From Polemics to Murder (God & White Men–Conclusion)
Posted by Richard Conniff on May 4, 2012
By then, Fisher himself had stopped campaigning publicly for eugenics, and no longer tried to work the notion of the nation’s racial stock into economics discussions. His old ally Madison Grant died in 1937, and Fisher seemed to recognize the alarming effects of their earlier efforts together. In 1938, he joined three other economists in attacking the radio personality Father Charles Coughlin, a notorious anti-Semite, for adding “fuel to the already blazing flames of intolerance and bigotry.” A year later, he was one of the signatories to a public letter issued by Christian and Jewish institutions, cautioning Americans “against propaganda, oral or written” that sought to turn classes, races, or religious groups against one another. The letter warned, poignantly: “The fires of prejudice burn quickly and disastrously. What may begin as polemics against a class or group may end with persecution, murder, pillage, and dispossession of that group.”
Fisher survived World War II, dying in 1947 at the age of 80. His major causes by then were warding off deflation and requiring banks to hold larger reserves against their deposits, proposals that remain relevant in the post–Lehman Brothers era. We do not know how Fisher, Yerkes, Huntington, or other eugenicists responded to the discovery of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other centers of racial hygiene. No doubt they were horrified.
Grant’s Passing of the Great Race would turn up once more after the war, at Nuremberg. Hitler’s personal physician Karl Brandt had been charged with brutal medical experiments and murder in the concentration camps. His lawyers introduced Grant’s book into evidence in his defense, arguing that the Nazis had merely done what prominent American scholars had advocated. Brandt was found guilty and sentenced to death.
We know better now, of course. And yet eugenic ideas still linger just beneath the skin, in what seem to be more innocent forms. We tend to think, for instance, that if we went to Yale, or better yet, went to Yale and married another Yalie, our children will be smart enough to go to Yale, too. The concept of regression toward the mean—invented, ironically, by Francis Galton, the original eugenicist—says, basically: don’t count on it. But outsiders still sometimes share our eugenic delusions. Would-be parents routinely place ads in college newspapers and online offering to pay top dollar to gamete donors who are slender, attractive, of the desired ethnic group, with killer SAT scores—and an Ivy League education.
Irving Fisher and the other Yale eugenicists would no doubt rejoice that the university’s germ plasm is still so highly valued—at up to ten times the price for other colleges. But if they looked more carefully at the evidence, they would discover that these highly desirable donors are now often the grandsons and granddaughters of the very immigrants they once worked so hard to eliminate.
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