Saturday, August 12, 2017

Annals of Derp: The Paul Popenoe Story

The early ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved?’ columns have an unpleasant chiding tone. Popenoe, along with his organisation’s marriage counsellors, thought of female clients as unrealistic babies: immature, and expecting too much glitz from their marriages. There was a strong element of intergenerational critique in their counsel – a sense that young women were seduced by popular culture, and hopelessly unable to ‘keep house’ and make sacrifices. ‘Don’t expect too much romance,’ Popenoe’s counsellors said over and over again. In treating ‘Ralph’ and ‘Alice’ (February 1953), a young couple who had four children in the space of five years, the counsellor wrote that Alice needed to be convinced to stop ‘nagging’ her husband for affection: ‘Ralph’s way of pronouncing his love was not in extravagant speech but in coming home to her and the children, and displaying his willingness – indeed, his determination – to support them.’ The happy ending was for her to provide: ‘When Alice recognised this fact and acknowledged that the language of courtship and juvenile dreams is seldom the language of marriage, she started keeping household accounts and padlocking her tongue.’ (via Aeon, illustration from Redbook.)
I was kind of thinking I'd take a bye on Dinesh D'Souza's newly emitted project, The Big Lie (from Regnery, already getting remaindered at $4.95 five days after publication!), aimed at persuading us that Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism was too mild, because Jonah left out the important bit about how liberals are also Nazis, which isn't how I remembered it, but this tweet kind of called out to me to find out what it was about.

Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it true that the progressive eugenicist Paul Popenoe, an associate of the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, gave the German Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei the idea of "lethal chambers" for killing the disabled and unwanted?

Answer: It's incredible how much wrong D'Souza can pack into 21 words.

First of all, the ideas Nazis took from Popenoe (1888-1979), the noted American agricultural explorer and eugenicist, had in reality nothing to do with gas chambers but were about the implementation of compulsory sterilization laws, as described in his 1929 book Sterilization for Human Betterment: A Summary of Results of 6,000 Operations in California, 1909–1929, co-written with E.S. Gosney, which was referenced by the Germans in their own 1933 sterilization law.

The idea of using lethal gases in a sealed room to execute people goes back to the 1880s, before Popenoe was born, as part of the effort to provide a less barbaric method than hanging for killing convicted criminals (electrocution usually won out); and around the same time the idea was circulating of degenerate people, dangers to the race, who should not be allowed:
Henry M. Boies, a penologist for the Pennsylvania Board of Public Charities, went further by saying [in his Prisoners and Paupers; A Study of the Abnormal Increase of Criminals, and the Public Burden of Pauperism in the United States; The Causes and Remedies, 1893] that it was “established beyond controversy that criminals and paupers, both, are degenerate; the imperfect, knotty, knurly, worm-eaten, halfrotten fruit of the race.” Society, he said, needed to take a multifaceted approach that included preventive and reformative measures. In his view, “The ‘unfit,’ the abnormals, the sharks, the devil-fish, and other monsters, ought not to be liberated to destroy, and multiply, but must be confined and secluded until they are exterminated.”
But I don't in my basic source here (The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber, by Scott Christianson, 2010) find any sources really putting the two together until 1917, when
William J. Robinson, a New York urologist and leading authority on birth control, eugenics, and marriage, wrote [in Eugenics, Marriage and Birth Control] that the best solution would be for society to “gently chloroform” the children of the unfit or “give them a dose of potassium cyanide.” Robinson also insisted that splitting hairs about any of their “individual rights” should never be allowed to trump the preservation of the race. “It is the acme of stupidity,” he wrote, “to talk in such cases of individual liberty, of the rights of the individual. Such individuals have no rights. They have no right in the first instance to be born, but having been born, they have no right to propagate their kind.”
There is no evidence as to what American sources the German SS may have appealed to when they started building gas chambers of their own in 1939, though no reason to think they didn't have America in mind:

Popenoe himself is often cited as having supported the idea of the lethal chamber for the degenerate and unfit in the following words:
“From an historical point of view,” he wrote in his popular text Applied Eugenics (1918), “the first method which presents itself is execution. . . . Its value in keeping up the standard of the race should not be underestimated.”
But the ellipsis there hides the fact that he explicitly rejected it.

So I really don't think he could have influenced the Nazis a lot on this particular point. Nevertheless, it's true that he was an enthusiastic sterilizer, and that some important Nazis made some use of one of his books, which is a pretty horrible thing, if not in the same league as the Shoah.

And was he a progressive? That's not so easy to say. The eugenics movement was really one of those universalized panics in which all sorts of people participated, without a specific ideological color. In Britain it encompassed hidebound conservatives like Balfour, Chamberlain, and Churchill together with high-profile socialists like H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw, and in the US progressives like Theodore Roosevelt (Republican) and Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) as well as conservatives like Calvin Coolidge and Charles Lindbergh.

Margaret Sanger was certainly a progressive, and sadly susceptible to "racial betterment" ideas, but wasn't, in fact, a eugenicist, as she carefully explained in a 1919 article on "Birth Control and Racial Betterment"; she was radically pro-choice, insisting that nobody but the woman herself (except for "the feeble-minded, insane and syphilitic", to whose sterilization she did not object) could make the decision:
We who advocate Birth Control... lay all our emphasis upon stopping not only the reproduction of the unfit but upon stopping all reproduction when there is not economic means of providing proper care for those who are born in health. The eugenist also believes that a woman should bear as many healthy children as possible as a duty to the state. We hold that the world is already over-populated. Eugenists imply or insist that a woman's first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her duty to the state.
We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother. To this end we insist that information in regard to scientific contraceptives be made open to all.
And it's not clear to me how much Popenoe was associated with her anyway, other than frequently meeting in crowded paragraphs in discussions of eugenics. He did oppose birth control:

So I'm guessing he and Sanger didn't have a lot in common.

People Popenoe was directly associated with in the California eugenics movement didn't necessarily advertise their political affiliations very clearly, but some of them sound pretty conservative to me, such as the deeply racist first chancellor of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, Nordic race betterer, a man very suspicious of progressivism

and opponent of US entry into World War I (which was a conservative position); or the unquestionably conservative Harry Chandler who became publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 1917; or his wealthy patron and collaborator E.S. Gosney, an old Arizona rancher for whom eugenics became the cause of a lifetime.

Popenoe and Gosney were definitely what we call "social conservatives", though, with a horror of divorce and a strong attachment to traditional values such as chastity before marriage, and in 1930 Gosney set Popenoe up in a marriage counseling center, the American Institute of Family Relations, which opened up a fabulous new career after eugenics came to seem, ah, discredited with World War II and the Nazi defeat. He did a monthly column ("Can This Marriage Be Saved?"—check out the link from illustration at top for a terrific primer on what kind of progressive he was) for the Ladies' Home Journal, trained hundreds of counselors across the US, and the Institute, with 70 counselors on staff at its peak, helped 15,000 couples a year.

He wasn't a religious man himself, we're told, but because of his rejection of the sexual revolution and feminism in the 1960s, he found himself working more and more with Christian conservatives, and one of his assistants was Dr. James Dobson, the later founder of Focus on the Family.

And his son David Popenoe, who taught at Rutgers University and ran or still runs the National Marriage Project there, is billed as a "conservative sociologist" carrying on his dad's work. So that really, you know, in the long haul, even if Paul Popenoe wasn't exactly a conservative in 1929, just a big fan of Coolidge's eugenicist immigration bill and an opponent of Margaret Sanger, he was well on his way. And he was never a "progressive" in any sense.

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