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Chris Jones: Eugenics, George Bernard Shaw and the need for a dramatic reckoning
Guest Commentary

Chris Jones: Eugenics, George Bernard Shaw and the need for a dramatic reckoning

On Monday, Planned Parenthood removed the name of Margaret Sanger from its health clinic in Manhattan. By way of explanation, the organization cited its founder's "harmful connections to the eugenics movement."

So is this now curtains for George Bernard Shaw?

How about H.G. Wells and his "The War of the Worlds"?

Henrik Ibsen and his "A Doll's House"?

T.S. Eliot? Virginia Woolf?

All of the above had strong connections to the eugenics movement. So did the hugely influential economist John Maynard Keynes. At one point in its history, the British newspaper now known as the Guardian editorialized as to the movement's worth.

This is not merely an academic question. One of Canada's largest theaters, the Shaw Festival Theatre, is named after George Bernard Shaw, although it does not produce only his work. Until its disappearance last year, Chicago had a dedicated-to-Shaw company known as ShawChicago. A sequel to Ibsen's "A Doll's House" was just on Broadway. And if you're a fan of "My Fair Lady," a constant in our repertoire, you'll likely know that musical was based on Shaw's "Pygmalion."

What is tricky for progressives about eugenics is that most of its adherents came from the left. Around the turn of the 20th century, the movement was widely seen as a logical extension for anyone of serious socialist belief.

Ibsen, for example, still is widely seen as a crucial advocate for women's rights and other progressive ideas.

What is eugenics? Simply put, it's the idea that a society can best thrive by breeding more of its stronger members than those perceived to be weak or immoral or otherwise less desirable for the common good. In Shaw's view, as manifest in several of his plays ("Man and Superman," for example) the best leaders are enlightened, progressive, intelligent, effective people, not those crude fools the general populace might elect.

Shaw wanted people in charge not unlike himself. It's a fast highway from there to naked white supremacy.

Eugenics led to a profoundly dangerous and indisputably racist desire to exert a kind of human control over the findings of Charles Darwin, so as to render Darwinian notions of the survival of the fittest subject to governmental policy. That could mean encouraging the so-called best and brightest to have more children, so-called "positive eugenics," but it also involved the selective use of contraception to control reproduction (hence Sanger's embroilment), the propagation of forced sterilization, especially of individuals with disabilities, and restrictions on immigration.

All of those things were seriously discussed by these white literary figures, revered to this day. It's incredible, when you think about it.

A sympathetic view of the above people would point out that they held these beliefs prior to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, fascists who quickly showed the world that the road from eugenics to death camps was short and direct. Churchill was also interested in eugenics early in his life; he wasn't a Nazi, he fought them off.

Some might also argue that most of these people came to see the error of their views and that the import and worth of their other achievements (Planned Parenthood, macroeconomics, elegant verbiage, powerful dramas, feminism, the promotion of class mobility) outweighed the import of their attachments (sometimes relatively brief) to this horrifically misguided philosophy and pseudo-science.

Where you stand likely matches where you stand on other recent controversies involving whether to judge venerated historical figures entirely within the context of their times, their sins so mitigated, or by contemporary moral absolutes when it comes to whom we want to be on our pedestals, or viewable on cable, or with their names on a theatrical marquee.

For most people, it is a wrenching issue, being as human perfection is so elusive.

But although the historic attachment to eugenics is not an easy topic for the left to discuss, if Planned Parenthood can have that reckoning with the legacy of its founder, so can the literary and theatrical establishment. A reckoning is not necessarily the same thing as a cancellation. As Angela Saini wrote in, ahem, the Guardian last fall, "that instinct should be tempered by the sober understanding that the slope that sends society towards moral shame is built by many."

And like freeway construction, it keeps starting over and over.

One thing is for sure, the kudzu-like spreading of sympathy for eugenics 125 years ago offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of elitism and moral superiority, a curse that can and does afflict both left and right, then and now.

History teaches us that insisting on solutions for other people, controlling their words, thoughts, actions and desires, judging them at every moment, asserting we know so much better than them, often comes with dangerous unintended consequences.

And the assumption that the future of our societies rest on the back of our geniuses is similarly fraught. We forget the role of hereditary privilege. And of luck.

In this era of technological societal dominance by very few highly effective channels, we need to be acutely aware of what can happen when those that run them accumulate far too much power.

Right, Mr. Shaw?

Chris Jones is a critic for the Chicago Tribune.

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