Progressives and eugenics

by Henry Farrell on July 31, 2007

This is a pretty weird post from “Ross Douthat”:

Ezra writes that it’s “very unfair” to apply the word “eugenics” to, say, the contemporary trend toward the elimination of Down’s Syndrome by selective abortion, because “traditionally, the term has been used to denote efforts to direct or encourage breeding by high status, socially dominant individuals in order to select for their characteristics, and discourage breeding by low status individuals (criminals, the insane, blacks, etc) in order to wipe their characteristics from the gene pool. For Ross to conflate that with parents who decide to abort infants with medically disastrous genetic mutations is a real stretch.” First of all, Down’s Syndrome is not a “medically disastrous” genetic mutation, unless you take an extremely broad definition of the term “disastrous.” Second, while the means of “traditional eugenics” were obviously very different from what’s emerging now – involving state power rather than parental choice, and selective breeding/sterilization rather than prenatal genetic screening and abortion – the ends were the same: the genetic improvement of the human species through the scientific management of the reproductive process.

Does Ross _seriously_ believe that people who have abortions because their foetus appears likely to have Tay-Sachs syndrome or Downs syndrome are doing so because their “end” is “the genetic improvement of the human species?” Can he even realistically contend that the genetic improvement of the human species crosses most people’s minds when they are making this kind of decision?? This claim seems to me to be ridiculous on its face, regardless of your underlying position on whether abortion is a good or bad thing.

What’s going on here, as best as I understand it, is something like the following. There’s a long-standing label in US politics called “progressive,” which used to mean something like “social democrat or non-revolutionary socialist.” As vaguely-left Democrats have increasingly become disenchanted with the term ‘liberal’ and its milksop connotations, they too have begun to embrace the term “progressive.” However, for them, it doesn’t mean ‘social democratic, but instead something like ‘vaguely pro-union liberal with balls’ (or ovaries depending … you get my drift). This in turn has led critics on the right to start harking back to some of the old-style socialist progressives’ sins, and to try to hang them around the necks of Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and company.

Here, Ross has been trying to assert in a series of posts that there is some sort of continuity between ‘old’ progressives’ views on eugenics, and ‘new’ progressives’ views on abortion. Which is kinda nonsensical. The modern liberal position on abortion isn’t rooted in the imperative towards genetic improvement of the species, or anything like it. It’s rooted in a particular notion of individual rights. That’s why they call it ‘choice’ rather than ’embrace your genetic duty by destroying imperfect foetuses for the benefit of mankind.’ The old-style eugenics of H.G. Wells, Swedish social democrats, Anglo-American family planners etc has _nothing to do_ with modern liberalism, or with liberals who have started to call themselves progressives. Instead, if it’s an embarrassment for anyone, it’s an embarrassment for social democrats like myself, who have some real continuities with that older tradition (although hopefully not with that particular part of it).

Only The Stones Remain

by John Holbo on July 31, 2007

In 1980. The Soft Boys, of course. The Only Band That Mattered.

Or possibly, Elvis Costello, “Peace, Love and Understanding”.

In other, less consequential 1980 news: XTC, “We’re Only Making Plans For Nigel”; Boomtown Rats, “I don’t like Mondays”. Pretenders, “Brass In Pocket”. Devo, “Whip It”. Talking Heads, “Once In A Lifetime”; The Cure, “A Forest”.

UPDATE: by popular request, The Young Marble Giants, “Collasal Y”.

(I just felt like my claptrapese joke had spent enough time at the top of the page.)