Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 1, 2007

Debating Eugenics

A minor scuffle has broken out among several conservative and liberal bloggers about the meaning of eugenics and its connection (if any) to today’s progressive movement.

No one questions the link between the progressivism of a century ago and the eugenics movement (or almost no one: Washington Monthly‘s Kevin Drum seems never to have heard of it). The eugenics movement understood itself to be improving the human future by enlightened and scientifically informed intervention. As a progressive cause it was ideal, and was championed to varying degrees by nearly every prominent American progressive. That doesn’t mean the progressives of today would support it. But to the extent that they want to identify explicitly with the original progressive movement, they probably should contend with it.

Today, a rather different sort of effort to apply control and selection over the next generation is emerging, in the form of a growing inclination to test developing human embryos and fetuses for ailments and weaknesses (or even just the wrong sex), and to eliminate those found to bear them. The trend itself is undeniable. Ninety percent of Down’s syndrome pregnancies are aborted, for instance. And according to one recent study, “40 percent of infants with any one of 11 main congenital disorders were aborted in Europe.”

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A minor scuffle has broken out among several conservative and liberal bloggers about the meaning of eugenics and its connection (if any) to today’s progressive movement.

No one questions the link between the progressivism of a century ago and the eugenics movement (or almost no one: Washington Monthly‘s Kevin Drum seems never to have heard of it). The eugenics movement understood itself to be improving the human future by enlightened and scientifically informed intervention. As a progressive cause it was ideal, and was championed to varying degrees by nearly every prominent American progressive. That doesn’t mean the progressives of today would support it. But to the extent that they want to identify explicitly with the original progressive movement, they probably should contend with it.

Today, a rather different sort of effort to apply control and selection over the next generation is emerging, in the form of a growing inclination to test developing human embryos and fetuses for ailments and weaknesses (or even just the wrong sex), and to eliminate those found to bear them. The trend itself is undeniable. Ninety percent of Down’s syndrome pregnancies are aborted, for instance. And according to one recent study, “40 percent of infants with any one of 11 main congenital disorders were aborted in Europe.”

But is it reasonable to call this new attitude eugenic? Some advocates employ the term, as do many critics on the left and right. But this new trend differs enormously from the eugenics of a century ago: it is not coercive or enforced by government; it is not based on race distinctions or assessments of intelligence or social class; it is often (though not always) carried out by parents, when they find their child has a condition they believe would be a grave detriment to his or her welfare or happiness.

But surely the most essential problem with the eugenics movement was not coercion or collectivism. It wasn’t even the revolting notion of some duty to improve the race. The deepest and most significant contention of the progressive eugenicists was that science had shown the principle of human equality to be unfounded. These eugenicists badly misread Darwin. The eugenicists of today, in contrast, employ actual scientific principles to support their beliefs; nevertheless, their abuse of science is no less misguided. It is, again, being used to demonstrate distinctions among human beings that—the new eugenicists claim—are so fundamental as to make some lives not worth living, and therefore not worth protecting.

The challenge of eugenics was, and is again, a challenge to our egalitarianism. That is what lies at the heart of the abortion debate, and of the larger debate about emerging biotechnologies. These arguments are not about when a new human life begins—an empirical matter not in real dispute—but about whether every human life is equal. That question is a perfectly serious one, and there are defensible positions on both sides. But too many American progressives have answered in the negative without thinking through the consequences. And increasingly the reasons they give are not liberal reasons—reasons of liberty and personal choice—but scientific reasons, be it the great promise of some very particular avenue of medical research, or the instrument readings that demonstrate Down’s or another genetic condition.

These progressives are, in this sense, new eugenicists. That doesn’t mean they would abide Nazi medicine or forced sterilizations. But it does mean they abide scientific selection to eliminate the weakest among us.

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My Father at 90

Today, my dad turns 90. Our family marked this milestone by getting together in Ithaca, his first home in the United States of America. My father came to this country from China by design, but stayed by happenstance. He won a scholarship to study here, and planned to return as soon as he earned his masters degree in civil engineering, which he did in 1946. By then he had seen his homeland tear itself apart in the civil war between the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party of Mao Zedong. As we know, Mao won, taking power in 1949. Many idealistic Chinese returned to build New China, as the Communists called it, but my dad wanted to stay in his adopted land. An open America let him.

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Today, my dad turns 90. Our family marked this milestone by getting together in Ithaca, his first home in the United States of America. My father came to this country from China by design, but stayed by happenstance. He won a scholarship to study here, and planned to return as soon as he earned his masters degree in civil engineering, which he did in 1946. By then he had seen his homeland tear itself apart in the civil war between the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party of Mao Zedong. As we know, Mao won, taking power in 1949. Many idealistic Chinese returned to build New China, as the Communists called it, but my dad wanted to stay in his adopted land. An open America let him.

And he made a new life in the United States. He learned English by reading the Wall Street Journal, became a citizen in the early 1960s, and raised four children. He started a business—a Chinese takeout—that grew into an eatery, which became a big restaurant. He bought a building, renovated it, and sparked the rejuvenation of the main street of his town in suburban New Jersey. He never misses an opportunity to vote (or to tell me how great his adopted country is).

At the end of June the Senate blocked President Bush’s immigration bill, largely due to public opposition to its amnesty provisions. Like millions of other Americans, I am deeply uneasy about these provisions, which would inevitably encourage more illegal immigration and unfairly treat aliens seeking residence through legal channels. But it is of crucial importance that we not let legislative gridlock kill the discussion and impede our movement towards a sensible immigration policy. In the long run, there may be no other issue more important to this country.

When I hear the fierce debate on immigration I think of my dad. At 90, he’s not able to travel back to his birthplace, a farming hamlet across the river from Shanghai. I’m sure he returns there in his dreams, but he’s an American now. This is where he calls home.

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Chelsea Clinton: Good for the Jews?

It’s hard to grasp the point of yesterday’s front page New York Times article on Chelsea Clinton by wunderkind reporter Jodi Kantor. While it’s clear that Kantor intended her piece to reveal the “real” Chelsea, she admits at the outset that the former first daughter and her parents “turned down interview requests for the article, as they have for countless others on the subject.” So, how does Kantor remedy this lack? With received wisdom and banalities, naturally. Kantor helpfully informs readers that the young Clinton has strawberry blond hair and favors tasteful pantsuits, that she graduated in 2001 from Stanford, did a stint at McKinsey, and works at a hedge fund run by a donor to various Clinton causes. That’s hard-hitting reportage.

The only mildly interesting nugget in the piece was the paragraph near the end, in which we discover that Chelsea hopes to learn “more about Judaism,” the faith of her boyfriend Marc Mezvinsky. Clinton, a “churchgoing Methodist,” has, of late, been attending Sabbath dinners. Perhaps Judaism will reach the White House in 2008 after all.

It’s hard to grasp the point of yesterday’s front page New York Times article on Chelsea Clinton by wunderkind reporter Jodi Kantor. While it’s clear that Kantor intended her piece to reveal the “real” Chelsea, she admits at the outset that the former first daughter and her parents “turned down interview requests for the article, as they have for countless others on the subject.” So, how does Kantor remedy this lack? With received wisdom and banalities, naturally. Kantor helpfully informs readers that the young Clinton has strawberry blond hair and favors tasteful pantsuits, that she graduated in 2001 from Stanford, did a stint at McKinsey, and works at a hedge fund run by a donor to various Clinton causes. That’s hard-hitting reportage.

The only mildly interesting nugget in the piece was the paragraph near the end, in which we discover that Chelsea hopes to learn “more about Judaism,” the faith of her boyfriend Marc Mezvinsky. Clinton, a “churchgoing Methodist,” has, of late, been attending Sabbath dinners. Perhaps Judaism will reach the White House in 2008 after all.

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Should We Be Patient With al Qaeda?

I took apart a New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Thompson yesterday, which had tried to tell us what the American statesman, George F. Kennan, were he still alive, would have said about counterterrorism.

Thompson has written back, complimenting my remarks as “very smart and complicated” and “much better than some of the other comments I’ve been getting.” But he does take issue with much of what I said, including my contention that he was being dishonest.

In the face of his very gracious note, I gladly retract that last charge. But what I do leave standing is my assertion that his piece is deeply illogical and, if this is not too unfriendly a word, disingenuous.

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I took apart a New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Thompson yesterday, which had tried to tell us what the American statesman, George F. Kennan, were he still alive, would have said about counterterrorism.

Thompson has written back, complimenting my remarks as “very smart and complicated” and “much better than some of the other comments I’ve been getting.” But he does take issue with much of what I said, including my contention that he was being dishonest.

In the face of his very gracious note, I gladly retract that last charge. But what I do leave standing is my assertion that his piece is deeply illogical and, if this is not too unfriendly a word, disingenuous.

I won’t summarize the argument so far. Interested readers can click on the relevant links above. But it beggars the imagination that in the war-ravaged year of 1947, when the danger of Soviet expansionism loomed so large, Kennan had in mind, as Thompson asserts, only a non-military means of checking it.

Yes, Kennan wrote a letter to Walter Lippmann saying that we should not intervene militarily in Greece, Turkey, and Iran, where an East-West contest for power was on-going. But he never mailed that letter. Perhaps this was at the request of his boss, Secretary of State George Marshall, as Thompson suggests. Or perhaps, after reflection, it was not his considered opinion: after all, as I noted yesterday, he did speak in his X article in Foreign Affairs of a “firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” Either way, this one letter cannot be taken to mean that in those years Kennan stood opposed to the use of military force to contain the USSR in all instances.

And yes, Kennan was an advocate of “patience,” as Thompson accurately states. But patience at what? Back in those years, it seems fairly clear that he meant the U.S. should be patient in resisting Soviet expansionism, including by military means, until Communist rule changed or collapsed. He did not mean patiently going to church Sunday after Sunday to pray for a miracle.

Finally, if Kennan (the later Kennan, that is, the one who had disowned the writings of the earlier one) turned out to be wrong about the cold war—as Thompson acknowledges he was both in his Times op-ed and in his comment on contentions—why should we now accept his faulty approach in dealing with al Qaeda? I called this illogical yesterday, and I call it illogical again today.

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America is From Mars, Iran is Not

How worried should we be about Iran and its raging president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Can developments on Mars or in other locations in outer-space help us ward off the danger? This is not a facetious question.

It is quite clear that the ayatollahs are determined to acquire nuclear weapons. In the face of this challenge, and assuming that diplomacy fails to stop them, we are likely to have two non-exclusive options: strike at their nuclear facilities or build defensive systems like the Airborne Laser.

But from time to time, it helps to step back from the intricate problems connected with either option and remind ourselves of the essential nature of this conflict. That essential nature is asymmetric, and here is where Mars and outer space come in.

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How worried should we be about Iran and its raging president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Can developments on Mars or in other locations in outer-space help us ward off the danger? This is not a facetious question.

It is quite clear that the ayatollahs are determined to acquire nuclear weapons. In the face of this challenge, and assuming that diplomacy fails to stop them, we are likely to have two non-exclusive options: strike at their nuclear facilities or build defensive systems like the Airborne Laser.

But from time to time, it helps to step back from the intricate problems connected with either option and remind ourselves of the essential nature of this conflict. That essential nature is asymmetric, and here is where Mars and outer space come in.

In January 2004, we landed two mobile vehicles on the surface of Mars to explore the planet. Both had ninety-day warranties, and were thought likely to fail shortly thereafter. Three years later, both rovers are going strong.

One of them–Opportunity–has driven more than six miles across a rocky plain to arrive early last month at the edge of the Victoria Crater, 2,500 feet wide and 230 feet deep. Opportunity is now beginning a dangerous descent into the crater to see what it can find. The other craft–Spirit–is on the opposite side of the planet, in an area dubbed Silica Valley (the soil is rich in that substance) grinding up rocks to see what is inside.

Closer to home, but still quite far away, is our Lacrosse-2. This reconnaissance satellite was launched in 1991 and has been wrapped in deep secrecy ever since. But the Russian military has now taken photographs of it, giving us a fuller picture of its capabilities. Aviation Week & Space Technology (AWST) tells us, among other things, that Lacrosse-2 has the capability to capture images of objects on earth, even at night and through clouds, that are as small as a chair.

Five Lacrosse satellites were launched, with three currently in orbit, making eight to nine overflights of Iran every day. AWST also tells us that they “are used to see potential terrorist vechicles operating in isolated areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. Such vehicles are sometimes attacked using data” from the satellites’ radar. In addition to Lacrosse-2, there are other even more advanced reconnaisance satellites up there as well.

American scientists and engineers are truly miracle makers. Of course, as we know, there are many security problems that technology cannot solve. But in thinking about the challenges posed by the ayatollahs, we should not forget that the United States is a superpower, in engineering and in many other realms.

If we are politically serious about stopping the ayatollahs from developing nuclear weapons, one way or another, we can clean their clock. We need to remind ourselves of this more often, and we need to remind the ayatollahs as well.

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Looking for Linguists

Rowan Scarborough, formerly of the Washington Times, raises an important issue in the pages of his current employer, the Washington Examiner. It is the way that long-established security rules make it difficult for our intelligence agencies to hire analysts and operatives who know anything about important “target” countries.

He cites the example of Minoo Krauser, a native of Iran who now lives in Maryland, where she is married to a military officer. Although a U.S. citizen with fluency in Farsi—precisely what the intelligence community needs—she hasn’t heard anything back after applying to the FBI, CIA, and NSA. Those agencies, of course, get lots of applications and they don’t have to give any reason for turning prospective hires away.

But, whatever her individual merits, there is an overarching reason why someone like Krauser wouldn’t get a second look: She has ties to a hostile country. As Scarborough notes, “Intelligence experts say the fear is that an employee can be coerced into becoming a spy because of threats to family members abroad.” That’s a legitimate concern, but by being so worried about this type of potential security breach, we are setting ourselves up for a much more serious security crisis because we fail to understand the societies where terrorism breeds and weapons of mass destruction proliferate.

Hyphenated Americans are a great asset for our country. We should be doing much more to utilize Arab-Americans and Persian-Americans, in particular, to help us in the Global War on Terror. But in order to do that, someone will have to take the responsibility for modifying our onerous security clearance procedures, which virtually ensure that only those who know little about foreign countries are allowed to study them for the U.S. government.

Rowan Scarborough, formerly of the Washington Times, raises an important issue in the pages of his current employer, the Washington Examiner. It is the way that long-established security rules make it difficult for our intelligence agencies to hire analysts and operatives who know anything about important “target” countries.

He cites the example of Minoo Krauser, a native of Iran who now lives in Maryland, where she is married to a military officer. Although a U.S. citizen with fluency in Farsi—precisely what the intelligence community needs—she hasn’t heard anything back after applying to the FBI, CIA, and NSA. Those agencies, of course, get lots of applications and they don’t have to give any reason for turning prospective hires away.

But, whatever her individual merits, there is an overarching reason why someone like Krauser wouldn’t get a second look: She has ties to a hostile country. As Scarborough notes, “Intelligence experts say the fear is that an employee can be coerced into becoming a spy because of threats to family members abroad.” That’s a legitimate concern, but by being so worried about this type of potential security breach, we are setting ourselves up for a much more serious security crisis because we fail to understand the societies where terrorism breeds and weapons of mass destruction proliferate.

Hyphenated Americans are a great asset for our country. We should be doing much more to utilize Arab-Americans and Persian-Americans, in particular, to help us in the Global War on Terror. But in order to do that, someone will have to take the responsibility for modifying our onerous security clearance procedures, which virtually ensure that only those who know little about foreign countries are allowed to study them for the U.S. government.

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