In my reading and writing on the history of eugenics (here, here, and here), I’ve begun to discern a common trait between the people called environmentalists and racists from a century ago.
They share a common outlook that is illiberal to its core. They imagine that a wise and powerful state can better plan a future for both nature and man. Both groups were panicked about unplanned progress, assuming it could only resort in degeneration, mongrelization, and destruction. They dreamed of a future in which they and not the unwashed masses would be in charge of how resources are used and how the human race propagates itself.
Madison Grant Saves the Trees and the White Race
Thanks to Mother Jones, my suspicions have been confirmed. An essay that pleads with the progressive movement to deal forthrightly with its own grim history of racism discusses the life and work of Madison Grant (1865-1937). This bushy-lipped aristocrat was the hero of the environmentalists in the Progressive Era. He saved the redwoods of California from logging. He was the guru behind the creation of national parks. He undertook the most aggressive efforts ever to preserve species from extinction. He was handsome, urbane, ridiculously well educated and well connected, and “the greatest conservationist who ever lived.”
Also, Grant wrote the book that Adolf Hitler described as “my Bible.” The book is the 1916 The Passing of the Great Race. A bestseller for many years, on the coffee tables in all the fashionable houses, it is quite possibly the crudest, crankiest, and most bloodthirsty racialist tract ever written; and there’s a lot of competition for that title. He championed segregation, exclusion, sterilization, immigration restrictions, a welfare state (to keep women from working), a high bar for professional employment (minimum wages), and aggressive central planning.
The Passing is a hard read actually. You will discover more than you ever want to about the inferiority of everyone but people like Grant himself. He sounded alarm bells about the coming “mongrelization” of the race, given the influx of Jews, Italians, Slavs, Africans, and every group other than the one that supposedly built civilization and made it great. Uncontrolled procreation is destined to ruin all things. Along the way, you find wicked ethnic caricatures covered by the gloss of science (the “Polish Jew, whose dwarf stature, peculiar mentality, and ruthless concentration on self interest are being engrafted upon the stock of the nation…”).
Racism Is an Ideology
Once you read this literature – it was almost impossible to avoid in the period between 1880 and 1935 or so – you begin to get the hang of it. The word racism – thrown around far too recklessly – exists as an accurate description of a special version of anti-liberal ideology. This isn’t about off-color jokes, prejudice, or even a preference for one’s own people. It’s a settled worldview that postulates race, far above any other concern, as the driving-force of history. It has a nightmare scenario of random race-mixing as a consequence of free-wheeling sexual association. And it has a utopia in mind: a great nation inhabited only by the purest stock. It is anti-capitalist, anti-individualist, and anti-liberal to the core, and it views government as savior.
From a scientific point of view, the racists are deeply confused. They find differences between people and posit irreconcilable conflict. If they grappled with what Carlyle called the “dismal science,” they would discover a more beautiful picture: the division of labor, the exchange economy, and free association lead people to find value and dignity in other human beings regardless of race, and to discover it is in everyone’s self interest to respect the equal freedom of others. For this reason, the historical trajectory of commercial society has always been toward integration, inclusion, equality, and liberalization. This is also why racism as an ideology ultimately turns against liberalism.
Grant’s theory of government sums it all up:
Mankind emerged from savagery and barbarism under the leadership of selected individuals whose personal prowess, capacity, or wisdom gave them the right to lead and the power to compel obedience. Such leaders have always been a minute fraction of the whole, but as long as the tradition of their predominance persisted they were able to use the brute strength of the unthinking herd as part of their own force, and were able to direct at all the blind dynamic impulse of the slaves, peasants, or lower classes. Such a despot had an enormous power at his disposal which, if he were benevolent or even intelligent, could be used, and most frequently was used, for the general uplift of the race. Even those rulers who most abused this power put down with merciless rigor the antisocial elements, such as pirates, brigands, or anarchists, which impair the progress of a community, as disease or wounds cripple an individual.
This is a restatement of the views of Thomas Carlyle, the founding father of fascism, united with pseudoscience of racial uplift, resulting in a worldview that serves as a perfect foil to the liberal tradition of Thomas Jefferson through F.A. Hayek. Is the fabric of history woven by brilliant planners with power, or by the cooperative and decentralized choices of millions of individual actors? There’s no question where people like Carlyle, Grant, and the fascist tradition stand on this question. To their minds, a unplanned social order is chaos and decline in the making, and is saved only by strong men.
Redwoods and Nordics
Thanks to the profile in Mother Jones, I had the chance to read some of Grant’s work on the environment as well, which predates his race books and continued even after. What one finds here is the same spirit at work. There is a theory of environmental history during which the fittest of the fit survive (think of the majestic trees of the Redwood Parks) while the unfit are culled. What is going wrong? The demands of commercial society are prompting stupid people to destroy this evolution. There is an apocalyptic scenario of a coming doom if government doesn’t act. But there is also a solution: total government ownership and control under the firm hand of intelligent people like himself.
It’s truly bizarre. Replace the mighty redwoods with the white race and you have an identical paradigm unfolding here. The enemy is the same (too many inferior people doing random things in their own commercial interest). The fear-mongering is the same: we are doomed if this keeps up. The solution is the same: government needs to act with ferocity.
Mother Jones is to be commended for its conclusion: “it's worth remembering because the movement has always struggled with elitist and exclusionary elements in its ranks.”
But, listen, this isn’t about the grim intellectual personalities of some of these Progressive-Era monsters. This isn’t even a personal attack or exposé. This is a problem of a worldview that is anti-liberal at its core. Whether we are talking about environmental purity or racial hygiene, the loathing of freedom itself is the issue and the factor that unites greens, browns, and reds of all stripes.
Enemies of freedom come in many flavors. The deeper you look into this history, the more the flavors blend together. We tend to think of these varieties of authoritarianism as being opposed to each other. It is more correct to think of them as the inevitable splits within the same movement.