Sometimes the world changes and what was once considered politically left becomes politically right, or vice versa: what was once considered right becomes left. For instance, eugenics and forced sterilizations of the “unfit” were considered thoroughly “progressive” ideas in the early twentieth century (Scott Nearing’s writings on the subject are a creepy case in point).
It’s sobering to realize that if you were an urban, well-read, sophisticated vegetarian with a passion for social justice—living in Greenwich Village in, say, 1910—you would, in all likelihood, have championed a number of ideas, such as eugenics, which would, in your lifetime, be put into practice (to horrific effect) by the Nazis.
Be that as it may, I must confess that I use Robert Kaplan’s Warrior Politics in one of my classes (rather cynically, perhaps) as a foil; students are asked to compare and contrast various forms of neo-Kantian idealism with the harsh Augustinian realism proffered by Kaplan and others of his stamp (such as John Gray).
As you might expect, the deck is stacked against Kaplan. I do this with a bit of a bad conscience, though I’ve no intention of doing it differently in the near future. Still, we dismiss Kaplanesque arguments far too easily. The certainty of my friends worries me. And my own certainty worries me. If history teaches us anything, it’s this: the cool kids aren’t always right.
It’s important to remember that Scott Nearing, the author of the eugenics classic, The Super Race: An American Problem (1912), wasn’t a reactionary right-winger. Quite to the contrary, he was the consummate cool kid in his day, a progressive’s progressive. Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find a single progressive twentieth-century cause that he did not advocate at one time or another. Nearing participated in the labor movement, pacifism, socialism, the woman’s liberation movement, civil rights, communism, and, for the second half of his life, environmentalism, organic farming, and the natural health movement. Oh, and he was also a passionate lifelong advocate of vegetarianism.
—John Faithful Hamer, Butterflies not Crocodiles (2016)
Photo via Wikimedia Commons