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Jonah Goldberg tells his half of the story.

[ 30 ] March 29, 2010 |

My overstuffed inbox informs me that Jonah Goldberg is writing half-histories again, but if you can believe it, this time the argument he makes is more accurate than not:

Look, eugenics was a very complicated phenomenon. But it does not clarify the topic to insist that, contrary to mountains of evidence and common sense, that all of the progressives who subscribed to it were just wearing a conservative mask.

That’s true as far it goes—progressives who supported the study or practice of eugenics weren’t crypto-conservatives—the problem is that it doesn’t go very far:

[T]here’s no evidence provided that any conservatives supported eugenics.

Nor would you expect there to be, because the reason that conservatives opposed eugenics in particular was that they opposed science generally. Given that, at the turn of the last century, eugenics required a belief in some sort of form of evolutionary theory—not Darwinism, strictly speaking, but a pre-synthesis amalgam of mutation theory, Lamarckism, and orthogenesis—it should come as no surprise to anyone that then, as now, many conservative opposed eugenics on religious grounds. G.K. Chesteron’s principle complaint in Eugenics and Other Evils was that regulating who could marry would undermine the traditional family, and some of his examples are eerily prescient:

Most Eugenists are Euphemists. I mean merely that short words startle them, while long words soothe them. And they are utterly incapable of translating the one into the other, however obviously they mean the same thing. Say to them “The persuasive and even coercive powers of the citizen should enable him to make sure that the burden of longevity in the previous generation does not become disproportionate and intolerable, especially to the females”; say this to them and they will sway slightly to and fro like babies sent to sleep in cradles. Say to them “Murder your mother,” and they sit up quite suddenly. (13)

Death panels, anyone? Granted, Goldberg is more than happy to occupy this moral high ground, coinciding as it does with the moral positions of contemporary conservatives; however, he downplays the obvious corollary, i.e. that in the name of what we now call family values, earlier generations of conservatives would have severely curbed scientific progress.

I’m not saying that eugenics per se was laudable, but it was necessary to the furtherance of scientific knowledge: it validated human society and the human body as objects of scientific inquiry. Conservatives opposed this because it removed humanity from its pedestal of special creation. To thinkers like Chesterton, treating humans like animals was patently absurd, which is why he characterized eugenic proposals circa 1910 as emanating from a period in which

Mr. Bernard Shaw and others were considering the idea that to breed a man like a cart-horse was the true way to attain higher civilization, of intellectual magnanimity and sympathetic insight, which may be found in cart-horses. (ii)

So why, then, were liberals more likely to support eugenics? Because conservatives clung fast to their retrograde and anthropocentric beliefs. Goldberg downplays this, and rightly so, because opposing science on principle isn’t a particularly praiseworthy attitude, and his game here is to smudge the historical record such that the only legible items are those that condemn the forebears of his ideological opponents. He offers no affirmative argument for his political kin because, I suspect, he knows that there’s not much of one to be made.

Of course, he also ignores the vast body of unscientific theories of personal and cultural inheritance that were embraced and vigorously defended by social conservatives. Concurrent with the rise of the eugenics movement in America was a vogue for historical novels of the Revolutionary period—at least 141 novels set during that time were published between 1898 and 1903—the majority of which trafficked in talk of blood and breed, i.e. the unscientific counterparts of eugenics that just so happened to favor those with financial, social or political capital. Isn’t it funny how this branch of conservativism never makes it into books about creeping fascism?

Comments (30)

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  1. partisan says:

    I think this is somewhat muddled. In Buck v Bell, Oliver Wendell Holmes was joined by seven other justices, including three of the four famed “Four Horsemen” who are supposedly the standard of a certain sort of conservative jurisprudence. The distinction is less between conservatives opposing science, than Catholics opposing state interference in reproduction against Catholic prerogatives. (The only dissenter, Pierce Butler, was a Catholic.) I suspect the same reason has to do with why Catholics began to oppose miscegentation laws before Protestants. By the time of Darwin’s death, there was little opposition to evolution among intellectuals, who by 1880 would have been conservative and mostly Protestant. And since when has Virginia (the state that passed the law in Buck v. Bell) been a model of liberalism?

    • SEK says:

      I think this is somewhat muddled.

      It’s only muddled because Goldberg insists on using contemporary labels to describe historical entities. I, for one, would rather not try to label William Jennings Bryan, because I don’t think there’s a neat category for populist, anti-business, conservative Christians in the contemporary lexicon. But you work with the stupid you have, not the stupid you wish you did.

      By the time of Darwin’s death, there was little opposition to evolution among intellectuals, who by 1880 would have been conservative and mostly Protestant.

      More like thirty years after his death, for one, and it depends on what you mean by intellectual, for another. Granted, it’s difficult to talk about the academic context for a period in which the academy as we know it didn’t exist yet, but even though the craze for all theories “developmental” cut across disciplines, it wasn’t necessarily Darwinian, nor even evolutionary. Hegelianism was still incredibly influential, as William James’s detractors never tired of reminding him.

      • booferama says:

        It’s only muddled because Goldberg insists on using contemporary labels to describe historical entities.

        And thus was born Liberal Fascism.

  2. Julia Grey says:

    Say what you like about ole G.K., the man had a way with words.

    I really don’t like this fashion for charging the 100-year-old opinions of our “intellectual forbears” to our current account.

    Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on that sort of exercise?

    • SEK says:

      Say what you like about ole G.K., the man had a way with words.

      That’s the main reason I chose to quote him instead of, say, David Starr Jordan. Same basic point, but Chesterton has verve.

      Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on that sort of exercise?

      Given how closely the version of historicism I employ is to intellectual history, put me down for “I hope not.” More to the point, though, it’s interesting and instructive to see how an idea moves—or better yet, migrates—from and through one set of interests to another wholly unrelated one.

      • gmack says:

        A quick side note on this: I think a very good case can be made (and I’ve been reading about this recently) that one wing of contemporary conservative responses to “welfare” is pretty close to classic eugenics. This becomes rather close to explicit in the efforts to mandate Norplant for welfare mothers back in the 1990s; and today many states subject women on welfare to ongoing efforts to encourage them to give up their children for adoption, to go to various sex education classes (increasingly abstinence only ones) and are bombarded with message after message about what terrible mothers they are. It’s not forced sterilization, to be sure, but when combined with the financial difficulties, lack of child care, etc, one could argue that this is a sort of neo-eugenic ideology.

        • SEK says:

          A matter of de facto vs. de jure, I suppose? I could sort of see that, but the key difference is in the deliberateness of the social engineering, and, if you can believe it, the sympathy of the engineers. Cruel and inhuman as some of those early 20th century tracts seem, their were many reformers who genuinely cared about the plight of the poor; moreover, among the more Lamarckian elements, there was the belief that improving the conditions in which the poor lived would improve the quality of their stock. (The old and utterly tasteless joke here is “free-range people,” but it gets the point across.) I don’t get the sense that contemporary conservatives care all that much about women on welfare.

  3. richard says:

    [T]here’s no evidence provided that any conservatives supported eugenics.

    I haven’t read Goldberg on this question (life’s too short) but isnt this just a selective definition of who is a “conservative”. By any standard usage, wouldn’t Henry Ford be considered a conservative (he was certainly a laissez faire capitalist) and he was clearly a supporter of eugenics.

  4. SEK says:

    I haven’t read Goldberg on this question (life’s too short) but isnt this just a selective definition of who is a “conservative”. By any standard usage, wouldn’t Henry Ford be considered a conservative (he was certainly a laissez faire capitalist) and he was clearly a supporter of eugenics.

    It’s a shell game: if someone’s beliefs accord with those of contemporary conservatives, they’re a conservative; however, if their beliefs are something that he wants to demonize, they’re world-historically evil but give rise to the ostensibly sensible liberal policies that beneath your bed waiting for your mother to turn off the light.

    Seriously. In the second linked article up there, he goes to some lengths to claim that the Nation was more classically liberal back then, so even though leftist writers in its pages vehemently opposed eugenics, they don’t count as liberals.

  5. Twinky Tossberg500 says:

    William Shockley, the last of the great eugenicists, looks way tea-bag to me.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shockley

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAszZr3SkEs

  6. Ginger Yellow says:

    “I’m not saying that eugenics per se was laudable, but it was necessary to the furtherance of scientific knowledge: it validated human society and the human body as objects of scientific inquiry. ”

    Say what?

    • A program dedicated to sterilizing and weeding out the “unfit” (including, but not limited to, people with congenital diseases, the deaf, alcoholics, people with physical or cognitive disabilities, lazy bums, epileptics, people with mental illnesses, and of course gypsies, tramps, and thieves) was necessary for the furtherance of scientific knowledge? Ah, no. Or are you just trying to see whether you can get Steven Jay Gould spinning in his grave?

      There are many ways to argue against Goldberg’s claim that conservatives have nice clean hands when it comes to eugenics, but “eugenics was Science and conservatives were agin Science” is a really bad way to do it.

      • SEK says:

        I’ve got a three hour commute, teach all day, and a three hour drive back, so I’ve got to quick because by the time I return, I’ll be dead: but basically, the necessity of my claim is that someone had to reify the human body, and that once someone did, horrors would abound. Be it eugenics, Taylorization, or what-not, the process of downgrading the human body from “made in the image of God” to “just another piece of meat for scientists to study” was bound to have unsavory results, and it did. I’m obviously, or I hope I’m obviously not arguing in favor of the moral superiority of ignorance, because the morality of the anti-science position was as fraught then as it is for the anti-vaccination people now.

        • Anderson says:

          the process of downgrading the human body from “made in the image of God” to “just another piece of meat for scientists to study” was bound to have unsavory results

          Well, if you say so.

          To the extent conservatives were against eugenics, there were plenty of reasons other than “being against science.” For one thing, breeding people like cattle implies the breaking of a few taboos.

          But as noted by other commenters, I don’t accept the premise that conservatives *were* against eugenics. Anyone opposed to miscegenation, for instance, is taking a eugenic stance.

          • SEK says:

            Or are you just trying to see whether you can get Steven Jay Gould spinning in his grave?

            He only has himself to blame:

            I regard the conspiracy of silence about [the eugenical chapters in Fisher’s Genetical Theory as both unscholarly and overly fastidious. First of all, how can we justify silence about integral parts of an important thinker’s work because now we recoil at his beliefs? Second, even if we wish to defend such posthumous cleansing, Fisher’s eugenics can only be judged as “garden variety” material for his time, and not especially benighted or vengeful. (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory 513).

            I learn it from Gould! I learned it from reading Gould!

            I don’t accept the premise that conservatives *were* against eugenics. Anyone opposed to miscegenation, for instance, is taking a eugenic stance.

            I’m not saying that conservatives didn’t have opinions about who should be making babies, which is why I mentioned that the popularity of “the unscientific counterparts of eugenics that just so happened to favor those with financial, social or political capital.” But in this post I’m speaking, specifically, of people who embraced the eugenics movement, e.g. David Starr Jordan, who headed up both the World Peace Organization and the Committee on Eugenics.

        • Fats Durston says:

          the process of downgrading the human body from “made in the image of God” to “just another piece of meat for scientists to study” was bound to have unsavory results

          Um, the made in the image of God body had plenty of unsavory bodily results prior to reification…

        • Linnaeus says:

          I’d argue that the process of which you speak – making humankind a proper object of scientific study in both biological and social terms – was pretty well established by the time eugenics came into vogue. Furthermore, eugenics didn’t really do all that much to advance biological knowledge of human beings or anything else; even after some biologists began to take it seriously (after 1910 or so), most ignored it or were actively critical of eugenics, mostly on the grounds that the science behind it was suspect (and a few noted the racist implications of eugenics)

          • SEK says:

            even after some biologists began to take it seriously (after 1910 or so), most ignored it or were actively critical of eugenics, mostly on the grounds that the science behind it was suspect (and a few noted the racist implications of eugenics)

            I feel like I’m condensing my dissertation here, but eugenics was taken seriously by most biologists and members of the unfortunately named American Sociological Society. The most vocal opponents were conservative-leaning thinkers like Charles Sumner, who believed that a Darwinian winnowing was preferable to the Lamarckian engineering of the eugenics proponents. My shorthand here is nearly criminal, but my main point is that contemporary politics don’t map very well onto the early 20th century debates about social engineering.

            • Linnaeus says:

              I feel like I’m condensing my dissertation here, but eugenics was taken seriously by most biologists and members of the unfortunately named American Sociological Society.

              Hm. Well, I haven’t read your dissertation, but Philip Pauly in Biologists and the Promise of American Life claims quite the opposite.

        • Ginger Yellow says:

          “basically, the necessity of my claim is that someone had to reify the human body, and that once someone did, horrors would abound.”

          There’s a huge difference between saying someone had to reify humanity and saying that eugenics specifically was “necessary”. And I would argue that the reification process began a long time before eugenics became popular – with Malthus and Pasteur and Darwin, not to mention Hume and Locke and Smith, among many, many others. It was certainly controversial, but it’s not as if eugenics made it any less so.

          • SEK says:

            I wrote “necessary,” but I probably should have said “inevitable,” as the combination of the ubiquitous reform movements and the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics meant that the terms in which enthusiasts of the latter would think of the former would be coextensive in ways that we, one hundred years on, find reprehensible.

            • Linnaeus says:

              To add to my above comment, even if early 20th century biologist accepted eugenics, to make this claim:

              I’m not saying that eugenics per se was laudable, but it was necessary to the furtherance of scientific knowledge: it validated human society and the human body as objects of scientific inquiry.

              would require some proof that eugenics was integrated into biological research programs to such a degree that it constituted a “necessary” or even “inevitable” component of biological knowledge. And from what I’ve seen, that’s a very hard case to make.

  7. dave says:

    Since eugenics is predicated on a static and defensive notion of a ‘pure’ race subject to actual and potential degenerations, it is at root both conservative and [of course] essentially racist. It ought to fit right in on the Right. That some ‘progressives’ in the early C20 were so caught up with their elitist conceit that they were masters of the future as to embrace some of its tenets does not alter the underlying mental pathology associated with the whole concept.

    What relationship eugenics, and ‘race science’ in this period overall, had as matters of historical fact to the later emergence of genetics, etc, is a conversation best kept distinct.

  8. Fats Durston says:

    I like to think of it as the Darwinian non-revolution: Great Chains of Being, Polygenism, or any other systems describing human superiority/inferiority were either recalibrated to fit scientific data or not, depending on whether the thinker decided to use science or not.

    It does seem weird to single out one strain of political thought as racist in a period when nearly every highly educated person in the world was racist. It’s also a little weird to try argue with someone who argues the ku klux klan was progressive in the 1920s.

  9. JohnR says:

    He offers no affirmative argument for his political kin because, I suspect, he knows that there’s not much of one to be made.

    I think you’re being too kind. Goldberg’s stock in trade is primarily weird contortions of logic, linguistics and fact to “prove” the claim he is making at the moment. Given his history, I think it is safe to say that mere lack of a plausible affirmative argument would barely slow him down – if he was really interested in producing something along those lines he could and would produce something out of whole cloth and pronounce it to be the conclusive proof of his point.
    I think he was simply too lazy to dream anything up; there are plenty of words and phrases around for him to build a Lego argument from if he so desired. It’s just easier to ‘Chinese menu’ from his hated ideological opponents and burn the resulting strawman.

  10. rea says:

    Goldberg, of course, is hung up on the “no true Scotsman” fallacy: [G] “Conservatives are not in favor of eugenics” [Lefty] “But what about Hitler?” [G] “Hitler was a man of the left!”

    The fact of the mattter is, back whe we did not understand heredity very well, science seemd to support eugenics, and so people on the left as well as on the right supportd it. When we learned more, eugenics was discarded as unscientific by those, mostly on the left, who accept science.

    It was possible, back in Bryan’s day, to be both a lefty populist and a fundamentalist Christian, just like Jesus. That mix of attitudes has gone right out of fashion for some reason.

  11. Ginger Yellow says:

    “It was possible, back in Bryan’s day, to be both a lefty populist and a fundamentalist Christian, just like Jesus. That mix of attitudes has gone right out of fashion for some reason.”

    I think you’ll find the reason is called the Civil Rights Act.

  12. Matthew B. says:

    Not sure if Chesterton is the best example of a “conservative,” at least if you’re distinguishing that category from “progressive.” Obviously he was conservative in a lot of ways. On the other hand, e.g., he favoured transferring ownership of large corporations directly to their employees, or nationalising them when that was unfeasible.

  13. wengler says:

    What a very stupid and strange topic for a current American rightwinger to tackle.

    Eugenics was very popular with the academic and business communities at the time. Pre-WWII academia in the US was very exclusive and very much supportive of the status quo. Businessmen of course were very much the same and very interested in validating their great wealth especially against the vast majority of very poor and destitute people that worked for them.

    Some people like Woodrow Wilson could probably be considered both a racialist and a progressive, but he also came out of academia which was not the province of progressivism. Perhaps Mr. Goldberg should examine some of the more inventive slave owners in the South that enjoyed experimenting with ways to make a better slave through their unique breeding programs. Or will his next book be about how slaveowners were socialists?

  14. Foolish project for a mere Enlightened Layperson whose blog no one reads anyhow, but I want to seriously take Goldberg on some time when I have the time. Can anyone point to a good source on the politics of Eugenics, i.e, who supported it, who opposed it, and why?

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