Monday, April 9, 2012

Social Darwinism

When Barack Obama lashed out at the Republican budget the other day, calling it "thinly veiled social Darwinism," I must confess that I couldn't help sighing.

It is a blatant example of not just this president's willingness but his eagerness to play the so–called race card whenever he believes it can be used to his benefit (and that is most of the time). The mere mention of the phrase no doubt had his many minions drooling in some kind of mass Pavlovian response.

How many of you who are reading this know what social Darwinism is — beyond the fact that Obama says it is bad and it is the ultimate objective of his political foes? In fact, it is a term that is probably much more familiar to those on college campuses than to the common man in the street.

You might think that you know what it is — but, in fact, there are many often contradictory interpretations of it.

Among the concepts to which it is tied is that of eugenics, which was and is about manipulating genetics, promoting preferred traits and weeding out unfavorable ones — that kind of thing.

Early advocates applied it to the breeding of animals, but some folks have tried to apply it to human reproduction.

Most notably, the Nazis, who were inspired by the eugenics work that had been done in the United States.

Largely in disfavor today, eugenics enjoyed a period of popularity in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1920s, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia statute that permitted compulsory sterilization of those who were deemed unfit — the mentally retarded, the "feeble–minded," etc.

That case — Buck v. Bell — wasn't about race.

But it was about negative eugenics, about eliminating the possibility that undesirable traits might be passed from one generation to the next.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, known as "The Great Dissenter" because he tended to disagree with the majority so frequently, did not dissent on the Virginia statute.

In fact, Holmes wrote for the majority, arguing that the genetic purity of the state outweighed an individual's bodily integrity.
"Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Buck v. Bell

That case, as well as others, inspired the Nazis to pursue a racially pure culture. The practice of Nazi sterilization of, initially, the feeble–minded was addressed in the Academy Award–winning film "Judgment at Nuremberg" — as was Holmes' written opinion.

The Nazis could just as easily have been inspired by the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, who was said to be a racist. She believed that people with light skin were superior to people with dark skin, and, in 1939, she initiated The Negro Project, which has been described as an effort to systematically eliminate blacks.

Well, at least, that's how the extreme right–wing narrative goes.

The other side will tell you that is not correct. Sanger "recognized that elements within the black community might mistakenly associate the Negro Project with racist sterilization campaigns in the Jim Crow South unless clergy and other community leaders spread the word that the Project had a humanitarian aim." And that aim was not to eradicate blacks but to encourage positive traits in their descendants.

So she enlisted the aid of people like W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP, and Martin Luther King Jr., an original recipient of the award honoring Sanger's work, to promote that "humanitarian aim."

But Sanger's organizational offspring — as it were — is a devoted supporter of the Obama presidency, the right wing will say. Who is the social Darwinist now?

Frankly, I don't know what to think — except that it is wrong to introduce this into the political discussion. There's plenty of manipulation of the facts on both sides.

Yes, Sanger founded Planned Parenthood and is reviled by anti–abortion activists for her advocacy of reproductive rights.

And, from all outward appearances, Sanger was, indeed, a racist, but she tolerated no racist policies within Planned Parenthood and, as far as I can tell, pursued no approaches that singled out any race for virtual extermination.

In other words, the Nazis may have been inspired by eugenics, but their objectives and tactics were their own. Sanger's motivation was responsible procreation, not destruction.

It is not responsible, however, to inject the words social Darwinism into the discussion. It re–focuses the debate on an issue that Gallup says is way down the list of priorities for most Americans in 2012.

Perhaps that was the reason for injecting that phrase into the political discussion. It takes attention away from the sluggish job picture and high gas prices.

And incumbents who haven't got much of a record to run on usually accentuate the negative.

For a man with no challenger within his own party, Obama is resorting to negative campaigning pretty early.

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