January 31, 2008


I am reading Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism, largely because it's something of a sensation to some and a source of consternation to others, and as always I like to make up my mind for myself. I think it's a book offered with earnest sincerity, occasional good humor, but in the end it's flawed. To the extent that Goldberg resurrects forgotten policy wonks of bygone eras, it's not bad. I doubt I'll ever get around to reading early issues of the New Republic, so it's useful to read excerpts of their editorials and get a sense of the magazine's orientation. Goldberg is right that the left (I would argue most Americans) have lost touch with their history--especially their intellectual history, and thus strangely sleepwalk through the present (I wonder, though, whether this is true of all men at all times).

The problem with Goldberg, however, is that I can't tell whether he has actually read any of the authors he quotes. His footnotes often cite, not the works of those he criticizes, but the works of other authors who've criticized them. This may well leave Goldberg misquoting passages that don't mean what he thinks they mean.

I don't know the work of the likes of Herbert Croly or Walter Lippman well enough to judge, but I do know George Bernard Shaw, so I was mildly surprised to read the following quotation offered as evidence that Shaw was "totally committed to eugenics as an integral part of the socialist project," as Goldberg puts it. Goldberg writes (page 250)

[Shaw] particularly lamented the chaotic nature of a laissez-faire approach to mate selection in which people "select their wives and husbands less carefully than they select their cashiers and cooks." Besides, he explained, a smart woman would be more content with a 10 percent share in a man of good genetic stock than a 100 percent share in a man of undesirable lineage.

The big about the 10 percent share rung a bell, and Goldberg's footnote helpfully suggests the quote is from either page 43 or page 45 of the 1903 edition of Man and Superman, from the preface to the 1917 Penguin edition of Major Barbara, or from an essay from Diane Paul, "Eugenics and the Left," from the Journal of the History of Ideas, Oct.-Dec. 1984.

Here, from the Maxims for Revolutionists (which are the work, not of Shaw, but of the fictional John Tanner, M.I.R.C., Shaw's updated Don Juan), is the full quote Goldberg abuses:

Polygamy, when tried under modern democratic conditions, as by the Mormons, is wrecked by the revolt of the mass of inferior men who are condemned to celibacy by it; for the maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one. Polyandry has not been tried under these conditions.

I think it's a huge stretch to suggest that, in this aphorism about Mormons, Shaw is advocating eugenics. Similarly, Goldberg attributes to Shaw ideas that are expressed by his Don Juan. Goldberg says Shaw claimed, "The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of Man." But that's not Shaw, the quote is from the Revolutionist's Handbook. In the Epistle Dedicatory, Shaw explains the what the Revolutionist's Handbook is:

I am sorry to say that it is a common practice with romancers to announce their hero as a man of extraordinary genius, and then leave his works entirely to the readerís imagination; so that at the end of the book you whisper to yourself ruefully that but for the authorís solemn preliminary assurance you should hardly have given the gentleman credit for ordinary good sense. You cannot accuse me of this pitiable barrenness, this feeble evasion. I not only tell you that my hero wrote a revolutionistsí handbook: I give you the handbook at full length for your edification if you care to read it. And in that handbook you will find the politics of the sex question as I conceive Don Juanís descendant to understand them. Not that I disclaim the fullest responsibility for his opinions and for those of all my characters, pleasant and unpleasant. They are all right from their several points of view; and their points of view are, for the dramatic moment, mine also. This may puzzle the people who believe that there is such a thing as an absolutely right point of view, usually their own. It may seem to them that nobody who doubts this can be in a state of grace. However that may be, it is certainly true that nobody who agrees with them can possibly be a dramatist, or indeed anything else that turns upon a knowledge of mankind. Hence it has been pointed out that Shakespear had no conscience. Neither have I, in that sense.

Shaw's relationship to Tanner, to all of his characters, is far more complex than that of a pundit advocating a particular position. I suspect Goldberg is guilty more of ignorance than ill intent in reducing a work of the imagination to the vulgar status of a policy white paper, but it's a troubling lapse nonetheless.

Posted by Ideofact at January 31, 2008 11:21 PM