Eugenics and Other Evils

As you are no doubt aware if you’ve spent more than 5 seconds talking to me or on this blog, I’m a big fan of the great English writer, Gilbert Keith Chesterton.    GK is, hands-down, one of if not THE most underrated, under-studied, and under-read authors in our funny little Germanic tongue that was once the lingua franca of this spinning, green-and-blue planet of ours.

Anyway, I’ve just finished reading his excellent book, Eugenics and Other Evils.    And I plan on sharing some choice passages with you.

For the most part, eugenics has receded as a respectable academic discipline.    But while one would have a hard time finding blatant exponents of the idea of eugenics, the principles of eugenics are very much alive today.    The common misconception is that they died with Nazism, but even a cursory glance at the social and political landscape proves that to be false.

Films like Maafa 21 argue that eugenics is still alive, and working, amongst the abortion mills of the Western world; where minority and the poor children are aborted at asymmetrical rates to their more wealthy (and sometimes, more WASPy) counterparts.    Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” (I would be remiss to leave out the quotation marks) of Objectivism is experiencing a resurgence, especially among the Tea Partiers of America, much to the disdain of Christians and liberals everywhere.   Though it should be said that it is the former who should be more appalled by this resurgence than they are.   It is telling to see just how at odds Rand and Christ are, and I can only begin to marvel at the mental gymnastics necessary for these people to invoke the name of a woman who thought charity was the greatest sin and greed the highest virtue, and still attempt to claim to follow the guy from Galilee who gave the Sermon on the Mount, and told his followers that their position in the afterlife was dependent on how they treated the poor and the weak.

So, while much has been done to discredit eugenics, its spectre still hovers around us today, threatening to snatch up the wage-earners, the poor, those in debt, and those considered feeble.    I think, though, that as racism declines (and make no mistake, it is), the eugenicist will be more influenced by the net worth of the so-called “undesirables” and not their skin colour.   Indeed, Chesterton even began to note this himself, a hundred years ago.    It should be said of Chesterton that he was challenging eugenics when few others were.   H G Wells, who enjoys more fame than his jovial contemporary, was a proponent.   Certain Canadian provincial governments were involved in the forced sterilization of “undesirables.”    Before Hitler, before the grisly details of Auschwitz and the other camps were engraved in the collective brain of Western society, eugenics was more popular than Dancing With The Stars.    And it was Chesterton, ever forward-thinking and prophetic and astute, who took eugenics to task before Hitler even applied to art school.

Enough babbling from me, let’s read some Chesterton.   Primarily, Chesterton’s critique centre on the reality of economic injustice in late-19th and early-20th century England, and how poverty (the primary targets of eugenics being the poor) had little to do with genetics and more to do with poisonous and destructive economic policies.

The curious point is that the [editorialist] concludes by saying, “When people have large families and small wages, not only is there a high infantile death-rate, but often those who do live to grow up are stunted and weakened by having had to share the family income for a time with those who died early. There would be less unhappiness if there were no unwanted children.” You will observe that he tacitly takes it for granted that the small wages and the income, desperately shared, are the fixed points, like day and night, the conditions of human life. Compared with them marriage and maternity are luxuries, things to be modified to suit the wage-market. There are unwanted children; but unwanted by whom? This man does not really mean that the parents do not want to have them. He means that the employers do not want to pay them properly.

[The capitalist] sees a slouching tramp, with a sick wife and a string of rickety children, and honestly wonders what he can do with them. But prosperity does not favour self-examination; and he does not even ask himself whether he means “How can I help them?” or “How can I use them?”—what he can still do for them, or what they could still do for him. Probably he sincerely means both, but the latter much more than the former; he laments the breaking of the tools of Mammon much more than the breaking of the images of God. It would be almost impossible to grope in the limbo of what he does think; but we can assert that there is one thing he doesn’t think. He doesn’t think, “This man might be as jolly as I am, if he need not come to me for work or wages.”

To-day the rich man knows in his heart that he is a cancer and not an organ of the State. He differs from all other thieves or parasites for this reason: that the brigand who takes by force wishes his victims to be rich. But he who wins by a one-sided contract actually wishes them to be poor. Rob Roy in a cavern, hearing a company approaching, will hope (or if in a pious mood, pray) that they may come laden with gold or goods. But Mr. Rockefeller, in his factory, knows that if those who pass are laden with goods they will pass on.  He will therefore (if in a pious mood) pray that they may be destitute, and so be forced to work his factory for him for a starvation wage.

It may be said of Socialism, therefore, very briefly, that its friends recommended it as increasing equality, while its foes resisted it as decreasing liberty. On the one hand it was said that the State could provide homes and meals for all; on the other it was answered that this could only be done by State officials who would inspect houses and regulate meals. The compromise eventually made was one of the most interesting and even curious cases in history. It was decided to do everything that had ever been denounced in Socialism, and nothing that had ever been desired in it…It did not enable any man to build a better house; it only limited the houses he might live in—or how he might manage to live there; forbidding him to keep pigs or poultry or to sell beer or cider… It does not send food into the house to feed the children; it only sends an inspector into the house to punish the parents for having no food to feed them. It does not see that they have got a fire; it only punishes them for not having a fireguard. It does not even occur to it to provide the fireguard… After all, it was easy to inspect the house without having helped to build it; it was even possible, with luck, to inspect the house in time to prevent it being built.  It was was easy to restrict the diet without providing the dinner.

Even if I were a Eugenist, then I should not personally elect to waste my time locking up the feeble-minded. The people I should lock up would be the strong-minded. I have known hardly any cases of mere mental weakness making a family a failure; I have known eight or nine cases of violent and exaggerated force of character making a family a hell. If the strong-minded could be segregated it would quite certainly be better for their friends and families. And if there is really anything in heredity, it would be better for posterity too. For the kind of egoist I mean is a madman in a much more plausible sense than the mere harmless “deficient”; and to hand on the horrors of his anarchic and insatiable temperament is a much graver responsibility than to leave a mere inheritance of childishness. I would not arrest such tyrants, because I think that even moral tyranny in a few homes is better than a medical tyranny turning the state into a madhouse. I would not segregate them, because I respect a man’s free-will and his front-door and his right to be tried by his peers. But since free-will is believed by Eugenists no more than by Calvinists, since front-doors are respected by Eugenists no more than by house-breakers, and since the Habeas Corpus is about as sacred to Eugenists as it would be to King John, why do not they bring light and peace into so many human homes by removing a demoniac from each of them? Why do not the promoters of the Feeble-Minded Bill call at the many grand houses in town or country where such nightmares notoriously are? Why do they not knock at the door and take the bad squire away? Why do they not ring the bell and remove the dipsomaniac prize-fighter? I do not know; and there is only one reason I can think of, which must remain a matter of speculation. When I was at school, the kind of boy who liked teasing half-wits was not the sort that stood up to bullies.

2 thoughts on “Eugenics and Other Evils

  1. That was a great post. ‘Eugenics and Other Evils’ is one of Chesterton’s more obscure works but I have read and I remain amazed that the man could work such excellent prose into what is, essentially, a political work. Too bad none of our columnists today can do that.

    1. Thanks! Yes, it really is an obscure book, but to be honest, most of Chesterton’s stuff is far too obscure. He is too much of a pariah, too much of a paragon of justice, to be taught in schools. He’s too dangerous and too subversive, and that’s why he’s one of my favourites.

      I haven’t read everything he’s written – yet. But I’m amazed that I could agree with someone to such a resounding degree, and he has been a very significant inspiration to me.

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