We All Know Too Well What Happened: Daniel Okrent and Thomas Leonard on Eugenics and Immigration

We All Know Too Well What Happened: Daniel Okrent and Thomas Leonard on Eugenics and Immigration

“In the first three decades of the twentieth century,” Thomas Leonard tells us in Illiberal Reformers, “eugenic ideas were politically influential, culturally fashionable, and scientifically mainstream. The elite sprinkled their conversations with eugenic concerns to signal their au courant high-mindedness.”

“Eugenic thinking in forms both mundane and grand increasingly stained the definition of America,” Daniel Okrent concurs in The Guarded Gate. “‘If you visit the United States,’ the French academician André Sigfried wrote after a 1925 tour, ‘you must not forget your Bible, but you must also take a treatise on eugenics. Armed with these two talismans, you will never get beyond your depth.’”

The educated American today usually has some vague notion that there was once a pseudo-science known as eugenics which was used to rationalize racism. What few realize is just how enormous a cultural and political phenomenon it was at its height—nor how many of the leadings lights of the day, people still celebrated by liberals and progressives to this day, were deeply involved in it.

Eugenics was a discipline whose adherents purported to offer the tools for “scientifically” managing a population. That is, for managing who breeds with whom in order to determine the best overall outcome. The wisdom of “rational” regulation of human breeding was accepted as obvious by all right-thinking elites of the early 20th century, and eugenics provided the idea with scientific respectability. 

Yet support for eugenics extended well beyond elite circles. On its popularity, Leonard says with characteristic compactness:

Eugenic thinking reached deep into American popular culture, traveling through women’s magazines, the religious press, movies, and comic strips. The idea of safeguarding American heredity, with its concomitant fear of degeneracy from within and inundation from abroad, influenced ordinary Americans far removed from the eugenics movement’s professionals and publicists.

And Okrent says with equally characteristic flair: 

According to a federal study, the number of articles on eugenics appearing in the popular press had tripled between 1909 and 1914 alone, capturing more space, wrote John Higham, “than on the three questions of slums, tenements, and living standards combined.” Publishers of a popular sex manual (pro-abstinence, anti-spooning, and very concerned about the inevitable palsy and deafness brought about through “self-pollution”) elevated its appeal by promising “Scientific Knowledge of the Law of Sex Life and Heredity or EUGENICS.” … Movie theaters played a film called The Black Stork, “a eugenic love story.”

The Guarded Gate is a book about efforts in the decades around 1900 to restrict the entry of immigrants into America, and the parallel development of eugenics to which the restrictionists would eventually hitch their wagon. Illiberal Reformers, on the other hand, is about the progressives more broadly; the economic, institutional and cultural backdrop of their time and the various intellectual frameworks which served as their guiding star. The time period covered is roughly the same; Leonard starts a little earlier and Okrent ends a little later.

Published in January of 2016 and the result of years of work, Illiberal Reformers happened to hit bookshelves at the beginning of one of the most ferocious outpourings of anti-immigration sentiment in decades. The Guarded Gate, which came out this year, is on the contrary a direct answer to that unfortunate movement, though Okrent never quite comes out and says it. However useful these books may or may not be as mirrors to hold against contemporary politics, each one is an invaluable look into a moment in American history both unique and uncomfortably familiar. Put into conversation with one another, they are greater than the sum of their parts.

Progressives were not liberal

The titular illiberalism of Illiberal Reformers refers to the progressives. Though Leonard’s reading of what constitutes liberalism appears at times suspiciously particular, he makes a compelling case that the progressives were contemptuous of the very idea of individual rights. The German-educated American economists of the second half of the 19th century rejected individualism in favor of a social holism that even contemporary communitarians would find onerous.

The progressive economists’ rejection of individualism and their embrace of what Daniel Rodgers calls the “rhetoric of the moral whole,” was perhaps best embodied in Edward A. Ross’s concept of social control, which referred broadly to all means, public and private, by which “the aggregate reacts on the aims of the individual, warping him out of his self regarding course, and drawing his feet into the highway of the common weal.” Individuals, Ross maintained, were but “plastic lumps of human dough,” to be formed on the great “social kneading board.”

The abstraction of the social whole, or the social organism, or the collective mind of society, in practice meant “social control” exercised by experts. And lest one have any doubt about what this meant in the heyday of eugenics, consider the Wharton School’s Scott Nearing, writing in 1912:

Nearing went on to assert that permitting perpetuation of hereditary defects was “infinitely worse than murder.” After all, the murderer “merely eliminates one unit from the social group,” whereas the transmission of defective heredity curses and burdens “untold generations.” A truly just society thus had an overwhelming obligation to prevent the crime of defective heredity. For the price of six battleships, Nearing estimated, the United States could house, in isolation, all of its defectives. Such a policy would remove, at a stroke, the “scum of society” and, by preventing defectives from procreating, end their threat to future generations. [emphasis added by me]

Today, many of my fellow liberals happily wear the label “progressive.” Like all political labels, such as “liberal” itself, the meaning drifts quite significantly over time, get discarded when they gain too much baggage, only to be picked up once again in a different context to replace something else. There isn’t much point in picking a political label as your hill to die on. But in as much as they are seeking to establish a connection with the progressives of the Progressive Era, they ought to reconsider.

Again, progressives’ social holism should not be confused with the sophisticated communitarian critiques of liberalism that became popular in the 1980s and have remained valuable ever since. The progressives’ social holism was crude, made worse by the conquest of evolutionary thinking and Darwinism over the educated Western mind of the time. When they spoke of the need to “cull inferiors” on behalf of the “social organism,” they were not being metaphorical. Richard Ely, a founder of the American Economic Association, was quite plain: the existence and priority of the social organism over and against the individual was “strictly and literally true.”

The implication that we could have avoided this mess if everyone had just remained good Millian liberals runs throughout Illiberal Reformers, but Leonard does not offer blanket condemnations. He has no patience for the historians who have “treated the progressives’ ambiguous legacy by wishing it away.” 

Those who admired the progressives ignored or trivialized the reprehensible and wrote lives of the saints. Those who disliked the progressives ignored or trivialized the admirable and wrote lives of the proto-fascists. But Progressivism is too important to be left to hagiography and obloquy.

The progressives who undeniably “dedicated themselves to social and economic betterment” of the poor nevertheless “made invidious distinctions” on the basis of race science; “valorizing some as victims deserving help” but “vilifying others as threats requiring restraint.” One cannot deny the greatness of the progressives, nor that that very greatness was frequently terrible. But the progressives of the Progressive Era were not liberals, in any meaningful interpretation of the tradition. They were quite happy to say so at the time; liberalism was precisely what they felt they were progressing beyond.

Science and contingency

For Leonard, the progressives struggled with a central tension: the desire to help a group frequently mixed with the desire to restrain them. For Okrent, it is more noteworthy that they wished to help at all, compared to the non-progressive elements in the immigration-restriction movement. The contrast is interesting to Okrent precisely as an illustration of the ideological diversity of those drawn into the restrictionist movement and swept up in the prestige of eugenics.

Leonard frequently notes the prominent figures of the day outside of the progressive movement who shared many of their vices—some of whom, like Henry Cabot Lodge, are key protagonists in Okrent’s book—but these serve as asides from his primary purpose. Okrent casts a wider ideological net than Leonard due to their difference in focus.

Leonard provides an eagle-eye view of the circumstances in which the progressives found themselves. He notes that in the thirty-five years after the last Civil War amendment was ratified, “the US economy had quadrupled in size” and “American living standards had doubled.” It wasn’t all good news, however; the engine of growth which “propelled the American economy upward did so undependably,” as record-breaking growth went side-by-side with financial crashes and “prolonged economic depressions.” Moreover, between 1895 and 1904 alone, “1,800 major industrial firms were consolidated into 170 giant firms” unprecedented in scale—with market value “1,000 times larger than the largest manufacturing enterprises of the 1870s.” It was a time of dizzying change and volatility.

While Okrent does provide some context of this sort—most significantly in discussing the sheer number of immigrants which arrived during the various periods covered in The Guarded Gate—his focus is less on institutions and statistics than on the empirics of politics. The politicians, scientists, activists, and figures whose efforts boosted the cultural currency of eugenics and produced a set of extremely restrictive immigration laws. Okrent shows us their lives, who they were, where they came from, and the specific ways in which they coordinated their campaigns to lock America’s front door and throw away the key.

While Leonard discusses the vast institutional changes wrought by the reformers over this period, such analyses can easily leave one wondering how exactly this was done. Okrent gives us a window into some of those particulars: the coalition building, rabble-rousing, and cajoling for funding or to change votes, as well as into the lived experiences of the key players and others who lived through the era. Where Leonard fleshes out the logic of intellectual frameworks, Okrent offers samples of political cartoons, pamphlets, and eugenics survey forms. Rather than one approach proving superior, this is the most crucial way in which the two books complement each other tremendously.

The extent to which eugenics contributed to the victory of the immigration restrictionists is somewhat ambiguous. Okrent details a committed movement that preexisted its appropriation of eugenics, on the one hand, and a series of contingent historical events, on the other. One wonders, for example, what would have happened if the literacy test—which was vetoed by no less than four Presidents—had come up for Taft’s signature when he thought he might have a chance of winning reelection, rather than after he was a lame duck. Or if World War I had happened differently, or with different timing; both Leonard and Okrent make it clear that the sudden ceasing of immigration during the war provided restrictionists an opportunity they did not fail to seize.

Yet it is precisely because so many recent attempts came close to passing but failed at the crucial moment that the role of eugenic rhetoric in their ultimate triumph seems so important. Of course, the sins of eugenics extend far beyond the immigration debate. In America, tens of thousands of people were sterilized against their will due to laws enacted on the basis of eugenics. As the most chilling chapter of The Guarded Gate recounts, Nazi scientists drew directly on the work of American eugenicists, and in many cases collaborated with them.

The temptation, when looking back on a history of bigotry against immigrants, forcible sterilization, and—unavoidably—of death camps, is to ask what could have been done differently. Or, more pressingly, what we can do now to avoid succumbing to some modern day eugenics that we might not notice until it is too late, if at all. Neither Leonard nor Okrent address this question directly, but each brings a very clear perspective which implies some possible answers.

Okrent goes out of his way to emphasize, again and again, that eugenics was an unrigorous pseudo-science. Of Charles Davenport, founder of the Eugenic Record Office and arguably the foremost American authority on eugenics, Okrent writes:

Much of Davenport’s study of human inheritance was predicated on one gigantic scientific error: his belief that characteristics as complex and as unmeasurable as memory, loyalty, and “shiftlessness” were determined by a single unit character—in other words, that the origin of each was, genetically speaking, no more complicated than the color of the flowers on one of Gregor Mendel’s pea plants.

He calls this a “stunning assumption for such a well-trained scientist,” remarking that the evidence was “flimsy,” the ones who collected it “inculcated” in “Davenport’s warped version of Mendelian theory.” Again and again, Okrent feels comfortable pointing out what assumptions a “well-trained scientist” at the time ought to have known better than to make. Or, alternatively, how obvious it should have been that the data they relied on, either because of the irrelevance of the question it answered or the poor training of those who collected it, was utterly worthless.

Anachronism aside, it is hard to disagree. Francis Galton, who was, among other things, the founder of eugenics as a subject matter, comes off as an utter crank in most of his output:

Francis Galton’s motto, a colleague said, was “Whenever you can, count.” He counted the number of deaf worms that emerged from the ground near his London town house after a heavy rain (forty-five in a span of sixteen paces), and he counted the number of flea bites he suffered in 1845 while spending a night in the home of the Sheikh of Aden (ninety-seven, but even so he thought the sheikh “a right good fellow”). Galton consumed numbers ravenously, then added them, divided them, shuffled and rearranged them so he could amaze himself with his own discoveries.

Okrent continues,

His meticulously constructed “Beauty Map” of Great Britain, he believed, established that Aberdeen was home to the nation’s least attractive women. His essay “The Measure of Fidget,” published in England’s leading scientific journal, was an effort to “giv[e] numerical expression to the amount of boredom” in any audience by counting body movements per minute. Observation and enumeration convinced him that “well washed and combed domestic pets grow dull” because “they miss the stimulus of fleas.”

One is reminded of Deirdre McCloskey’s remarks in Bourgeois Equality:

The Europeans discovered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries how to talk rationality, which they later applied with enthusiasm to counting the weight of bird seeds one could fit into a Negroid skull. The numbers and calculation and accounts do appeal to a rhetoric of rationality—” arguments of sense.” But they do not guarantee its substance.

Galton’s faith in counting was indeed just that: faith. There was nothing especially rational—or scientific if you prefer—about the substance of most of it. As Okrent put it:

Galton’s major discoveries—among them the individuality of fingerprints, the movement of anticyclones, the statistical law of regression to the mean—elevated his obsessive collection of data from triviality to significance. But for every one of his substantial contributions to human understanding, he probably hit upon a dozen that were trivial.

Or not so trivial, as in the case of the invention of eugenics.

I do not wish to misattribute to Okrent the argument, which he does not make but heavily implies, that this all could have been avoided with a better commitment to true science. That particular question Leonard does face head on:

Historians of science remind us that the history of bad ideas is as interesting, and as important, as the history of good ones. This is true because any bad idea of historical important is, almost by definition, an idea that many people thought to be a good idea at the time. Histories of bad ideas show us something about how science works and what happens when it is harnessed to political and economic purposes.

Eugenics and race science are historically important, and during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era many people—most conspicuously the progressives—thought they were good ideas. The events of the intervening century, some of them horrific, have changed our view. Eugenics and race science are now bad ideas, indeed Bad Ideas, which is why twenty-first-century geneticists, economists, sociologists, demographers, physicians, and public health officials remain reluctant to look too closely at their respective disciplines’ formative-years enthusiasm for now discredited notions. The very word “eugenics” remains radioactive, and the temptation to dismiss eugenics and race science as inconsequential pseudosciences is ever present.

But eugenics and race science were not pseudosciences in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

If Okrent implies that what we need is to be better scientists, then Leonard implies that the best we can do is to be committed liberals, an argument for which I have some sympathy.

At any rate, Leonard makes it clear that we should not make an appeal to science where an appeal to morality is required. And Okrent makes just such an appeal. The ill fated journey of the St Louis is frequently invoked in contemporary debates around refugees and immigration. Okrent takes a wider view:

In the last year before the quotas were established, 50,000 European Jews entered the country; unsheathed, the new law worked like a scythe. From 1925 until the beginning of World War II, the number plummeted to an annual average of slightly less than 9,000. Subtract the new number from the old, and straight-line math would presume 41,000 a year who wanted to come but were unable to—in all, some 574,000 people over the fourteen-year period. A more aggressive accounting would recognize that the rise of the Nazis would have accelerated the pace, increasing the total radically,to…what? A million? A million and a half?

But speculation calls for caution; sorting through such a grim accounting demands the most conservative math possible. (…)Let’s begin, then, with those math-measured 574,000. Even if we assume that half of those managed to emigrate to other nations in the Western Hemisphere (it wasn’t nearly that many), we’re down to 287,000. And let’s also assume that the rate of immigratoin would have slowed anyway during the worldwide depression of the 1930s to, say, only half of its previous rate. And let’s further stipulate that half of these remaining 143,000 who might have emigrated were instead stranded in Europe but somehow managed to escape the Nazis. What happened to that last 70,000-plus? Or, just to be even more conservative, make that 50,000. Or even 10,000. No number one can conjure is so small that we can ignore it.

We all know too well what happened.

The St. Louis was sent back because the national quota had already been met that year for Germany. Beyond this numeric argument, Okrent follows the struggles of a single Polish Jew, who had family in America and tried for years to join him before the Nazis finally got him.

A moral commitment to the free movement of people and the rejection of human taxonomy that claims or implies a hierarchy of human worth, whether true or pseudo-scientific in nature—this is what these two books, in my reading, scream for. We cannot ask for most citizens to become scientists, but we can ask for most citizens to become better liberals. Whether or not you are ready to take that leap, each book individually, but especially put together, offers indispensable insights into a period of American history all too often whitewashed or written off.

Featured image is Louis Pasteur, by Albert Edelfelt