Darwin: Clever Like a Fox (News)

The sadist in me loves American politics. I get a certain sick joy from watching the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin bloviating ignorantly about matters of crucial importance to their country and the world. I get a dirty thrill up my leg when I hear them ridicule science, boast about their particular brands of Christianity, and resurrect the threats of Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong (apparently all simultaneously reincarnated as one B. Hussein Obama).

A direct product of my Southern-style schadenfreude is an abiding gratitude for the relative lack of brazen ignorance in my daily grind. I’m fortunate insofar as I rarely deal with any overtly religious, anti-science types. The parable of the looming Nazi threat rarely infects my political discussions. In the circles that I frequent (few and far between though they are), Charles Darwin is a kindly old man, not some horrible menace to our national values and our children’s fragile young minds. If it sounds a bit like I’m bragging, well, I suppose it’s because I am.

And so it is with great trepidation that I foolishly enter the circus of the U.S. political debate. I do so because I see something lurking below the surface of the caustic right-wing rhetoric that I find both curious and a little alarming.  Behind all the talk of Nazism, Intelligent Design, Death Panels and so forth linger the remaining fragments of what was once a powerful stand-alone political ideology: Social Darwinism.

From what I can gather, it’s been over a century since anyone took seriously the prospect of ‘survival of the fittest’ as a legitimate political principle. But to listen to the American conservative right today, one could be forgiven for mistaking it to be alive and well. Take as a particularly rich example the acrimonious health care debate. Being the glutton for intellectual punishment that I am, I can assure you that this is a fair characterization of a major right-wing talking point throughout much of the debate:  ‘The Democrats want to collectivize health care and choose who lives or dies based on a statistical cost/benefit analysis.’

Me in my BDSM Fox-News-Watching-Attire. Thanks YTV. And yes, that's an actual quote from Sarah Palin.

If that absurd charge were actually true, it would be a textbook policy of a Social Darwinist State. Of course, back in the day, Social Darwinists would not stop with the sick and elderly. On the contrary; a true, red-blooded ideologue would probably want to stamp out the human equivalent of Noah’s Ark – your gays, mixed races, and non-white races; your Jews and gypsies; your disabled and disfigured; your political dissidents and grievous criminals; your homeless and transients. The recipe is actually quite simple – just keep killing all humans until everyone left on Earth could be substituted for the cast of “Leave It To Beaver” without anyone noticing.

It is ironic and maybe even a little cruel that the Right has managed to damage the effectiveness of Obama’s promised health care reforms with a whisper campaign designed to tease out fears of totalitarian biopolitics. The reality is that a Social Darwinist would fervently oppose any form of social safety net that helped ‘inferior’ humans nurture their offspring and, worse, enable them to reach breeding age! Forcing sick people into bankruptcy and home foreclosure is a far more Darwinian set-up for a society, and one that the non-corporatist Left overwhelmingly rejects.

Fear not, nerds. Next post will be back to good ol’ dry philosophy. No Palin, I promise.

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5 Responses to Darwin: Clever Like a Fox (News)

  1. oldancestor says:

    Kind of like how the Tea Partiers are always espousing the virtues of freedom… for white Christians.

    If you’re a Hispanic citizen, well, a manditory federal ID is good for you, and you are certainly subject to search.

    And if religion is not part of your life, that’ll have to change. There’s no freedom without forced prayer.

    Interesting and well-written post, though I fear the only people who will read it are those who agree with you already. Or, at least, they are the only ones who will think it through.

  2. Anon Sequitur says:

    This is very interesting indeed. Though, it seems that you, at times, conflate Social Darwinism and eugenics. Victorian Social Darwinism, as that curmudgeon Spencer presented it at least, was far more laissez-faire in theory than the sort of eugenic tendency you seem to be attributing to Palinland. It is hard not to feel sorry for Darwin whose ideas were ransacked, twisted, and molested resulting in an application to ethics and sociology that he never intended and which was (and continues to be) much closer to Lamarck’s ideas than his own. Of course, Lamarck’s brand of evolution (and the idea that behaviour could affect genetic traits within the span of a lifetime) is much more conducive to a theological account of the development of man than Darwin’s could ever be as we see in modern American politics.

    I would argue that, rather than a resurgence of Social Darwinism, it is the fluid progression of traditional McAmerican capitalism that you are noting. There does not seem to be a regression or even a looking back inherent in, for example, the Democratic approach to health care that you isolated. As always, imperialists, religious authorities, and the terminally pale-skinned will always choose the most convenient research to further their cause. Pretending to be laissez-faire has always been a favourite strategy of those groups until, of course, it ceases to be effective. In other words, either Social Darwinism has slowly mutated into something much worse (in that it has a handle on recent scientific developments regarding evolution and chooses instead to brandish scare tactics and other firearms while spewing Lamarckian filth) or it never left us in the first place.

    Then again, how bad could a country be that manages to pass a eugenic law in court (sterilization including severing fallopian tubes) and justifies it by saying that “three generations of idiots are enough” [Buck v. Bell, 247 US 200 (1927)]? Granted, that was in 1927, but that date only serves to demonstrate that the eugenic impulse has always been there intermingled with a sort of magical Lamarckian purposiveness to delight and dazzle the theistically inclined.

  3. Will says:

    Thanks for both of your comments.

    As for you, Anon Sequitur, you are correct indeed that I conflated Social Darwinism with Eugenics. In my defense, there can be very little doubt that Palin & Co. have a similar whisper campaign with these undertones as well. I guess I was being ‘generous’ by only accusing them of the former, even though I do paint them with the traits of the latter. Maybe my aversion to the tried and true “No, YOU’RE the Nazi” got the better of me.

    As for the Lamarckianism, I guess that it might be a more suitable description, but I really don’t think that any of the pundits I mentioned have so much of the faintest grip on genetics to understand the difference. In either case it would be bad science, and it’s a bit difficult to guess which incorrect scientific model actually what motivates these people. For all we know it’s neither, and they’re just particularly adept at stoking peoples’ latent and poorly articulated science-fiction-derived fears.

    I don’t think I would go so far as to say American capitalism is laissez-faire. In fact I would probably argue quite emphatically against that myth (especially in the recent decades of political neo-cons and economic neo-liberals).

    America is increasingly corporatist, a fact well-evidenced by the new health care plan that Obama managed to pass through (and I mean this in the crudest biological sense) Congress. I’m not sure what that says about attitudes towards Eugenics, but it’s safe to say the two have gone hand in hand in the past.

    And finally, that is quite a strong legal precedent. I wonder if they had cited that in Bush v. Gore what the world might look like today….

    Thanks again for an excellent and thoughtful comment.

  4. Anon Sequitur says:

    I may well have ignored a lesser charge but apparently calling me a believer in a laissez-faire America just could not be left alone. To clarify, American capitalism is far from laissez-faire except in pretense, as I said. Even then, it seems it is always one of the first of many such pretenses to be abandoned when necessary. In this way, I would have to agree with your emphatic opposition to that laissez-faire myth and the whole seedy American textbook backstory that accompanies it.

  5. Will says:

    Anon Sequitur: Nice. Sorry for the reading comprehension fail!

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