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The Expansionist
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
 
Extending Life, Ending Life. An email acquaintance from Thailand, who used to live in my part of New Jersey and contacted me in relation to my Newark USA fotoblog, sent me link to an interesting, and dismaying, story on BBC News about research into slowing and even reversing the aging process. That story addresses some of the concerns that success in that field could produce, but not some of my concerns. I started to write my Thailand friend about my concerns, then decided that such a discussion was better for this blog. So I moved this chunk out of that email and just told him in the email I actually sent that I am inclined to view anti-aging research mostly negatively.
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Here's the longer reply I initially thought to send.
Without wanting to seem an intellectual snob, I have seen too many old people who live absolutely useless existences. They never had serious interests of any kind, not during high school, not during work. They'd come home from the job, for forty and more years, plop down in front of the television set, and vegetate. When they retire, they feel useless, and are useless. They don't even develop interests now that they have all the time in the world, but continue to vegetate, just, in the words of the title of a Britcom, "Waiting for God", or, less poetically, waiting to die.
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And what indeed about the planet, and the economies of the world [concerns raised in the BBC article]? Attrition, starvation, disease, and war are the only major means by which the Earth's ever-increasing population — which may hit 7B this year, and which is overwhelmingly in poor, even starving countries — is even remotely braked. Keeping most people alive for decades — centuries? — longer would be insane.
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And until societies make retirement truly adequate, longer life even for people in good health who do have interests is not necessarily a one-sided benefit, because financial stresses cut deeply into joie de vivre. I look around at the economic and political worsening of life all over this planet and wonder how long I am going to want to stay around. There was a time when it seemed each year got a little better, but now, at each New Year's midnite, the crowd in Times Square roars not so much to welcome the New Year as to shout good riddance to the old .
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Every technological advance seems to bring technological backfire or blowback. Every political or social advance somewhere is countered by worsening elsewhere. We get a black President, but then the racists are empowered to take over the Republican Party and try to turn back the clock to The Bad Old Days. The progressive income tax has been almost completely undone, and now the regressives want a "flat tax" that will accelerate the takeover of everything by the rich, which is almost complete even as the tax laws stand now, with a profoundly enfeebled progressive income tax.
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Looking out at the world, we see distress and injustice everywhere. The anticolonialism we were so joyous to see at the end of the Fifties and beginning of the Sixties has turned out to be a catastrophe, as kleptocrats seized the wealth of Africa and refused to provide for burgeoning populations that are destroying habitat for thousands of species, desertifying fringe areas around the Sahara, and deforesting parts of the rainforest. Post-colonial Africa is the world's basket case, not breadbasket.
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Destruction of rainforest is even worse in Indonesia and South America. Do we really want to live another 50 years to see how this all turns out? Is there any realistic chance that things, now becoming ever worse year to year, will somehow turn around and become ever better year to year?
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There used to be brite spots. The U.S. was pursuing social and economic equity; Europe was getting its act together, and working cooperatively toward peaceful coexistence instead of working its way toward the next fratricidal war. Now the U.S. is headed toward total plutocracy, in the economy and politics, in a system utterly corrupted by money and ossified into immovability. The only revolution that has made even a ripple in the past decade is the Tea Party movement, which wants Radical Libertarianism's scarcely disguised selfishness to control public policy. Europe is wracked by debt and recession so bad that some analysts think the Euro may go the way of the dodo. Is widespread disorder in the streets Europe's future? Look what's happening in North Africa.
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Even once-Liberal places like NJ are reverting to The Bad Old Days of control by suburban selfishness, under a callous FAT Republican Governor who is as selfish as his shape suggests. He is starving the schools, the libraries, the cities to benefit the fatcats. And the national and regional economies are in terrible shape, made worse by snowstorm after snowstorm in the Nation's economic centers, all the while the rich keep exporting as many jobs as they can get away with, so recovery becomes ever less possible. President Obama hires an economic consultant on competitiveness who as head of GM exported uncounted numbers of jobs and closed down 29 U.S. factories! What the hell is going on? We elected a Liberal Democrat but got a Conservative Republican — another turncoat like the pseudo-Democrat Bill Clinton.
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Where is the hope to come from, when the United States is at war with itself, with the movies' angel on one shoulder and devil on the other whispering into different ears of the Nation? Brazil? India? It's certainly not Communist China, which has devastated its own environment, poisoned importers of its unsafe products, and suppressed human rights; and is building up its military for ultimate war against the United States, while lulling the West as to its intentions by pouring back SOME of the hundreds of billions of its trade surplus into investment in U.S. treasuries.
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Within what used to be the engine of world development, the United States, people are not as furious or panicked as they need to be to create the kinds of revolt necessary to turn things around. There are too many distractions. The Romans' "bread and circuses" is now "snacks and TV, movies, social networking sites, YouTube, Twitter, and 24-hour-a-day spectator sports" to keep able-bodied men noshing in fecklessness.
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And now we are to add decades more to the lives of the useless elderly, to all the other problems? We already spend more in the last year of life of the terminally ill elderly than in something like any 20-year period of their lives before that. Doctors have no sense, no discretion. If a treatment is available, they will use it, no matter how pointless or expensive, to keep alive someone who has absolutely no reason to BE alive, and isn't even all that interested in continuing to live.
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I just can't greet news of reversing the aging process as a blessing for the planet. Would George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, or much of anyone else from the past have wanted to live into our wretched era? Even at our age [the guy in Thailand is 67; I'm 66], when we are glad for electric toasters instead of having to make toast in the oven or on a stovetop, and for microwaves and other labor-saving devices like the bagless vacuum cleaner, there are some things we adapt to easily and others that puzzle us. What on Earth is the point of Twitter? Someone in recent days (I forget who) said that some people (mostly young) have developed a type of madness in which they endlessly check social-networking sites, and send emails and text messages in lieu of actual interpersonal contact face to face, almost as tho they prefer to sit alone in a room communicating with what could be only imaginary people — robots or text-writing programs — as against seeking physical companionship with real, flesh-and-blood human beings.
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I spend a lot of time alone, of necessity, because my (unremunerated) work requires it. But at least I do get out to art opening receptions and the like. What of empty-nesters living in isolation in new suburbs they moved to for warmer weather, but in which they never met much of anybody? Then their spouse dies. Or people in nursing homes whose big activities are meals and mahjongg?
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I'm not saying we should shut down research into slowing or reversing the aging process, just that we need to think about the practical and ethical problems that success would raise.
The issue of the immovability of the current U.S. political process is something I expressed to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont by feedback form at his website on December 14th. That was my second message to him, and was a followup to his form reply to my earlier message. (I don't have that message to see if it contains points I should address here, because for some reason America Online emptied my mailbox of all mail a couple of weeks ago, as it has apparently done to an unknown but large number of accounts within the past two days. And AOL has not yet fixed the problem, so his email is not available to check.)
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In any case this is my message of December 14th. Note that I spoke about the danger to this republic of assassination when nothing else works. 25 days later, a Member of Congress was indeed shot, in an attempted assassination.
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Also note the changes, such as members of different parties crossing the aisle to sit with the other party during the President's State of the Union address, that even one attempted assassination produced. But tone and substance are very different, and members of the Nation's leadership have disowned any political meaning to the act of a madman — even tho the news today indicates that the shooter planned his attack and had researched political assassins. Will this be the only attempt to assassinate someone in the Nation's top leadership? And will all the people who attempt to change things by selective assassination be insane?
(Followup to your form reply to earlier message.)

You and other Democrats must not surrender to the Radical Right. Tell Obama that he may have a deep, sick need to win over his enemies by giving in to them, but you do not, and the American people do not. There comes a point when things have moved so far to one side that there is no returning without violence. When the Supreme Court unleashes anonymous donations from the rich to drown the political system in money; and the tax system gives ever more money to the already obscenely rich with which to flood and fundamentally corrupt the electoral system; and the distribution of income is nearly that of the worst Latin American country of old, that we have to expect that people who see no way to get justice thru the ballot will resort to the bullet. The history of Latin America is prolog to what may well happen here if the Radical Right will not relent in its effort to render everyone into slaves to the rich.
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Will a few assassinations suffice to scare the Radical Right out of its despicable behavior? Or will we have to have another Civil War, against much the same enemy, to restore this Republic? The Radical Right does not have any idea how angry people are that they are losing their only house while the rich are buying their 14th house. I fear for this Republic. I am nearly 66 years old, and have NEVER seen this country in such peril. Democracy itself is at stake, for there is no foreseeing what will happen if the mental habit of democratic fairness and compromise breaks down and we erupt into Revolution. The American Revolution ripped apart an empire. The Civil War nearly destroyed the Union, and killed over 600,000 Americans when we had only about 32 million people. How many will die in a New Civil War, when we have 308 million people? And will our democracy be restored by that war, or destroyed by it?
It seems that nobody is talking about any of this but me.
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(The current U.S. military death toll in Iraq, according to the website "Iraq Coalition Casualties", is 4,436 — for Israel.)



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