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I wrote a poem the other day. Nothing too strange about that, though I haven't been in poetry mode much lately, but the circumstances were interesting.

For a start, I wrote it in, of all the unpoetic places in the universe, LAX – the Los Angeles Airport – in a bizarre little smoking courtyard near the departure gate, just as it threatened to rain. (Where the corridor meets the circular hub housing half a dozen gates, they left off a bit of the roof, glassed in the area, and let smokers take their chances with the weather.) More important is what provoked it. But first, the poem itself:

Would You Buy a Necklace
From This Guy?

I listened to a man
talking very fast
ideas spilling like diamonds
thrown carelessly across a jeweler's velvet.

Questioned, he'd say
"You're right"
and tell you why
in rapid, elliptic detail,
till I understood
that he held contradictions together
enjoying the way they reflected
mirrored each other.

And at root I don't think he cared
how they were strung together.

The name of the fellow who inspired this is Glenn McGee (with a name like that he ought to have inspired a cowboy ballad, "The Tale of Galloping Glenn McGee") who is by profession a bioethicist. Which might be defined, in Devil's Dictionary terms, as someone professionally employed to explain to scientists why they are absolutely correct, morally, in performing any activity they happen to have imagined. Not that the charming (that's not ironic; he really is) Mr McGee would put it like that, you may be sure.

He's a busy little bee in his early thirties who, since picking up his Doctorate in 1994, has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles and over 150 popular articles, given over 100 public lectures, written two books and edited two others, held several research fellowships, testified before all manner of committees, and so on and so interminably forth at a hundred miles an hour, all the while holding down an Assistant Professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, and still had time to have a couple of kids. I tell you, there's something wrong with this guy.

He and I were both in LA to attend a meeting of the California Advisory Committee on Human Cloning, he to make a presentation, I to listen. The rest of the audience, incidentally, consisted of a seemingly bored reporter from the Associated Press and a pleasant woman who teaches ethics to nurses and was asked to attend by the Catholic Bishops, just as I was asked to attend by some less religious opponents of human cloning. That was it. Nine of the thirteen committee members, a secretary, a sound engineer taping it all, two presenters, and an audience of three. They sort of didn't bother advertising it. Democracy in public, at its finest.

Anyway, McGee made a lot of good points and a lot of bad points, and a lot of points you might put in between. He talked extremely fast. (Fortunately for my reporting, he was kind enough to email me – instantly, of course – a copy of his prepared text.) His rather unconvincing proposal was that human cloning should be legal and supervised by family-court judges, in much the same way as adoption is. The committee did not seem overly impressed with this suggestion.

McGee left early, natch, to catch a flight home to his family, his youngest being a mere three months old (and so presumably not quite ready to publish his first work). A little later, I found myself at the airport, feeling bemused, and that's when the poem appeared.

It struck me that my ever-reliable subconscious was telling me that what I had just witnessed, indeed been involved in, was utterly insane. In my own way, I had partaken in this bizarre society, which I normally manage to hold at some distance. I got up at four, drove thirty-five miles to the San Jose airport, was shuttled from the long-term parking, did my bit for destroying the atmosphere by flying down to smog city, hailed a taxi and was conveyed through the twelve-lane freeways, and spent several hours in a windowless room under fluorescent lights breathing purified air. And then I did the whole journey again in reverse. Got home about eight. Even aside from the environmental damage, what a strange way to spend a day.

That's the life McGee leads all the time. Oh my fur and whiskers.

How could he not have ludicrous (though superficially logical) notions about the ethics of scientific experimentation on people? If he can survive that utterly inhuman pace of existence, and by all the evidence thrive upon it – he seems to be a nice guy, really he does – then he is so utterly removed from any sense of the natural world, from any kind of life that generations past ever lived, from everything that makes us not machines but people, that I really feel there is no hope for his thinking.

He is crippled by his own qualities, like a Formula One race car that is perfectly designed to be driven at extraordinary speed (and in surprising safety) around and around a specified circuit but is, of course, absolutely useless for popping down the road to pick up some groceries. In much the same way, McGee has become a machine for thinking (and boy does he do that fast), an ideas processor, a high bandwidth multi-tasking device. But not, I insist not, I absolutely demand not, not a philosopher, whatever his academic title may be. You can memorize all you want, and quote with enormous facility, but if you don't understand, you're no use for explaining how the world is supposed to work.

Unfortunately, he has an audience in the corridors of power, and I don't.

But I have a poem – not the greatest poem ever written, but not the worst – and more important, I felt one.



October 2000