Saturday, October 9, 2010

Peasants. Darwin. Nazis.

I spoke recently to the UU congregation of the Palisades, pictured above. It was wonderful. I talked about peasants, Darwin, and Nazism. More about the talk, below.

Russian peasants.

Charles Darwin

Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi SS, organizer of the Holocaust, quoted below.

On Sunday, October 3, I spoke about "Stereotypes and Immigrants" at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palisades. It was wonderful, one of the best experiences I've had in relation to my book "Bieganski."

Afterward, congregants gave me the kind of feedback a speaker usually only dreams of. "You had us on the edge of our seats … we were gasping … your talk was explosive … you should give this talk as part of a nationwide tour."

A very beautiful African American woman, with touches of gray at the temples of her abundant dreadlocks, told me that my talk had helped her with a lifelong question she'd had about hate and prejudice. My eyes did well up. One of those moments that makes it all worthwhile.

After the talk, one congregant told me that another congregant was not satisfied. She said that he said that I said that the concept of human inequality had begun with Darwin.

But I didn't say that.

I told her to tell him that he could e-mail me. I haven't heard, so I will address what I was told was his point here.

Between, roughly, 1880 and 1929, a massive influx of peasant immigrants overwhelmed American consciousness. Note the word "consciousness" – I'm not talking about what happened in the streets or in the mines or in the tenements – I'm talking about what happened in human minds.

Americans had electricity, indoor plumbing, democracy, literacy. These new peasant immigrants from East Asia and Eastern and Southern Europe included recent serfs who had little to no experience of money, writing, shoes, self-government, bathing.

The numbers were overwhelming. Here's a vivid description from H. G. Wells. A visitor to Ellis Island

"is taken through vast barracks littered with people of every European race, every type of low-class European costume, and every degree of dirtiness, to a central hall in which the gist of the examining goes on …

day after day, incessantly, the immigrants go, wild-eyed Gipsies, Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Ruthenians, Cossacks, German peasants, Scandinavians, a few Irish still, impoverished English, occasional Dutch; they halt for a moment at little desks to exhibit papers, at other little desks to show their money and prove they are not paupers, to have their eyes scanned by this doctor and their general bearing by that. Their thumb-marks are taken, their names and heights and weights and so forth are recorded for the card index; and so, slowly, they pass along towards America, and at last reach a little wicket, the gate of the New World.

Through this metal wicket drips the immigration stream – all day long, every two or three seconds, an immigrant with a valise or a bundle, passes the little desk and goes on past the well-managed money-changing place, past the carefully organised separating ways that go to this railway or that, past the guiding, protecting officials – into a new world.

They stand in a long string, waiting to go through that wicket, with bundles, with little tin boxes, with cheap portmanteaus with odd packages, in pairs, in families, alone, women with children, men with strings of dependents, young couples. All day that string of human beads waits there, jerks forward, waits again; all day and every day, constantly replenished, constantly dropping the end beads through the wicket, till the units mount to hundreds and the hundreds to thousands ..."

The differences between peasant immigrants and Americans were overwhelming. Here, from a House Executive Document, is a horrified description of Slovak peasants

"Their homes are often nothing but scanty huts, of one room, wherein the whole family lives and sleeps promiscuously. The furniture and outfit is very primitive, mostly homemade, and has to last for generations ...

The body clothes of the men are made of coarse linen, their summer clothing of the same material, only coarser, and in winter their clothing consists of suits made from a coarse and thick woolen felting, in the natural color of the wool; an everlasting cap of the sheepskin and a pair of sandals about complete an outfit which has been in vogue with them for generations and which may be an heirloom, since the style hardly ever changes. An important part of their outfit is the roomy and long mantle without sleeves, made up from half a dozen sheepskins which are tanned, the wool being left on ... when the men are away from home these mantles form their complete bed. What these patriarchal cloaks may lack in style is generally made up for by some gaudy embroidery or even painting on the leather side of it…In all, it will be seen that the tastes of these people are anything but refined, are low, in fact."

This peasant is wearing the sheepskin described with such distaste, above.

Americans didn't know how to understand these peasants who were invading their "new and clean country," as Labor Secretary James J Davis, in an anti-immigrant article, put it.

Science stepped in. Science would explain the peasant immigrants to America. In an address before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Albert Edward Jenks announced, "The greatest problem before America today is the immigration problem ... This great problem is at base anthropological ... as out of these different physical characteristics of the different breeds of people come the psychic characteristics of the different breeds of people"

Science, at that time, was informed by Darwin, who had published "Origin of Species" in 1859.

Myth is the foundational narrative of a culture. The great folklore scholar Bronislaw Malinowski described myth as a people's charter for belief. A people's myth can be compared to the US Constitution. It prescribes what people can do and can't do, what they should and should not do.

Before Darwin, the dominant myth in the West was the Judeo-Christian myth. In this myth, one omnipotent, unique, creator God, in an act of love, created the universe, one time.

I tell my students over and over, "A fish doesn't know it is in water." A Westerner who has never lived under any other myths probably doesn't realize the uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian myth. Many of my students just assume that every religion is about a unique, omnipotent God who creates one universe one time in an act of love, and that everybody believes that "all men are created equal."

That's just not so, of course. Just one example, of many possible examples: Hinduism's Rig Veda describes the creation of the world as the sacrifice of the primal man, Parusha. Parusha's mouth becomes the Brahmans, high caste people. His arms become the princes, or kshatriya, those ranked second in caste hierarchy. The rest of Parusha's body is similarly allotted to various castes. This myth justifies the caste system. In Hindu myth, people are very much NOT created equal. This myth is thousands of years old. With it as justification, as charter, low caste and untouchable Hindus are condemned to hellish lives. They are not equal. They are inferior. Their inferiority is sealed by myth.

Compare this Vedic myth to Talmudic commentary on Genesis, as retold by Nathan Ausubel:

"Why did God create only one Adam and not many at a time? He did this to demonstrate that one man in himself is an entire universe. Also He wished to teach mankind that he who kills one human being is as guilty as if he had destroyed the entire world. Similarly, he who saves the life of one single human being is as worthy as if he had saved all of humanity.

God created only one man so that people should not try to feel superior to one another and boast of their lineage in this wise: 'I am descended from a more distinguished Adam than you.'

He also did this so that the heathen should not be able to say that since many men had been created at the same time, it was conclusive proof that there was more than one God. Lastly, He did this in order to establish His own power and glory. When a maker of coins does his work he uses only one mould and all the coins emerge alike. But the Kings of Kings, blessed be His name, has created all mankind in the mould of Adam, and even so no man is identical to another. For this reason each person must respect himself and say with dignity, 'God created the world on my account. Therefore let me not lose eternal life because of some vain passion!'"

This myth encountered challenges, for example after Columbus discovered America. Were the Indians human? Yes, insisted heroes like Father Bartolome de las Casas. De las Casas said that in the Indians persecuted by conquistadors he saw "Jesus Christ, our God, scourged and afflicted and beaten and crucified, not once, but thousands of times." That is a remarkable statement. No Greek follower of Zeus saw Zeus in the barbarians or helots he conquered. It would be anathema for a Muslim to see Allah in an infidel he decapitated. This myth is, simply, different from other myths. With Sublimus Dei, the Vatican agreed: Indians are human beings. Just like us.

Nazism was a challenge. Catholicism insistently, stubbornly, stuck to the idea that we are all equal children of God, as in this 1943 quote from Vatican Radio: "Every man bears the stamp of God." Some Catholics did buy into Scientific Racism. But, compared to other institutions, the Catholic Church was more significant as a resistor of Scientific Racism than as an adopter. As one SS critic put it, "The Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order. His speech is one long attack on everything we stand for. God, he says, regards all peoples and races as worthy of the same consideration. Here he is clearly speaking in behalf of the Jews and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals." Similar statements can be found here.

No one argues that all Jews and Christians, all the time, have perfectly adhered to the implications of this myth. Atrocity happens: slavery, conquest, war. The point is, rather, that this was the guiding myth, the narrative that a culture's heroes, famous and obscure, strove to live their lives by, the North Star they struggled to follow, the ideal they hoped to live up to, the still small voice that kept them awake at night, the legacy they worked to pass on.

As Richard Dawkins put it, "Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist"

Jettisoning the Judeo-Christian myth, and putting Darwinism in its place, was followed by self-identified Darwinists who deduced that, since there is no loving, creator God who made people of other races your brother, since there was no eternal consequence for harming another, since there was no real equality, well, you could put human beings in zoos and put human beings in ovens. And so you did. And you very much did cite your understanding of Darwinism as your guiding myth And you very much did cite the Judeo-Christian myth as an outdated superstition, that weakened you and that you needed to erase ASAP.

The Judeo-Christian myth of human equality relied on faith. It relied on believing what you could plainly see was not true. People aren't equal. Some are better looking. Some are smarter. Some are healthier. Some are more useful. Science relies on evidence, not faith. Evidence. The evidence is right there in front of your eyes. And so Karl Pearson, who gave us statistics, and Carl Brigham, who gave us the SAT, and Margaret Sanger, who gave us Planned Parenthood, all went to work on proving that peasant immigrants were as inferior as they seemed, and worthy of restriction, or outright elimination.

Everyone was on board. All American presidents during this era. The Ivy League schools. Right wingers. Left wingers. (Pearson changed his name from Carl to Karl to honor Marx.) The mainstream press, the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, the Museum of Natural History. The Bronx Zoo. Everyone could plainly see that these peasant immigrants were specimens of an inferior race.

Madison Grant was a great American. Good friend of Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. Concerned scientist. Contributed to preservation of the redwood and the bison. Cofounded the Bronx Zoo. His "Passing of the Great Race" contains echoes of Darwin, and foreshadows Hitler, who would write to Grant to tell him that "Passing" was his "bible."

"The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit, and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race. It is highly unjust that a minute minority should be called upon to supply brains for the unthinking mass … The church assumes a serious responsibility toward the future of the race whenever it steps in and preserves a defective strain ... A great injury is done to the community by the perpetuation of worthless types. These strains are apt to be meek and lowly, and as such make a strong appeal to the sympathies of the successful. Before eugenics were understood much could be said from a Christian … view-point in favor of indiscriminate charity … [now we know charity does] more injury to the race than black death or smallpox … A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit – in other words, social failures – would solve the whole question in one hundred years, as well as enable us to get rid of the undesirables who crowd our jails, hospitals, and insane asylums."

And there you have it. I don't make this stuff up. Christianity is the enemy because Christianity insists on seeing a worthy humanity where there is no scientific evidence of any worthy humanity. It insists on faith, on seeing what is unseen, on seeing invisible value in apparently worthless human specimens.

Grant did put a human being in the Bronx Zoo, by the way: Ota Benga. The New York Times approved. "he belongs to a race that 'scientists do not rate high in the human scale…The idea that men are all much alike … is now far out of date.'"

Let's jump, without any attempt at a segue, without any attempt at creating comfortable distance, from immigrant-overrun, scientific America to the funeral of Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi "protector" – that really was what the Nazis called him – of what is now the Czech Republic. Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, a Czech and a Slovak, assassinated Heydrich; the Nazis, in retaliation, wiped out the village of Lidice. 

SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, coordinator of the Holocaust, eulogized Heydrich:

"We will have to deal with Christianity in a tougher way than hitherto. We must settle accounts with this Christianity, this greatest of plagues that could have happened to us in our history, which has weakened us in every conflict. If our generation does not do it then it would I think drag on for a long time. We must overcome it within ourselves … We shall once again have to find a new scale of values for our people: the scale of the macrocosm and the microcosm, the starry sky above us and the world in us, the world that we see in the microscope.

Man is nothing special at all…He has no idea how a fly is constructed—however unpleasant, it is a miracle—or how a blossom is constructed. He must once again look with deep reverence into this world. Then he will acquire the right sense of proportion about what is above us, about how we are woven into this cycle.

Then, on a different plane, something else must happen: we must once again be rooted in our ancestors and grandchildren, in this eternal chain and eternal sequence … By rooting our people in a deep ideological awareness of ancestors and grandchildren we must once more persuade them that they must have sons … everything that we do must be justifiable vis-à-vis the clan, our ancestors. If we do not secure this moral foundation which is the deepest and best because the most natural, we will not be able to overcome Christianity on this plane and create the Germanic Reich which will be a blessing for the earth. That is our mission as a nation on this earth. For thousands of years it has been the mission of this blond race to rule the earth and again and again to bring it happiness and culture."

In another speech, delivered a year later, Himmler spoke to his fellow SS officers. These were the men who committed the most notorious crimes of the twentieth century.

"One basic principle must be the absolute rule for the S.S. men. We must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood and nobody else. What happens to a Russian and a Czech does not interest me in the least. What the nations can offer in the way of good blood of our type we will take, if necessary by kidnapping their children and raising them here with us.

Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death interests me only in so far as we need them as slaves for our culture: otherwise it is of no interest to me. Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an anti-tank ditch interests me only in so far as the anti-tank ditch for Germany is finished. We shall never be tough and heartless where it is not necessary, that is clear.

We, Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude towards animals, will also assume a decent attitude towards these human animals. But it is a crime against our blood to worry about them and give them ideals, thus causing our sons and grandsons to have a more difficult time with them. When somebody comes up to me and says: 'I cannot dig the anti-tank ditch with women and children, it is inhuman, for it would kill them,' then I have to say: 'You are the murderer of your own blood, because if the anti-tank ditch is not dug German soldiers will die, and they are the sons of German mothers. They are our own blood....' Our concern, our duty, is our people and our blood. We can be indifferent to everything else. I wish the S.S. to adopt this attitude towards the problem of all foreign, non-Germanic peoples, especially Russians....

Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when there are 500, or when there are 1000. And to have seen this through, and to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory.

We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people to do it, to kill … we exterminated the bacillus, we don't want to become sick and die from the same bacillus.

I will never see it happen, that even one bit of putrefaction comes in contact with us, or takes root in us. On the contrary, where it might try to take root, we will burn it out together. But altogether we can say: We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people. And we have taken on no defect within us, in our soul, or in our character."

I ended my UU talk abruptly with that quote. What can one say after that?

Let's review:

Sophisticated people had a forced encounter with peasant immigrants in the US c. 1880-1929.

Newly Darwinized Scientists volunteered to explain everything to Americans.

That explanation was typified by Madison Grant's "Passing of the Great Race." Jettison the Judeo-Christian myth; believe the evidence of your eyes: these peasants – and lots of Eastern Europeans among them – are inferior. Nordics are superior.

Ten years after this immigration was ended by the US Quota Acts that sealed the immigrants as racially inferior, Hitler invaded Poland, and Nazis like Himmler justified Nazi crimes with a call to jettison Christianity, to put faith in blood and genes, as manifested in sons.

All kinds of misstatements of this message are possible: am I saying that all Christians are good and that if you believe in evolution you have to become a Nazi? No. We're all aware of horrors self-identified Christians have committed. I believe in evolution. So does prominent Christian Francis S. Collins. I'm saying, rather, that that is, indeed, what happened, and the historical record certainly supports it, though for many this whole tale has gone down the memory hole.

In 2009, students at my school hosted a panel discussion cum 200th birthday party for Charles Darwin. I truly admired their initiative and social engagement. I begged to be allowed to speak. I wanted to say just this: any caricature of those who have reservations about previous applications of Darwinism as simple-minded, backward "rednecks" does a grievous disservice to the truth. I was told I would not be allowed to speak. And, at this celebration, anyone who has any reservations about previous applications of Darwinism was caricatured as a buffoon – the evening began with a joke mocking non-believers. Darwinism, according to this panel, has had only a positive impact on humanity; it was all sunshine and lollypops.

Again, self-identified Christians have done some pretty awful things. I include myself in that census. Christians and Jews have engaged in that timeworn Judeo-Christian ritual – confession. We have torn our garments, fasted and prayed, we've made amends, we've tried to figure out where we screwed up, we planned how to get it right next time.

I've seen no such acknowledgement, reassessment, reparation or reconciliation among atheists or Darwinists or leftists or neo-Pagans, who left us the biggest piles of corpses in history. Often, they did not commit atrocities in rebellion against the central tenets of their faith; as in the Himmler quote, above, they often committed atrocities in obedience to the central tenets of their faith. And then they have, as in the case of the Darwin panel, declined to speak any narrative that contradicts their myth. Their myth says that religion is the source of all the trouble; Madison Grant compared Christianity, and Richard Dawkins compared faith, to smallpox. Their myth insists that the human mind is the solution. Alas, the human mind has lead us down some pretty crooked roads.


  1. Very informative, and terrifying.

  2. Interesting post, Danusha. I don't think that religion is the source of all trouble, but the Old Testament doesn't seem to present all pre-Darwinian people as paragons of charity and love. There's a human love of slaughter in the OT that scares me.

  3. John, it goes without saying that I respect you as a person.

    Your comment here offends, disturbs, and alienates me.

    My post is serious, based on serious and accepted scholarship. It addresses matters of great gravity.

    Your post is snide and easy. It didn't require any work or integrity.

    "all pre-Darwinian people as paragons of charity and love"

    This is an insulting thing to say. No responsible person has ever argued that "all pre-darwinian people are paragons of charity and love." None. Never.

    To imply that I believe that, or that I argued that, is insulting to me.

    You've ignored the serious scholarship and gravity of the issues addressed in my post and replaced all that with an insulting straw man.

    "There's a human love of slaughter in the OT"

    In the OT there is a strong condemnation of the very real practices of Pagans placing their own children into ovens dedicated to a Pagan God, to highly exploitative cultic sexual practices, to invasions, to enslavements, to massacres.

    There is a hesitance to use violence -- note how long God gave the Egyptians to mend their ways -- and a condemnation of ethnocentrism, of violence -- the Cain and Abel story -- of arrogance.

    If you really want to see "a human love of slaughter" you can turn to Israel's neighbors, the Assyrians, who decorated the ruler's palace with bas relief of the ruler flaying victims alive. There is nothing like that in the OT.

    In the OT, you will find good people in every ethnic group – something most traditional literatures do not depict. In Jewish sacred literature you will hear God chiding his angels, telling them not to celebrate the death of Egyptians. Again, not a theme you will find in other traditional literatures. You will find God punishing his own chosen people when they exhibit unjust behaviors. And you will find, in the OT, redemption of those who do bad things. David did wretched things, suffered for it, repented, and was redeemed. That option is missing in many other traditional literatures.

    You are reading a different Old Testament. You can't blame the book on the glasses you wear when you read it.

    As for this "paragons of virtue" comment. Again, it's a straw man comment, and I should not even honor it with a reply. Why you would say something so thoroughly insulting to me about my scholarship escapes me. It's something I'd expect from someone with far less integrity than you.

    In any case, neither I nor any other respectable person has ever argued that before Darwin inheritors of the Judeo-Christian tradition are paragons. Rather, as my post makes clear, as is visible for anyone to see, foundational myths changed. When Christians committed atrocities, they did so against their own scripture and lived tradition. Concerned members of the community pointed this out. Change was demanded. An example of this: Bartolomeo de las Casas devoted his life to protesting atrocities committed by Conquistadors against Native Americans. He did this, as he himself explicitly stated, because he saw Christ in the Native Americans. "Jesus Christ, our God, scourged and afflicted and beaten and crucified, not once, but thousands of times."

    No such process is even possible given Scientific Racism. Rather, as my post, above, makes clear, its foundational scriptures make the opposite true. One must fight against seeing a fellow human in others.

    A perfect demonstration of this: there is a notorious woodcut, I think, of conquistadors watching dogs eat Native Americans alive. Christians used images like this to PROTEST mistreatment of Native Americans. That very image was used by a Scientific Racist in a textbook to DEMONSTRATE how peoples SHOULD behave toward each other.

    If you really can't see the difference between those two approaches, John, if you insist on distorting my post to put words in my mouth that I never said, then we really cannot communicate on these very serious and important matters.

  4. Extremely fascinating and eye-opening. I am also speechless.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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