In Defense of Sanger


(I posted this over at the Corner as well)

In response to the excerpt from my book on Margaret Sanger, I received this email:

Dear Mr. Goldberg, I have read your vicious attack on Margaret Sanger and have a simple demand. Whenever you next choose to slander Ms. Sanger’s memory, you must do the same to Helen Keller, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Winston Churchill and Marcus Garvey. First, let’s turn to Ms. Keller. You know, and a great many people know, that Helen Keller was at least as radical in her politics as Ms. Sanger was. Ms. Keller was an avowed socialist. She not only entertained members of the Industrial Workers of the World, she actually joined the I.W.W. She was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. She was a supporter of birth control. She was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, and as a native Alabamian, apologized for her state’s Jim Crow laws. She opposed Woodrow Wilson as the racist he was.She was a suffragette. And she may even have been a lesbian! In short, anything Ms. Sanger did, Ms. Keller did as well. Yet, in your vitriolic, nasty, demeaning and misleading character assassination of Ms. Sanger, you fail to mention that other women, notably Ms. Keller, had exactly the same agenda. You know why I mentioned Justice Holmes. He voted with the majority in Buck v. Black, the decision that allowed the state of Virginia to sterilize a young woman against her will. You also fail to mention in your anti-Sanger screed that many states, notably California, sterilized citizens who were deemed to be unfit. Yet I have seen no damnation from you of Mr. Justice Holmes, who continues to be regarded as one of the best Chief Justices our country has ever had. Sir, you are highly disingenuous. You have an agenda, or a stand, which informs your hatred of Ms. Sanger, but you are not intellectually honest enough to say what it is. I suspect it is your hatred of abortion, but I could be wrong, since you do not regard your readers as being worthy of knowing what it is you are actually arguing against. You might also want to read up on eugenics, a concept that began with Plato. Sir Francis Galton was the man who really popularized the movement, and invented the word, and I am sure you know this. His first essay on the subject appeared in 1865. Eugenics was considered by many serious people to be a science, and was supported by such persons as Alexander Graham Bell, Winston Churchill, and, surprisingly, W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. In your hatchet job, you use the word “eugenics” as an exact equivalent to what Adolf Hitler was doing. Shame on you, for you know better, or you certainly should! Positive eugenics was an idealistic attempt to improve society, to reduce infant and maternal mortality, and to eliminate poverty. Would you care to go on record now as opposing these goals? It doesn’t really matter, because you are already on record in opposition to them in your attempt to dishonor Ms. Sanger. I could go on exposing your errors, all of which should be termed silly if they weren’t such damnable lies. Instead, I ask only that you have the common decency to attack Helen Keller, Winston Churchill and Marcus Garvey whenever you next take out your bludgeon to use against Ms. Sanger. And a gentleman would apologize to his readers for what you did. Yours very truly, [name withheld]

Me: I find this hilarious. First of all, the reader seems not to know that the article is an excerpt from the book. If she’d read the book, she might find out how little some of these folks help her cause. Indeed, she might realize how much she’s making my argument for me, as I argue that liberalism and progressivism were shot through with eugenic thought. Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that his “starting point for an ideal for the law” would be the “co-ordinated human effort. . . to build a race.” Yes, W.E.B. Du Bois was sympathetic to eugenics (his “talented tenth” was a eugenic term). Marcus Garvey? You mean the fellow who claimed to have led “the first fascists?” All of this gets mentioned in the book. I’m not sure that Winston Churchill need be lumped in with all of the others, but he too certainly subscribed to some bad ideas about eugenics in his younger days.

As for Helen Keller, I suspect that the reader has it backwards. Sanger may have believed in all of the things that Keller did, but I’m not sure that Keller believed all of the things that Sanger did. But — hey! — if she did see eye-to-eye with Sanger on all of this stuff than shame on Helen Keller. No skin off my nose.

As for the rest, the reader doesn’t in fact document any “damnable lies” or “errors” whatsoever. The worst she comes up with are omissions, that aren’t omitted at all from my larger argument. Rather she simply recruits a whole bunch of other people who she insists were just as bad as Sanger to get Sanger off the hook. But “Everybody was doing it!” is in fact a very poor defense of Sanger while a pretty good indictment of the Progressive era (though non-progressives were in fact not doing this stuff). And, to be fair, Sanger was worse than Garvey, Du Bois and most certainly Churchill when it came to these issues.

Anyway, I just thought the mixture of passion and illogic was amusing.


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