Thursday, March 20, 2008

Matthew Connelly's "Fatal Misconception"

Matthew Connelly is an associate professor of history at Columbia University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, and reported the following:
This is a book about how people came to believe that problems like war and poverty were rooted in biology and could be solved through social engineering. They made common cause with likeminded elites all over the world, created a kind of shadow world government, and carried out a series of astonishing experiments to remake humanity. Their ideas live on, and not just in China’s one-child policy, and new worries about the demographic decline of the West. We see them every day when people blame their problems on good or bad genes, and feel pressured to have perfect children.

When you turn to page 99, you find a central protagonist, Margaret Sanger, acting locally but thinking globally as she taps wealthy British patrons for a campaign to bring birth control to India:

Sanger appealed to the British Eugenics Society through C. P. Blacker, explaining that she had two aims and both merited their support: “first, to bring to the poorer and biologically worse-endowed stocks the knowledge of birth control that is already prevalent among those who are both genetically and economically better favored; and secondly, to bring the birth rates of the East more in line with those of England and the civilizations of the West.” She mentioned only the first when she stopped in London and described her plans in a BBC radio address. She was going to India, she announced, not because it suffered from any absolute overpopulation, but rather because birth control could bring happiness to individual families. But in India, as in the West, it was unevenly distributed, leading to “dysgenic” differential fertility between the “well endowed” and the “not so well endowed.” She would therefore encourage its dissemination among “the social, economic and biological classes in which it is most urgently needed.”

Sanger has so often been quoted out of context that critical readers suspect every ellipsis. But this long quotation makes clear how she made population control appealing to different people, even if that required speaking out of both sides of her mouth. For imperial powers like Britain, it promised to keep poor colonies from growing out of control. For Indian elites, on the other hand, eugenic family planning would regenerate the nation. But all this entailed endless fundraising, raising expectations to ever greater heights:

Sanger received a tremendous send-off in several London fund-raisers, the most glittering of which took place in the onetime operating theater of the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall. “When the history of our civilization is written it will be a biological history,” H. G. Wells declared, “and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine.” Julian Huxley thought she had affected the structure of the world more profoundly than Franklin Roosevelt. Perhaps after one too many toasts from Henry VIII’s Royal Grace Cup, Wells insisted her historical importance would surpass that of Alexander and Napoleon.

Wells was not the most objective observer – he was one of Sanger’s lovers. But he saw something that most historians still miss: Sanger and her struggle were at least as significant as the “great men” who preoccupy the reading public. After all, she helped more than half of humanity to gain control of their own bodies, which has shaped the population of this planet more than all the wars put together. While the book is critical of the compromises she made in pursuit of that cause, it also shows what she was up against. This included not just the Catholic Church – and the Vatican secret archives show just how much they hated and feared her – but also charismatic nationalist leaders, such as Mohandas Gandhi.

On her arrival in Bombay, Sanger disembarked from the Viceroy of India and was met by a delegation of almost fifty along with a personal invitation from Gandhi. Though she would address sixty-four meetings over the following nine weeks and travel ten thousand miles, she knew the journey to the Mahatma’s ashram in Wardha would attract the most attention. She was assisted by a publicist who wrote daily press releases, and some 377 American newspapers in forty-three states reported her travels. But Sanger’s encounter with Gandhi was the one that made headlines.

Sanger had been warned of what to expect. When Gandhi had argued
with How-Martyn earlier that year, he had complained that, rather than seeking to convert him through their correspondence, Sanger had “cursed” him in the newspapers. Gandhi, for his part, had condemned contraceptives as a curse of modernity, making possible the celebration of sensual pleasure as an end in itself. This only exhausted body and mind. Gandhi echoed many of his contemporaries, like Oswald Spengler, who linked the rational control of reproduction to the decline of spiritualism and predicted the ultimate demise of modern civilization. But whereas Spengler equated fertility with the vital force of a people, Gandhi thought spiritual life required mastering “animal passions.” In fact, he thought Indians should have smaller families, which would also be healthier families. But the only acceptable means was abstinence. When How-Martyn had pointed out that some women might be at the mercy of their husbands, he insisted that no woman could ever be raped if she were prepared to die fighting. Margaret Cousins considered Gandhi and his “medieval views” on women to be “the greatest stumbling block to the B.C. movement in India.”

The fate of empires, the defense of patriarchy, the rise of nations, the decline of the West, the taming of sex – these are the motifs that run through this page, and through this history. But it is not a biological history. Rather, it is a very human story, all too human.
Read an excerpt from Fatal Misconception and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

Visit Matthew Connelly's website.

--Marshal Zeringue