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.
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.