Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Perfectibility

Michael Gerson has written a masterful short essay on the contradiction at the heart of the Left, namely, a stated compassion for the weak combined with a ardent support of a progressive ideology that has resulted in practical eugenics. While it is not apparent to many, this contradiction lies at the heart of responses to the nomination of Sarah Palin for the Vice Presidency: the condescending dismissal of her backwardness thinly veils the Progressive assumptions about what constitutes a properly enlightened person. While seeking to woo the "middle class" voters of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other blue-collar states, leading voices of the Party attack Palin for holding values identical with many of those very voters they seek to attract. In dismissing the provincialism of Palin, they reveal their true views about the ordinary people for whom they claim to speak on behalf of.

The deeper contradiction at hand - solicitous disdain, the lifeblood of a therapeutic mindset - is made most manifest in one paragraph of Gerson's piece in which he writes about the concerted effort to test, and abort in utero, children diagnosed with Down's Syndrome:

This is properly called eugenic abortion -- the ending of "imperfect" lives to remove the social, economic and emotional costs of their existence. And this practice cannot be separated from the broader social treatment of people who have disabilities. By eliminating less perfect humans, deformity and disability become more pronounced and less acceptable. Those who escape the net of screening are often viewed as mistakes or burdens. A tragic choice becomes a presumption -- "Didn't you get an amnio?" -- and then a prejudice. And this feeds a social Darwinism in which the stronger are regarded as better, the dependent are viewed as less valuable, and the weak must occasionally be culled.


Gerson notes the contradiction that results from this form of almost obligatory eugenics:

Yet the pro-choice radicalism held by [most Democrats] -- the absolute elevation of individual autonomy over the rights of the weak -- has enabled the new eugenics. It has also created a moral conflict at the heart of the Democratic Party. If traditional Democratic ideology means anything, it is the assertion that America is a single moral community that includes everyone. How can this vision possibly be reconciled with the elimination of children with Down syndrome from American society? Are pro-choice Democrats really comfortable with this choice?


One must spend some time studying the great progressive philosophers of the 19th-century especially to discern the deepest assumptions of the current leadership of the Democratic party. The aspirations for achievement of a "single moral community" was deeply premised on the elimination of all particular communities. John Stuart Mill, for instance, constantly attacked "custom" and "tradition" in an effort to liberate individuals and their capacities as "progressive beings"; similarly, while he praised a diversity of "experiments in living," he had no tolerance for the particular experiment called "Calvinism" (or, more broadly, Augustinianism), which, by definition, asserted that humans were fallen, imperfect, and imperfectible by their own devices. Traditional societies and religions needed elimination (thus, Mill justified multiple votes for educated individuals and enslavement of "backward" populations until they could be brought up to speed). At the same time, he promised that the elimination of various forms of particularism, as well as religions that called to mind human imperfection, would set humanity on a progressive path to a worldwide human community. The elimination of particular religions would usher in "the religion of humanity" - that "single moral community" of which Gerson speaks. In the name of the progressive apotheosis of humankind, the aggressive elimination of "backwardness" was to be justified. In its name the eugenics policies of the 19th-century were inaugurated - policies now associated in the popular imagination with Adolph Hitler, but in their time propounded universally by the most advanced and "progressive" thinkers, such as H. G. Wells and G. B. Shaw. Credit should go to such traditionalist thinkers such as G.K. Chesterton - in whose honor this "blawg" is named - who in the 19th-century stood against the progressive program of enforced eugenics, as his intellectual heirs stand against it now.

We tend to associate the name Machiavelli with the philosophy of "realpolitik" - those leaders for whom the end justifies all means. We should realize, however, that the most ardent Machiavellians of our age are our Progressives, whose philosophy of an improved humanity is the backdrop in which we now have a 90% death rate for imperfect humans like Trig Palin, and less obviously but no less connected, underlies the deep hostility to "traditionalists" who stand in the way of progress toward the universal and homogeneous State.

2 comments:

robert said...

It's discouraging, isn't it? We have this on one side and the GOP with its metastasized libertarian cancer on the other. A misguided progressive political philosophy with an agenda of perfection-through-design vs. a libertarian one with an agenda of perfection-through-emergence, both requiring utter destruction of the old forms, is not much of a choice. Jacobinism vs. anarchy.

Anonymous said...

While it's true some progressive thinkers supported eugenics, it not universally propounded by them.