Home / General / Embrace of Eugenics By Conservatives Proves That Conservatives Never Had Anything To Do With Eugenics

Embrace of Eugenics By Conservatives Proves That Conservatives Never Had Anything To Do With Eugenics

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I know we’ve dealt with part of this already, but here’s more Goldberg tendentiousness:

Lepore mentions that the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in the Buck v. Bell case, led by liberal hero Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a passionate eugenicist who considered “building a race” to be at the core of reform. Did Holmes and his fellow justices, including Louis Brandeis, sign on to the cause out of “faddishness”? What about the fact that the lone dissenter was Pierce Butler, a conservative Catholic Democrat appointed by a Republican (whose appointment was opposed by The Nation, The New Republic, and the KKK)?

This greatly impresses Jeff Goldtsein:

If the progressive “turn” from eugenics is a suggestion that eugenics was, at its heart, conservative, what do we make of the fact that conservatives, by and large, never had to distance themselves from eugenics?

You may have noticed, first of all, that Goldberg makes a technically defensible but highly misleading claim about Holmes. It’s true that he was in some sense a hero to liberals because of his dissents in cases like Lochner and Dagenhart, as well as his belated efforts to get the Court to actually enforce the First Amendment. This is quite different from saying, however, that Holmes was a liberal, which he most certainly wasn’t. Holmes almost certainly opposed most of the modest economic regulations that were struck down over his dissents. It’s just that — and I can understand why people fond of making assertions-without-argument that most of Obama’s legislative program is unconstitutional have trouble with this distinction — he believed in making distinctions between what was good public policy and what was constitutionally permitted public policy.

Which leads is to the transparently obvious problem with citing Buck v. Bell to support the proposition that conservatives had nothing to do with eugenics. Yes, Brandeis regrettably signed Holmes’s odious opinion, as did Stone, but they were the Court’s only liberal members. How an 8-1 decision issued by a Court dominated by conservatives can support the claim that conservatives “never had to distance themselves from eugenics” I can’t tell you. To the extent that it demonstrates anything, the case shows the tendency of the white elite — reactionary or progressive — to support eugenics at the time was widespread.

And if we’re going to play this silly game more, yes, Pierce Butler –opposed by The Nation and the New Republic! — dissented. This great Catholic conservative also dissented in the Scottsboro Boys case, arguing that since the fine people of Alabama had gone to the trouble of rigging more than one Stalinist show trail before railroading eight innocent boys to the death chamber everything was nice and legal-like. I guess given Goldberg’s institutional connection to authoritarian white supremacy, he doesn’t find this a major issue, but I think it’s safe to say that liberal opposition to Butler was vindicated…

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