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A New Racism

by Nadine GordimerWorld Watch
June 30th, 2002

Last spring World Watch interviewed South African writer Nadine Gordimer on her concerns about human genetic engineering.

World Watch: Last year, in Durban, you gave a speech at the U.N. conference on racism, and you suggested that human engineering could be the new face of racism. Could you elaborate?

Nadine Gordimer: There are precedents for breeding that is politically manipulated. You only have to think of the Nazi German ideal, the blond blue-eyed German. There’s a very big distinction between the sort of genetic engineering that could prevent certain diseases, and the possibility of breeding a different or separate race of people. There’s always a good that can come out of it, but how do you control the evil?

WW: In some of your writing, you have pointed to the possibility of a two-tiered health care system in which the rich or mostly light-skinned people have access to the new genetic medicine, while the poor, mostly dark-skinned people have not.

NG: Yes. I was thinking particularly of my own country [South Africa], and I was thinking specifically of AIDS. Now, among people who have money to provide themselves with the drugs that are available to control HIV or AIDS itself, there’s a good chance to go on living. But in the poor, mostly black majority of our population, they simply cannot afford these drugs. So AIDS is a death sentence for them.

WW: So, you are saying that just as the antiretroviral drugs that help treat the symptoms of AIDS are only available to a small minority, any genetic breakthrough that we are likely to see in the next few decades is likely to be similarly priced and accessible only to a few.

NG: We are looking at a terrible imbalance between the rich and the poor of the world.

WW: Sometimes we wonder whether scientists don’t simply do everything they can because that’s what they are driven to do. If they are able to split the atom, they will split it. If they are able to make clones, they will make them. Maybe it’s a part of our hubris that we just rush forward and build whatever we can, and inevitably we encounter consequences we haven’t foreseen.

NG: There is something wonderful about the constant wish to discover. If you’re a writer, you are always looking for the meaning of human life; your whole writing life is a process of discovery, of solving the mystery of human nature. So I can see that if you are a scientist you have this urge to discover. But unfortunately, when you are brilliant and lucky enough to strike on something, it may be a Pandora’s box that you have opened, not the key to the world’s wisdom. I know that toward the end of his life, Alfred Nobel had many doubts about his dynamite, and what it would be used for.

WW: Let’s go back to the concerns you raised with the United Nations, when you suggested that genetic engineering could lead to a “new racism.” How might a genetic racism be manifested? Do you mean that people might be manipulated to be more accepting of the political regime?

NG: Or even to have memories that block out certain things.

WW: Such as…?

NG: Well, for instance, it’s come through the Truth Commission that there were plans to use drugs for crowd control, to make people more docile. I think it’s possible you could torture somebody and then block out the memory of that.

WW: Obviously we’re not talking about one technology. As our knowledge of the genome and of neurosciences expands, it opens up a whole range of frightening scenarios—from crowd control to the drugs that Aldous Huxley talked about, which could numb a whole society.

NG: Yes, I suppose we have all tried in one way or another to manipulate our consciousness—most of us with cigarettes or alcohol or music. This is a personal choice that you make, and you’re not forcing it upon other people. But if certain physical characteristics and mental attitudes can be genetically induced in some way, that becomes the superiority that leads to some people being regarded as custodians of everybody else.

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