.

(As an aside, it is illogical to say, as I presume you are trying to do, This Kass fellow cannot be trusted to make policy proposals, for his views on other matters are simply wrong. Try it from the converse: This Stalin fellow can be trusted to make policy proposals, for he is heartily in favor of industrialization and women's rights. If that sounds illogical to you, there is a good reason for it; if not, it simply confirms my worst suspicions about the results of removing Rhetoric from the standard junior high syllabus.)

An alert reader (assuming such a thing would or could reasonably exist at this point in your diatribe) might ask, What exactly does all of this have to do with controversial scientific and medical techniques? He would raise a valid point, which in turn leads to a larger point: No essay should ever leave a reader bewildered. It is your goal as an essayist to bring light into darkness, to explain to the reader why your position is correct, and why the facts inevitably point in that direction.

You are failing in this goal, no matter how it is stated.

But the Kasses aren't through yet. To their list of hampering factors, they add, "the general erosion of shame and awe regarding sexual matters," "widespread morally neutral sex education in schools," "great increases in geographic mobility," "a popular culture that celebrates youth and independence," and finally, "an ethos that lacks transcendent aspirations and asks us of no devotion to family, God, or country."

Whew. What an inventory. Three years ago, the Kasses produced a litany of social ills that seems overwhelming in its determinative weight. And yet today, the world looks different; hundreds of thousands of young people, all products of this un-virtuous culture, performed honorably - on 9-11, in Afghanistan, in Iraq.
An inventory it might be, but it has going for it something this work altogether lacks: Intellectual coherence. And I must object to that last sentence: Not only is it irrelevant to your argument, assuming that I have cobbled it together correctly; it manifestly fails to respond to the Kasses's argument except to say, Oh yeah? Well, in the face of conflict, these folks respond well. This is yet another non-sequitur; Kass does not, at least insofar as you deign to quote him, argue that the things about which he complains render Americans incapable of dealing with atrocity and war; rather, he asserts that the nation's moral life is crumbling.

And again, I remind you, this has nothing to do with the first third of this essay.

But if the War on Terror has reminded us that the wellsprings of true virtue are deeper than most cultural conservatives imagined, Kass, writing by himself in his 2002 bioethics book, would not let go of his earlier critique. Indeed, he seems so in love with his silky phrasings that he spins himself further into conservative crank-dom: "The project for the mastery of nature, even as it provides limitless powers, leaves the 'master' lost at sea. Lacking knowledge of ends and goals, lacking standards of good and bad, right and wrong, we know not who we are nor where we are going." Now just a second here. Do you, dear reader, feel that this describes you? Your family? Your town?
Dear readers, how many of you are actively manipulating sliced-up human fetuses for research purposes? How many of you are currently experimenting on human life to extend your own?

Indeed, how many people truly know "where [they] are going"? Is this not an ancient philosophical question? Are you asserting, Mr. Pinkerton, that the most basic philosophical questions of all time have been neatly and patly answered, and that those answers are at the tips of modern Americans' fingers? For if you are so asserting, I must stridently disagree with you.

And again, I point out that you have not tied this into your larger point (though I do sense a gossamer connection lurking out there somewhere).

Indeed, Kass continues in the same Weltschmerz-y way, "We travel fast and freely, progressively achieving our own estrangement - from our communities, from our nature, from our very selves." At this point, Kass's critique is becoming familiar - familiar, that is, to Leftists, even more than Old Rightists. "Estrangement": isn't that another word for "alienation," one of the classic buzzphrases of Marxists and their neo-descendants? Do you, poor thing of a reader, feel alienated? From your job? Your car? Your computer? Which of those would you give up to feel united once again with the collective and the community? And when Kass tells us that we are estranged from our "nature," and our "selves," what follower of Rousseau, what Greening of America New Ager, would dispute him? Is this what 21st century conservatism amounts to - a merger with the Left?
Alas, that hope of a connection appears to have been premature. Arguing with ennui is not a sufficient way to advance your thesis.

And here's where Kassism does, in fact, veer into Luddism. He praises "modern science" as "one of the great monuments to the human intellect" but is unwilling to say much of anything nice about future science. Indeed, he rolls out his rhetorical skills to mock the ambitions of those who would seek to improve the human condition. Setting up a straw man for a later burning, he writes, "According to many a prophet in the temple of science, biology has no permanent limitations. Instead, it faces an endless frontier -eagerly, gladly, confidently." That's Kass's style: wrap everything in a swaddle of syllables, all of them thoughtful and euphonious, all of them serving to set up his ultimate point: that progress is ironic, even illusory.
Mr. Pinkerton, if nothing else, I must congratulate you on your return to the original point of your ad hominem tangent. You have successfully -- though incorrectly -- called Mr. Kass a Luddite. Your use of the term, while almost completely inaccurate (a Luddite, properly speaking, seeks to eradicate modern technology, as well as future work), suggests an appreciation for the concept of related writing that gives me a faint wisp of hope for your future.

And I might add that, given your own stylistic shortcomings, it may not be wholly appropriate to mock Kass's rhetorical style; or, put differently, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

But is progress an illusion? Try telling that to parents whose children will - or will not - be cured of here-and-now diseases. They might take comfort in Kass's lyrical treatment of the human condition, but they are more likely to find solace in the specific treatment of their kid's medical condition. But here Kass offers no comfort: on page 169 of the book he concludes that the only way to deal with "therapeutic cloning" is the same way as he would deal with "reproductive cloning" - a total ban.
Eureka! At last! The hope that you could somehow tie the middle one thousand words of this essay to the first six hundred is consummated, however sloppily! You fail, of course, to explain why Kass's positions on "therapeutic cloning" and "reproductive cloning" are ipso facto contrary to the wishes of those parents and children; nonetheless, I am so overcome with rapture at this paragraph, I am prepared to pretend that you just made a coherent point!

But Kass is operating on a far larger stage. As his earlier book attests, his interests go far beyond science, to what he sees as the good life - a life within sharp limits.
...And just that quickly, hope is dead.

You were so close, Mr. Pinkerton. You had the beginning of an argument at your fingertips. And you loosed your grip, to return to ad hominem attacks.

How sharp? He sees limits imposed not by modern science, or even modern law, but rather, by ancient religion.
Please explain why "ancient religion" necessarily invokes "sharper limits" than modern zeitgeist. The ancient Greeks were quite fond of religious orgies, frequently (although not always) in public, involving large masses of worshippers; are you asserting that those ancients' mores are stricter than our own?

It is, of course, too much to ask to expect you to explain what this has to do with stem cell research.

In his bioethics book he sometimes takes on the world-weary aspect of the Book of Ecclesiastes - everything new, seemingly, is vanity and vainglory. And so, for example, while a few "doctrinaire libertarians" might be so thick that they will "not consider that freedom can take us anywhere but upward," he offers us a different path.

What path is that? A path to the past, all the way back to the Old Testament. Is Kass really about citing the God of the Patriarchs as a guide for contemporary medical regulation? Telling people that they must suffer in medical ignorance and neglect while neo-prophets slay the golden calves of scientific modernity?

You think I'm kidding when I assert that the national bioethics chief wishes to go back 3,000 years? Tune in next week and behold.
Mr. Pinkerton: If possible, your conclusion was worse than the middle. Your metaphor was strained; your language was jarring; and you trailed off with an ad hominem of impressive, if possibly libelous, scope, thereby not only leaving your essay technically, but substantively, rhetorically flawed.

I commend you; although I am in the habit of reading some truly sloppy legal writing, The Nation, and the junk mail to whom National Review sold my name, you have surpassed them all. Congratulations. One hopes you were not paid too much for this work.

I award you a D-. I would fail you, except -- eternal optimist that I am -- your promise of more on this topic has rekindled that tiny flame of hope that you might actually expound on a point.

Please re-write and re-submit.

The hat tip goes to the inestimable Mr. Paul Cella, who is more generous to Mr. Pinkerton ("Now Mr. Pinkerton is no fool" -- an assertion to which I am open, though decreasingly so). Mr. Cella, as is his wont, makes numerous good points, and I commend the whole review to you; however, one bit in particular stands out to me:

Mr. Pinkerton seems amused by Dr. Kass’s use, in the course of assessing the decay of marriage and the traditional family, of the word bastardy. “‘Bastardy’ is in the dictionary, even if the word is so antiquated that my Microsoft Word program regards it as a spelling error. ‘Bastardy’ is a great word for condemnation, but is it a word for persuasion?” Whatever degree of persuasion it is that inheres in this strange and antiquated word, it is notably greater than that which inheres in adducing the authority of a mere computer program. Bastardy is a perfectly serviceable word; as is its cousin fornication, though the appearance of either is enough to trigger a kind of mild intellectual irresponsibility. Some may say, moreover, that an old Englishman called Orwell had the last word on modernity’s attitude toward language.

At base my dispute with Mr. Pinkerton and folks like him might run along these lines. “Attack Dr. Kass’s arguments if you must —- call them irrational, over reliant on emotion, antiquated, even that dread word reactionary; but please, for the love of God, do not attack Dr. Kass’s arguments purely because they are old. Let me gently remind you that assertion is not the same as argument; and it is a very dubious assertion indeed that things are dubious on account of their age alone. The antipathy toward the very concept of antiquity, in things and ideas, is among the ugliest characteristics of the modern world. And let me go further and say to Dr. Kass’s libertarian critics (for many of you call yourself libertarians) that Liberty itself is an ancient thing. A great lover of Liberty, the British statesman Edmund Burke affirmed this truth: ‘We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made in morality, nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grace has heaped its mold upon our presumption and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.’
As I said, the whole thing is worth your time -- unlike Mr. Pinkerton's work.

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