June 11, 2012 · 3 Comments
By Marie Burns:
It was only a matter of time before Ross Douthat, the New York Times‘ Vatican correspondent and right-wing spokesman, began painting Hitler mustaches on liberals. Yesterday, June 10, 2012, was that day in history. In his Sunday column, titled “Eugenics, Past and Future,” Douthat drew a straight line from early-20th-century “liberals” to German “National Socialists” – a/k/a Nazis – to today’s “pro-choice” advocates to tomorrow’s “liberal eugenicists.”
Douthat, a Harvard man, was thumbing through the Yale Alumni Magazine – as Harvard men so often do – when struck by the idea of labeling women and their advocates as “liberal eugenicists.” The magazine featured a story about Yale economist Irving Fisher (b. 1867, d. 1947), most famous for his October 21, 1929 pronouncement that “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau”; three days later, the market crashed. If Fisher’s vocation was economics, his avocation was eugenics. Alarmed by low birth rates among wealthy, well-educated, white Americans, Fisher said that “race suicide” among “the well-to-do classes means that their places will speedily be taken by the unintelligent, uneducated, and inefficient.” “To prevent that,” Richard Coniff wrote in the Yale Alumni Magazine, Fisher said
… immigration from certain regions needed to be sharply curtailed, and birth control ‘extended from the white race to the colored’ and to other ‘undesirable’ ethnic and economic groups, ideally under the control of a eugenics committee established to ‘breed out the unfit and breed in the fit.’ Otherwise, ‘the Nordic race … will vanish or lose its dominance.’
If that line of thinking sounds familiar to you, it might be because you have heard it most recently from the ultra-conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, at long last fired by MSNBC after the publication of his latest book, Suicide of a Superpower, which contained chapters titled ‘The End of White America’ and ‘The Death of Christian America.’
While it is difficult to locate Irving Fisher’s political philosophy, to call him a liberal would be inaccurate. Fisher opposed the liberal New Deal, its public works programs “and any government control of economic activity.” To get around the inconvenient fact that Irving Fisher was not actually a liberal, Douthat employs some fancy maneuvers. First, he writes – more-or-less correctly – that “American eugenicists tended to be WASP grandees like Fisher – ivory-tower dwellers and privileged have-mores with an obvious incentive to invent spurious theories to justify their own position.” This provides the “East Coast elites” element of the stereotype in which conservatives are invested. Douthat then follows up with this handy half-truth: “eugenicists were often political and social liberals.” Okay, that’s the whole magilla: “East Coast liberal elites” were responsible for eugenics theory.
Never mind that it is just as true to say, “eugenicists were often political and social conservatives.” If I were as dishonest as Douthat, I could claim that eugenicists were “conservative, privileged WASP have-mores,” and trace them right through Nazis to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. But I wouldn’t. The truth is that eugenics theory was popular among wealthy white Americans of all political persuasions. Lawmakers translated eugenics into public policy, particularly in federal immigration law – the Immigration Act of 1924, initiated by Republicans but passed with strong bipartisan support, restricted immigration from non-Nordic countries – and in state laws which allowed for compulsory sterilization of “the unfit.” According to a 1937 Fortune magazine poll of its mostly upper-middle-class white readers, two out of three “supported eugenic sterilization of ‘mental defectives,’ 63 percent supported sterilization of criminals, and only 15 percent opposed both.” I would like to see Douthat try to argue that in 1937, Fortune magazine readers were mostly liberal. Southern white ladies clubs – again, not exactly bastions of liberalism – actively promoted laws and policies to keep “the unfit” from reproducing.
In a New York Times op-ed published March 24 of this year, Nell Painter highlighted the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell, which upheld a Virginia forced sterilization law, one based on a model law supplied by an outfit called the Eugenics Records Office. Writing for the 8-1 majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes concluded,
It is better for all the world, 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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
(In 2001, the Virginia state legislature passed a resolution of “regret” for the sterilizations carried out under its law. The Supreme Court has never specifically overturned Buck v. Bell.)
Though there were contemporaneous academic objections to the fake “science of eugenics,” the theory did not fall out of favor with U.S. policymakers until after 1945, when revelations of the Holocaust made the world fully realized the horrors of its applications. (Before the war, the Rockefeller Foundation helped fund some of the Nazis’ eugenics programs, including one which followed California’s sterilization law, another of the state laws based on the Eugenic Records Office’s model.) Though some states’ forced sterilization laws remain on the books, most were repealed in the 1960s and ’70s.
The charge that liberals today favor elimination of “the unfit” seems to have become a conservative meme. In 2009, Sarah Palin famously claimed that the Obama-backed healthcare law would incorporate “death panels” – boards of careless bureaucrats who would deny medical care to the infirm. PolitiFact chose Palin’s death-panel assertion as their “Lie of the Year.” During this year’s Republican primary, Rick Santorum claimed that the liberal Netherlands already had death panels: “ten percent of all deaths in the Netherlands – half of those people are euthanized involuntarily at hospitals because they are older and sick,” a fun “fact” that Santorum evidently learned from a site called “Right Wing News.” How perfect. Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post‘s fact-checker, wrote, “There appears to be not a shred of evidence to back up Santorum’s claims about euthanasia in the Netherlands.” Kessler gave Santorum’s claim four Pinocchios, his rating for the biggest whoppers.
In a similar vein, there is an emerging effort among some conservatives to claim that not only have Republicans never been racists, they are responsible for the civil rights movement. As one among many, the Lonely Conservative wrote recently, “In reality, it was the Republicans who were responsible for abolishing slavery and passing civil rights legislation.” As Jonathan Chait of New York magazine outlined last month, the cover story of the conservative National Review
… crafts a tale in which the Republican Party is and always has been the greatest friend the civil rights cause ever had. The Republican takeover of the white South had absolutely nothing to do with civil rights, the revisionist case proclaims, except insofar as white Southerners supported Republicans because they were more pro-civil rights.
Chait, of course, had no difficulty debunking the myth.
Ross Douthat’s column is part and parcel of this revisionist history, a fact-averse New Conservative History which seeks to define conservatives as defenders of minorities and protectors of their unborn children. In fact, conservatives have managed to conflated these two claims. The conservative Website Life News describes abortion as “a crime against black people.” Just this month, Republicans in the House brought forward a bill written by Trent Franks (R-Arizona) which would ban sex-selective abortions. According to Franks, “there is evidence of sex-selection abortions in the United States among certain ethnic groups.” Because the bill was brought to the floor under a rule that requires a two-thirds majority, it failed. But the vote was 246-168 in favor, with 20 Democrats voting for it and seven Republicans against it.
Douthat’s contribution to this New Conservative History, not surprisingly, incorporates this abhorrence of abortion. If the state once interfered in the private lives of its citizens for the purpose of preventing conception, now the state may have to interfere to ensure conception, Douthat suggests. As evidence of how “liberal eugenics” is operating today, Douthat cites “prenatal testing for Down syndrome…. In 90 percent of cases, a positive test for Down syndrome leads to an abortion.”
Following Douthat’s logic, Down syndrome must be a genetic anomaly that occurs in liberals nine out of ten times. Perhaps you’re one of those science-y type thinks Down syndrome knows no political philosophy. Maybe you’ve read one of those polls that shows only about 20 percent of Americans self-identify as liberals. So how did the other 70 percent become overnight liberals? Here we will allow Douthat’s fellow Roman Catholic Rick Santorum to explain: it turns out liberals – in the persons of President Obama and Congressional Democrats – are at fault. During this year’s primary campaign, Santorum warned,
One of the [Affordable Care Act] mandates is they require free prenatal testing in every insurance policy in America. Why? Because it saves money in health care. Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and therefore less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society.
Santorum said that the ACA’s prenatal testing benefit was “another hidden message as to what President Obama thinks of those who are less able.”
Ross Douthat could not agree more: “It is hard to imagine that more expansive knowledge won’t lead to similar forms of prenatal selection on an ever-more-significant scale,” he warns. Perhaps slightly embarrassed by his own blatant attempt to tie liberals to eugenics and the Holocaust, Douthat goes the “Jeopardy!” route: he makes his case in the form of a question. “Is this sort of ‘liberal eugenics,’ in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women?” (Maybe Douthat’s editors just won’t let him flat-out write, “Liberals are Nazis.”) The answer Douthat means you to form is, “Today’s liberal eugenics is much like the forced sterilization of yore.” If you can’t quite get there, Douthat helps you out: “… it’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.” Douthat uses the term “we.” But he is specifically condemning the “liberal eugenicists” who advocate for reproductive rights. When women and families begin choosing designer babies en masse – as they will, “on an ever-more-significant scale” – it will be the fault of “liberal eugenicists.”
Ross Douthat’s thesis is disturbing. He glibly equates Nazi death camps and compulsory sterilization with today’s private prenatal care and private individuals’ decisions regarding fetal genetic defects. Without any basis for doing so, Douthat attributes these private, personal, nonpolitical decisions to a term he has coined to disparage Democrats, liberals and women’s rights advocates: “liberal eugenicists.”
Ross Douthat is entitled to hold stupid, insupportable positions. The New York Times, however, should not publish lies, even when stated in the form of a question. Women’s reproductive rights are in enough jeopardy without the New York Times providing phony rationales to further imperil them. To slur liberals, women’s rights advocates and women who choose abortions by equating them with Nazis – or National Socialists, as Douthat writes – is way beyond the pale.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com