Home / SEK / Jonah Goldberg tells his half of the story.

Jonah Goldberg tells his half of the story.


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?

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