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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

People's Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier

by Ruha Benjamin
Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2013
272 pp., illus. 2 b/w. Trade, $85.00; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-08-047-8296-8; ISBN: 978-08-047-8297-5.

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous Iconoclast
Sunnyvale, CA 94089-1622 USA


Our time has come.
-- Jesse Jackson -- 18 July 1984, San Francisco, CA

Your time has past.
-- Ronald Reagan -- 23 August 1984, Dallas, TX

This volume, however unwittingly, may be the most perfect book in some time for Leonardo readers in that it touches, however fleetingly, upon all three areas of study that have been the focus of ISAST over the course of the past four decades and, on a personal level, validates my own view that science (including, if not especially, the "hard sciences" such as physics -- reliant as they are upon mathematics -- one of the purest and most aesthetically pleasing of abstractions) is far more a form of art than not.

The tip-off that this work is more political polemic than anything scientific is the first word of the title. Other clues abound such as the misuse of the word "devolve" in the publisher's description on the back cover, which seems to have been recycled from various web announcements of readings by the author for some time in advance of the book's publication. Indeed, the only ostensibly scientific claim this book can make is to the dubious field of political science, which, more often than not, has aptly been termed "science fiction."

The first page of the introduction struts out the (long-since repudiated) pseudo-stipulation of how the Bush Administration was the greatest impediment to stem cell research ever known to mankind. This canard, of course, is at variance with actuality in that restrictions of stem cell use, put into place by the Clinton Administration, were slightly loosened by President Bush in August of 2001. [1]

Things go downhill from there as the rest is the author's inside account of the struggles for defining who was "at the table as well as on the table" and the "strange bed-fellows" nature of unexpected political alliances between a seemingly perpetual parade of players to move "the terms of the debate to focus on the relationship between science and society, on the people who benefit -- or don't -- from regenerative medicine and what this says about our democratic commitments to an equitable society."

To the author's credit, she makes no claim of objectivity and acknowledges, early on, that her role in the implementation of California's Proposition 71 was as a hired gun to understand why any opposition may exist to what proponents viewed as the obvious benefits so any concerns could be dealt with in a way that might promote "outreach" on behalf of the best interests of all "stake holders," "advocacy groups," and a host of other buzz-phrases that make up so much of the bureaucratic babble [2] so pervasive throughout most lib'ral drivel.

The entire matter of the collaboration between James A. Thomson and Japan's Shinya Yamanaka, leading to the 2007 discovery of an embryo-free way to produce genetically matched stem cells is never mentioned in this book as it renders the entire premise of the California Stem Cell initiative moot. [3] Perhaps the voters will awaken in time for next year's November election and pull the plug on this bottomless money-pit?

The anecdotes recounted do provide brief moments where the author and others involved in selling the bill of goods that was Prop. 71 seemed to experience genuine learning such as the realization that not all people afflicted with what most think of as disabilities do not, themselves, view those limitations as a hindrance. In that regard I recall a conversation, well over a decade ago (third-hand hearsay), where a blind person told of a friend who had been fitted with a Kurzweil device to provide the most grainy (dot-matrix-like) simulation of eyesight. He explained how, although using the device was interesting, he had to shut it off when skiing as he found the "dots hurtling towards him" as he sped down the slopes to be "far too distracting."

Back to the book, as is inevitable when a house of cards is erected upon a false foundation, discussions over such mundane considerations as the ethics of egg donation (compensation vs. reimbursement, etc.) degenerate into tokenistic contortions over feminist concerns of socioeconomic as well as racial demographics and the extent to which unintended exclusion might adversely affect the actual research lab results. Out of these deliberations one neologistic verb coinage emerged, "to grandmother in," although the passage of time will test its staying power.

Amongst the last of the cast of characters to emerge from the "clown car" that is California politics as the book begins its "final descent": the celebrity activists. In a lengthy discourse titled (NOT entitled!) "Depathologizing Distrust," readers are introduced to Richard Gaskin, "better known by his rap moniker, Professor X" who was paralyzed from a gunshot wound at age 20 and has since worked with Michael J. Fox, Teddy Kennedy and Dana Reeve, the late widow of Christopher Reeve, to generate awareness and funds for stem cell research travelling as far as China for performances of his song, "Forever Superman".

While the author cites the work of political scientist Michael Seward and "sociologist of science" (one can not help but wonder if that is merely a redundancy or a Freudian slip/admission that sociology is devoid of much that could be mistaken for science) Michael Callon, "to speak for others is to first silence those in whose names we speak," even as "the groups or populations whose name spokesmen speak are elusive." The author continues, "His observation suggests an element of 'ventriloquism' in [such] charismatic collaborations ...." This prompts not only recall of "how paralyzed people fooled by a [2000] Super Bowl ad showing Christopher Reeve walking [had] been calling an advocacy group to find out how he was cured"[4] but conjures imagery of the celeb in the role of dummy, at best, or as Lenin put it, "useful idiot," at worst.

The chapter titled "Towards Real Utopias" attempts the silliest of defenses of the Kleptocratic ObamaCare with rationalizations from Karl Marx (1852) and W.E.B. Du Bois (1903). Leave it to the libs to find the most astounding means of putting the "lame" into "lame duck!"

Since this book deals almost entirely in the realm of politics, one should remember that Otto von Bismarck once called politics "the art of the possible." Groucho Marx may have been more precise when he updated the assessment, "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies."

In terms of etymological context, the late author and webmaster, Bill McLain, used to say that to understand politics, one need only look to the root of the word. The prefix, from Greek, is "many" and, of course, everyone knows "tics" are little blood-suckers.


[1] Krauthammer, Charles, "Stem Cell Vindication: The embryonic stem cell debate is over. George Bush won." Washington Post, Friday, pg. A23, November 30, 2007, posted at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/29/AR2007112901878_pf.html

[2] Sowell, Thomas, "Words That Replace Thought", May 7, 2013, posted at creators.com/print/opinion/thomas-sowell/words-that-replace-thought.html.

[3] Krauthammer, "Obama's 'Science' Fiction: Stem Cell Abdication." Washington Post, pg. A17, Friday, March 13, 2009, posted at http://gazettextra.com/news/2009/mar/13/using-embryoswithout-limit/?print for an update on how "Barry's beleaguered brand of Bush-bashin' blather" has not improved with age; only gotten more stale.

[4] Associated Press, Feb. 1, 2000. See also, Krauthammer, "Restoration, Reality and Christopher Reeve" Time, February 14, 2000 posted at time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,996064,00.html as well as the feeble response by Reeve posted at http://chrisreevehomepage.com/n-2000.html . One final piece involving Reeve well worth reading is Krauthammer, "An Edwards Outrage" Washington Post, Friday, October 15, 2004; Page A23 posted at washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A34167-2004Oct14.html.

Last Updated 1 July 2013

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