In April of 2013, Tulane professor and talk-show host Melissa Harris-Perry, made the following remark on camera:
We have never invested as much in public education as we should have. We haven’t had a very collective notion of [sic] these are our children. We have to break through our private idea that children belong to their parents, or children belong to their families, and recognize that children belong to whole communities. Once it’s everybody’s responsibility and not just the household’s, we start making better investments.
The video quickly went viral and reactions multiplied. Some people defended the comment. Others attacked it. Rush Limbaugh was unsurprised by the comment, calling it traditional leftist doctrine, “as old as communist genocide.” The fact is, he explained, “the nuclear family has always been under attack by communists, by leftists. The nuclear family—just like religion—must be destroyed, and in its place, ‘the community,’ the collective.”
Rush was right. Leftists have had such views for a century and a half. Karl Marx wrote in 1858: “Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.” And central and eastern Europe spent the better part of the last century suffering under the reign of this and related ideas.
The Deeper Question
Of course, Marxist collectivism has been proved false again and again over the last half century. So the vexing—and strangely neglected—question is how it continued to have a large and dedicated following in America long after it was discredited.
The answer begins with Hereditarianism, a movement that gained prominence in the early 20th century, and its view that intelligence is inherited, most people are deficient in it, and nothing can be done to change their condition. This view arose from Social Darwinism and was promoted by a group of psychologists who administered an intelligence test to 1.75 million Army recruits during World War I.
Though the test was fatally flawed, the results were accepted as scientific confirmation that the average mental age of adult Americans is roughly 13 and that of southern and central Europeans and African-Americans is even lower.
The impact of this false belief within and beyond America was immediate and profound. Educators gave up teaching students how to think and settled for telling them what to think. Legislators designed immigration laws that kept “inferior” people from entering the country. Business leaders forbade employees from using their minds in the workplace. Journalists diluted their reporting. Advertisers became even more contemptuous of their audiences.
In addition, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson led a companion movement, Progressivism, which held that because people are deficient in intelligence, government must take care of them. A related movement, Eugenics, pressed legislatures and jurists to prevent the most deficient from “polluting” the gene pool. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson embraced Eugenics, as did Winston Churchill, Alexander Graham Bell, Bertrand Russell, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Distinguished families—including the Harrimans, the Carnegies, and the Rockefellers—provided financial backing for eugenic programs that killed defective infants and forced the genetically unfit to be sterilized or imprisoned. One European supporter, Adolph Hitler, was sufficiently inspired by the American programs that he exterminated more than nine million “undesirables.”
After World War II, eugenicists were shamed into silence and it was no longer fashionable to express the idea that most people are hopelessly stupid. In fact, Humanistic Psychology offered the opposite view—that people are born brilliant and virtuous and therefore have no need of external guidance, including that from religion and morality. The new psychology proclaimed that truth and reality lie within each person, feelings are more reliable than reason, and everyone is entitled to the highest level of self-esteem.
Contempt for Intelligence Still Exists
It is tempting to suppose that Humanistic Psychology’s extreme optimism would have put an end to hereditarian contempt for human intelligence. Instead, both views continue to have significant followings—often among the same people—even though they are incompatible. The story of this peculiar situation and its devastating impact on American society is too complex to present here but is detailed in my new book, Corrupted Culture, to be published on June 4, 2013.
Here is a brief outline of the larger story. Hereditarian disparagement of human intelligence became so deeply embedded in most social institutions that virtually nothing could uproot it. For example, even after the Eugenics movement was discredited, its sister movement, Progressivism, continued to be expressed in New Deal and Great Society programs.
In fact, the hereditarian view that the great majority of people are too stupid to conduct their own affairs is still with us today. It is, of course, expressed more euphemistically and often disguised as benevolence by the use of terms such as “social justice,” “rights,” and “entitlements.”
President Obama’s widely publicized statement, “You didn’t earn that,” is shorthand for “You couldn’t have earned that because you’re too stupid.” Mayor Bloomberg’s banning of salt and transfats and restrictions on soft drinks means, “You are too stupid to be trusted with your own diet.” And Professor Harris-Perry’s declaration that children really belong to the community can be translated, “Parents are too stupid to be in charge of their own children.”
In short, contempt for the average person’s intelligence still exists—its form is just more politically correct. But it is no less offensive or dangerous for that fact.
But what about Humanistic Psychology’s continuing blather about everyone being a genius guided by an infallible inner vision to create a personal reality, an individual who deserves to be unshackled from societal rules and filled to overflowing with self-esteem. Can people really believe that and at the same time be contemptuous of human intelligence?
Absolutely. Hereditarianism not only disparaged human intelligence but also made sure that young people were not taught how to think. That tragic mistake has never been corrected despite the heroic efforts of many individuals to do so. Fifty years later, Humanistic Psychology further disparaged thinking and exalted emotion. As a result, several generations of Americans have been conditioned to follow their feelings rather than reason and logic, and that is precisely why holding contradictory views does not trouble them.
Not surprisingly, many of today’s leaders in government, education, law and other fields suffer from this affliction. To cite but one example, not only did Nancy Pelosi make one of the most absurd statements in the annals of government—“We have to pass the [Affordable Care] bill so that you can find out what is in it.” Even more shockingly, her colleagues in Congress mindlessly endorsed that absurdity by passing the bill!
As I point out in Corrupted Culture, the first step in solving many of America’s most urgent problems is to reject the false ideas of both Hereditarianism and Humanistic Psychology and rediscover the enduring principles, values, and common sense that made America great.
Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved