Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bush Hangs Galileo


Many years ago in the early sixties John F. Kennedy made a vow that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. While the goal itself was exciting, along with a great galumph to the national consciousness, something hugely more noble lay beneath the surface of that effort: we would explore, and we would learn, the secrets of the universe.

Given the idealistic tenor of the times that idea seemed neither fanciful nor foolish. Physics lay beneath rocketry, space travel, and the ultimate triumph over gravity. Conquer physics and everything else would follow, from chemistry to microbiology, from neuroscience to philosophy. We would know the universe and we would know ourselves.

No one, of course, thought it would be all that simple, but the point is that we as a nation believed that knowledge was not only good but possible. This most unusual political entity, this democracy born of both words and revolution, would prove that free inquiry would lead to nothing less than the betterment of mankind.

Times change, but we did put ourselves on the moon. We also put a television in every house, safer cars on the road, clean and wholesome food on every table, and a computer in every (well, almost) bedroom. We made it illegal to discriminate against people of various sorts using silly, if not downright mean, criteria. Above all we took huge steps toward making life not only comfortable, but also not quite so short.

Times change. As Bush vetoed a bill expanding stem cell research yesterday he sent a clear message to the youth of America (as well as those of us no longer youthful) that knowledge must never supplant superstition, that science must never trump religion, and that the wants, needs, and desires of a drop of mucous surpass those of upright, mature, thinking human beings – many of them suffering from ailments, diseases, and genetic conditions that could quickly become historical footnotes if we could only take those vital next steps into cellular research.

The diabetics, the alzheimerians, the dystrophic, the cancerous, the immuno-distressed, the arthritic, the allergic, and the variously otherwise pathogenic must continue to hang, thus, in the wind, so that Bush can comfortably consort with the rattlesnake-handlers and tongue speakers of the Christian right.

Times change, they always do. But instead of our scientists taking great and hopeful leaps into an exciting unknown, they must now wait. As must those who were hoping that a healthy life might yet be possible.

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