Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Mark of Cain

Herman Cain has been attacking Planned Parenthood, claiming that its sole purpose is to prevent the birth of black babies, and accusing both the organization and its founder, Margaret Sanger, of racism. First, who would believe anything Herman Cain says? Second, such a claim would most plausibly have the result of causing the Republican base to make large donations to Planned Parenthood.

Today Salon ran a piece by Ellen Chesler defending Sanger and Planned Parenthood. Chesler was identified as "a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute" and the author of a biography of Margaret Sanger. Oddly, it didn't mention that Chesler is also on Planned Parenthood's national board, a fact I learned from a Washington Post article on the controversy that Chesler linked. I'm not implying anything sinister in pointing this out, but it is a conflict of interest that Chesler could have dispelled at the outset with a coy "full disclosure" acknowledgement.

Whatever the reason, Chesler's defense came across as a rather frantic piece of damage control, and I fully support both family planning generally and Planned Parenthood in particular. I had the feeling that Chesler knew that an open account would be liable to be "misunderstood" by the canaille, so she chose to shade reality quite a bit for our protection.

I'll begin with what I thought was her strongest argument, that Sanger disdained
... what she called a "cradle competition" of class, race, or ethnicity. She publicly opposed immigration restrictions and framed poverty as a matter of differential access to resources like birth control, not as the immutable consequence of low inherent ability or character.

As a nurse, Sanger also understood the adverse impacts of poor nutrition, drugs, and alcohol on fetal development and encouraged government support of maternal and infant health. She argued for broad social safety nets and proudly marshaled clinical data to demonstrate that most women, even among the poorest and least educated populations, eagerly embraced and used birth control successfully when it is was provided.
Since immigration restrictions were (aside from Jim Crow) one of the major manifestations of American racism in her day, to oppose them speaks very well for Sanger.

Unfortunately, Chesler also has to admit that "Sanger did on many occasions engage in shrill rhetoric about the growing burden of large families of low intelligence and defective heredity — language with no intended racial or ethnic content. She always argued that all women are better off with fewer children, but unfortunate language about 'creating a race of thoroughbreds' and other such phrases have in recent years been lifted out of context and used to sully her reputation." As well they might, though I'm not sure they were "lifted out of context", since Chesler seems more than a little confused about what she's talking about.

She says, for example, that
Sanger’s eagerness to mainstream her movement explains her engagement with eugenics, a then widely popular intellectual movement that addressed the manner in which human intelligence and opportunity is determined by biological as well as environmental factors. Hard as it is to believe, eugenics was considered far more respectable than birth control. Like many well-intentioned reformers of this era, Sanger took away from Charles Darwin the essentially optimistic lesson that humanity’s evolution within the animal kingdom makes us all capable of improvement if only we apply the right tools. University presidents, physicians, scientists and public officials all embraced eugenics, in part because it held the promise that merit would replace fate — or birthright and social status — as the standard for mobility in a democratic society.
Ah, the eugenics movement is such an embarrassment nowadays, and not just to people like Ellen Chesler. Advocates of its current forms like "evolutionary psychology" are always struggling to distance themselves from eugenics. At least Chesler admits that by aligning herself with the movement, Sanger was seeking to "mainstream" her appeal.

In reality, though Darwin was not perfectly consistent on this point, "well-intentioned social reformers" did not find in his theory "the essentially optimistic lesson that humanity’s evolution within the animal kingdom makes us all capable of improvement if only we apply the right tools." Darwin's theory of descent with modification isn't a theory of upward progress from "lower" forms to "higher" ones; very much the opposite. It's revealing that so many of Darwin's followers misread him so badly. What Chesler is talking about is Spencerism: it was Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," which many people to this day believe is the essence of Darwinism. As Peter Bowler showed in The Non-Darwinian Revolution (Johns Hopkins, 1988), many of Evolution's champions rejected Darwin in favor of Spencer. And though his name isn't well-known anymore -- the sociologist Talcott Parsons asked "Who now reads Spencer?" in 1937 -- his intellectual influence permeates a lot of secularist discourse.

Racism wasn't the main religious objection to Darwinism or eugenics, of course. B. B. Warfield, the Calvinist divine who embraced Darwin's theory, was anti-racist and used evolutionary theory to argue for the unity of the human species. (See David Livingstone's Darwin's Forgotten Defenders, page 120-1.) Proto-creationists like the geologist and paleontologist Louis Agassiz, on the other hand, were often explicitly racist; Agassiz defended slavery, and his writings were used by slaveowners to justify their lifestyle choice. (It wasn't until 1995 that the Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded in 1845 when the SBC seceded from the mainstream Baptists, repudiated its original defense of slavery and racism.) Mainstream Christianity was as racist as any eugenicist; the United States was an officially racist country until the 1960s, and opponents of the Civil Rights movement were almost never eugenicists as far as I ever noticed. And if "University presidents, physicians, scientists and public officials all embraced eugenics," it wasn't "because it held the promise that merit would replace fate — or birthright and social status — as the standard for mobility in a democratic society", it was because it promised to recast "fate" and "birthright" as genetic endowment. Racism isn't inherently a biological doctrine: it's the belief that humanity can be divided into distinct groups, some of which are destined to be superior and others to be inferior. The origin myth for this division, be it genes, blood, or the will of God, is secondary, and can be changed at need.
But eugenics also has some damning and today unfathomable legacies, such as a series of state laws upheld in 1927 by an eight-to-one progressive majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, including Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. Their landmark decision in Buck v. Bell authorized the compulsory sterilization of a poor young white woman with an illegitimate child on grounds of feeble mindedness that were never clearly established. This decision, incidentally, was endorsed by civil libertarians such as Roger Baldwin of the ACLU and W.E.B. Dubois of the NAACP, both of whom Sanger counted among her supporters and friends.
As Andre Pichot showed in The Pure Society (Verso, 2009), the eugenic sterilization of the "unfit" -- the "feeble-minded," the insane, and other safe groups -- was endorsed by many perfectly orthodox Darwinists, including German Jewish scientists who never imagined that they would eventually be included among the "unfit" by Nazi race-science. I imagine Baldwin and Dubois made the same mistake. In Germany, according to Pichot, it was only the Roman Catholic Church that opposed the initial program of sterilization; the US laws that inspired the Nazis were opposed, according to Stephen Jay Gould, by fundamentalist Protestant sects. I wouldn't be surprised if that "series of state laws" mandating eugenic sterilization was disproportionately applied to people of color, especially after 1945, but they didn't explicitly target them. By the 1970s, poor women, especially African-Americans, were being sterilized in the US without their knowledge or consent, a practice that was exposed and denounced by feminists of all colors. If the Nazis hadn't applied eugenics to "racial" groups and expanded the program from sterilization to extermination, eugenics might still be a mainstream movement embraced by all the best people.

For example, as late as 1990 or so, when someone asked the psychologist (and then-editor of the journal Science) Daniel Koshland whether the money being spent on the Human Genome Project wouldn't better be spent on the homeless, he replied, "What these people don't realize is that the homeless are impaired ... Indeed, no group will benefit more from the application of genetics" (quoted in Richard Lewontin, It Ain't Necessarily So [New York Review Books, 2001], 165). There was, and is, no evidence that the homeless are biologically "impaired," let alone that "the application of genetics" would have any effect on homelessness. Koshland's breezy remark was old-fashioned scientific racism.

While most of the best people prefer to forget this history, it's not really that relevant to Cain's attack on Planned Parenthood; he probably doesn't know it either. Whether women should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies' reproductive functions is separate from eugenics. Whether reproduction-related medical care should be included in insurance plans, including government plans, is also a separate issue from eugenics. Last month Jo, the blogger at A Majority of Two, posted a bunch of cute-baby pictures around an appalling anti-abortion screed, attacking women who (she believed) think it's just too darn inconvenient to carry a baby to term so some nice couple can adopt it. The comments were worse. None of them showed any awareness that the majority of women who seek abortions -- 60% or more -- are already mothers. The percentage seems to have gone up lately, too.

The author of that article wrote:
NAF’s Saporta told me she thinks anti-abortionists have successfully depicted women who choose to terminate a pregnancy as sexually indiscriminate. “It’s much harder to demonize the mother who is struggling to support the kid she already has,” she says. But then why doesn’t the group that she leads make this very point? “Good question—I think we should,” she replied. I also put the question to Gloria Feldt, the former longtime Planned Parenthood Federation of America president. “I believe the whole movement has made a terrible mistake,” she said, referring to the pro-choice movement’s decision to avoid talking about mothers’ motives for having abortions, and instead focus “on the less frequent reasons, which are rape and incest or teens who are simply not ready to be parents.”
That's a major part of the trouble, I think: on race, on sex, on birth control, even people on what I'd consider the right side of the issue either are ignorant about (or embarrassed by) the history, or find it difficult to think about their own issue clearly. Ellen Chesler's piece is an excellent example of muddled thinking on vital subjects.