State of the Union: Swimming Upstream

  • Share
  • Read Later
Watching the President's State of the Union Address, I thought of sperm. Let me explain.

The New York Times reported that President Bush said, "Tonight, I have the high privilege and distinct honor to begin a speech with the words, 'Madam Speaker.'" Presumably, the Times reported it that way because that was how his prepared text ran.

Strictly speaking, even if the President had followed that text, he would have been inaccurate. He was beginning a speech, after all, not with the words "Madam Speaker" but with the words "Tonight, I have the privilege," and so on. But what in fact he said — as television made immediately evident, and as the Times reported two days later in a "For the Record" correction — was this: "And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first President to begin the State of the Union Message with these words: 'Madam Speaker.'"

You see, even in a gesture widely considered gracious, the President felt the need to get not only an "I" but a "my own" and a "first President" and a "State of the Union Message" in there before "Madam Speaker."

I'll get back to sperm in a moment, but first let me share with you a report from researchers at Northern Illinois University, to wit: that people (men and women) have more of a problem with the idea of a woman President than they admit to pollsters.

In a Gallup Poll, 92% of Americans say they'd be comfortable with a woman President. But NIU researchers asked people how many (but not which) items on a list — "Professional athletes getting million-dollar salaries," for instance — made them angry. When the item "a woman serving as President" was added to the list, the numbers rose considerably.

Also, 86% told a poll that they'd be happy to vote for a woman for pres, but only 34% said that their neighbors would be equally broad-minded. We are broad-minded about our own broad-mindedness, but not about our neighbors'. And sociologists think they can measure this?

It's not a matter of percentages. It's Mister Vice President sitting next to Madame Speaker there on the podium, and you can just see what both of them are thinking:

He: "You are not my idea of an egg."

She: "You got that right. Go swim around somebody else."

I was thinking in those terms during the State of the Union because I had just read a story in the New York Times about the work of Dr. David E. Clapham of Harvard Medical School, who insists that he is "not a sperm specialist." But he has lived among sperm — well, looked at them a lot — and learned their ways.

"Whenever I speak in some neurobiology department, you always get someone asserting, 'Sperm aren't as interesting as neurons,'" says Clapham.

And yet, he says, "a human sperm needs to swim through the female reproductive tract for something like l5 minutes to get to the egg. They have a kind of built-in motor that permits them to do that." Sperm "can sense their surroundings." They might even be said to smell them: "They have molecules that are much the same as olfactory receptors in our noses. As you watch them under a microscope, you get the sense that they are going somewhere, or at least 'think' they are."

Here is what I'm thinking: neurons are intellectuals, talking heads; sperm are out there in the marketplace. Maybe sperm only think they are thinking — but neurons think. The state of the union is deplorable, yes, but union is not an idea, it's a physical thing. We lie to ourselves about our open-mindedness, but meanwhile we're trying to get somewhere, hook up. Like sperm: "They surround an egg and vigorously try to fuse with it," says the aforementioned Dr. Clapham. "They don't give up until they run out of energy."

On TV these politicians all look like fools, jumping up and down, pushing themselves forward — did you see Dennis Kucinich thrusting himself upon Bush like one more autograph-seeker? Part of me says, "Fools!" Another part of me says, "You go, fools, so I don't have to do it."