Read This Article at The Atlantic

From various comment discussions over at Mano’s, I’ve been reminded of Madison Grant’s wretched The Passing Of The Great Race and once again had to think about the historical importance of that remarkably shitty book.

I did a posting a while back about it, [stderr] trying to delicately lead everyone around to the realization that Madison Grant was one of Hitler’s teachers; that Hitler’s mish-mosh of weird racial theories came from an American pseudo-intellectual pseudo-scientist. It’s a hard bit to swallow but it’s not a hard argument to make. Hitler himself wrote a letter to Grant, saying that The Passing Of the Great Race had become his bible. If you read that remarkably bad book, you’ll find it’s a weird sort of pointless bunch of hateful assertions backed by nothing, yet it had a massive effect on American immigration policy. I would not be in the slightest bit surprised to learn that former white house nazi Stephen Miller had a signed first edition next to his bed, with a bottle of lotion and a box of kleenex. You can’t look through Grant without seeing where “white replacement theory” comes from – it follows inevitably from Grant’s asserted assumption that human breeding operates like cattle breeding and that behavior is strongly influenced by breeding. Grant writes:

There exists today a widespread and fatuous belief in the power of environment, as well as of education and opportunity to alter heredity, which arises from the dogma of the brotherhood of man, derived in its turn from loose thinkers of the French Revolution and their American mimics. Such beliefs have done much damage in the past and if allowed to go uncontradicted, may do even more serious damage in the future. Thus the view that the Negro slave was an unfortunate cousin of the white man, deeply tanned by the tropic sun and denied the blessings of Christianity and civilization, played no small part with the sentimentalists of the Civil War period and it has taken us fifty years to learn that speaking English, wearing good clothes, and going to school and church does not transform a Negro into a white man. Nor was a Syrian or Egyptian freedman transformed into a Roman by wearing a toga and applauding his favorite gladiator in the ampitheater. Americans will have a similar experience with the Polish Jew, whose dwarf stature, peculiar mentality, and ruthless concentration on self-interest are being engrafted upon the stock of the nation. [page 16]

See what I mean? It’s like a talk by Jordan Peterson – it’s fractally wrong: even the wrong parts are wrong, because they are used to extrapolate more wrongness. But it’s worse than that because, woven throughout Madison Grant’s writing, like a bit of feces in the salad bar, are ideas that influenced public policy, taught Adolf Hitler his weird theories of racism, and are with us to this day. You can’t read that stuff without screaming, “Did he ever hear of Frederick Douglass? I hear he’s doing great work these days!” Does he really want to say that you can teach James Baldwin to write in English and not wind up with every single sentence dropping from his pen being vastly superior to Madison Grant’s own blue-blooded efforts? For that matter, does he understand that great Greek philosophers, who were thinking him under the table 2000 years before he was born, were not white christians? It is so goddamn infuriating to read this stuff that it makes me want to throw the book against the wall, repeatedly, hoping it somehow rearranges itself to make sense. It’s pseudo-science, proven through vigorous assertion, but it’s also nonsense – it’s a kind of gibberish mirror of racism in which the racist can look and convince themself that, “well, I’m better than them.” Which is seldom true, it turns out.  First off, Grant doesn’t seem to realize that Hannibal, one of the great Romans, was not a Roman and was not a white guy. But Grant also doesn’t seem to realize that his theory of blood-lines, namely that there are a people who we can call “anglo saxons” in a racial sense, does not hold up against the fact that the Romans conquered England and built it into their empire’s economy for hundreds of years. In terms of Grant’s racial mixing theories, there are no English people, there are just various degrees of Romans. And if Grant wants to talk about who is superior to whom, how does he manage to square the circle that the barbarian viking thugs (“nordics”) were somehow superior to the Chinese, Mongols, or Romans who conquered all?

Anyhow, I don’t think I manage to do a very good job of conveying the impact of Madison Grant and the horror that it represents and produced. So, read this fine piece by Adam Serwer at The Atlantic: [atl] He explains it better than I can, the long-term pernicious influence of this mass of bullshit which is a uniquely American mass of bullshit. But it was bullshit that taught Hitler. In Madison Grant’s terms, Hitler was probably inferior European stock, blah blah blah but you can’t expect Hitler to have figured that out. In genetic terms, by the way, Grant was a eugenic disaster area, except he considered himself to be an American aristocrat because he was able to amass a substantial fortune the traditional way that superior people prefer: he inherited it.

Serwer writes:

America has always grappled with, in the words of the immigration historian John Higham, two “rival principles of national unity.” According to one, the U.S. is the champion of the poor and the dispossessed, a nation that draws its strength from its pluralism. According to the other, America’s greatness is the result of its white and Christian origins, the erosion of which spells doom for the national experiment.

People of both political persuasions like to tell a too-simple story about the course of this battle: World War II showed Americans the evil of racism, which was vanquished in the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act brought nonwhites into the American polity for good. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 forever banished the racial definition of American identity embodied in the 1924 immigration bill, forged by Johnson and Reed in their crusade to save Nordic Americans from “race suicide.”

See now that is some fine thinking. By the way, I am of “Nordic” stock, which means I am superior except apparently I am not, really superior. The problem is that Grant (as usual, for racists) doesn’t have a functional model for what “superiority” is. In terms of cultural dominance, the Mongols were the most successiest, ever, and they don’t show up in Grant’s world except as that their skull-shapes are closer to the “negroids” than white christians and therefore somehow it doesn’t matter that they stomped the armies of christendom to paste and left a genetic legacy that is basically that everyone is, to some degree or another, a Mongol. This is why dealing with racist nonsense is so painful: it’s so wrong you can’t even really point out, “this bit, over here, is wrong” because that bit of wrong is attached to another argument that is wrong and it all rests on a foundation of wrong.

You can’t understand today’s American racists except in the context of Madison Grant, who laid out neatly the bad ideas upon which American racists depend. And it’s hard because Madison Grant is so wrong that we shouldn’t have to argue with him, we should be able to just laugh him off. But, we can’t.


  1. flex says

    Infuriating, isn’t it.

    Want another, one which I find unfathomable, although it’s a little less obvious?

    Max Weber’s, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

    Weber’s 1904/5 pamphlets summarized an idea in his work on comparative religions. However, he was limited in the information he had available about Chinese culture, Hindu culture, and Jewish culture; and had a very prejudiced view of Catholic culture. His central thesis is that the Northern European’s dominate the economic world because their protestant religion (Lutheran or Calvinist) linked piety to hard work. Which, even at the time it was printed drew criticism from medieval scholars who pointed out the huge economic growth in Europe in the late middle ages prior to the Reformation. And criticism from Oriental scholars who not only said Weber was wrong in his understanding of Chinese religion, but look at the rapid industrialization of Japan for a modern counter-example.

    But that doesn’t really bother me, any more than Madison Grant writing a book filled with plausible-sounding racism. I have a shelf of books (well, most of them are in the basement) which overtly or subtly invoke racism. Willfully ignorant people writing books to justify their dangerous beliefs is just how our world works. Further, I recognize that between 1880 and 1930’s, that 50 year period, a lot of ‘scientific-racism’ crap was published and believed. Believed as proven even by people who were otherwise pretty good thinkers. But we have better information now, and better understanding of how we can fool ourselves. ‘Scientific-racism’ should be seen as an aberration, and only studied by scholars who want to understand how such a belief because endemic. We are wise enough to know that 100-year-old science books will contain errors, no one is claiming that the atom is indivisible any longer.

    But what infuriates me is that books like Weber’s are still taught in schools. Not as a warning, but as examples of revolutionary thought. I had Weber’s essay show up in both the business and economics textbooks in my MBA courses, and that wasn’t decades ago. (Wait, I got my MBA in 2005, so maybe it is decades now.) Calling a text revolutionary which suggests that aggressive capitalism is part of someone’s religion does no one any favors.

    It’s not like there aren’t revolutionary writings in economics from the same time period. While John Stuart Mill was mentioned, but we didn’t get a summary of his ideas. There was no mention at all of Henry George, who was probably the most influential US economist of the early 20th century. Thorstein Veblen wasn’t mentioned by name but he coined the phrase, “conspicuous consumption”, which was one of the earliest observations that economics also includes behavioral psychology. But that side of economics/capitalism wasn’t taught in business school. It largely stopped at Ricardo, skipped to Keynes, and then the Chicago school. Oh yes, the pattern is plain, economists who suggest a certain level of socialism were not studied.

    That angered me, because the other students getting their MBA did not have the interest in economics I did, or the years of experience in engineering/management I had. The students where being short-changed in their education. I wouldn’t way they were lied to, but they were fed information which supported prejudicial viewpoints (e.g. non-WASP, non-male, workers are lazy and socialism is bad). At one point I discussed this with one of the instructors, and their reaction was, “I teach the textbook selected.” They were really more interested in their own research, to generate their own publications to solidify their career than to argue with the textbook the school provided. I don’t blame them, they were un-tenured associate professors trying to get some stability in their own life, but that didn’t help the students.

    I hear some economists talking about how we’re entering a post-capitalist world. I don’t buy it, capitalism is a tool not a social structure. But if they mean we are entering a world where capitalism will no longer be an instrument for social change, I think that’s true. There will always be a few nuevo-rich, but they will be fewer and fewer as the wealthy consolidate their hold on ownership. Seventy years ago the economists were talking about post-scarcity economics. Since then, the elites have figured out how to manufacture scarcity, to protect their priveledge and power. Balkanization of the population, along religious, patriotic, or racial lines, will help prevent revolution. The elites don’t really care if the proles fight among themselves.

  2. says

    Marcus quoting Grant: “going to school and church does not transform a Negro into a white man.

    I had to look up when the book was written: 1916. That phrase jumped out at me since it appears to have been around for a long time, even by then. I possess the letters my GGGrandfather wrote to my GGrandfather during the Civil War. William Reid had enlisted in 1864 at age 18. His father, James, owned a tannery in Racine, Wisconsin. In the first letter, James complains about all the people who are just talk and no action. Here’s what he says: “We have quite to many full patriots at present those that advocate the doctrin of using ‘the last man & the last dollar’ in order to try the experiment of making a n***** a white man but will not go themselves or give little or nothing to those that go to support the Constitution of our government.

    So I guess Grant wasn’t even very original.

    And when reading Marcus saying how wrong Grant was, the phrase “Not even wrong” occurred to me. (You can google it.)

  3. moarscienceplz says

    BTW, I am just starting The 1619 Project. While I have only read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ preface and the first essay, which is also hers, the quality of writing is just first-rate. So, I expect the other essays by other authors will be also fantastic, since Nikole is the instigator of the Project.

  4. says

    …it has taken us fifty years to learn that speaking English, wearing good clothes, and going to school and church does not transform a Negro into a white man.

    In other words, no matter how educated and civilized they become, they can’t force white people to think of them as civilized.

  5. says

    BTW, I am just starting The 1619 Project. While I have only read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ preface and the first essay, which is also hers,[..]

    You reminded me I need to grab a copy and give it a read. So I trotted off to amazn, and much to my surprise it is only listed at around $78 – pretty high for a well-selling new publication. I am not sure what is going on there but if it’s selling out, good for the author!
    But as I scrolled around looking for other listings, I noticed a listing that has a big animated .gif touting an alleged “refutation of 1619” … and when I followed that (it might be fun to review what is almost certain to be historiographical malpractice…) my browser’s spam blocker kicked in and refused to follow the link. How interesting. I’m not sure if I shall dig into what is going on there.

    Books purporting to debunk various historians can be quite entertaining. I got a ways into one purporting to debunk Howard Zinn, and saw a lot of complaining about Howard Zinn and damn little debunking. Note to conservatives: “so-and-so hurt my feelings” is whining not debunking.

    I’m going to make a prediction that Nicole Hanna Jones is not refutable. In his introduction to A People’s History Zinn points out that, unless you find a historian is flat-out wrong about a point of fact, all you are left with is quibbling about what they chose to include or omit. This is a serious point: for example a holocaust denier might write a history of Europe from 1930 to 1945 and omit all mentions of a certain German indiscretion – but that’s easy to discredit by pointing out the glaring omission. How would one refute 1619? It seems there are two paths: demonstrate that the history contains claims of fact that are inaccurate, or argue with the conclusions, e.g: “Jones says this event was important, but it’s not!” Or language quibbles, “Jones called this the ‘founding’ but the dictionary definition of that word blah blah blah”
    I will eventually dig into one of these refutations, if I am having trouble falling asleep.

  6. says

    Raging Bee@#6:
    The quote I pasted @5 is almost exactly what Dawkins has said about transwomen allegedly not being women, cuz chromosomes.

    (Bored voice) who?

  7. flex says

    Marcus @7 wrote,

    … unless you find a historian is flat-out wrong about a point of fact, all you are left with is quibbling about what they chose to include or omit.

    Not to refute that statement, but it reminded me of an excellent book on how history is constructed, The Historian’s Craft by Marc Bloch. You may have already read it, but if you haven’t I think you might enjoy it.

  8. Jazzlet says

    In the UK at the moment one target of right wing ire is the National Trust, a charity founded a hundred and some years ago with the purpose of preserving British heritage. What is causing the fury is that the National Trust has had the outrageous idea to expand the story of their properties to include how the wealth to build or purchase them was obtained. Of course this often involved all sorts of unsavoury behaviour from underpaying the workers in your dangerous factories all the way up to the slave trade. This is apparently Not Acceptable and spoils the story of the great houses. Ironically the National Trust was largely founded by a bunch of Fabians, and in addition to the great houses it owns all sorts of properties that would have been the homes or workplaces of people from most sections of society, so it’s not as if telling a wider story is new. But clearly including *sharp intake of breath* non-whites is quite beyond the pale.

  9. moarscienceplz says

    Marcus @7:
    Hey Marcus, sorry this is a bit late. We did inventory at work and things were a bit crazy for a couple of days.
    I am frankly shocked that ASSmazon couldn’t sell you a new copy of 1619, I know that Barnes and Noble has thousands of them, and if your order is $35+, shipping is free.
    On that note, I would like to ask you to stop giving links to ASSmazon when you recommend a book, and perhaps, to try to not use them. I know that they are fucking convenient, but they are also fucking evil, and I do not say ‘evil’ lightly or jokingly. Amazon IS evil, the way Torquemada was evil, the way Hitler was evil.
    I’m sure you know that they grossly abuse their employees, including making them work in dangerous heat situations. They also abuse their suppliers. There is an excellent Frontline episode that describes some of the past evil they have wrought. They do seem to have tamped down some of the most egregious evil (or at least, kept it out of sight of journalists) lately, maybe this is due to Bezos stepping down to go play with his giant space dildo, but still, I have no doubt that if they are ever able to completely dominate any of the markets that they play in they will abuse their customers just as badly as they abuse their workers and suppliers.

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