Free Life 20, August 1994, Editorial Jottings, by Sean Gabb

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From Free Life, Issue 20, August 1994
ISSN: 0260 5112

Editorial Jottings

One

Anyone who read the last issue of this Journal will recall the case of Al Baron. Unjustly called an anti-semite, and persecuted as such, Mr Baron last November was preparing a libel action against Gerry Gable, the Editor of a disreputable magazine called Searchlight. Since then, he has been assaulted on his own doorstep by three men wielding hammers, and has been burgled.

Now, the world is full of strange coincidences, and it is bad for one's mental balance to make too much of these. But I shall be amazed if anyone can persuade me that there was not some connection between the Searchlight libels and these attacks on Mr Baron's life and property.

I wish that he would stop writing about the Jews. I wish that he would drop his at best unprofitable vendetta against Gerry Gable and Ray Hill. I deplore his hatred of homosexuality and his belief in the laughable and long-exploded doctrines of "social credit". I believe that Mr Baron is a researcher and writer of large ability, and there are so many real causes in which he could make a solid name for himself.

But what I wish and deplore and believe are beside the point. Mr Baron is what he is, and the point is whether he should have the right to be that. For me - and I hope for you - there is no question here. A free society is one in which even the greatest heretic may open his front door without trembling; in which he will not be harried by the Police and driven from his profession; in which the assertion of his rights is not something left to the Editor of a small circulation magazine.

The case of Al Baron is one of the scandals of our age; and I hope that it will one day be widely recognised as such. What a shame that "one day" is not likely to come in the foreseeable future.

Two

Since I have not so far been able to secure any of the agreeable employments advertised in its tabloid section, I have decided to take a holiday from buying The Guardian. Imagine, then, my consternation when on opening a copy of The Daily Telegraph this week, I found an article so self-assured in its stupidity that I almost had to go back to the front page to make sure I had not been overcome by habit.

The article is "Appointment with the freezer" by Robert Gore- Langton, and was published on the 1st August. It is an account of the British cryonics movement. There is a company in Eastbourne called Alcor UK which offers to freeze its clients after death, so that they can be revived when medical progress will have made this possible. Whole bodies can be frozen for £80,000, heads alone for £34,000.

Now I share Mr Gore-Langton's doubts concerning the likely success of this treatment. Liquid nitrogen does to human cell structures what an ordinary ice box does to strawberries; and brains do particularly badly. Even assuming that Alcor UK can remain in business beyond at most a few decades, I have yet to be persuaded that a method will ever be found to reverse the damage of this kind of "cryostasis". I also do not know whether a brain can be compared to a hard disk, which retains its contents while switched off, or to the ram of a computer, which is wiped when switched off.

Nevertheless, this second question may one day be answered to our advantage. If so, the way will have been cleared for some better method of cryonic or other suspension to be developed.

But Mr Gore-Langton seems to think this in itself a very bad thing. He quotes Arthur Caplan, a professor of Biomedical Ethics in Pennsylvania:

Cryonics takes advantage of a sad, pathetic wish to be immortal."

He also quotes the late Dennis Potter:

We need to be mortal, we need to die."

What idiots! What "sad, pathetic" idiots! Death is a presently inevitable fact, and anyone who is beyond a certain age does best to reconcile himself to this. But I am incredulous that anyone can go further and think death a good thing. For myself - give me the smallest reason to believe that Alcor's clients will one day be defrosted into endless life, and I will be down in Eastbourne tomorrow, choosing my own nitrogen vat.

When I turn from cryonics to simple life extension, I am rather more optimistic. I do not know why our bodies go into gradual decline after quite an early age. But providing an answer to this does not strike me as beyond the science of the next generation. Nor do some means of arresting or reversing our physical decline. Whatever is now the case, I at least hope that by the time I am 60, my life expectancy will have been greatly extended. Certainly, many of the customs and institutions that now shape our lives will need to adapt or even disappear in a society where no one dies at all, or every one can look forward to living several hundred years. But I see these changes as entirely welcome - no matter how bizarre they might now appear. We ourselves or our children may look back on the present state of society as we now look back on earlier centuries, where most people could be considered lucky to live beyond the age of 30.

Mr Gore-Langton dismisses the "Californian idea of heaven" as "an eternity of shopping, barbecues and vacations in Hawaii". This is not all that I would expect from indefinite life extension; but it sounds a very pleasant part of it.

I say that cryonics or simple life extension may eventually be made to work - but this is only on the assumption of unhindered progress. In a world ruled by people like Professor Caplan, I fear that this will not be allowed. It may not always be inevitable that we shall die. But these people will do their absolute best to make it so. Perhaps they are driven by an honest belief that death is good for us - or perhaps by sour grapes. Even so, they seem determined to take the rest of us with them.

Here is perhaps the greatest cost of the statist ascendency that has been restored since around 1914. They do not have big beards, or wear electrum armour. But I do not think our modern rulers so very different from the Sumerian nobles, whose practice it was to have their slaves buried alive with them.

Three

I have mentioned the year 1914. I am making these loose jottings on the 4th August, 80 years to the day since our declaration of war on Germany. I know that looking at the plain statistics, we can dethrone the Great War from the place that it occupies in most liberal imaginations. Other wars have lasted longer. Others have had higher death rates, both absolutely and proportionately. On the same basis, others have consumed more wealth. I cannot say that our statist ascendency is wholly a product of the War: its roots can be traced far back into the 19th century - even into the age of high liberalism.

Yet for all this, I cannot but regard that war as the greatest of all known calamities. The only real civilisation that has existed on this planet came close to blowing itself apart: and no one but a fool can say that a full recovery has yet taken place, or be sure that one will take place.

I began this jotting with the intention of saying something smart and clever about today's anniversary. But there is nothing smart and clever to be said. When I contemplate the events that unrolled between the 28th June and the 4th August 1914, I become a child again, in the audience of a pantomime. I want to cry out to the person on stage - "Look behind you!" "Don't go there!", "He's coming for you!". But there is nobody out there to listen.

And that, perhaps, is why we are so busy commemorating the events of 1944, but have chosen very largely to overlook the still greater and more unimaginable events of 30 years' earlier.

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