Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Right Wing's Strange Love-Hate Relationship with Mr. Darwin

There’s always been a vexing paradox about the marriage of the Neo-conservatives with the Christian Right. Certain key principles endorsed by either group just do not seem to fit together. One of those mismatches involves the respective attitudes of these groups toward the ideas of Charles Darwin. 

From the moment, Darwin published his major works in the middle of the 19th century, it was clear that the strict adherents of the Biblical view would find much to despise. Any blurring of the line between Man as a divine creation of God, and Man as a creepy-crawly evolutionary product of thoughtless Nature was bound to cause a bit of a fuss. 

The argument between the strict believers in the unchallengeable word of God and the evolutionists committed to the peculiar notions of Mr. Darwin was, in many ways, part of the larger war between science and religion. 
All very interesting, you say, but what of it? 
The problem lies in one of the key principles of evolution, namely, the survival of the fittest. Unfortunately for the Christian Right, it just happens to form the basis of the neo-conservative social platform. It’s called Social Darwinism. 

Darwin's Ideas the Christian Right Hates
The Christian Right’s decision to support the Republican party came after some shopping and less than coy courting. Back in the 1980s, the Republicans under Reagan threw their support behind a short list of causes, from the long term plan to overturn the Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion to allowing prayer in schools.Even back then the Christian Right wielded a lot more political power in notable figures like the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell.
One of the Christian right’s bugaboos has increasingly been the teaching of evolution in public school. They have a point when young people are taught something on Monday that runs diametrically opposed to what the pastor has taught them on Sunday.

There’s no mistaking how the Christian Right feels about evolution. They hate it. They have always hated it. Where it became a public concern, (rather than just a public discussion) is when religious leaders demanded that public schools stop teaching Darwin’s blasphemy, or, at least begin teaching the opposing Biblical view. In fact, they invented a phony science to take it out of Sunday school and into the life science classrooms.

The late Jerry Falwell in 2004 told CNN: 
"[T]here is a total blackout of creation instruction in the public schools of America, and in most of the colleges and universities, because I think the scientists who, under the guise that this is not true science, are afraid to expose their theory, their model to the creation model. And to me, that is a violation of academic freedom."
Of course, it is not a question of being "afraid" or of "violating academic freedom" at all. It is a question of categories. Religion is simply not science. Would Falwell not have  objected if public schools were obliged to teach the creation myths of Hinduism, or Native American Creation myths, the Mayans or as a scientific fact? If one is to abandon science based on evidence  and reasoning based on logical conclusions, then why give any preferential position for the Biblical version of creation? All would have every right to demand equal time.
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Back in 2001, Rick Santorum, last year's unsuccessful Republican candidate, tried (and failed) to draft an amendment to promote the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. 
This pseudo-science of intelligent design holds the religious view that man in his present form was created by God. The universe is much too complicated to be an accident, according to this view, Mankind was not, contrary to what Darwin deduced, a product of a long struggle for supremacy between species and individuals within the species. God willed it. End of story.

Public schools in states like Montana, Missouri and Texas, have attempted to require intelligent design be taught to students as though it were on par with the evolutionary theory. In fact, teaching of this Biblical view has already been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in Pennsylvania in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. The ruling concluded that intelligent design was not science, but a religious doctrine. According to that decision:

[R}eligious opponents of evolution began cloaking religious beliefs in scientific sounding language and then mandating that schools teach the resulting “creation science” or “scientific creationism” as an alternative to evolution.
In what could be considered a victory for the Age of enlightenment, the court in the Kitzmiller case re-affirmed an earlier decision:
The court concluded that creation science “is simply not science” because it depends upon “supernatural intervention,” which cannot be explained by natural causes, or be proven through empirical investigation, and is therefore neither testable nor falsifiable.
The Supreme Court -even a conservatively biased one- is unlikely to challenge that ruling.

Therein lies the contradiction. While the Christian Right (and by extension, the fawning Neo-Conservatives), reject the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, it just so happens that one of Darwin's key evolutionary principles forms the  very basis of the Neo-Conservative philosophy. 

That principle is called “the survival of the fittest” which theorized that, due to the unrelenting pressures of Nature, evolution tirelessly kills off the least fit members of a species. Nature is constantly grooming each species by eliminating those examples that can not adapt or cannot become perfectly suited to their ecological niche. (That’s an over-simplication, of course.) 
The problem comes in when this Darwinist doctrine is applied on a social level.

Darwin's Idea the Republicans Embrace
Social Darwinism has been around for well over a century. In fact, some researchers claim it actually pre-dates Darwin's theory of evolution. Whatever the truth, it has always been a controversial subject since its inception. Part of the reasons for that controversy is that it runs counter to many of the principles which form the basis for Western democracy. 

This is a political philosophy that declares that progress can be only achieved by leaving the evolutionary principle of "survival of the fittest" free to weed out, as it were, those who are less fit to live. (Actually, fit to pass on their genes, is a bit more accurate.) 

In some ways this principle found a happier home in the laissez-faire world of business and economics. That idea is expressed in the idea that government must keeps its nose out of the affairs of commerce. Unfortunately, Darwinist principles have also, to some extent, been applied to individuals as well. (And when it was applied to individuals, it nearly always led to some truly evil ideas.)

The Republican party’s promotion of Social Darwinism isn’t always obvious. And there are good reasons to hide the connections. Social Darwinism isn’t the kind of concept most political parties would boast about. at least not since it found a  warm spot in the heart of fascists in pre-World War Europe (as well as other totalitarian regimes on both sides of the political spectrum.)  

Despite that, it’s not too hard to find traces of this line of thought. One of the mainstays of Republican political philosophy has been laissez-faire capitalism which stresses the non-interference by government and the open competition between individuals. The idea tends to appeal to Americans, a nation with a mania for individuality and praise for individual accomplishments.
In the latest attempt to make some truly mean-spirited political ideologies fashionable again, we have seen the rebirth of Ayn Rand. The political ideas of the writer and philosopher,  Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum, but better known as Ayn Rand, have found favor in the minds of people like Rep. Paul Ryan. She has herself been (slightly inaccurately) condemned as a Social Darwinist. It is, however, an easy mistake to make.  especially when you review some of her more famous quotes:
If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.
Just to be clear on what she is saying, altruism is defined as "the unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others." Rand tells us it has to be discouraged if Mankind is to survive. Rand's writings could be cited at the source for the whole post-Reagan "Greed is good" notion. 

Born into an aristocratic family which was forced to surrender its position to the Communists, Ayn Rand understandably was against any sort of collectivist type of government, which could threaten individual rights in the name of the welfare of everybody. Her experience led her, however, to a blind disdain for all types of assistance to the poor.
In a similar vein, she writes:
My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty.
And finally there's this revealing comment on Robin Hood:
He is held to be the first man who assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own, by giving away goods which he had not produced, by making others pay for the luxury of his pity. He is the man who became the symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights, that we don't have to produce, only to want, that the earned does not belong to us, but the unearned does. He became a justification for every mediocrity who, unable to make his own living, had demanded the power to dispose of the property of his betters, by proclaiming his willingness to devote his life to his inferiors at the price of robbing his superiors.
 Ryan has noted that Rand was the reason he got in to politics and has said that hers is the “kind of thinking that is sorely needed right now.” Likewise Sen. Rand Paul, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the "personalities" on Fox News have sung Ms. Rosenbaum's praises. 
Ironically it was Rand herself who gave us a concise reason why Republicans must continually hide behind euphemisms.
"Ask yourself why totalitarian dictatorships find it necessary to pour money and effort into propaganda for their own helpless, chained, gagged slaves, who have no means of protest or defense. The answer is that even the humblest peasant or the lowest savage would rise in blind rebellion, were he to realize that he is being immolated, not to some incomprehensible noble purpose, but to plain, naked human evil."
While listening to Republican conservatives speak, it quickly becomes apparent that they have highlighted that quote and put it to full use.It could be the only reason there aren't more "blind rebellions" against the proposals of the neo-conservatives. 

From Blame to Protection
Even if you discard all of the 19th and 20th century attempts to put Social Darwinism into practice, accepting even in theory  the concept  of Social Darwinism is to open a Pandora's Box of problems for lovers of liberty and democracy. It can only be sold through carefully calculated deceit and a plethora of code words. 
And when it comes to that,  the Republicans do lay it on pretty thick sometimes. Take the 2012 Republican Party platform, for example,
We offer our Republican vision of free people using their God-given talents, combined with hard work, self-reliance, ethical conduct, and the pursuit of opportunity to achieve great things for themselves and for the greater community.
The Republican party’s abhorrence to “government handouts and dependency," its eagerness to cut social programs for the poor (while defending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans) all reflect its support for the principles of Social Darwinism.

The elimination of any kind of government assistance- while defending the permanent reduction of taxes for the top 1% has become, in this day and age, a matter of principle. Here’s what former Republican Congressman Allen West had to say at the CPAC 2012 fundraiser:
“The Republican value of minimizing government dependence is particularly beneficial to the poorest among us. Conversely, the Democratic appetite for ever-increasing re-distributionary handouts is in fact the most insidious form of slavery remaining in the world today, and it does not promote economic freedom."
For Allen, an African American, to re-brand poverty relief programs as a form of slavery is a shameful example of the Republican mindset. The only economic freedom that Allen talks about has actually belongs to the very wealthy who are free to enjoy their profits without concern for the poor or for any civic responsibilities at all. “It’s not my problem” coupled with “it’s not government’s job” simply means that as a society it is perfectly okay to neglect the poor, the sick, the unemployed and children of poor families. Letting everybody -especially those people dependent on the government- fend for themselves is Nature's way, after all.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. noted how committed to Social Darwinism the Republican party has become in his critique of Paul Ryan’s proposed budget.
So what's the guiding principle here? Pure Social Darwinism. Reward the rich and cut off the help to anyone who needs it. Ryan says too many Americans rely on government benefits. "We don't want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency."


Well, I have news for Paul Ryan. Almost 23 million able-bodied people still can't find work. They're not being lulled into dependency. They and their families could use some help...They could use better schools, access to higher education, lower-cost health care, improved public transportation, and lots of other things Ryan and his colleagues are intent on removing.

Meanwhile, America's rich continue to grow richer -- and many of them (and their heirs) are being lulled into lives whose hardest task is summoning the help.
The good news about Social Darwinism is this: As a political philosophy it is becoming less and less marketable. Why? The argument changed during the Bush administration from blaming the poor- which has always been remarkably successful- to protecting the wealthy. 

Whatever you might think of her anti-altruistic ideology, Ayn Rand did get a lot of things right too. In the quote below, she provides an insight to the current state of economics in the US and the West in general:
" Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue. When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion — when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing — when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors — when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you — when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice — you may know that your society is doomed."
Superiority and Inferiority
The concept of “survival of the fittest” naturally implies there are “fitter” or superior forms of human beings who are naturally more successful. In a liberal democracy where equality is a fundamental principle, that alone is hard to swallow. Are we to suddenly to abandon the phrase "all men are created equal" simply for the sake of the Social Darwinists? 

We do so at our own risk. Because to accept that all men are not equal would also mean that people do not deserve equal rights. It also can imply that some people do not deserve an equal vote. Why, the elitist can say, should the judgement of "inferior" individuals be equal to that of superior ones? 
It should not be much of a surprise that Social Darwinism would appeal to the superwealthy 1%.

In materialist America, the most common measure of success is property, or wealth. Great success mean great wealth and vice versa. Therefore according to the logic, possessing great wealth must be a sign of individual superiority. The neo-conservatives would like everybody to think so. Most people have their doubts about it but it is an attractive idea that still has quite a hold on the American imagination. 
According to this idea, therefore, (as interpreted by the neo-conservatives), it is unfair to punish success by demanding they pay a higher rate of taxes than the less successful members of society. In its latest incarnation during the Bush administration, the argument became all about the unfairness of punishing the “job creators,” (though in fact, there wasn’t much evidence of job creation in the period when taxes were reduced for the richest Americans.) 

That job creator myth was fairly demolished in the last election. Only the most daring ( or stupid) defender on the Right would use the phrase now. But even this phrase a kind of code. It's hardly an exaggeration that this phrase could be replaced with "master race" and the underlying idea would have been the same. The plantation owner and slave master of the 1850s was, after all, a job creator too.

The absolute refusal of the Republican right to even consider any kind of increased taxation for the most wealthy is deeply rooted in its unconditional faith in the principles of Social Darwinism.  

Anything but symbolic taxation for the 1% is wrong, the Republican conservatives objects. Clearly to do so defies the notion of “survival of the fittest.”
If you begin demanding that successful individuals pay  an equal share taxes (like every other inferior person) then where is their motivation to succeed? 
That is the flip side to the argument constantly made that you cannot give handouts to the poor because it inhibits their drive to succeed. This mentality is a natural but flawed result of thinking that paying taxes is some kind of punishment rather than a patriotic duty or, at least, as a price to pay for civilized society. 

Welcome to Reality
Even from its earliest day, clear-headed social scientists saw that there were some other serious flaws with applying Darwin's ideas to society. Firstly, the survival of the fittest also precludes that each individual has an equal opportunity from birth. But then, that would which would mean there is no inherited wealth nor inherited poverty. So for this philosophy to be taken seriously each of us would be required to start on an equal level and all achievements would be based on individual accomplishments, not, for example who your father might have been or the price of your education.
Secondly, It would also imply that there would be absolutely no racial or gender or age discrimination. In this fantasy world, an older black Muslim woman with health problems would have the same access to employment opportunity as, for example, a white young man whose father just happens to be Donald Trump
That's quite a stretch of the credulity muscle. 

The very fact that a person like George W. Bush could become president should be proof that success is based neither on personal attributes nor intelligence. In his case, if Social Darwinism had any validity at all, nature should have eliminated him from the life's equation very early in his illustrious career. Yet there he stood, telling hard-working but poor Americans that all they had to do was to rely on "their God-given talents, combined with hard work, self-reliance, ethical conduct." None of which was evident in his own rise. 

Adopting the idea of Social Darwinism requires us to ignore a lot of social realities, like sexism and discrimination, like educational disadvantages and class favoritism. Ignoring all those things is, of course, easier to do if you belong to the white male with a rich pappy. 

Still there is perhaps an even more dreadful aspect of Social Darwinism besides the lie of it. What's that? It's where it inevitably leads and how it can be utilized by fascistic authoritarian regimes to justify its right to imperialistic rule, to commit atrocities and to rationalize even genocide. 

[S]ocial Darwinism has often been closely connected with ideas in eugenics (pampering the weak will lead to the “decline of the race”) and with theories of racial superiority (the economic and political dominance of people of North European extraction is a sign that some racial groups are intrinsically better than others) ...

It is not entirely implausible to think that doctrines like these stand behind a vast swath of Republican proposals, including the recent budget, with its emphasis on providing greater economic benefits to the rich, transferring the burden to the middle-classes and poor, and especially in its proposals for reducing public services. Fuzzier versions of the theses have pervaded Republican rhetoric for the past decade (and even longer).
When Two Ideologies Collide
Paul Ryan, as we have seen, is a not so secret admirer of Ayn Rand.  It is a shocking admission, to say the least, for a member of a party that allies itself so closely with Christian evangelists.
It’s not just that Rand is an atheist who considers Christianity’s central narrative of the cross to be “monstrous” (the cross has been called foolishness before and will again). Rand advocates a morality of selfishness and a worldview based on individualism that is fundamentally incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. Where Jesus says, “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” Rand says, “love only those who deserve it.” Where Jesus says, “Give to any that asks of you,” Rand says, “I am challenging the moral code of altruism.” Instead of Jesus’ command to “feed my sheep,” in Rand’s world “men [are] perishing by their attempt to be their brothers’ keeper.” Rand herself has stated in no uncertain terms that one cannot follow her and Christ.
The objections to Ayn Rand's philosophy can just as easily apply to those of Social Darwinism, of course. 
For the Christian Right- which professes to support the teachings of Jesus- there are other problems with having anything to do with Social Darwinism which cannot be written off  easily.  The New Testament in passage after passage makes clear its own view on the equality of Man (not the superiority on one person over another) and on the subject of poverty.
[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. ... For God shows no partiality.
In the Christian view, there are no inherently superior and inferior forms of human beings. God doesn't discriminate- except by each man's morality. Wealth was, in fact, not at all a measure of success in the spiritual world. It is important to recall how Jesus broke the heart of one young man who "had many possessions" but who also wanted so badly to have eternal life.
Rather than a sign of success as the neo-conservatives preach, great wealth, according to a long tradition of Christian doctrine, was a hindrance to spiritual development.

And on the subject of equality (as opposed to superiority of one person to another), here's an example of what the Bible has to say.
Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master,
All and all, the Christian Right has had to ignore a lot of its Christian roots in order to unite with the Social Darwinist policies of the Republican party. Some would even say that it has had to give up all of its most noble principles of faith. It has, in effect, made a pack with the devil for an earthly kingdom.
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In future posts we will examine the racist perversions of Darwin's ideas and how the Republican party learned to love them. I'd like to also look at opposition to Social Darwinism (and all that goes with it) has brought together two very different groups  that oppose it, secular humanists and the very long tradition of the Catholic Church.

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