Wednesday, August 18, 2004

People talking politics in a bar Last night in ...

By Ken MacLeod (copied from his blog The Early Days of a Better Nation)

Last night in the Angel Cafe, the basement bar of the Roxy Arts Centre, Charlie Stross and I did our bit for the excellent series of free events - a sort of fringe to the Fringe, as well as to the Book Festival - organised by Edinburgh's radical bookshop Word Power. We each read a passage from our work and then we launched into a discussion about SF and politics. Word Power used the joke of the Scottish Socialist Science Fiction Vanguard Party in its publicity leaflet, but a joke it definitely is: Charlie, as he said firmly last night, is not a socialist, and I've been out of the vanguard-party construction business for the past thirteen years.

We, and a small but interested audience, talked about a lot of things, from the information economy and globalisation to the question of why (or whether) more men than women read science fiction. The audience even came back after the event was interrupted half-way through by a fire alarm, and the Word Power people seemed happy with how it all went, and keen to put on events with us again. Thanks to them, and to all who attended.

If the discussion had ambled differently, I might have talked about some related matters that have been on my mind recently. So I'll just do it here instead.

Looking back on that past thirteen years, part of what I've been doing in terms of writing both fiction and non-fiction can be seen as a political project. Here's a sample of what that project has been about:

A British Marxist, Mike MacNair, has written a short series of long articles on the nature of present-day imperialism, closely reading the arguments of theorists deservedly famous and deservedly obscure. Not light reading, but of particular interest for an original and striking suggestion, which at once locates imperialism within the long view of history and coincides with certain classical liberal and libertarian critiques of imperialism: namely, that the definitive symptom of a system in decline is an increasing dependence on, and hypertrophy of, the state.

This is an example of the sort of thing I would at one time have made much of.

It seemed to me, once, that some radical libertarians were saying, in one language, something that radical leftists had been saying in another language. It seemed to me, once, that the obscure Marxist sects had kept alive a continuity with the radical, democratic and anti-state elements of classical Marxism, elements long familiar to serious scholars and obvious to unprejudiced readers, but obscured by Stalinist monolithism and Cold War fog. Likewise, it seemed to me, the libertarians had pertinent points to make about issues that, while perennial, had become urgent after the Soviet collapse: the critique of central planning, and the defence of civil and personal liberties.

To the extent (in fact slight) that any of the characters in my books 'talk about politics in pubs', this, or something close to it, is usually what they're talking about. I didn't drag these conversations in by the hair - they usually tell us something relevant about the characters and advance the plot. But they were also the kind of dialogues I hoped the books would advance in real life. And, indeed, I engaged in such dialogues myself, arguing with Trots about planning and porn and guns, and with libertarians about workers' co-ops and market socialism and What Marx(ists) Really Said and what did or didn't happen in Russia.

What a schmuck!

So, on to other matters.

It's recently struck me that the moderate, liberal, democratic and humane response to the build-up to the Iraq war should have been to argue for the West to arm Iraq. It's not merely the case that invading Iraq was a distraction from fighting Al-Qaeda: it was objectively fighting on the same side as Al-Qaeda. If you're serious about fighting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, the last thing you'd want to do, on the face of it, is overthrow - or even weaken - one of the few regimes in the region that was capable of and interested in crushing them within its borders. But that's what the US and UK did. The conclusion must be that they have other priorities that come higher than fighting Al-Qaeda.

The Brits have just charged eight men with conspiring to commit heinous terrorist acts. It seems that the arrests had to be made before enough evidence could be gathered to really nail them, but time will tell. Juan Cole has the story. It's a case study of the other priorities. Feel free to argue about it in a bar.

The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Utopian Surgery: Early arguments against anaesthesia in surgery, dentistry and childbirth

[Via Long Road to Paradise] The admirable David Pearce has released his latest creation. Hot from the BLTC Research press, Utopian Surgery employs analogical reasoning to put bio-Luddism in perspective, showing the parallels between 19th Century opposition to the relief of physical pain and the ideological barriers that abolitionists must confront in this third millennium. As with his previous creations, this superb essay is informative, witty and humorous at the same time. An excerpt follows:
Before the advent of anaesthesia, medical surgery was a terrifying prospect. Its victims could suffer indescribable agony. The utopian prospect of surgery without pain was a nameless fantasy - a notion as fanciful as the abolitionist project of life without suffering still seems today. The introduction of diethyl ether CH3CH2OCH2CH3 (1846) and chloroform CHCl3 (1847) as general anaesthetics in surgery and delivery rooms from the mid-19th century offered patients hope of merciful relief. Surgeons were grateful as well: within a few decades, controllable anaesthesia would at last give them the chance to perform long, delicate operations. So it might be supposed that the adoption of painless surgery would have been uniformly welcomed too by theologians, moral philosophers and medical scientists alike. Yet this was not always the case. Advocates of the "healing power of pain" put up fierce if disorganised resistance.

The debate over whether to use anaesthetics in surgery, dentistry and obstetrics might now seem of merely historical interest. Yet it is worth briefly recalling some of the arguments used against the introduction of pain-free surgery raised by a minority of 19th century churchmen, laity and traditionally-minded physicians. For their objections parallel the arguments put forward in the early 21st century against technologies for the alleviation or abolition of "emotional" pain - whether directed against the use of crude "psychic anaesthetisers" like today's SSRIs, or more paradoxically against the use of tomorrow's mood-elevating feeling-intensifiers i.e. so-called "empathogen-entactogens", hypothetical safe and long-acting analogues of MDMA.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research overwhelming in US

NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll conducted by the polling organizations of Peter Hart (D) and Robert Teeter (R).
June 25-28, 2004. N=1,025 registered voters nationwide. MoE ± 3.

"There is a type of medical research that involves using special cells, called stem cells, that are obtained from human embryos. These human embryo stem cells are then used to generate new cells and tissue that could help treat or cure many diseases. I am now going to read you two statements about this type of research.

"Statement A: Those OPPOSED to this type of research say that it crosses an ethical line by using cells from potentially viable human embryos, when this research can be done on animals or by using other types of cells.

"Statement B: Those IN FAVOR of this research say that it could lead to breakthrough cures for many diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and spinal cord injuries, and this research uses only embryos that otherwise would be discarded.

"Who do you agree with more: those opposed or those in favor?"

22% Agree more with those opposed
71% Agree more with those in favor
2% Depends (vol.)
5% Not sure