Saturday, March 23, 2019
A good read, and a good reminder. Plus ça change . . .
It’s not surprising that Buck v. Bell was decided in the Roaring Twenties, a decade even more culturally charged than the one we live in today. The Ku Klux Klan was riding a wave of anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic fervor, creationists were battling Darwinists over the teaching of evolution, and Prohibition was pitting rural Protestant values and prejudices against a looser, more diverse urban culture. In Washington, Congress was busily writing the most restrictive immigration law in our history, the National Origins Act, to protect the country from foreign contamination. In the words of The Saturday Evening Post: “If America doesn’t keep out the queer, alien, mongrelized people of Southern and Eastern Europe, her crop of citizens will eventually be dwarfed and mongrelized in turn.”
According to Thomas C. Leonard, who teaches at Princeton, the driving force behind this and other such laws came from progressives in the halls of academia — people who combined “extravagant faith in science and the state with an outsized confidence in their own expertise.” “Illiberal Reformers” is the perfect title for this slim but vital account of the perils of intellectual arrogance in dealing with explosive social issues. Put simply, Leonard says, elite progressives gave respectable cover to the worst prejudices of the era — not to rabble-rouse, but because they believed them to be true.