Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More Eugenics

From Bradshaw, David. "Eugenics: “They should certainly be killed”." A Concise Companion to Modernism. Bradshaw, David (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2002. Blackwell Reference Online. 29 January 2008

"Before turning to Woolf's fiction, there is one passage in her diary which has caused considerable consternation and which is not remotely ironic. On January 9, 1915 Woolf and her husband went for a stroll by the River Thames between Richmond and Kingston:

On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look at twice, but no more; the second shuffled, & looked aside; & then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.

(Woolf 1983: 13)

Childs characterizes Woolf's conclusion, quite rightly, as “a most negative eugenics” (2001: 23), while other readers have been more damning. Yet although Woolf's remarks are offensive to our way of thinking, if we read her words in their appropriate historical context, we can see that there is nothing particularly extreme about them. The same month that she took her walk by the Thames Woolf “‘declared herself a Fabian”’ (Lee 1996: 348), and in the Fabian, progressive circles in which she and Leonard moved her attitude to the mentally handicapped would have been viewed as sound rather than callous, entirely consistent with Havelock Ellis's “radically sympathetic” solution to the problem of the unfit."

1 comment:

Alan L. Gallagher said...

In Buck v Bell, 274 US 200 (1927),(text available on line), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., one of the U.S.'s most famous Justices, wrote with the majority, favoring forced sterilization based upon a belief in eugenics, that "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

He was merely another believer in eugenics, that "consensus" science of the later 19th and early 20th Century...well received until the Nazis gave it a bad name. He was a "Protestant" agnostic if not an atheist, to whom such beliefs came (too) easily. He also corresponded with leading figures of his time, including many Fabians. It was "progressive" to believe in eugenics, and therefore to wish to impose its principles. It was left to Conservative Protestants and Catholics to oppose such eugenics. In one famous case, the Jukes family, later investigators have concluded it was environment rather than heridity which produced their several generations of "idiots."

I recommend Paul Johnson's book, INTELLECTUALS, in which he sets out with great clarity why intellectuals not only tend to go wrong (both in their ideas and in their personal lives), but also more readily than others.


Edward Said should have spent more time pointing out the refusal of the Arab/Muslim world to accept the Palestinians who, in all of these decades, could have assimilated into the surrounding countries. The "refugee camps" are not that at all.