Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Eugenics and the Left

Novelist Jonathan Freedland pens an essay in The Guardian about what he calls "one of the grisliest skeletons in the cupboard of the British intellectual elite, a skeleton that rattles especially loudly inside the closet of the left." The skeleton to which he alludes is the infatuation many prominent leftist intellectuals have historically had with eugenics and the lengths to which they were willing to go to purge undesirables from the human race.

Writes Freedland of the British intellectuals of the early 20th century:
[Eugenics is] the belief that society's fate rested on its ability to breed more of the strong and fewer of the weak. So-called positive eugenics meant encouraging those of greater intellectual ability and "moral worth" to have more children, while negative eugenics sought to urge, or even force, those deemed inferior to reproduce less often or not at all. The aim was to increase the overall quality of the national herd, multiplying the thoroughbreds and weeding out the runts.

Such talk repels us now, but in the prewar era it was the common sense of the age. Most alarming, many of its leading advocates were found among the luminaries of the Fabian and socialist left, men and women revered to this day. Thus George Bernard Shaw could insist that "the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man", even suggesting, in a phrase that chills the blood, that defectives be dealt with by means of a "lethal chamber".

Such thinking was not alien to the great Liberal titan and mastermind of the welfare state, William Beveridge, who argued that those with "general defects" should be denied not only the vote, but "civil freedom and fatherhood".

Indeed, a desire to limit the numbers of the inferior was written into modern notions of birth control from the start. That great pioneer of contraception, Marie Stopes – honoured with a postage stamp in 2008 – was a hardline eugenicist, determined that the "hordes of defectives" be reduced in number, thereby placing less of a burden on "the fit". Stopes later disinherited her son because he had married a short-sighted woman, thereby risking a less-than-perfect grandchild.

Yet what looks kooky or sinister in 2012 struck the prewar British left as solid and sensible. Harold Laski, stellar LSE professor, co-founder of the Left Book Club and one-time chairman of the Labour party, cautioned that: "The time is surely coming ... when society will look upon the production of a weakling as a crime against itself." Meanwhile, J.B.S. Haldane, admired scientist and socialist, warned that: "Civilisation stands in real danger from over-production of 'undermen'." That's Untermenschen in German.

I'm afraid even the Manchester Guardian was not immune. When a parliamentary report in 1934 backed voluntary sterilisation of the unfit, a Guardian editorial offered warm support, endorsing the sterilisation campaign "the eugenists soundly urge". If it's any comfort, the New Statesman was in the same camp.
Freedland is writing of the climate of opinion among leftist/progressive elites in Britain, but the same ideas were rampant on this side of the pond as well. Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood largely as an organization to control the propagation of undesirables which especially included, in her mind, blacks.

Other like-minded American eugenicists included Alexander Graham Bell and most of the early Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Davenport, H.G. Wells, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Woodrow Wilson, and a boatload of lesser lights. At the Nuremberg War Crimes trials the Nazis testified that they took their inspiration for the genocide of the Jews from American eugenicists.

Freedland goes on to say that,
The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and their ilk, were not attracted to eugenics because they briefly forgot their left-wing principles. The harder truth is that they were drawn to eugenics for what were then good, left-wing reasons.

They believed in science and progress, and nothing was more cutting edge and modern than social Darwinism. Man now had the ability to intervene in his own evolution. Instead of natural selection and the law of the jungle, there would be planned selection. And what could be more socialist than planning? If the state was going to plan the production of motor cars in the national interest, why should it not do the same for the production of babies? The aim was to do what was best for society, and society would clearly be better off if there were more of the strong to carry fewer of the weak.

What was missing was any value placed on individual freedom, even the most basic freedom of a human being to have a child. The middle class and privileged felt quite ready to remove that right from those they deemed unworthy of it.

Progressives face a particular challenge, to cast off a mentality that can too easily regard people as means rather than ends. For in this respect a movement is just like a person: it never entirely escapes its roots.
This is a frightening thought given the power and influence progressives have in the American corridors of power today. The Nazis put the eugenic impulse in bad odor and drove it underground after WWII, but the desire to cull and regulate the human herd has not died out. It just doesn't get talked about much. How long that reticence will last in a progressive era like ours remains to be seen.

Anyone interested in reading the history of the flow of ideas from Darwin in the latter half of the 19th century through the progressive eugenicists of the first four decades of the 20th century, to the Nazis in the 30s and 40s might pick up a copy of Richard Weikert's book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany or Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg.