Most people close their eyes to unpleasantness in their past. Political movements do the same thing on a grander scale. Nowhere is this truer than in the willful blindness of twenty-first-century progressives to their early twentieth-century counterparts’ embrace of eugenics.
If you have spent any time in the conservative or pro-life movements, it is not news to you that the leading lights of progressive opinion a century ago openly embraced eugenics. Eugenics, the theory that social policies must be enacted to cull the “bad genes” from society, was popular among progressives across the developed world, including the United States. What constituted “bad genes” was, according to its proponents, a matter of scientific consensus. Today we would call it racism and classism.
After seeing the end result of such ideas in the Holocaust, progressives naturally sought to bury their connection to this genocidal concept, and succeeded in doing so, at least when they can discredit conservatives who persist in mentioning it. That problem bubbled to the surface last week when Bloomberg’s economist and writer Noah Smith tweeted, “Apparently some people believe that eugenics was the scientific consensus 100 years ago. Sounds like a total myth to me.”
That historical denialism did not go unnoticed. The editors of The New Atlantis, among others, pointed out the dangerous historical ignorance at work in that statement. Indeed, they went further than Smith and cracked a book or two to back up their points (see the thread here).
The Science of Being Well-Born
The New Atlantis is a journal about technology and society, and its writers demonstrated the horrible interaction between the two in eugenics. Citing from Edwin Black’s 2003 book, “War Against the Weak,” they described the scientific consensus on eugenics, with eugenicists “firmly entrenched in the biology, zoology, social science, psychology and anthropology departments of the nation’s leading institutions of higher learning.” The belief trickled down to high schools. A 1914 biology textbook, “A Civic Biology,” written by George William Hunter and issued by the nation’s largest book publisher, held that:
When people marry, there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. […] epilepsy and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.
In case it is not clear what the author means, he goes on to describe what should be done about families that are not practitioners of “the science of being well born.”
Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money…. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.
If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe, and are now meeting with success in this country.
These Guys Were Not Kidding
Eugenics grew only more popular from there. In 1921, Science magazine published the remarks of Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a leading proponent of eugenics. His slant on the topic was as much political as scientific, bemoaning the influx of immigrants to the United States “who are unfit to share the duties and responsibilities of our well-founded government.”
He called for eugenics supporters to “enlighten government in the prevention of the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society, the spread of feeblemindedness, of idiocy, and of all moral and intellectual as well as physical diseases.” Again, this was a prominent scientist who ran a museum in America’s largest city.
It is easy to see why a progressive would be ashamed to have this as a part of his intellectual heritage, but it is harder to understand why progressives have been permitted to sweep it under the rug so completely that even their own adherents have forgotten it. This was not a fringe theory. It was taught without controversy in colleges and high schools across the country, and a consensus of scientists attested to its validity. This was the received wisdom among social scientists, and it soon became the law of the land in many American states.
Evolving Standards of Decency, 1920s-style
When something is a widely recognized scientific fact, any good progressive knows it must be made mandatory. Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization law in 1907, and by the late 1920s a majority of states passed some form of sterilization law to cull the “bad genes” from society. The most famous of these was Virginia’s law allowing the sterilization of state asylum inmates without their consent. The law was challenged on equal protection and due process grounds, eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Buck v. Bell in 1927.
Before the appeal was heard, legal opinion followed scientific opinion in judging the law to be just and proper. In a Virginia Law Review note the year before the high court hearing, the author found no objection in the law, suggesting that even if the legitimacy of the science was uncertain, the state should be given the benefit of the doubt. “Is there a grave social danger to the transmission of feeble-mindedness to posterity; and is sterilization an effective means of meeting that danger? These questions cannot at this stage of medical progress be answered be answered with any certainty. But simple doubt of the wisdom or policy of a statute is not decisive against its constitutionality.”
The author also noted that the procedure could not be considered cruel and unusual punishment because it was “not … penal but purely eugenical and therapeutic.” It was, in other words, for their own good.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s opinion in Buck v. Bell the following year lacked any of the law review author’s humility. Citing the lower court judgment on the facts of the case, Holmes wrote, “Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.”
His reasoning in the decision mirrored progressive opinion across the country. “It is better…if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Noting that Buck’s mother was a resident of the same asylum, Holmes wrote the famous damning statement, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
The decision made forced sterilization legal, as far as the federal government was concerned. That would be evil enough, but modern research shows that the entire case was based on lies. Author Paul Lombardo’s “Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell” lays out the shocking, but ultimately unsurprising, truth that the state had exaggerated the degeneracy of Buck’s conditions to make her sterilization easier to perform with legal sanction. Buck’s “feeble-mindedness” was based on the testimony of people who barely knew her. Having a baby out of wedlock made her “promiscuous” in the eyes of state officials, although the circumstances of her pregnancy would, in modern law, have been called rape.
Buck’s daughter, also judged by the state to be of subpar intelligence, was eight months old when that assessment was made. Lombardo interviewed Carrie Buck shortly before her death in 1983, and found her to be of normal intelligence. She was no danger to society; what she was, was poor and fertile. The progressive state could not accept that.
More of the Same Followed
The widespread certainty in the justice and necessity of eugenics among scholars and legislators in the early twentieth century is beyond dispute. Concealing that historical truth is almost a requirement for the modern version of the progressive movement, however, because of the undeniable parallels between the eugenics movement and the current pseudo-science of the Left.
Declaring a scientific consensus to have been achieved and insisting on an end to discussion might seem familiar because it is identical to the way the Left talks about man-made global warming and treatments for transgender people. The thread of eugenics, also, is uninterrupted between the progressives of then and the abortion movement of today.
Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, was a leading eugenicist. In 1921, she wrote that “the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit’ [is] admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization” and that “the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” Time magazine sought to put this fact in context in a 2016 article, noting that in “the 1920s and 1930s, eugenics enjoyed widespread support from mainstream doctors, scientists and the general public.” Yes, yes it did.
Everything about 1910s and ‘20s progressives echoes in their modern intellectual descendants a century later. Absolute trust in government to do what is right. Certitude in their own scientific correctness, despite having seen “settled science” become unsettled with each generation. Knowing what is best for their fellow citizens, and the willingness to use force to overrule doubt and dissent. Even Hunter’s statement that all the Europeans are already doing it, so it must be good. But most of all, there is the repeated theme, the fervent belief that some people are not people, not really, not in any way that would make them deserve rights and liberty.
The progressive cause is helped by silence on this point, a silence so vast that even educated men like Noah Smith are ignorant of the movement’s past. Progressivism is relentless in its pursuit of an ideal future full of perfected humans. They can only achieve that by concealing the crimes of the past.