Politics & Policy

Frankenjournalists

A spooky story of double standards.

You would think the media would at least get tired of reporting the same thing over and over and over again. I mean I’m not looking for the gang at Newsweek and MSNBC to suddenly become warriors for the unborn, but you’d think they’d at least get bored reprinting the same clichés over and over again. But the coverage of the embryonic-stem-cell debate has been perfectly predictable. Pundits declare, “This is just abortion politics,” as if the politics of abortion were a settled issue (which I’m sure it is, in most newsrooms).

There is one particular angle to the stem-cell debate that nobody’s addressing: the total silence of the anti-biotech left. For some reason, whenever Monsanto comes out with a genetically enhanced carrot or a faster-growing soybean, some white guy with faux dreadlocks and open-toed shoes is out there screaming about the end of the world. But when the NIH wants to crack open a human embryo so it can grow a new liver or human heart or just a plain old human in a petri dish, there’s total silence.

For years, decades even, the media has been bemoaning how the GOP is too hung up on abortion. Generals-without-soldiers like Ann Stone of Republicans for Comfortable Dinner Conversations with Suburban Liberals — or whatever that “group” is called — insist that the party has a gag order on dissenters on pro-life issues. The Republican politicians constantly insist that they work in a “big tent” party. That’s all fine, I guess. But it overlooks the fact that there’s actually a lot of debate on abortion in the conservative camp. Further, some pro-life Republican senators (and columnists) endorse embryonic-stem-cell research; others do not. Meanwhile, there doesn’t seem to be much debate on the left side of the aisle. Indeed, Democrats have always had just as big a problem with their abortion dissenters. That’s why the late pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, was banned from speaking at the Democratic Convention in 1992.

But that’s a different conversation. What I want to talk about is the anti-biotech movement. This is the most energetic part of the international coalition of people who have enough time on their hands to travel halfway around the world to complain about stuff they don’t understand, but don’t have enough time to bathe regularly. These are the guys who throw bricks through Starbucks windows and shut down supermarkets because the cheese has been cultured against Gaia’s Law. These people don’t care that pretty much every single crop we eat has been “genetically engineered” through selective breeding; they think that anything having to do with genes is bad.

Groups like “Seeds of Resistance” and the “Bolt Weevils” chop down cornfields and set fire to research labs. They don’t care that biotech food promises to save millions of square miles of forests (you don’t need to chop down trees if you can grow more food, faster, on existing farmland), and — more importantly — millions of lives. We know that biotech food helps millions of poor people eat, and could help millions more. Meanwhile, the benefits of embryonic-stem-cell research are still unproven.

Still, any research into genetically modified foods is deemed unacceptable. A total ban on any further investigation is the only position for the green extremists, despite the fact — yes, fact — that there is virtually no scientific basis for the opposition to genetically modified foods. None. Zip. Zero. Nada. In fact, many of the “organic” foods the greens favor are the result of far riskier radiation and chemical tinkering from a generation ago.

After one of their daring assaults on a cornfield, “Seeds of Resistance” announced they had sent “a message to those who seek to benefit from the risky endeavor of genetically engineering the food supply.” The Bolt Weevils declare, “Crops, research facilities and corporate offices are all sources of this technological threat and should be targeted.” In an anonymous e-mail, the rabidly pro-carrot group announced: “All of a sudden ‘venture capitalist’ scum realize that biotechnology is not such a great investment and they flee with their bags of cash with them…. Our view is that if corporations, governments and universities have any relationship to biotechnology, they are targets.”

Well, no, that’s not true. You have to be conducting grotesque experiments on barley or cauliflower to enrage these passionate defenders of the natural order. But crack open a human embryo like you’re tinkering with an old TV set and they are silent.

Indeed, even the less violent folks, the ones who don’t don their fatigues and face paint to launch surprise attacks on the killer tomatoes, have been stunningly silent. Where is Jeremy Rifkin? The man who thinks genetically enhanced cows will destroy the world? (All Hail Empress Bessy!) Where are the people who oppose Golden Rice because preventing the blindness of millions of African and Asian children isn’t worth the fear that your nachos might be made with pest-resistant corn?

Indeed, with all of the fretting and moaning about “Frankenfoods,” you could be forgiven for getting a bit confused. Mary Shelley crafted a cautionary tale of man’s folly at playing God. Now, the important thing to remember is that the monster wasn’t a vegetable — he was a man. It’s not hard to see the steamy crowds in Genoa or in Seattle or on college campuses across the United States as an angry mob, eager to destroy what they don’t understand. But if you were going to rewrite the novel based upon the current mob’s priorities, Frankenstein’s monster would roam around free to harass the high-school girls and pee in on the prize-winning rose bushes while the mob set out to destroy Frankenstein’s genetically enhanced endive salad.

I’m serious. Recently, Michael Fox, not the actor but a self-described bioethicist from the Humane Society of the United States, announced at an anti-biotech-food rally: “We are very clever little simians, aren’t we? Manipulating the bases of life and thinking we’re little gods.” He added: “The only acceptable application of genetic engineering is to develop a genetically engineered form of birth control for our own species.”

Isn’t there some room for a little gotcha journalism here? After all, Time, Newsweek, and the rest have lavished attention on the bogus scare scenarios of the anti-biotech hordes. Couldn’t someone ask these guys why “playing God” with rhubarb is evil but playing God with humans doesn’t seem to bother them at all? I guess not. That gag order apparently includes the media too.

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