A CNN breaking news e-mail interrupts my afternoon work to inform me that George W. Bush has just issued the first veto of his administration, striking down legislation that would have legalized the use of embryonic stem cells in federally-funded research. Passed with a clear majority in Congress, lawmakers are still four votes shy of the two-thirds needed to override Bush’s veto.
The irony is that I work in communications in a university research office. The work that CNN has interrupted is a magazine article about — yes — university research, much of it health-related and much of it funded by the taxpayers of Canada through federal granting agencies.
As an American living in Canada, I spend a lot of time fretting about George Bush. Caught somewhere between the reflexive anti-Americanism of most Canadians and my own genuine alarm at many of the policies of the Bush White House, I frequently find myself in the awkward position of being defensive and derisive at the same time.
It’s easy to get worked up about the Bush’s stance on social issues: his opposition to gay marriage, to abortion. But I have to believe that these things will pass, that the tide of public opinion and the march of time will eventually push lawmakers south of the border to do the right thing, to mind their own business and get out of our proverbial bedrooms.
George Bush can be as socially backwards as he wants to for all I care, but it’s the lasting economic damage he’s slyly inflicting on us all — because like it or not, as America goes, so do we — that we’ve got to watch out for.
We’ve all heard that Bush has spent more than twice what Clinton did, not including the military spending that’s sustaining the war in Iraq. We’ve heard that, adjusted for inflation, he’s even outspent LBJ and his Great Society. We’ve heard that the U.S. national debt is flirting with 8 trillion, the surplus years of the Clinton administration only a fond memory now, even as he lowers taxes.
My fear is that this latest move, this veto of embryonic stem cell research, isn’t just about, as Bush said today, preventing us from doing something that “crosses a moral boundary,” it’s about bankrupting us, literally and intellectually.
I’ve read with great unease accounts of scientists who say their work has been censored for political reasons. I was dismayed when Susan Wood, director of the office of women’s health at the FDA, resigned as the emergency contraception pill, approved by the agency, stalled in years of political wrangling by an administration proclaiming its dedication to the so-called culture of life. I was even more distressed when I read that George Deutsch (who, of course, lied on his resume about having a university degree) had “rewritten” NASA accounts the Big Bang to make sure it was clear that it was only a “theory.”
Bush’s latest veto is interpretable on the one hand as merely the latest episode in what’s proving to be a story of breathtaking anti-intellectualism. But on the other hand, might it not have serious economic implications?
Back at work, we talk a lot about research. What good is it? Why should we support it? Just the other day we had a conversation about what “good” the humanities are. Does a novel written by a professor of English deserve the same emphasis as a scientific paper by a geneticist? Being writers, we are all quick to defend the novel’s contribution to humanity. You can’t measure the impact of art, we say.
But you can measure the impact of stem cell research. By all accounts, it’s the next frontier, the microprocessor of our generation. Bush talked about a “moral boundary.” Does he also want to draw a literal boundary around the U.S., so that 20 years down the road, when the rest of us are lining up for our cancer vaccines, the Americans won’t be eligible because they remain committed to a “culture of life?”
The truth is that Bush isn’t interested in life. He’s obsessed with death. All this time and political will devoted to fetuses and embryos and brain dead people like Terri Schiavo seems to leave no time for thinking about the live people he’s actually sworn to protect.
I’m glad Bush finds time, being so busy bankrupting America, to focus on these important moral issues. I’ll remind his great-grandchildren, when they’re part the world’s underclass, eking out a living cleaning the toilets at branches of Bombay-based biotech multinationals, that at least they’re living in a culture that values life.