I am sometimes baffled by my fellow liberals in their social priorities. Why, for instance, does stem cell research receive such political support, and money, while many more pressing needs exist in this country? At the same time that the ballot initiative in California won $3 billion in state bonds to initiate a stem cell research program, the media there was reporting that there are 2.5 million illiterate adults in that state. There is plenty of experience on successfully teaching adults to read, plenty of evidence that an adult illiterate has an almost hopeless economic future in this country, and plenty of evidence that a literate citizenry makes a far greater economic and social contribution than an illiterate one. The best that can be said for stem cell research is that it is "promising." In New Jersey, the aim is to raise $300 million for a stem cell project. New Jersey is home to the city of Camden, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden cities in the country. It could make better use of that kind of money.
I can only offer some hypotheses. One of them is that when George W. Bush and his crowd, luddites and religious extremists to those on the left, did not like embryonic stem cell research, that automatically made it a major cause for liberals. Well, there is no doubt that, if Bush opposes something, that makes it tempting to embrace it. His common sense and good judgment are not excessively noticeable.
Another hypothesis is that many liberals have embraced the medicalization of everything in sight, advocate an endless war on death and disease, and support ever-increasing research budgets, far more enthusiastically than a few decades ago. In the 1960s and at least part of the 1970s, liberals tended to be in the vanguard of critical thinking about medical progress, willing to ask the hard questions and, if necessary, to hold up alleged progress. That was the role of Science for the People, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and of many of the scientists who brought about the moratorium on recombinant-DNA in the mid-1970s. That was considered the proper liberal stance.
By the 1990s, that movement had faded, its place to be taken by a fair number of bioethical cheerleaders for science, fast to shoot down objections to this or that line of research, and by an almost total disappearance from the scene of scientists willing to be troublesome. And many bioethicists found it hard to think of any good reasons why they should not be supported by the pharmaceutical industry or help them, for a modest fee, solve their ethical problems. Stem cell research has just the kind of enemies, deliciously awful, to make the cheerleading all the more virtuous. What could be in greater need of defense than the beleagured American research industry, down to its last $100 billion or so in expenditures each year, and maybe slipping from the 20 percent profit margin traditionally enjoyed by the drug companies? I suppose there are many ways of speaking truth to power that I have overlooked, but I doubt that technological boosterism is one of them.
My last hypothesis is the most self-evident. The California stem cell initiative had a super-rich real estate tycoon leading the charge, lots of money from the biotechnology industry, the support of celebrities, and that best of American mixes, the possibility of saving millions of lives while making millions of dollars. Illiterate adults, many of them illegal immigrants and other kinds of undesirables, have no industry support, spend little time in Beverly Hills with celebrities, have weak voting power, no money for organizing, and poor leadership. They were lucky the papers even noticed them. We may or may not ever see a payoff from stem cell research, but that's where the action is, and with the blessing of liberals. This is not a proud moment for us.