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The Tyranny Blog

The digital burial ground for tyrannical clichés.

Social Darwinism Fantasies



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Over at the Weekly Standard, I have a  piece on the Social Darwinism nonsense taking flight since Obama’s charge that the Republican budget is nothing more than “thinly veiled Social Darwinism.” It’s mostly adapted from the Social Darwinism chapter in The Tyranny of Cliches. In response, the Associated Press reported, “Social Darwinism, a popular topic in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is making its way into modern American politics.” I write (in part):

This raises the real problem with the AP’s analysis. It has the history exactly backwards. The topic was not popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is now. And it’s not suddenly “making its way” into modern politics. Liberals have been irresponsibly flinging the term Social Darwinism rightward for decades. Mario Cuomo, in his famous 1984 Democratic Convention keynote speech—which “electrified,” “galvanized,” and “inspired” Democrats, who went on to lose 49 states in the general election—declared that “President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism.” Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee that year, insisted that Reagan preferred “Social Darwinism” over “social decency.” Even Barack Obama’s April 3 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors was so much recycling. In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.”

Meanwhile, the myth that Social Darwinism was a popular term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely created by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought didn’t merely transform our understanding of the Gilded Age, it largely fabricated an alternative history of it.

But let us start with Herbert Spencer, the man who is always cast as the villain of the tale and the “founder” of the Social Darwinist “movement.” A writer for one British paper insists Spencer was “a downright evil man .  .  . whose passion for eugenics and elimination made him the daydreamer of things to come.” Edwin Black, in his history of eugenics, War Against the Weak, writes that Spencer “completely denounced charity and instead extolled the purifying elimination of the ‘unfit.’ The unfit, he argued, were predestined by their nature to an existence of downwardly spiraling degradation.” Hofstadter himself wrote that the (almost wholly progressive) eugenics movement in America “has proved to be the most enduring aspect” of Spencer’s “tooth-and-claw version of natural selection.”

The most creative assault on Spencer must be Richard L. Schoenwald’s psychological autopsy in the 1968 summer issue of the esteemed journal Victorian Studies, in which the historian reveals that Spencer’s twisted and deformed worldview stemmed from his fascination with feces.

Starting with Spencer’s childhood in the 1820s, Schoenwald concluded that “Spencer’s self-esteem had been undermined hopelessly in the oral and anal stages of his development; he could commit himself only to paper, not to a woman.” As a baby, Spencer rejoiced in his ability to “create excrement.” He never forgave his parents’ efforts at toilet training, which revoked the “freedom in which he had gloried.” This “fearful attack from behind” left permanent scars, which is why, for example, Spencer would one day oppose public sanitation regulation, because he “saw in sanitary reform an attack on his magical anal producing powers.”

You can read the whole thing over there. Though sending you over there, makes me feel like Santa in Miracle on 34th Street sending customers to Gimbel’s.

Update: Thomas Lifson has a very generous reaction over at the American Thinker.



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