Posts for June, 2011
For me, this is a tricky post to write. As a rule, I am opposed to boycotts for any reason. They are often based on incomplete and exaggerated information, are usually ineffective except for the protestors who get pictures published in news media and have little or no lasting constructive effect. The latter is true because corporations have personalities, generally set by the CEO. These personalities will not be changed by a one-time event like a boycott, even if it is successful in changing a specific policy. Eventually, the corporation will revert to character and continue to perform in its typical fashion.
However, there are issues that press my hot button, and this is one of them. There is a growing boycott effort within the pro-life movement against Pepsi--more specifically, PepsiCo--involving the employment of Senomyx Corporation, an established biotech company, for high-tech taste testing. The products involved are flavor enhancers which serve to increase the effectiveness of flavors. The problem is, Senomyx tests the effectiveness of these flavor enhancers via a Frankensteinian method utilizing kidney cells from an aborted baby. The baby was aborted in 1970 and his or her kidney cells "harvested". These cells were then isolated, replicated and cultured in a growth medium. They are designated HEK293, for Human Embryonic Kidney, the 293rd attempt to successfully establish the cell line, which persists to this day.
It must be clearly understood that PepsiCo does not employ anything from an aborted baby in its products. It only employs a corporation to test its products that employs a cell line derived from an aborted baby. Also, Senomyx provides services utilizing HEK293 to many other companies. (I was unable to identify any of them as the boycott effort involves only PepsiCo at the present time.)
To provide a clearer understanding of the situation, I will attempt to explain the process employed by Senomyx.
(This illustration was obtained from a blog post by Dr. Gerard M. Nadal and the following technical discussion draws on information from that post.)
The green parallel lines represent the cell walls of the tongue's taste buds that interact with food and beverages to create the sensation of taste. The purple "signaling agnoist" represents the food molecule creating the taste sensation. It mates with a cell receptor designed for that type of molecule. The receptor is triggered to carry this agnoist response inside the taste bud cell, interacting with a series of proteins, called "G-proteins", to producing responses within the taste bud cell, producing several processes that generate nerve fiber impulses that the brain interprets as a certain taste. (I am not going to try to explain these processes in detail, even if I could.)
HEK293 allows Senomyx to generate the protein responses that simulate the taste bud's response to various "flavor enhancer" agnoists without the use of actual taste bud cells. (I suppose they're to hard to replicate, or something.) Senomyx does this for a number of corporations, including PepsiCo and Campbell Soup which dropped Senomyx after being notified of the negative response in the pro-life community. (Interestingly, both PepsiCo and Campbell's are Nestlé companies.) PepsiCo has specifically refused to drop Senomyx, which is the crux of the protest action. In fairness, Campbell Soups has little competition; Pepsi is in a knock-down, drag out battle with Coke that they are losing.
Now to the ethics. Yes, it was only a single aborted baby over 40 years ago. The problem is the slippery slope. As Dr. Nadal points out, the use of this type of biotech testing is very common. It is inconceivable that HEK293 is the only cell line being so utilized, obtained from other aborted babies. Senomyx seems to be a very successful company and certainly has imitators, or soon will have.
How many aborted babies will be used to provide the commercial means for profit? The use of human remains, especially from a controversial and--to many--abhorrent process like abortion, for commercial benefit and profit is at best ethically questionable and at worst, criminal. The critical question is, where does this stop?
At least embryonic stem cell research has the claimed potential--I have my doubts--for major human benefit in the cure of spinal injury, Parkinson's and other debilitating conditions. Soft drinks, soups and other foodstuffs, many of the junk food variety, suffer mightily from a lack of comparable benefit. (For the record, PepsiCo also produces Frito-Lay, Tropicana, Quaker and Gatorade products.)
The use of aborted baby parts for flavor augmentation frankly leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. Maybe this is one boycott I will support.
I deliberately wrote my previous post on the use of aborted baby tissue to test soft drink flavor enhancers in a low key without the outrage I actually felt to see what kind of response, if any, I would get. The response was at best tepid and limited to a very few commenters, two of whom always find something to criticize in my writing. Some mocked my position, something I'm used to; others posed hypothetical boycott scenarios, as though that were the main point of the post (which it was not!). No-one expressed any real concern over the issue of desecration of aborted babies and the commercialization of this heinous practice.
For me, and for others--not apparently readers of this blog--abortion is a very emotional issue for reasons that I think are well known. Yet, no one at all seemed to think the crass commercial use of parts of an aborted baby was much of a deal. The reason, I think, relates to a larger problem in our society today.
It is almost universally asserted that abortion is a very complex issue. In truth, we are told by politicians, ethicists, scientists, the media and academia that most major issues facing society are complex, often too much so for us poor common folk to understand. I maintain that this is a ploy to gather power into the hands of government and others in positions of authority or influence, and to convince us that we need them to guide our thinking. The fact is, most issues facing society are actually relatively simple if one addresses them objectively without intimidation.
Just look around you at the major issues facing us (other than political campaigns that are totally built on lies.) Global warming: too complex for you to understand so take the word of the experts. Poverty: too complex to understand the social scientists (and politicians, the experts on everything) tell us, so leave it to them to propose solutions, e.g. the "Great Society." Wars in general have causes too complex for us so trust the politicians who start them to make the decisions, lately without even Congressional sanction. Abortion: it's a complex issue so let medical authorities, social scientists, activist judges and Planned Parenthood/NARAL set the policy.
I am not going to propose the "simple solutions" to these issues and others like them, which would lead me far afield. The fact is this concept of unfathomable complexity has two very unfortunate consequences to our society. One, it creates the environment for a class of self-styled experts and "folks smarter than us" to whom we must turn for guidance. This elite class then sets the moral and ethical climate for society. In effect, tells us common folk what to think.
The reason this tactic succeeds is to a great extent the minimization of morality and ethics. Morality has become relative, which essentially downgrades it to a preference instead of a guide. Without the guide of a fixed set of moral principles we are left to look outward for guidance in difficult issues. So we let others define ethics and morality instead of the historic Judeo-Christian ethic that we used to have.
This largely started, as I recall, after World War II in the late 1940's and early 50's. A major impetus was something called "the Playboy Philosophy" as promoted by Hugh Hefner and his very successful soft-porn magazine. The Playboy philosophy basically advocated the unbridled pursuit of pleasure without regard to the moral standards of the time. "If it feels good, do it." I remember this time quite well and assure you Hefner's influence was major, notwithstanding that today this senile old fool is a late-night joke.
Human beings do not like to be told what they should not/cannot do. Hefner opened the floodgates of baser instincts and the concept of universal moral principles was left broken in the dust. This hedonism expanded into the "let it all hang out" philosophy of the 60's, which persists in a somewhat muted form today. Hence, morality and its handmaiden, ethics, died and our society was left morally adrift and bankrupt, as it is to this day.
The second consequence of the abdication of moral self-discipline by society is that it fosters avoidance of responsibility, a hiding place. If we do not have the societal tools to deal with moral issues and leave the decisions and policy to others wiser than us, then we don't have to be concerned with what others do so long as it does not affect us directly. After all, morality is relative so who are we to judge? Anyway, stuff like that is too difficult to deal with and we're busy indulging in--in the words of the old Pete Seeger folk song--"The mania for owning things."
So, when we are faced with the issue of trivial commercialization of aborted baby parts, we don't have to be concerned. After all, it happened to maybe only one baby and it was decades ago. Anyway, we harvest organs from donors, don't we? What's the difference? The difference is an organ donor makes a conscious decision to donate his body parts after death. The aborted baby did not have the chance to make a decision. That's called desecration. But then, that's a moral judgement and we don't do that anymore, do we?
The net result of all this is an inward focus on material things and personal gratification/pleasure. Oh, we talk the good game of concern for our fellow man, but it's just talk, the more abstract the better. Why should we be concerned? The elitists who have taken over our moral conscience will take care of the problem so we don't have to be bothered. Even those few of us who volunteer for the public good often do so for ulterior reasons. I know some folks who volunteer at a soup kitchen or the like; they always find a way to let others know of their compassion. Sports figures show up at hospitals to visit sick kids, but always with news cameras along. Others sponsor charitable events, also with attendant news coverage.
There is one exception I know of that's worth mentioning. George and Laura Bush frequently show up at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport to personally greet troops returning from Southwest Asia. George shakes their hand and Laura hugs them. There are no news cameras or other news coverage. There is one camera, but it is for the purpose of providing memento photos to the troops.
What is missing from society today is judgement based on essential moral and ethical principles. We view events from a distance, read about them in the paper or see them on TV, and perhaps even express some anger or shock, but in truth we really don't care, at least not after 24 hours. So, bad stuff happens and we are indifferent. Even the Tea Party movement is concerned primarily with their pocketbooks, not morality and ethics. And politicians?--forget it!
Sadly, many of us really don't care what happens to people outside of our personal circle. When unborn babies are killed by the millions, we say, "Oh, we're against abortion, but it's such a complex problem." And when a company uses kidney tissue harvested from a baby aborted three years prior to Roe v. Wade to test soft drink additives, we can't find it within ourselves to condemn this practice.
So, continue on your merry way, folks. Worry about your 401K and that roof leak. Don't bother going to church but be sure to claim a religious affiliation. Over 90% of Americans profess a religious belief but only 17% attend church or synagogue, so you're in good company. Heaven forbid God should enter the picture.
Profess compassion and concern, but don't miss that Brewers game! Leave the sticky stuff to others better equipped to handle these complex issues. Enjoy your things: your ATVs, your snowmobiles, your RV, your boat(s), your vintage Corvette, your Beemer and all those other toys stuffed in your 5-car garage complex. Above all, don't be judgmental because morality is relative and ethics are situational.
After all, it was just one baby.
Wednesday's (6/22) newspaper carried a story that reinforced the premise of my last post (Something is Missing), that as a society we have lost the sense of morality and ethics as guiding principles. The story described the disparity in income between corporate CEO's and the rest of us. This disparity has increased manyfold over the years. The average CEO compensation today is over $10 million, contrasted with an earlier generation where it was only (!) $1 million. A former CEO of what is now Dean Foods was quoted as being dismayed at the wealth of company heads compared to the workers.
Clearly, the CEO of a corporation deserves significantly greater compensation than line workers, based on his greater responsibilities. The article raised the question of how much is enough and what is the justification for today's astronomical CEO compensations. I think the answer is that as a society we have lost sight of what is ethical and moral, right and just, replacing them with whatever the traffic will bear.
For the last 24 years of my employment, I worked for the JCPenney Company Catalog Division, designing and building control systems for their distribution centers. One time I visited the JCP headquarters in the Penney Building in New York City. During a break, I was taken on a tour of the executive offices on the 47th floor. I was shown the board room with its 36-foot mahogany table made from a single piece of wood. I saw some offices of senior management that were large enough to hold a 9-hole golf course. Didn't get to see the CEO's office, occupied at the time by William Howell. But I did see the original office of James Cash Penney, still preserved as it was when he retired. It was small, furnished in ladderback chairs, a small two-person couch and a simple blond wood desk smaller than mine back in Milwaukee. He had a window behind the desk; mine was bigger. There was a nice area rug on the floor, doubtless from Penney's. My office was carpeted. Don't misunderstand, I was just a first-line department manager.
As a matter of history, James Cash Penney founded his first store in the small town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, in 1902. He called it the "Golden Rule Store," from the Biblical golden rule of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The store prospered because, in that near frontier, his was the first and only general store that didn't charge whatever the traffic would bear, but rather just a fair price for his merchandise. He and his store prospered.
In 1913, the JCPenney Company was founded and adopted at its first convention, something called "The Penney Idea." It went like this:
1 "To serve the public, as nearly as we can, to its complete satisfaction."
2 "To expect for the service we render a fair renumeration and not all the profit the traffic will bear."
3 "To do all in our power to pack the customer's dollar full of value, quality, and satisfaction."
4 "To continue to train ourselves and our associates so that the service we give will be more and more intelligently performed."
5 "To improve constantly the human factor in our business."
6 "To reward men and women in our organization though participation in what the business produces."
7 "To test our every policy, method, and act in this wise: 'Does it square with what is right and just?'"
This "Idea" was and is still posted on the walls of many offices--mine included--in the form of a nice plastic plaque. Unfortunately, as is the case with most retail businesses, those enshrined principles of Mr. Penney are not very well applied today. In fact, among Penney associates, those black plastic plaques are generally considered a wry joke.
We're back to the idea of whatever the traffic will bear, with no consideration of "what is right and just." The same principle apples to CEO and other senior management compensations, which by an honest appraisal are often simply obscene. The reason for this is the "golden principle" of our society today, which is to get as much as one can, whatever it takes, with no consideration of the morality and ethics, even to the extent of accumulating wealth far in excess of any concievable need or use. Money and possessions have become a badge of honor or, even more sadly, a symbol of ascendency over others.
Old JC must be spinning in his grave.
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