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Yes, Wherever Did We Get Our Crazy Notions?

While Kevin Drum continues [1] to embarrass himself, Ross has another good post [2] on one particular angle of the debate over the designation “progressive.”  The “meme” of progressives as supporters of eugenics and sterilisation comes from the history of early 20th century progressivism.  (Or you can try the short version: just watch Gattaca and see whose politics seem to have prevailed in that world.)  You can merely glance at this period and find progressives who endorsed or upheld either segregationist or sterilisation or eugenics policies: Woodrow Wilson, Oliver Wendell “Three Generations Of Idiots Are Enough” Holmes, and Margaret Sanger [3].  Sanger [4] saw birth control as a means to reduce the reproduction of undesirable populations.  Every time someone on the left endorses the “right” to abortion today he does accept the idea that there are some who should never be born.  Progressive arguments on behalf of sterilisation and eugenics took it one step further: there were those who should never be allowed to conceive in the first place.   

Those three are not minor, fringe figures in the history of American progressivism.  They are part of the legacy that progressives today call to mind when they use this name.  Today, I assume progressives would abhor state-coerced sterilisation and overtly racist and eugenics rationales for birth control, but it was not always so.  Now there are those on the left who favour a “positive” eugenics that is supposed to be qualitatively different from the bad, old eugenics.  If Kevin Drum doesn’t know about that, that’s hardly Ross’ fault.

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4 Comments To "Yes, Wherever Did We Get Our Crazy Notions?"

#1 Comment By dan On July 30, 2007 @ 7:10 pm

Now, I carry absolutely no water for the shift from ‘liberal’ to ‘progressive’ by folks who, frankly, aren’t even liberal, but I have to make two quick points:

First, you seem to quick to resort to the logical fallacy of Reductio ad Gatticum. I mean, come on. If you’re going to use a work of fiction to build an argument at least pick a quality film. I guess I should be relieved you didn’t bring up ‘Jack Bauer’, tho’.

Second, it strikes me as curious that any self-identified conservative would use ‘segregationist…policies’ in the past as a bludgeon against any term for any political philosophy. (Yes, I used the ellipsis to avoid discussion of ‘sterilisation and eugenics’. Don’t blame me. I’m a liberal.)

#2 Comment By mkdelucas On July 31, 2007 @ 8:27 am

“Every time someone on the left endorses the “right” to abortion today he does accept the idea that there are some who should never be born.”

I don’t quite follow. How does recognizing the right necessitate endorsing its use? Perhaps you should say, “Every time someone endorses…he does accept the idea that there are some who will not be born.” But then, what does that prove? Anyone who endorses the right not to have as many children as is physically possible accepts the idea that “there are some who will not be born.”

Of those who at any given moment believe that there are “some who should never be born” I would include any person getting or endorsing an abortion, any male or female using contraception, any couple employing the rhythm method, and the true blue eugenicist. Of all of these only the eugenicist interprets the “ought” as extending beyond a single, specific instance.

#3 Comment By Elvis Elvisberg On July 31, 2007 @ 5:29 pm

Yes, and much, much more recently, figures still feted to this day on the right, such as William F. Buckley, supported segregationists. All people who call themselves conservatives necessarily intentionally call this legacy to mind when they use that name, by your argument.

“Eugenics” means, as you write, “segregationist or sterilisation or eugenics policies.”

Decisions of individuals != policy.

As one of Ezra Klein’s commentors put it, “the essence of Douthat’s argument is that progressives are in favor of access to abortion, and abortion can be used for eugenic purposes, therefore progressives are in favor of eugenics. This is ridiculous for reasons that have nothing to do with the motives behind particular abortions. It’s like saying that if you oppose banning guns, you’re in favor of bank robbery, hunting bunny rabbits, and suicide.”

You can make the point that the high rate of abortions of Down Syndrome fetuses is cause for concern; so do that, and dispense with this effort at Godwinizing the debate.

Seriously, Daniel, you’re better than this. You’d never be reaching for such disingenuous arguments if it weren’t for your desire to prohibit all abortions. So make that argument, and stop grasping at straws to try to smear the other side with this childish nonsense.

#4 Comment By Anthony King On July 31, 2007 @ 10:32 pm

The link between the progressives and eugenics isn’t a reach, or an argument, it’s a basic fact of history. You may attempt to argue that support for eugenics is not now an essential feature of progressivism, or that it wasn’t intrinsically connected to the though of the leaders of the early progressive movement. But you cannot appear as anything but ignorant if you claim this connection is being fabricated. Almost every major figure in the early movement was gung ho about the possible benefits of eugenics.