Maddow’s Nonsense

by Jonah Goldberg

Since some folks either miss the G-File (or just read the opening bit or the canine update), I figured it couldn’t hurt to post this item in the Corner:

The other night, I happened to catch Rachel Maddow’s opening monologue. You can watch the whole thing here.

As longtime readers know, I am a charter member in the International Order of Woodrow Wilson Haters. So when Maddow began her show talking about Wilson, I took the bait.

I don’t have the room or energy to cover the whole thing, but the monologue was a horrendous display of intellectual dishonesty. I say “dishonesty” because Maddow is actually quite bright and she, I think, chooses her words fairly deliberately, at least when she pre-produces or writes things.

She begins by noting that Wilson was reelected in 1916 on a promise to keep us out of the war in Europe (no one called it “World War I” then, a fact Hollywood sometimes forgets). She notes that going into the 1918 midterms, Wilson was very unpopular for the “war and other stuff.” (“Other stuff” being a useful rhetorical carpet to sweep myriad outrages under.) Wilson’s party, the Democratic party, got “shellacked.” And because of that the Republican party took control of Congress, enabling Albert Johnson to take over the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. Maddow correctly notes that Johnson was a Republican and a eugenicist and a staunch racist opponent of immigration.

But she’s very keen on repeatedly pointing out these partisan affiliations, leaving the impression that the evil tide of eugenics was held at bay by the Democratic party until, tragically, the Republicans got into power.

She then says:

Soon after he took over, the House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization hired themselves an expert eugenics agent. Albert Johnson, the chairman, in addition to serving in Congress, he had become the president of the Eugenics Research Association of America, and once he was chairman of that committee, he brought on one of the officers from the Eugenics Research Association of America, this guy Harry Laughlin, to become an expert eugenics agent to the Immigration Committee in Congress. And together these two eugenicists got to work.

In 1922, Harry Laughlin created this chart [pictured] — ooh, look! Science! It’s a chart! You can see diagonal there that’s the watermark of Truman State University, they’ve preserved this document online as part of their history of eugenics project. But this is a chart that Harry Laughlin created when he was the expert eugenics consultant for that congressional committee. What this chart purports to show is the “relative social inadequacy” of various immigrant races in the United States. What counts as social inadequacy? Well, according to the chart, that includes “feeblemindedness, insanity, crime, epilepsy, tuberculosis, blindness, deafness, deformity, and dependency.” And then the chart ranks your likelihood of being any of those things, or having any of those things, based on your national origin.

Maddow’s ultimate goal is to make Jeff Sessions the modern incarnation of Albert Johnson. I think that’s stupid, but I also think it’s uninteresting. My core objection is how she frames this historical backdrop, though I should say that I wouldn’t be so worked up if she didn’t seem so smug about her cleverness in making this patently misleading argument.

I should also note that I have no problem criticizing Johnson or Laughlin or the 1924 Immigration Act — co-sponsored by Johnson and Senator David Reed.

Let’s start there. While Maddow is eager to point out that Johnson was a Republican and implies that he did these terrible things only because Republicans tragically gained power, she leaves out that the Immigration Act passed by massive veto-proof majorities in both houses (308 to 62 in the House; 69 to 9 in the Senate). Maddow also makes it sound like anti-immigration sentiment was driven entirely by eugenic racism, when it was a good deal more complicated than that.

One of the complicating factors was the lingering role of the First Red Scare, fueled in large part by the Wilson administration (the Palmer Raids, recall, were led by Wilson’s attorney general). It was Woodrow Wilson who ripped into “hyphenated-Americans”: “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”

Another complicating factor, which Maddow completely leaves out, is that Woodrow Wilson was a committed racist — the most racist president of the 20th century — who shared many of Johnson’s views. Indeed, Wilson was almost surely more racist than Johnson, believing that it was a shame the South lost the Civil War. He supported Jim Crow and re-segregated the federal government, viciously purging black workers from the civil service.

He also helped advance the eugenic agenda. As governor of New Jersey, Wilson signed legislation authorizing the forcible sterilization of “the hopelessly defective and criminal classes.” He believed that blacks and Asian immigrants couldn’t be made into Americans and that they shouldn’t be permitted to vote. In his History of the American People, Wilson wrote that good, white men could not be expected to “live upon a handful of rice for a pittance” and compete with the Chinese, “who with their yellow skin and strange debasing habits of life seemed to them hardly fellow men at all but evil spirits, rather.”

More broadly, eugenics was central to the entire progressive project. Countless policies that Maddow endorses — the minimum wage chief among them — were promulgated by the leading progressives of the day as a way to encourage the growth of the fit and superior races at the expense of the unfit ones.

Yes, yes, Harry Laughlin was eugenicist and a “consultant” to Albert Johnson. La-di-frickin’-da. Read Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers, and you’ll find lists of famous progressive economists and intellectuals who were mentors, advisers, and consultants to Wilson who were soaked-to-the-bone racists and eugenicists. Indeed, Laughlin was a widely admired public intellectual among progressives and a political ally of no less than Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Sanger (who was opposed to abortion, by the way) sold her birth-control agenda in explicitly eugenic terms. When some eugenicists expressed skepticism about birth control being an essential priority, she reassured them:

Eugenicists may remember that not many years ago this program for race regeneration was subjected to the cruel ridicule of stupidity and ignorance. Today Eugenics is suggested by the most diverse minds as the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems. The most intransigent and daring teachers and scientists have lent their support to this great biological interpretation of the human race. The war has emphasized its necessity. The doctrine of Birth Control is now passing through the stage of ridicule, prejudice and misunderstanding. A few years ago this new weapon of civilization and freedom was condemned as immoral, destructive, obscene. Gradually the criticisms are lessening –understanding is taking the place of misunderstanding. The eugenic and civilization value of Birth Control is becoming apparent to the enlightened and the intelligent.

But maybe I’m missing something about the crucial relevance of hiring Laughlin as a consultant. What, then, to make of Dr. Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen? He was a member of the Eugenics Research Association, too (the ERA, by the way, was a subsidiary of the Carnegie Institution). When Woodrow Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey, Katzen-Ellenbogen was hired as the chief eugenicist of his administration. Wilson asked him to draft the forced-sterilization law, which created Wilson’s Board of Examiners of Feebleminded, Epileptics, and Other Defectives. Katzen-Ellenbogen ended up working at Buchenwald where he killed thousands.

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