Commentary Magazine


Topic: eugenics

Charles Blow’s Brave New World

When Sarah Palin first warned about death panels and ObamaCare, the president and his allies were quick to laugh. Sending grandma off to an icy, watery grave was the stuff of Inuit legends, never the intention of liberals fighting to pass a law that could and would have serious implications for America’s senior citizens, despite the AARP’s inexplicable endorsement. Reading Charles Blow’s column in the New York Times yesterday, however, one can appreciate the origins of Palin’s concerns. Considering progressives’ descriptions of children as burdens, not blessings, it’s understandable that they would feel similarly about another “useless” subsection of our society: the elderly.

Blow’s column focuses on the burdens that an aging population places on society. These elderly are burdens, apparently, because they are beyond “what we currently conceive as working-age,” and because disease “ravages the mind and body.” This betrays a fundamental difference between how liberals and conservatives view a person’s role in society. Conservatives see them for what they are: individuals. Liberals see these individuals as part of a larger group, judging their value on how usefully they serve the collective. To a conservative, does it matter that an elderly member of society cannot work or be totally self-sufficient? Of course not. These individuals are important no matter what their perceived financial contributions (or burdens) may be. We love grandma not because she may give good presents and writes nice birthday checks, but because she is a valued member of the family and of the community. She’s important not because of what she can and does give us materially, but because of who she is and what she means to us.

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When Sarah Palin first warned about death panels and ObamaCare, the president and his allies were quick to laugh. Sending grandma off to an icy, watery grave was the stuff of Inuit legends, never the intention of liberals fighting to pass a law that could and would have serious implications for America’s senior citizens, despite the AARP’s inexplicable endorsement. Reading Charles Blow’s column in the New York Times yesterday, however, one can appreciate the origins of Palin’s concerns. Considering progressives’ descriptions of children as burdens, not blessings, it’s understandable that they would feel similarly about another “useless” subsection of our society: the elderly.

Blow’s column focuses on the burdens that an aging population places on society. These elderly are burdens, apparently, because they are beyond “what we currently conceive as working-age,” and because disease “ravages the mind and body.” This betrays a fundamental difference between how liberals and conservatives view a person’s role in society. Conservatives see them for what they are: individuals. Liberals see these individuals as part of a larger group, judging their value on how usefully they serve the collective. To a conservative, does it matter that an elderly member of society cannot work or be totally self-sufficient? Of course not. These individuals are important no matter what their perceived financial contributions (or burdens) may be. We love grandma not because she may give good presents and writes nice birthday checks, but because she is a valued member of the family and of the community. She’s important not because of what she can and does give us materially, but because of who she is and what she means to us.

Blow expresses concern for the future of the entitlement system, given the likelihood that the current structure is due to collapse under the top-heavy weight of an aging population. This is a serious worry for many financial planners on the city, state, and federal level and has been discussed by commentators and politicians on both the left and right. When pension contracts are written and entitlement benefits drafted, one never knows how long recipients will live. Would the more logical solution be to deny life-extending medical treatment to individuals? Or would it perhaps make more sense to re-adjust our entitlements system to compensate for a lengthening lifespan? To Blow, it seems that the more appealing solution would be to end scientific investigation and research, content that we have traveled far enough in our quest for a longer and more fulfilling life. The cessation of the advancement of science and discovery is somehow more appealing to Blow than reevaluating the generous life-long financial commitments made to millions with public money. 

The Orwellian ramifications of Blow’s worries over an aging population are vast. If individuals are only worthy of membership in society if they are able bodied, where does the line get drawn? If life-extending treatments become verboten, lest society be burdened with what Blow seems to believe are useless individuals, would the physically and mentally infirm also be denied life-saving treatments? While eugenics is often seen as part of the past, one cannot forget the legacy that those who championed its use carry in our modern world. The mother of what is now Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, was outspoken in her support of eugenicist policies. In her 1920 book Sanger argued that “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.” Those questioning how effective Sanger’s campaign to weed out the unfit has been can look at the latest data on abortion rates for fetuses who test positive for Down Syndrome (studies place the number at over 90 percent).  

The fact that Blow’s column has received little attention and even less denouncement should concern anyone interested in keeping our society morally intact. While Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is seen as a work of fiction, we may one day, if Charles Blow’s vision of society is realized, see it as prophetic instead. 

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Liberal Prejudice Against the Orthodox Crosses a Line

Last week’s release of a new demographic study of Jewish life in Greater New York created an understandable stir, as it revealed that the Orthodox are forming an increasingly large percentage of the population. Assimilation, intermarriage and negative population growth are reducing the number of liberal and secular Jews while the Orthodox, and in particular the Haredim, are experiencing exponential growth. Though the implications of this trend will potentially alter virtually everything about Jewish life in the region, given that Orthodox Jews tend to be far more conservative than the rest of the community, the political implications of this pattern are inescapable. In a city like New York where 74 percent of all Jewish school-age children are Orthodox, there is little question the traditional dominance of secular and liberal Jews is not likely to persist in the long run.

That this would upset liberals is understandable. But that ought not to excuse the willingness of the editorial page of the Forward when discussing the Orthodox community to engage in the sort of language it would never excuse were such words directed at non-Jews. The impending dominance of non-liberals has caused the newspaper that began its life in 1897 as an advocate for socialism to vent its spleen in such a manner as to label many Orthodox Jews as the “undeserving poor,” whose inappropriate life choices ought perhaps to render them ineligible for government assistance if not the aid of the rest of the Jewish community. While the decision of the Forward’s editorial board to belatedly join a decades-long discussion about the merits of the welfare state is welcome, the piece makes it abundantly clear this shift is motivated more by open distaste for the Haredim than any misgivings about liberal ideology.

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Last week’s release of a new demographic study of Jewish life in Greater New York created an understandable stir, as it revealed that the Orthodox are forming an increasingly large percentage of the population. Assimilation, intermarriage and negative population growth are reducing the number of liberal and secular Jews while the Orthodox, and in particular the Haredim, are experiencing exponential growth. Though the implications of this trend will potentially alter virtually everything about Jewish life in the region, given that Orthodox Jews tend to be far more conservative than the rest of the community, the political implications of this pattern are inescapable. In a city like New York where 74 percent of all Jewish school-age children are Orthodox, there is little question the traditional dominance of secular and liberal Jews is not likely to persist in the long run.

That this would upset liberals is understandable. But that ought not to excuse the willingness of the editorial page of the Forward when discussing the Orthodox community to engage in the sort of language it would never excuse were such words directed at non-Jews. The impending dominance of non-liberals has caused the newspaper that began its life in 1897 as an advocate for socialism to vent its spleen in such a manner as to label many Orthodox Jews as the “undeserving poor,” whose inappropriate life choices ought perhaps to render them ineligible for government assistance if not the aid of the rest of the Jewish community. While the decision of the Forward’s editorial board to belatedly join a decades-long discussion about the merits of the welfare state is welcome, the piece makes it abundantly clear this shift is motivated more by open distaste for the Haredim than any misgivings about liberal ideology.

The conceit of the piece is that the Orthodox growth is being fueled in large measures by that community’s belief in the value of large families. The Forward, speaking in a voice that drips with upper and middle class condescension for the poor as well as contempt for the Orthodox often heard in liberal Jewish circles but rarely published, implies that most of these children probably shouldn’t be conceived, because their religious parents may not always have the material resources the Forward’s editors think they should possess before adding another soul to the community’s numbers. To their way of thinking, if some of these Orthodox families are not entirely “self-sufficient,” their voluntary choice to reproduce should push them to the back of the line when Jewish agencies are doling out aid to the poor and also calls into question the wisdom of so much government aid being given to them.

The problem for the Forward is not just that the Orthodox are having more children than liberal Jews and this rejection of middle class “materialism” that values Torah study over economics is religiously motivated. What really bugs them is that the majority of the Orthodox seems to have little sympathy with liberal political positions even though some of them are recipients of government assistance. Like Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? which vented liberal impatience with Midwestern conservatives who vote their values rather than what the author believes is their economic interests, the Forward thinks it’s downright hypocritical the Orthodox don’t all vote for the Democrats.

A close examination of Haredi voting patterns may not exactly bear this out, as the Hasidic sects who vote as a bloc do tend to barter their votes in elections in return for government largesse in a manner that perhaps the Forward thinks is rational or at least consistent. But there is little doubt that most Orthodox Jews, including the vast majority who do not get any government aid, don’t share the paper’s affection for liberalism. And that is what has apparently goaded the Forward into publishing a rant whose only real purpose is to stigmatize Orthodox Jews as an expanding horde of lazy welfare cheats who ought to be denied assistance as they out-reproduce more responsible liberal Jews.

Suffice it to say the Haredi community has more than its share of problems. The growth of Jewish poverty is troubling, as is any sign that Americans are starting to copy the unfortunate pattern of Israeli Haredim in which employment, not to mention national service, is regarded by many as beneath the dignity of the male population.

But while it is one thing to express concerns about the future of that community, it is quite another to write in a manner that speaks of the rising Orthodox birth rate as if we would all be better off if those children were never born. That is a shocking argument that would be quickly labeled as racist by the righteous liberals at the Forward were it aimed at inner-city blacks or Hispanics. A desire to comfort liberals about their impending political decline is no excuse for launching a kulturkampf against the Orthodox.

We believe the principles of economic freedom ought to apply to everyone. The unfortunate consequences of government dependency know no religious barrier and can devastate Jews as well as non-Jews, Israelis as well as Americans. But when a critique of the welfare state crosses over into prejudice against specific groups or language that resonates with bias that sounds more like eugenics than political analysis, a line has been crossed. That the Forward has done so is an indictment of their judgment and of their commitment to the value of all Jewish lives.

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