Volume > Issue > Progressivism’s Bastardization of Science

Progressivism’s Bastardization of Science

The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America

By Daniel Okrent

Publisher: Scribner

Pages: 402

Price: $32

Review Author: Terry Scambray

Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, California.

Daniel Okrent’s Guarded Gate is a compendium of damning statements and information that demonstrates the ignominy of the eugenics movement and how its advocates desperately sought to limit immigration to the U.S. Though this tale is not new, Okrent’s telling of it is full of smaller stories and details that enrich the narrative. Francis Galton began the eugenics movement, the stimulus for which came from his cousin, Charles Darwin. “Without Darwin’s influence,” Okrent asserts, “Galton would likely never have begun his explorations into the nature of heredity.” Darwin’s theory of natural selection and “revolutionary” book On the Origin of Species (1859) — which showed “a universe liberated from the intangible and unverifiable homilies of religion, supposition, and superstition” — led Galton to his own conclusion. “If the development of the species was not guided by a divine hand, Galton reasoned, then neither were the minds of men.” Supported by a bevy of assorted “facts” that made his efforts appear scientific, Galton advocated what amounted to the selective breeding of humans, with “enlightened” people like himself doing the selecting.

Okrent tells the consequential and disturbing story of how eugenicists, with their impressive scientific credentials, insisted that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were inferior breeds who threatened to pollute the gene pool of Americans. Eugenics had found favor in Europe, and from there it quickly spread to the U.S., where a broad swath of influential individuals enthusiastically got on board. Boston Brahmins like the Lodges, Cabots, and Adamses united with labor leader Samuel Gompers and, along with eminent scientists like Charles Davenport, popular figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Helen Keller, and liberal theologians like Henry Fosdick, were proponents of restricting U.S. citizenship to northern Europeans. (Some prominent American aristocrats, like Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University, favored immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, as did businesses that wanted cheap labor, as well as steamship companies that profited from having immigrants occupy what might otherwise be empty space in steerage in their trans-Atlantic voyages.)

Literacy tests for immigrants were another plank in the effort to limit immigration and demonstrate the inferiority of undesirable newcomers. Enough opposition existed to such tests, however, that they became a political football, with Congress equivocating over their application. President Grover Cleveland notably opposed such tests. When it became known that Adolf Hitler and his cadre justified the Holocaust with rationales drawn from American eugenics programs, ardor for it cooled. Revelation of the horror of Nazi death camps shattered any lingering belief that eugenics was a shortcut to utopia.

Okrent shows how renowned anthropologist Franz Boas opposed the eugenics movement because he believed that environment, as opposed to inherited, ethnic characteristics, shaped humans. But Boas, as a materialist, saw humans as merely one among myriad organisms in nature, just as Darwin did. For example, Boas arranged for six Alaskans to be brought to the U.S., where people would pay 25 cents apiece to see them on display. When four of the Alaskans died, “Boas had the flesh stripped from their bones, which became part of the collection” at the American Museum of Natural History.

The Guarded Gate, however, has some glaring omissions that devalue it as worthy history. For one thing, it fails to mention the evangelical Christians who were articulate opponents of Darwin and saw early on the calamitous destination toward which the eugenics express was headed. Okrent also barely mentions William Jennings Bryan, who was a conspicuous critic of eugenics because he saw that Darwin’s leveling of man began the reductionism that would lead to the Final Solution. Likewise, the Catholic Church was the most prominent institutional critic of eugenics, and celebrated convert G.K. Chesterton its most pronounced individual critic.

Also, despite opposition to immigration, between 1880 and 1920 more than 20 million immigrants arrived in the U.S., including two million Italians and two million Jews. America’s population was 50 million in 1880 and rose to around 106 million by 1920, during which time immigrants became a substantial part of the population (even subtracting those who returned to Europe, which may have been a significant number; accurate statistics are hard to come by). A minuscule number were denied entry for health reasons, so the guarded gate was not as imposing as it sounds.

Okrent, in his conclusion, tells of reading thousands of pages written by leaders of the eugenics movement, writings that now serve to incriminate them. He speculates that when future historians write about “the anti-immigrant activists of the 2010s, there will likely be no papers to turn to — or, at least, no private papers” because people today, he believes, “don’t want their unfiltered selves made public, even posthumously.” Here Okrent, a former editor at The New York Times and various publishing houses and magazines, patronizes the reader. Does he know the difference between immigration and illegal immigration? No significant “anti-immigrant movement” exists in the U.S.; this is merely a Democratic Party talking point.

Why would Okrent assume that those in the anti-illegal-immigrant movement would be ashamed of having their words revealed? Would people in the current “pro-illegal-immigrant movement” be ashamed of having their cynical thoughts revealed, of using the “undocumented” to turn Texas and Arizona purple? Or does Okrent think that those in the “pro-illegal-immigrant movement,” which includes all the current Democratic presidential candidates, would be proud to have their private talk on this topic revealed? Further, is Okrent proud of his polemical book, which suggests that yesterday’s eugenicists are comparable to today’s Americans who want their border laws enforced? Will he have given, in whatever small way, more impetus to an open-borders movement that will fundamentally change America?

Speaking of revealing private conversations, the online magazine Slate published the transcript of a meeting in which the editors of The New York Times planned their “1619 Project” to change America’s beginning from 1787 to 1619, when the first black slaves were brought here in chains. The project imputes racism to the white males who founded America. But slavery, horrendous as it is anywhere, was a regional institution in America, confined to the one-party Democratic South, though supported by the national Democratic Party. So too Okrent’s Guarded Gate seeks to indict America for embracing eugenics, whereas the movement was actually driven by a tiny minority of intellectuals duped, as usual, by progressivism’s bastardization of science in an attempt to perfect the world by ridding it of “Gregor Mendel’s recessive genes.”

Okrent’s biggest omission is his failure to recognize that eugenics was a foreshadowing of the top-down, junk-science initiatives that granted “experts” power, the dream of progressives from their beginning in the 19th century. This dream has not died, despite the nightmare of eugenics and the Final Solution. Consider the elite-favored programs that continue to poison our society: sex-ed programs, given impetus by sex-o-crat Alfred Kinsey, the charlatan pervert; infanticide and euthanasia, endorsed by intellectuals like Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton; and the continuing presence of Planned Parenthood clinics in mostly black neighborhoods, a chilling reminder of its roots in the eugenics movement (not to mention undercover videos by the Center for Medical Progress of Planned Parenthood officials callously cutting deals over the sale of baby parts). So also with the many social programs concocted to alleviate poverty that actually destroyed the black family and increased poverty by making fathers redundant; the global-cooling hoax along with the mass-starvation hoax of the 1970s led by Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich; and, of course, the global warming/climate change cult that threatens to destroy civilization if their proposals are taken seriously. The list could go on. Okrent does not see the common root of all these, so intent is he on presenting another polemic on America-the-bad. That he would be so biased or so ill-informed is disappointing.

The many material improvements of the 19th century gave people hope that such progress could solve humanity’s conundrums. Expertise has its place, but experience demonstrates that when elites ignore the sublime Judeo-Christian doctrine that each individual is made in the image of God, then scientism and cults like eugenics flourish. Though progressives may see this doctrine as anachronistic, if not laughable, they would not choose to live in a society in which it is ignored.



“At times American Protestants were suspicious of immigrants, and though their suspicions have become notorious, they were not without reason. At any rate, the suspicions were quickly abandoned, and the immigrants were welcomed as fellow Americans. Today the immigrants are glorified and the natives disparaged, as if the immigrants were the originators, rather than the beneficiaries, of tolerance.” — Joseph Sobran


©2020 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.


To submit a Letter to the Editor, click here: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/contact-us/letters-to-the-editor/

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

The Politics of Suicide in Post-Christian America

There's a direct link between changes in theistic belief and suicide rates. 'Disbelief can be deadly' is one way to put it.

The Intellectual Battle over the Puritan Legacy

The founders of Massachusetts believed, Miller says, “that ultimately all the world would imitate New England.”

The Decline of the Family in 20th Century America

In the history of the world, 100 years is a short period, but within the…