Warren Buffett Without God Too
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Picking up on Shubha’s post about the current marketing campaigns being put out by atheist and humanist organizations, our Tumblr friend Jiorjia over at The Ianez Compendium forwarded this ad featuring Warren Buffett and the comment, “I’m good without God. Are you?”
The point and power of the ad — that you don’t have to be a religious believer to be a good, moral, ethical humanitarian — is an argument that comes up a lot in my reading. I just wish this wasn’t the starting point for all parties involved.
One question that many readers have asked, and that none of the authors under review really answers, is: What is to be done? I don’t pretend to have answers for the humanitarians. But surely at least we who work in journalism can do a public service by treating humanitarianism the same way we treat other powerful public interests that shape our world. Too often the press represents humanitarians with unquestioning admiration. Why not seek to keep them honest? Why should our coverage of them look so much like their own self-representation in fund-raising appeals? Why should we (as many photojournalists and print reporters do) work for humanitarian agencies between journalism jobs, helping them with their official reports and institutional appeals, in a way that we would never consider doing for corporations, political parties, or government agencies? Why should we not regard them as interested parties in the public realms in which they operate, as giant bureaucracies, as public trusts, with long records of getting it wrong with catastrophic consequences, as well as getting it right?
— Philip Gourevitch responds to criticism of his New Yorker article examining “the moral hazards of humanitarian aid.”
He mentions This American Life’s excellent show on relief aid in Haiti. I would also point you to listen to Krista’s interview with Binyavanga Wainaina for a deeper look at the ethics of aid in Kenya.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Repeated Responses to Stem Cell Show Guest Is “Life-Changing”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Oftentimes we hear from guests after a show has been released. But, it’s always by way of a direct email to one of our producers or to Krista herself. So, imagine my surprise this past Saturday when I saw this awfully gracious submission to our show on stem cells from the centering voice of that conversation, Dr. Doris Taylor herself:
“Being on your show has significantly impacted what I do and how I do it.
It forced me to think about my truths in a different way, and connected me with people who otherwise I would not have known — who in some way seem touched by our work. That is a humbling experience when it happens once or twice, but, when it happens over and over, it is life changing…
I remain grateful for your willingness to share yourself and make it possible for people like me to do likewise. Thank you Krista.”
I also used my reply to her as an opportunity to follow up with a question several listeners have wondered about: the recent news of the first human embryonic stem cell line created at the University of Michigan. Her response:
“I fully believe getting enough cells will be the rate-limiting step to building organs. Think about it, the human heart has hundreds of billions of cells in it. Having to grow those in the lab is daunting. But as they say, if it were easy, someone else would have done it.”
On Stem Cells and Untold Stories: When Nature’s Tools Provide the Answers
by Krista Tippett, host
I’ve wondered for years how we could contribute some perspective to the moral consternation that stem cell research stirred in recent years. As with so many other real and important questions raised by medical advances, I have been unconvinced by the blunt either/or choice that culture-war debates seemed to present: defining stem cell research as either a slippery slope to killing babies or a straight path to curing a host of dreadful diseases. Efforts to humanize the issue with real-life examples — seeming to present a stark choice between condemning Michael J. Fox to death by Parkinson’s, for example, or finding an immediate way to save him — can misrepresent both the promise of this science and the moral concerns it raises.
Hearing Doris Taylor speak, then, was a revelation. I knew I had found our way in to this topic. When it comes to stem cells — as to everything else in life, it turns out — the truth is complicated. And much of the story of stem cells — the big picture that arguments have obscured — falls outside the realm of the most passionately contested issues.
From Doris Taylor I come to understand, for the first time, that the existence and function of stem cells is one of those discoveries, not unlike DNA, that will fundamentally change the way we think about the human body. I learn that there are billions of stem cells throughout my 49-year-old body, and as I write they are repairing my organs and tissues as they have done all of my life — albeit less vigorously at 49 than at 9 because of the passage of time and the stresses that life has imposed, and that I have imposed on my body.
The newness and rapidly emerging nature of our knowledge about stem cells has contributed to incomplete premises and an understandable measure of fear. Doris Taylor has spent time in conversation with people in churches these past years as well. She has come away with a conviction that, if the medical community and journalists had used different vocabulary to discuss stem cells at the outset, some of the most heated debates might have been avoided.
She has often encountered the false impression that the stem cell lines used for research came from aborted fetuses. In fact, as she says, “fetal cells” are too old for the work she does. And the “embryonic cells” she uses have all come from eggs fertilized by way of in vitro fertilization (IVF) that would otherwise be destroyed. This insight, of course, does not address moral quandaries over embryos and IVF technology.
But much of the research Doris Taylor and others are doing might one day circumvent all of these issues. If she could build me a heart by way of the process she and her colleagues are refining in the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair, she would use my heart stem cells to do so.
From my visit to Doris Taylor’s lab, you can see elaborate architectural glass bulbs with tubes feeding suspended rodent hearts — one lifeless with old cells; another one stage farther, a pale “scaffold” ready for stem cells to be injected; and finally a regenerated heart pink, pumping, alive and beating on its own. Also, hear the story of the man with a heart disease that told Taylor she is “building hope.”
Seeing the untold story of stem cells beyond the lightning rod, moral issues clears my vision to see unexpected spiritual implications of this work. The genius of Doris Taylor’s work is in its simplicity — in realizing that there was no need to “build” a heart from scratch. Instead, she works with a dead heart, extracted from a cadaver — nature’s cardiac “scaffolding,” as she thinks of it. She washes the lifeless heart, cleans it, and injects the decellularized scaffold with cells that know how to colonize it — and begin to beat and live again.
Doris Taylor echoes one of my favorite themes: beauty is essential to life itself — beauty as a core moral value — as she describes the architectural perfection of nature that she honors and works with. In an exhilarating “field trip” to her lab, I was able to hold the translucent heart of a pig in my hand and see its exquisite intricacy — at once delicate and muscular — for myself.
Approaching the mechanics of life at this level inevitably raises questions about life’s mystery. Doris Taylor says she is passionate about “regenerating heart on a lot of different levels.” And as she considers how new knowledge about stem cells might one day change the way we think about health across the life span — facing aging, for example, or cancer — she is studying how spiritual technologies like prayer and meditation might support that. She describes a very simple test she did on the Buddhist spiritual teacher Matthieu Ricard. She measured a vast increase in stem cells in his blood after just 15 minutes of meditation.
All of this said, the fascinating science of stem cell research still comes with a world of real and complex moral uncertainties. We hope this conversation with Doris Taylor might broaden existing conversations and inform fresh thinking on the moral and ethical questions her science touches. Let us hear your thoughts — either as they’re sparked by this conversation or through your own experiences and knowledge.
The Pleasurable Choice Is the Ethical Choice
by Krista Tippett, host
I like to say that I’m not an an optimist, but I am a person of hope. That is to say, I cultivate the virtue of hope in myself. Hope takes account of the enormity and darkness of challenges and problems, and yet it meets darkness with light, and points to resilience and goodness where they can be found.
(photo: Jen Kim/Flickr)
In this spirit I am drawn to Barbara Kingsolver’s hope and resolve that, however grim the man-made crises of our time, we are gradually getting some things “more right.” And, Kingsolver advises, we must treat hope itself as a renewable resource, something we put on with our shoes every morning.
But she also says, reframing an equation many of us are internalizing, that it is not the job of the next generation to right the grand, looming environmental crises of the present. The work has to start here and now with our daily routines. Barbara Kingsolver has made one kind of beginning with her family’s “food life.”
Her story begins with a sense of urgency, however, in Tucson, where she had spent half her life, and her children the whole of theirs. As she became more aware of the larger issues she explores in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life — including the elaborate environmental cost of the global food chain — she came to perceive this great American city as a kind of space station, utterly dependent on the outside world for its most basic needs. And after three consecutive years of drought, she felt she was staring global warming in the face. “Like rats leaping off the burning ship,” her family moved to a farm in Appalachia to land that could feed them.
There is an irony in the fact that Barbara Kingsolver’s move to a simpler, sustainable life required a certain level of social and economic privilege, just as the ostensibly back-to-basics idea of organic food remains beyond the range of choice and budget of many. For me, the adventure related in her book — of giving her family’s life over to planning, planting, weeding, cooking, freezing, storing, and harvesting both plants and animals — appears immediately impracticable in light of another “drought” in American life and in my own, a drought of time.
Kingsolver helps put this into perspective by reminding me that the cheap and easy habits we take for granted — lettuce for salad all year round, strawberries in January — began as luxuries for the very rich. What her family did for a year, living off what they could grow and raise on the land around them, is the way most human beings have lived forever and many in the world still do.
The real irony is that the way most Americans eat is elite in the extreme. This is hard to grasp, as the crops behind some of the cheapest, easiest staples of American life — including that ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup — are underwritten by government funding. The real costs of much of our food do not turn up itemized in our grocery bills, but hidden in our taxes. And then there are, of course, the environmental costs, harder still to see and calculate and that we confer as a debt to our children. Some people give up meat, Barbara Kingsolver says; she has given up bananas, no longer willing to live with the fossil fuel footprint that is necessary to bring them all the way to her in Virginia.
But this conversation, which you can hear in the audio link at the top of the page, is not really about what we have to give up. The U.S. culture has fallen into “the language of sin,” Kingsolver says, when it comes to discussing changed eating habits. We steel ourselves to replace what is bad for us with what is good for us; we grit our teeth and enter the realm of sacrifice and penance. What surprised Kingsolver most in her year of local eating was how pleasant it was for her whole family, really, once they had retrained what felt like habit. They became focused in the most practical, daily way not on what they did not have, but on what they had — what was in season, what the garden was yielding plenty of today. It became, she says, a long exercise in gratitude.
I’m very aware that the details of my life — including the northern climate of the place I inhabit — limit my ability to follow Barbara Kingsolver’s experiment in totally local eating. But since this conversation I have begun to frequent the farmer’s market for the first time in my life. I planted a vegetable garden last summer and made pesto from basil I grew. I tossed my own home-grown lettuce, and watched tiny green tomatoes bud with the rapture of an expectant mother. I’m living some new questions about food life now, to paraphrase Rilke; as Barbara Kingsolver might say, I’m getting it a bit more right. And I’m delighting in the truth of my favorite line in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: “Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure.”
My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.
—NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in his letter to Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Goodell handed “Big Ben” a six-game suspension in his most recent action against a player violating the National Football League’s personal conduct policy. Goodell called it “early-intervention.”
Is he raising the ethical bar for professional athletes?
A Senator’s “Conscience Picture”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
NYT’s Lens blog posted a fun entry about Senator Patrick Leahy’s personal photography as he operates from a unique vantage point within the hallowed halls and meeting rooms of Washington D.C. As interesting as the many photos of presidents and legislators are, it’s this “conscience picture” — a portrait he took of an El Salvadoran man in a refugee camp in 1987 — that I find most intriguing, most grounding.
“I set that over my desk,” Senator Leahy said, “and every time I think I’m getting a little carried away with myself, I look at that and hear him say: ‘O.K. You’ve talked to all these very important people all around the world; people who have power and money and everything. What are you doing for people like me?’”
(photo: Patrick Leahy)
(h/t to Shelley, my lovely wife)
The Plight of the “Distant Stranger”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Many of us have read Nick Kristof’s columns over the years. And, perhaps, like me, you’ve been moved by his words, shaken by his stories, struck dumb with melancholy and grief. But, inevitably, the “plight of the ‘distant stranger’” assumes its role in feeling the events happening over there.
The HBO documentary, Reporter, will challenge you to come closer, to care, to take action as he pursues uncovering the truths behind human rights violations and personal suffering. With Kristof leading the way, the viewer bears witness alongside his two traveling companions, a med student and a teacher, to the tricky trail the journalist walks when reporting in war-torn Congo.
The film portrays some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of being a reporter in a conflict zone. When Kristof encounters a 41-year-old woman of 60 pounds lying at the edge of a village about to die, he acts. When a warlord responsible for the raping and pillaging of thousands gives thanks to the Lord, he bows his head; when that same man, General Nkunda asks him to eat with him, he dines. Few of these decisions are made without some type of deliberation — a grimace, a pause, a controlled look. But, in the end, he always writes.
He perseveres and tries to understand the underlying aspects of the people involved. And, he asks the difficult questions that have gotten other journalists killed. I’m not trying to saint him, but I now better appreciate his work as he attempts to discover a fuller aspect of all the human beings involved. He continues to tell the difficult stories of a region that gets covered during catastrophic events, and then forgotten within a blink’s time of a celebrity foible or the next breaking news event.
I hope we can interview him for the show some day in the future and hear how he wrestles with these difficult choices — and how he continues on.