Progressivism, Eugenics, Hubris, and Strength through Diversity

This is the second attempt to create a post that explains some things I’ve been thinking on for a while now. The original version was essentially complete, and I was just ready to push “publish,” but I decided to spell-check it first, and spell-check crashed FB, and I lost the whole thing. I was very, very sad. And angry. But I really, really liked what I said, so I’m going to try this again. But I’m going to write it in OOo Writer, and paste it in here when I’m done, because I don’t want to try a third time. It came in response to a comment connecting Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and her ideas about eugenics and Adolph Hitler and his ideas about eugenics, where another commenter said that that comment displayed ignorance and lack of insight.

There is more merit to the comparison than you might think. Progressivism of Sanger’s time shares some key core beliefs to the Fascism of Hitler: the biggest of which is a belief that centralized political power, concentrated in the hands of the “better” people (defined, essentially, as the more-enlightened) could alter and improve the world, nature, humanity and human nature. Their differences, when it came to eugenics, were primarily those of method and means. Sanger preferred to keep the less “fit” from breeding by means of contraception, while Hitler preferred to gather them into camps, taking what he could that he wanted from them, and killing them in startling numbers. Clearly, these differences are very significant, and the latter are very (correctly) repugnant by today’s standards. But the goal was the same – improve the human race by stopping the less desirable from breeding. Sanger also shared Hitler’s belief that lighter-skinned people were superior to darker skinned people, but is, evidently, miscast as a vicious racist by several misattributed quotes or quotes out of context.

Today, we’ve got access to tools that can be used for eugenics that Sanger could have only dreamt of – a map of the human genome, genetic engineering – and also a tool she deeply disapproved of – abortion – which create some serious opportunities to make changes in our gene-pool. We have, or will soon have, the ability to identify fetuses which are predisposed to have debilitating hereditary illnesses, like hemophilia, diabetes, cancer, Down’s Sydrome, autism, and even mental illnesses and disorders that have a genetic component. In fact, amniocentesis already has given expectant parents the ability to identify and abort Down’s Syndrome babies, and many have chosen to do so. Leaving aside the moral acceptability of abortion, this does seem to be a potentially beneficial activity, sparing parents, their children, and the gene-pool the impact of having these children who may demand expensive services just to keep them alive, which can last for decades.

But, then, it starts getting tricky. The same technologies have allowed parents in cultures/situations which favor sons to abort girl babies, and, now, countries like India, China, Pakistan and Taiwan have significant gender imbalances, with many young men facing the probability of not being able to marry because there just aren’t enough women available to be wives. Which becomes scarier when you remember that three of these four countries are among the most populous in the world, and that all three of them have access to nuclear weapons. Large numbers of young men with no prospects of marriage encourages military adventurism, to use up this “excess” to further political goals, rather than having them running loose in society.

And then it gets trickier yet. What if we identify gene combinations that indicate homosexuality, or a high probability of deafness, blindness, autism, etc.? What about those who may grow up to have psychopathy? Or schizophrenia? Or autism? Or left-handedness? Or brown eyes/hair/skin? One problem of this has to do with who gets to decide which conditions make a fetus more “fit” and “worthy of living”? If the government doesn’t take that role, couldn’t that result in a grass-roots eugenics, similar to the grass-roots gender-selection experiments I mentioned above? And couldn’t it have unintended consequences as severe and dire as those may? If government does take that role, then we’ve got a similar structure to that of Nazi Germany – the State gets to decide who lives, and who dies – even though the techniques used are quite different. I am not persuaded that those in the policy-making class make decisions at that level much better than anybody else does.

And how are we to be sure that eliminating any of these traits will actually produce better people? The deaf community has militant corners who reject the notion that deafness is a disability, and casting out those who receive cochlear implants to enable them to hear. Autism is generally thought to indicate reduced intelligence, but the available studies show quite the opposite. Autistic savants are capable of mental accomplishments that “normal” people can’t keep up with. Temple Grandin has been able to use her autism to help her think in entirely new and different ways which have contributed to the reduction of suffering for domesticated animals (especially cattle), has written a number of books on autism and other topics, and her contribution to those fields is widely recognized. High-functioning autism, called Asperger’s Syndrome, turns out to produce minds quite capable of handling technical tasks, like engineering, computer programming, etc. And what we commonly see as mental disorders, like schizophrenia and ADHD, show minds capable of tasks that, once again, “normal” people can’t keep up with. The film “A Beautiful Mind” shows the story of John Nash, who has a very strong case of schizophrenia, but his mind has enabled him to make great leaps in the fields of mathematics and electronics. And try keeping up with someone with ADHD while playing a video-game sometime. Playing with a client with severe ADHD shows that he can keep track of everything he’s doing on the screen, complete with multiple views of what’s going on, what I’m doing and how I’m doing at it, and ridicule me for not doing it the “right” way, while I’m struggling just to keep from dying in the game.

I reject the Progressive/Fascist belief that centralizing power and resources can tamper with individuals and society and produce a better humanity. While we have access to tools the Progressives/Fascists of the last century couldn’t imagine, it remains to be seen if we have the judgment to use those tools any better than they used the tools at their disposal. What if we were able to stamp out all of the problems we can tie to genetics in a single generation, through whatever means necessary, and then find out, in a generation or two, that we no longer have access to the kinds of minds necessary to produce great art or great technological development? There are those who say that there really are no weeds – there are only plants that we don’t know how to use that are growing somewhere we’d rather they didn’t. Perhaps the same thing applies to people. Perhaps, might it be the case that these “undesirable” traits simply need to be put to better use than we’ve been able to up until now? Perhaps, as the slogan says, might our strength really come from our diversity — not just of races and ethnicities, but of hereditary genetic conditions?  Might we better off reconsidering our assumptions about these traits, and our hubristic confidence in our ability to make things better? I think we should, and I invite you to join in conversation along those lines.

I should note that this post would not have happened without being exposed to Jonah Goldberg, and his book Liberal Fascism, who opened up for me the details of what Fascism was (beyond the stuff everybody knows, like racism, military expansionism, goose-stepping and dopey looking uniforms), and how it compares with Progressivism in the late 19th and early 20th Century. If anything I say here sounds sensible or enlightening, it is Mr. Goldberg’s responsibility entirely (all the stupid-sounding stuff is entirely me). I have become a major Goldberg fan-boy, and encourage everyone to listen to what he’s got to say. If you haven’t yet read LF, get it and read it at the first possible opportunity.

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