Monday, July 15, 2013

A brave new world

G.K. Chesterton was a vocal opponent of eugenics in a time when many of the most progressive of the intellectual elite favored it [along with "scientific racism"]. Theodore Dalrymple, writing about a time when believers in progress thought crime could be eliminated if only criminals could be prevented from reproducing:
.... Eugenics was introduced into the world by the polymathic genius, Sir Francis Galton; it was quickly taken up (and acted upon) in the United States. I quote from a textbook published by Macmillan in 1918, and republished in 1924, called Applied Eugenics, by Paul Popenoe and Roswell Hill Johnson:
The inmates of prisons, penitentiaries, reformatories, and similar places of detention numbered 111,609 in 1910; this does not include 25,000 juvenile delinquents… it is worth noting that the number of offenders who are feeble-minded is probably not less than one-fourth or one-third. If the number of inebriates be could be added, it would greatly increase the total; and inebriacy or chronic alcoholism is generally recognized now as indicating in a majority of cases either feeble-mindedness or some other defect of the nervous system.

The number of criminals who are in some way neurotically tainted is placed by some psychologists at 50% or more of the total prison population… The estimate has frequently been made that the United States would be much better off eugenically if it were deprived of the future racial contributions of at least 10% of its citizens… When a criminal of this [feeble-minded] type is found, the duty of society is unquestionably to protect itself by cutting off that line of descent…
And the authors go on to list the states that have sterilization laws.

Nor is it true that eugenics as a means of dealing with social problems was particularly attractive to the authoritarian right (if statist nationalism is on the right): it was equally attractive to the authoritarian left. The intellectual progenitors of the British welfare state, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, H G Wells and Bernard Shaw were strongly in favour of eugenics, both positive and negative. And by now it is well-known that Scandinavian welfare democracies continued with their eugenic programmes into the 1970s. ....

Eugenics, I suspect, was in reality a symptom of a growing impatience of intellectuals with the intractability of the human condition, with the fact that Man was irredeemably imperfect. And this impatience grew because of a decline in the religious understanding of life (it was no coincidence that Chesterton, who saw so easily through the pretensions of eugenics, should have been firmly Christian, while none of his opponents was). In the 1920s sterilization of the unfit would do for humanity what psychopharmacology is now supposed to do: render it happy because perfect. No one with an understanding of Original Sin could believe such a thing – even if Original Sin is not based upon an actual historical truth. [more]
Destiny of Crime > Theodore Dalrymple
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