Pharyngula

I have been down the rabbit hole. I got sucked down into a prolonged web search on the matter of pre-WWII eugenics, which is more than a little squicky, but was fascinated to discover a thriving community of correspondents which reminded me precisely of the various flavors of blog commenters today — that is, opinionated, sometimes pretentious, and often liberally sprinkled with asses. I started picking out names and searching for their contributions.

rbkerr

In particular, I focused on someone named R.B. Kerr, who had at least a 25 year history of writing letters and articles for eugenics journals, and was also much concerned with the sexual habits of women. The earliest articles describe him as Canadian, but later he seems to have moved to Croydon; nowhere can I find any mention of his credentials or background, although I did find one picture of him circa 1907. He seems to have gradually evolved from a radical advocate of Free Love into a kind of Colonel Blimp character.

Here’s R.B. Kerr in a letter to the Eugenics Review in 1933. He’s not a racist or anti-Semite, oh, no — he’s just defending Hitler.

SIR,—I entirely agree with you in condemning Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, but the reason you give seems to me fallacious. In your July issue you say:

“Herr Hitler has still not realized, apparently, that in declaring that the small number of Jews in Germany have achieved an altogether disproportionate measure of success—in the arts, sciences, and learned professions…he has publicly acknowledged their superiority to the bulk of the nation that wishes to get rid of them!”

If you will read Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, you will find that he fully understands your argument, but does not agree with it. One of his principal charges against the Jews is that in literature and the arts they succeed by superficial and meretricious qualities, and not by first-rate work.

The distinction is familiar to every competent critic. Everybody knows the difference between a best-seller and a literary masterpiece. Edgar Wallace sold far better than John Galsworthy. Hall Caine left many times as much money as Thomas Hardy. Martin Tupper was beyond comparison a more successful poet than Robert Browning.

The same thing is true of all the arts. The greatest musical composers were pure Germans, but the works of the Jew Mendelssohn have sold far better than those of Bach and Beethoven. The greatest painters are hardly ever the most popular. I cannot speak with authority about science, but I have heard such contempt for scientific knights and newspaper scientists, that I strongly suspect that the same principle applies.

I do not know whether Hitler is correct in his remarks about the Jews. He does, however, make a distinction between value and success which would have the unanimous support of intelligent critics.

R.B. Kerr
335 Sydenham Road,
Croydon

“Everybody knows the difference between a best-seller and a literary masterpiece”! Then tell me how, please. It seems to me one easy signifier is whether the author is a Jew or not. I also have to appreciate the implication that Mendelssohn was not a pure German, despite having been born in Hamburg, to a family that converted to Christianity. Having Richard Wagner despise you must be what kicks you out of the Pure German clan.

But I am fascinated by how what starts as a sort of academic and abstract correction of an error interpreting a Nazi book gradually evolves into a full-on endorsement of racist stereotypes. No, Hitler shouldn’t persecute the Jews, but by the way, aren’t they superficial and meretricious?

In the early decade of the twentieth century, his perspective was more on sex. If you browse the American Journal of Eugenics from 1907 (it’s been scanned by Google and at least the first three volumes are freely available), his name crops up multiple times. He also gets mentioned in a much later book, Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality as a standout contributor.

Brace yourself, ladies, R.B. Kerr has identified an obligation for you.

…contributions from an articulate, well-read Canadian sex radical name R.B. Kerr triggered rancorous debate among Lucifer [a journal that would later be renamed the American Journal of Eugenics –pzm] readers, their words demonstrating wide differences about the matter of eugenics. Favoring nature over nurture, Kerr argued that only careful breeding would enable men and women to improve “the mental and moral, as well as the physical” makeup of their offspring. He further argued that this laudable end could not be achieved unless women devoted their energies and focused their attention on the production of human beings and deferred their fight for personal liberty to a later day. But what most infuriated longtime sex radical women was his condemnation of monogamy as “the absolute negation of all scientific breeding.” “No breeder of dogs, horses, cattle, sheep or any other kind,” Kerr asserted, “would ever dream of breeding on monogamous principles.” Thus justifying sexual variety on scientific grounds, he suggested that only unenlightened women would be “so unfortunately constituted as to feel a repugnance to intercourse with every man capable of making a good father.”

Charming, isn’t he? But I have to give the prize for clueless chauvinism to Moses Harman. Also note that there’s a difference in how men and women respond to Kerr’s advocacy.

Male correspondents praised Kerr as one of Lucifer‘s “wisest, most logical, and clearest-headed” writers. Moses Harman put himself “on record” as “an advocate of breeding prize animals…whether quadrupeds or bipeds.” It was well and good “to make each woman free to do what she pleases with her own person,” he conceded, but a mad had a responsibility “to educate her in the wise choice of a father for her child.”

But female contributors who for decades had advocated the sexual emancipation of women responded in Lucifer‘s pages with numerous objections to Kerr’s ideas.

This is terrible. As archiving sources make more and more older texts available for easy access on the web, I’m mainly learning that nothing has changed, and humanity has always been awful. And eugenics? Good god, what a horror.

Comments

  1. […] Source: Not a racist or a sexist, no sir, certainly not! [Pharyngula] […]

  2. #2 GregH
    September 29, 2014

    I cannot speak with authority about science, but I have heard such contempt for scientific knights and newspaper scientists, that I strongly suspect that the same principle applies.

    If he were alive today, Kerr could have been a Heartland Institute “Expert”. Although there doesn’t seem be any shortage of this kind of fatuous denialism these days – he probably would have fit right in. Is anyone surprised that this kind of nonsense was publicly expressed back then? My impression is that Hitler had a widespread following in the English-speaking world, at least among armchair philosophers, never mind Henry Ford and IBM.

  3. #3 G
    September 30, 2014

    AT’s link should be required reading for anyone who thinks it can’t happen again. The ability of racists and other extremists to delude themselves is all the more shocking when written in a manner that shows the writer is intelligent and well-educated. We place ourselves at risk if we stick to the belief that racists and other extremists are merely stupid.

    Sure, those who stand within the circle of favor of a murderous and evil regime might well think themselves in some kind of utopia. But today, with Encyclopedia Galactica universally at our fingertips, there is no more excuse for such beliefs.

    So about eugenics. We are presently embarked upon a grand eugenic experiment.

    Those who are concerned with a sustainable future limit their reproduction. Those who are not bothered by the finitude of the surface of a Euclidean solid, and those who subscribe to the worst sorts of fanatical extremism, multiply like mice. Keyword search “quiverfull” for examples.

    To the extent that selfishness and denial have neurological correlates, and to the extent that altruism and realism have neurological correlates, we are thereby selectively breeding for the former and against the latter.

    Those of us who object to that sort of eugenic policy should do well to speak up loudly and clearly, in favor of global equality for women, and global economic security for the masses. These two conditions are most conducive to lower overall birth rates and sustainable populations.

  4. #4 Tim H.
    September 30, 2014

    Let’s hope eugenics never becomes too real, could you imagine, “Lucy, I know you love Bob, but according to this chart you’d have healthier children if you sleep with Bill.”*, how gauche. And potentially, passing up an unknown chance for a really amazing child. *Genetics needs to be understood much better before that statement can be made with a straight face.

  5. […] Not a racist or a sexist, no sir, certainly not! […]

  6. #6 Brian-M
    October 3, 2014

    The oldest outline for a systematic program of eugenics that I’m aware of is described in Plato’s Republic.

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