The most recent issue of Harpers Magazine has a cover story called Wild Things: Animal nature, human racism, and the future of zoos by David Samuels. It convinces me that yes I will continue to subscribe to Harpers for the rest of my life, but also shows the limits of a certain type of magazine long-form writing that ever teases and alludes. The article is mostly an exploration of the Bronx Zoo in New York City, its contemporary reality and foundational history. Harpers had an article years back about the corporate influence on aquariums which forever changed my thinking of these type of institutions. The big discovery of this article, however, is that one of the founders of the Bronx Zoo is Madison Grant, a name that perhaps is not familiar, but because of a recent biography written by Jonathan P. Spiro in 2009 titled “Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant“, and a burgeoning library of scholarship and articles, his name and his influence will hopefully become better known. The very problem which led to the repression of his legacy, however is that his racist “science” was not an isolated study that inspired Hitler (who called Grant’s scientifically racist The Passing of a Great Race “my Bible”), but an ideological world-view also connected to his championing of naturalism, zoology, nature conservation and National Parks, which Ken Burns the filmmaker has called “America’s best idea.” Having watched several episodes of this documentary which smugly sits in the polite moralizing liberal progressive progress diversity pew, it is clear that Burns does not attempt to untangle or even mention the disturbing knot of conservation and eugenics in the United States.
Googling Madison Grant is to enter the minefield of the internet where you are just as likely to find his work lauded by “racialist” (read: racist) groups such as American Renaissance who associate with Neo-Nazis and defend “whiteness”, as pro-life groups and their films that tie Grant’s legacy to one of systematic racist genocide in order to make an argument against the proliferation of abortion in the African-American community, supposedly now an autogenocide that unconsciously fulfills the dreams of earlier eugenicists. Interestingly, as Planned Parenthood finds itself more and more under attack as the recent dust-up over Susan Komen for the Cure’s funding or non-funding of Planned Parenthood showed, documentaries such as these link Planned Parenthood to the eugenics movement. Indeed, 1916 saw both the publication of Madison Grant’s influential The Passing of The Great Race; or, The racial basis of European history and the opening of Margaret Sanger’s first family planning and birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The research over Margaret Sanger’s connection to the eugenics movement, and possible racism is vast. But anarchists such as Emma Goldman were also agitating for birth control at the same time, a fact that pinpoints that social movements are a contested terrain in which forces fighting for a saner and more egalitarian society can find their ideas co-opted and transformed by a power eager to stave off or divide the organizational coherence of the under-privilidged.
The real questions and analysis should be focused on the relationship of eugenics and racism with the vast colonization projects of this age of imperialism in the run up to the first World War, the rise of science as a codified discipline, the Progressive movement, anti-immigration agitation, and in particular the rising masses of the working class and their mass parties. Immigration to the United States was restricted by the Immigration Act of 1924, an essentially racist piece of legislation which limited immigration from most Asian countries and Southern European countries while leaving the majority of slots open to those in Great Britain, Ireland and Germany. It would be the rise of unions and labor power in the 1960s and the ensuing need to weaken this strong front with a greater reserve army of foreign-born labor (but also the pressure to have less racist immigration restrictions in the era of Civil Rights) which would see this act replaced with the Immigration Act of 1965. Indeed, the key to this pre-war era and the racist ideologies that mingle with “progressive” reforms is the explosion of population growth due to technological advancement in agriculture, the beginning of the end of the peasant as a social class in Europe and the ensuing population movements to cities and emigration to lands such as America. The threat to traditional power was real and the various ideological and material strategies to manage this frightening growth gave us the structures that we inhabit today.
The question which goes unanswered in the Harper’s article (which leads into various interesting profiles of zoologists, zoo workers, Mayor Bloomberg and strange exotic animal lovers) is the problem of the intertwined movements for eugenics and conservation. Is there a (ahem!) “genetic” defect with “green” movements, which saw their rise and their desire for an untouched pristine wilderness untouched by the swarming hoards of immigrants and settlers coincide with a systematic, scientific racism embraced by most of the “educated” whether they be presidents, businessmen such as Edison and Tesla, or the hundreds of scientists whose research gave these theories legitimacy? Madison Grant not only helped found the Bronx Zoo, but also founded the “Save the Redwoods League”.
We could continue writing anecdotes that create thousands of connections between progressive causes and eugenics, but the answer, or my answer at least to the question here is to keep the focus squarely on the fact that these ideologies are social control formations attempting to manage the threat organized masses of the oppressed pose to capitalist society. Isn’t it absolutely clear that a conservation movement is worthless unless it fails to see capitalism and its rapacious need for both cheap raw materials and cheaper human labor power as the culprit of ecological destruction? The inadequacy of our zoos, national parks and conservation movements is due to their usually being top-down creations of social control that have a dual function of actually staving off a few pockets of our planet from complete annihilation while using these scanty examples of their “good works” to fend off the criticism of a movement of workers that would desire to see not “more jobs” and “a nicer capitalism” but a world where natural resources of ecological diversity and human beings are treated not according to the needs of capital’s accumulation, but to human need, which also implies societal and ecological need as well. Humanity is here not posited as an antipode to “nature”, but ideologies that reinforce this binary opposition, however cleverly disguised, should be seen as anathema to any movement for equality that knows capitalist “progress” is a psychotic engine of mass destruction that is protected by a plethora of divisive and diversionary delusions.
One of the most interesting segments of David Samuels’ Harpers article is an episode with Walter Deichmann, “a squat prickly genius who specializes in creating the illusion that impossibly tight spaces are expansive.” With fog, smoke and mirrors he transforms a zoo in the middle of a blighted urban neighborhood to an African forest. He also adds sounds to prevent the noise of the city from interrupting the illusion. The urban jungle vs. the synthetic jungle– But why the opposition? What are these spaces we inhabit, were born into, handed down? Where is the vision that obliterates the false division between the natural world and man?
Here is Marx’s fourth footnote in the 15th chapter of Capital (Machinery and Modern Industry):
Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them. Every history of religion, even, that fails to take account of this material basis, is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations. The latter method is the only materialistic, and therefore the only scientific one. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.