When my sister introduced me to G.K. Chesterton more than 20 years ago, I had little idea how much he would influence how I read and think.
Recently I came across a piece he did on eugenics, which to his horror was rising in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, and even into the 1970’s had public proponents. Like those who advocate for abortion, and seem to particularly advocate for it when a pre-born child is shown to have disabilities, much of that movement was based on ‘the good of society’ and the economic and psychological benefits to families.
Chesterton would have none of it, and pointed out the duplicity of asserting the ‘feeble-minded’ (those we would say today live with cognitive disabilities) bring harm to society or families when the real problem lay with those who violently force their will on others:
Even if I were a Eugenist, then I should not personally elect to waste my time locking up the feeble-minded. The people I should lock up would be the strong-minded. I have known hardly any cases of mere mental weakness making a family a failure; I have known eight or nine cases of violent and exaggerated force of character making a family a hell. If the strong-minded could be segregated it would quite certainly be better for their family and friends. And if there is really anything to heredity, it would be better for posterity too. For the kind of egoist I mean is a madman in a much more plausible sense then the mere harmless ‘deficient’; and to hand on the horrors of anarchic and insatiable temperament is a much graver responsibility than to leave a mere inheritance of childishness. . .
Why do not the promoters of the Feeble-Minded Bill call at the many grand houses in town or country where such (strong-minded) nightmares notoriously are? Why do they not knock at the door and take the bad squire away? Why do they not ring the bell and remove the dipsomaniac prize-fighter? I do not know; and there is only one reason I can think of, which must remain a matter of speculation. When I was at school, the kind of boy who liked teasing half-wits was not the sort that stood up to bullies.
G.K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils, Cassell and Company, 1922, pp. 51-52.
That’s a straight shot directly into the evil that is the tyranny of the powerful over the powerless when we are not guided by higher, transcendent, universal principles. Chesterton saw it clearly: the powerful were defining what was acceptable (and the ‘feeble-minded’ were not acceptable) and pronouncing judgment over those who could not defend themselves.
But, one might argue, we have become much more enlightened than 80 years ago. We have laws and strict rules about bullying and teasing. We have whole school programs dedicated to peace and conflict resolution. We have rules and regulations to protect those with disabilities. We have curb cuts and elevators and dedicated parking spaces. Our public face is very much different, so we must be different.
Unless one looks at the war against our most defenseless children in the womb. We applaud the young man with Down syndrome who lives in a community, participates in Special Olympics and maybe holds a job – and eliminate more than 9 out of 10 children like him when Down syndrome is discovered in the womb.
What would Chesterton say about our public applause and our private, socially sanctioned, extraordinarily effective modern eugenics campaign? What name can we give it but murderous hypocrisy?