Friday, July 23, 2010

Request for clarification

From: Planetary Residents Liaison Department, Galactic Central
To: Resident on Planet Sol 849615-3

We are somewhat perturbed by the emotional tenor of your latest communication and concerned for your mental stability. If you feel the need to return temporarily or permanently to your home world, this can be arranged at short notice. A competent successor for your position is available.

We do not question your assessment of the ironically self-styled simian species Homo sapiens as a potential threat to galactic security in view of its rapidly expanding technological capacity in conjunction with chronic social atavism. However, as you know, a quarantine is already in place and we remain unconvinced that further action is required at this time.

The type of "messianic" intervention that you urge is extremely difficult under the planetary conditions that you describe so forcefully. It is also quite demanding in terms of scarce specialized resources. And, of course, success is by no means assured, as earlier attempts demonstrate all too clearly. You are welcome to submit a more specific and thoroughly substantiated proposal.

Under the circumstances, a sanitary operation would seem more expedient and cost-effective. A proposal along these lines will certainly receive favorable consideration.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reflections on giving blood

The gift of blood

I lived the early part of my life in Britain, emigrating to the U.S. when I was about 40. While in Britain I regularly donated blood. When I came to the U.S. I continued giving blood, but after two or three donations decided to stop. The experience was no longer a source of satisfaction to me. I’d like to explain why.

In The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (1970, reissued 1997), Richard Titmuss described the voluntary donation of blood as “institutionalized altruism”: “[It] represents the relationship of giving between human beings in its purest form, because people give without the expectation that they will necessarily be given to in return.”

However, the concept of “altruism” does not quite capture the appeal of giving blood – at least, not for me. The altruist, unlike the egoist, gains satisfaction from giving to others. But the altruist still perceives those “others” as separate from his or her self, and consequently experiences giving as a loss. In these respects, the altruist and the egoist are alike. The only difference between them is that the altruist gains sufficient moral satisfaction from the giving to outweigh the loss, so that on balance the experience is a rewarding one.

For me, the essence of giving blood in the context of the British National Health Service was not altruism but the sense of participating in a community. Members of a community give not to “others” -- perceived as separate from the self – but to the community, perceived as an overarching entity that encompasses both self and others. In that sense, they give to another, broader aspect of the self, and do not experience the giving as a loss. Nor, for that matter, do they experience it as a gain, but rather as a transfer from one aspect of the self to another. Giving to the community is experienced more as egoism (of a special kind) than as altruism.

Whenever I gave blood in Britain, I was brought to sit and rest afterward with other donors in a special area where nurses gave us all biscuits and tea, to replace the lost fluid, and made sure that each of us felt well before leaving. When I gave blood in the U.S. there was none of this. True, we were free to continue lying down for a while after the blood was extracted, but no one asked how we felt or offered us anything to eat and drink. And this was why I stopped giving blood.

Of course, I could easily have solved the practical problem by taking a beverage with me and finding a spot nearby to drink it. However, it was not the practical problem that prompted my decision. Rather, the indifference shown to our welfare as donors brought home to me the fact that here in the U.S., where there is no health service for everyone, I was no longer participating in a community by giving blood. In Britain, I had given my blood without payment in the knowledge that a patient who needed it would likewise receive it without payment. Here, although I was giving my blood for free, the patient would still have to pay for it. That made of me a sucker, seduced into contributing to the profits of some medical business.

From a very informative article by Joel Schwartz [see reference], I learn that it is in fact common practice in the U.S. to offer blood donors fruit juice and cookies. I suppose I was just unlucky in that respect. The author also suggests that the fruit juice and cookies might be regarded as a sort of “payment” given in exchange for the blood.

For blood given in the context of a community, this is an absurd interpretation. Giving blood to the community weakens you, so you then receive sustenance from the community until your strength is restored. In the first instance you give, in the second you receive, but there is no exchange involved whatsoever. You are helping to look after others, but at the same time you are being looked after – as a matter of course, because you are part of the community. After all, if you need sustenance for a reason that has nothing to do with an act of giving on your part, you will still receive it. Giving and receiving arise not in response to one another, but out of participation in the community.

Reference. “Blood and altruism – Richard M. Titmuss’ criticism on the commercialization of blood,” Public Interest, Summer 1999

Saturday, July 17, 2010

In defense of assimilation

Assimilation has a bad press. Those who worship at the shrine of ethnic "identity" insult the honor of assimilators, calling them Mankurts, self-haters, rootless individuals, etc. -- and no one rises in their defense. And yet millions of people are always in process of assimilating. But they just get on with it, they rarely philosophize about it, at least in public.

The ethnicists claim that they are authentic, their "real selves" while assimilators lie to themselves and others and deny who they "really" are. But why give such great weight to descent in determining identity? And how authentic is it to dig into and try to reanimate a long-buried past? The objective circumstances of our world make us all complex and contradictory; authenticity requires recognition of that complexity, not an exclusive focus on one factor to the neglect of all others.

Akiva Orr (see argues that religion is the essential core of Jewish identity. If a person of Jewish background has lost faith in God and Torah, he or she will never succeed in reconstructing a coherent "Jewish" identity on a purely secular "ethnic" basis. Such efforts have led to endless confusion and hypocrisy, to the ongoing tragedy of Zionism. Better by far to accept that "the sacred hoop is broken" and take the path of assimilation.

I don't think this applies only to the Jews. For many centuries religion (a slightly different one, to be sure) was the essential core of Russian identity. Now Russians attempt to return to Orthodox Christianity, but not in most cases out of sincere faith in God and Christ, rather as a self-conscious search for ethnic identity. Or they speculate fruitlessly about some "Russian idea" that turns out to be something universal or panhuman, not specifically Russian at all.

The idea of assimilation raises a crucial question that is rarely recognized. Assimilation into what? In the past, the obvious answer was: into the dominant nation of the country where you live. Of course, if they were willing to receive you -- often they were not. To the extent that the dominant nation defined itself by descent, assimilation into it was very difficult and did inevitably entail an element of inauthenticity, because the assimilator was after all of a different descent.

Nowadays there is a better alternative -- assimilation into mankind. Members not only of ethnic minorities but also of ethnic majorities whose traditional identities have been lost, like the Russians, can aspire to such assimilation. It is, of course, assimilation into something that is still in the process of becoming, not something that is already firmly established. As such, the assimilator need not completely renounce his or her former identity but can fuse it into the wider synthesis of the species. That is more authentic as well as more dignified and can be experienced as a gain rather than a loss. (Gershenzon wrote about this.)

Assimilation into mankind, unlike assimilation into a dominant nation, need not rule out taking a special interest in the culture and history of the group from which you are descended. They are also part of mankind, after all. A special interest, not a total mental and emotional immersion that defines our identity. Our identity must center not on being a Jew or Circassian, Russian or Turk or Korean, but on our common human species being. The Mother-Planet, threatened by ecological apocalypse, demands it!

I was asked by someone to write about Circassians in this blog. Now I have done so!