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  • “Chesterton’s Warning”

    Posted by onparkstreet on November 27th, 2010 (All posts by )

    It sounds like a preoccupation of the exotic fringe to most of us now, but nine decades ago eugenics was openly advocated as a mainstream Progressive idea. Indeed, the most certifiably advanced minds of the day promoted and celebrated it. In 1923, former President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, U.S. Senator Royal Copeland of New York, former President David Starr Jordan of Indiana and Stanford Universities, President Livingston Farrand of Cornell University, and a host of other educational, medical and social-welfare luminaries making up the Eugenics Committee of the United States came forth with a program calling for “selective immigration, sterilization of defectives and control of everything having to do with the reproduction of human beings.” In 1932, Margaret Sanger, founder of the organization that would eventually become Planned Parenthood, advocated “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” Nor was support restricted to a secularist avant-garde. As Christine Rosen has shown, many American Christian and Jewish religious leaders, including even some Roman Catholics, were fully supportive of eugenic ideas and policies. It was no fringe phenomenon.1

    Wilfred M. McClay, The American Interest.

     

    8 Responses to ““Chesterton’s Warning””

    1. zenpundit Says:

      The history of eugenics in America is a complicated picture, which has been buried by the mainstream media because it was popular in prewar progressive circles in America and some of the more extreme eugenicist advocates in retrospect look morally akin to Nazis ( or frankly, inspired the Nazis – see here http://hnn.us/articles/1796.html).

      This of course was not all eugenecists and the reaction against political eugenics made it very difficult to incorporate bona fide and mainstream findings from genetic research into social policy in exceedingly mild ways even a half century later.

    2. Rick Darby Says:

      I not a leftist, quite the reverse, and I support eugenics in principle.

      What we have today is the precise opposite: a system of dysgenics. The welfare state encourages irresponsible breeding among the low-IQ and dependent population, which adds to society’s burdens not only in the present but far down the corridors of time as the least able become an ever-larger interest group that politicians must cater to.

      Today there is an article about a woman on the dole in England who is about to have her sixth child so that the authorities will give her better housing. She is quite up front about her motive. Why should the obviously anti-social be able to procreate at will and the responsible be taxed to support them?

      What your apparent argument boils down to is that breeding is an unalienable right, even if others and society as a whole must be burdened as a result. Well, it isn’t, and they shouldn’t.

      And stop equating eugenics with Nazism. That’s the last refuge of a dimwit.

    3. Rick Darby Says:

      Yet another example. No doubt you would throw up your hands in horror at the thought of sterilizing Mr. Macdonald. Who are we to say he shouldn’t father as many children as he feels like and bill what’s left of the middle class for their upkeep for the next 20 years?

    4. veryretired Says:

      The 19th century was a time of remarkable variety in theories of everything. Science and pseudo-science found one new cure-all per decade, from magnetism to x-rays to spinal cord nerves to electricity. Philosophy was awash in postulates of “central theories” from Idea to Spirit to Will to Class to Nation to Blood. The latter few, of course, became popular political organizing principles as well, from marx to any number of rising nationalist movements to the aryan superiority advocates.

      And so, unsurprisingly, eugenics became the “scientific” solution to the existence of all those less than perfect inferior types, and certainly less than the intellectual and cultural elites of the day, who seemed to be cluttering up what could be such a perfect world if only the “right-thinking” people had the power to decide who could procreate and who just shouldn’t, ya know what I mean. (wink wink)

      The error in thinking which led to all this nonsense, and very deadly nonsense some of it was too, was the developing ideas of “societal rights” and “societal duties”. A few of the comments above exhibit both of these fallacies.

      Societies do not have rights, individuals do. Societies don’t have duties to children, parents do. The recognition that people have rights to live as they see fit includes the recognition that anyone might make mistakes and commit stupidities that have negative consequences. If you wish to help, do so. If you don’t, or can’t, then so be it.

      There is no panacea, no universal antidote, no miracle cure for all disease, or all stupidity, or all irresponsibility.

      To be human is to muddle through life as best one can, dealing with all the faults and failures that manifest themselves, just as one exults in those rare triumphs that light the way.

      Get over this idea that someone knows what is best, how everything should be, what to do about every problem. That infalliable expert doesn’t exist, not in Rome, not in Washington, not on the faculty of some high altitude campus somewhere.

      It’s your life—live it or don’t, it’s up to you. Freedom entails, not just liberty, but enormous responsibility as well.

      Can’t have one without the other, sorry.

    5. Helian Says:

      Eugenics has become a toxic issue in the aftermath of the Third Reich. Freedom of speech no longer applies, and most articles on the subject today are based on the tacit assumption that it was evil. Anyone looking for rational discussions of the subject must seek them in the literature of an earlier day. For example, there are some very interesting pro and con articles in H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury of the mid-20’s. I tend to agree with the con, but it’s actually become a moot point. Individuals already have some degree of control over the traits they pass along to their offspring, and that power will only increase with the expansion of our knowledge of genetics. Parents are unlikely to select for stupidity, ugliness, and heritable diseases. State power could always be used to deprive them of this power to select, but that, of course, would amount to a rebirth of eugenics.

    6. onparkstreet Says:

      So I bought the particular copy of The American Interest that I have quoted because it had several military themed articles – including one authored by David Kilcullen – that I was interested in reading. Turns out, the entire magazine was pretty interesting and so I excerpted the above.

      I don’t know much about the Progressive politics of that period, other than the very bare sketches of it, so I found the quote educational. I bet a lot of people have no idea about the Progressive politics of that period and eugenics. I bet it would come as a big surprise to many.

      Several quick points:

      1. The credentialed elite of that time held certain ideas that many today would find objectionable. Our technocratic credentialed elite need to be reminded, continually, to be humble because to be human is to make mistakes. No matter how brilliant you are….

      2. There is a big difference between a woman going to a sperm bank and specifying donor traits and the state selectively and forcibly sterilizing people they deem “defectives.” One is a choice made freely while the other is abusive.

      When talking about eugenics, we need to specify just what is meant by that word – as many of you have done in your comments! I agree that the nature of academia is such that ideas tend to be shouted down rather than debated freely and we are all the worse for it. If it is a bad idea, you ought to be able to argue against it vigorously and persuade people just how bad it is.

      3. High IQ people have caused plenty of world problems! Just wanted to point that out, for some reason :)

      4. I agree with everything veryretired says here:

      The 19th century was a time of remarkable variety in theories of everything. Science and pseudo-science found one new cure-all per decade, from magnetism to x-rays to spinal cord nerves to electricity. Philosophy was awash in postulates of “central theories” from Idea to Spirit to Will to Class to Nation to Blood. The latter few, of course, became popular political organizing principles as well, from marx to any number of rising nationalist movements to the aryan superiority advocates.

      And so, unsurprisingly, eugenics became the “scientific” solution to the existence of all those less than perfect inferior types, and certainly less than the intellectual and cultural elites of the day, who seemed to be cluttering up what could be such a perfect world if only the “right-thinking” people had the power to decide who could procreate and who just shouldn’t, ya know what I mean. (wink wink)

      The error in thinking which led to all this nonsense, and very deadly nonsense some of it was too, was the developing ideas of “societal rights” and “societal duties”. A few of the comments above exhibit both of these fallacies.

      5. The Welfare state needs to be discussed on its own merits.

      I appreciate the comments.

      – Madhu

    7. Soviet of Washington Says:

      Very Retired,

      Thank you for your superb comment.

      Just one addition: ‘Societal Rights’ = ‘Social Justice’

      The concept never changes, just the label.

    8. Cromagnum Says:

      Back to the Original Post

      Has anyone of the Commentators actually read GK Chesterton’s 1922 book ‘Eugenics and Other Evils) that the American Interest article focuses on? ( Copies can be found free on the internet )

      Its a very well written treatise, and includes a particularly illuminating chapter on Socialism. It begins as follows:

      THE TRANSFORMATION OF SOCIALISM
      Socialism is one of the simplest ideas in the world. It has always puzzled me how there came to be so much bewilderment and misunderstanding and miserable mutual slander about it. At one time I agreed with Socialism, because it was simple. Now I disagree with Socialism, because it is too simple. Yet most of its opponents still seem to treat it, not merely as an iniquity but as a mystery of iniquity, which seems to mystify them even more than it maddens them. It may not seem strange that its antagonists should be puzzled about what it is. It may appear more curious and interesting that its admirers are equally puzzled. Its foes used to denounce Socialism as Anarchy, which is its opposite. Its friends seemed to suppose that it is a sort of optimism, which is almost as much of an opposite. Friends and foes alike talked as if it involved a sort of faith in ideal human nature; why I could never imagine. The Socialist system, in a more special sense than any other, is founded not on optimism but on original sin. It proposes that the State, as the conscience of the community, should possess all primary forms of property; and that obviously on the ground that men cannot be trusted to own or barter or combine or compete without injury to themselves. Just as a State might own all the guns lest people should shoot each other, so this State would own all the gold and land lest they should cheat or rackrent or exploit each other. It seems extraordinarily simple and even obvious; and so it is. It is too obvious to be true. But while it is obvious, it seems almost incredible that anybody ever thought it optimistic.
      I am myself primarily opposed to Socialism, or Collectivism or Bolshevism or whatever we call it, for a primary reason not immediately involved here: the ideal of property. I say the ideal and not merely the idea; and this alone disposes of the moral mistake in the matter…..

      But it is his opening salvo that is the more often quoted:

      WHAT IS EUGENICS?
      The wisest thing in the world is to cry out before you are hurt. It is no good to cry out after you are hurt; especially after you are mortally hurt. People talk about the impatience of the populace; but sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late. It is often essential to resist a tyranny before it exists. It is no answer to say, with a distant optimism, that the scheme is only in the air. A blow from a hatchet can only be parried while it is in the air….

      Eugenics is the direct philosophical offshoot from the marriage of Evolution and Atheism. If you have no God, then you have no Ethics. In the same way the Fabian Socialists came out of the same mold. A smarter elite group knows and controls all. Its just the god of government. Justice is merely based on who holds what end of the sword .. or a hammer … or a hatchet.