A Politics Against Thinking
Among the more heartbreaking realities in modern medicine is that we don't have enough solid organs for transplantation. Thousands and thousands of people -- many of them children -- die because their liver, or their kidney, fails, and there is no replacement. One effort to save these people takes place at the DMV: When you receive your license, you can choose to become an organ donor in the event of a fatal accident. In losing your life, you are given the opportunity to save other lives. But most people don't like to think about losing their life. They skip the question. They save it for later. This, in fact, is exactly what I did the first time I saw it. I left it blank. Not out of a desire to jealously hoard my liver after my death, but out of a desire to deny the possibility of my death.
In his book "Nudge," Cass Sunstein proposed a way to save more lives: Make the default for organ donation "yes." Anyone who didn't want to donate their organs could check the box "no." But if nothing was done, if the question was examined and left untouched, that person would be an organ donor. It's a smart solution to a hard problem. Predictably, some conservative outlets have fastened on this for their next line of attack: "Obama Regulation Czar Advocated Removing People's Organs Without Explicit Consent," blared CNS News. You'd think Sunstein was going to leave America in a bathtub full of ice with a scar running down its back.
The attack on Sunstein echoes the attack on Zeke Emanuel: another smart thinker who took on thorny problems, including the problem of organ scarcity. He was attacked in much the same terms as Sunstein. What you're seeing here is not a strange obsession with organs, however, so much as the emergence of a pattern. The Obama administration is hiring smart people. Before coming to the Obama administration, these smart people had jobs where they thought about hard problems. That's part of how they proved they were smart. And they're being attacked for the very willingness to reason through these problems, and suggest options.
The message here isn't simply that we can't make the hard and necessary decisions in public life, as doing so will invite attacks from opportunists and ensure the loss of reelection. It's that if you ever want to work in public life, you shouldn't engage such questions in private life, either. It's a politics that is flatly opposed to considering hard choices on difficult dilemmas. That is flatly opposed, in other words, to thinking. That, however, is also a choice: It is a brief for the consequences of inertia, and against the possibility of progress. That will sound good to its advocates, I guess, as long as Obama is in office, and up till the day when one of their children needs an organ transplant.
Photo credit: Bloomberg.
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