Monday, July 19, 2010

Understanding Madison Grant

Reading Defending the Master Race by Jewish historian Jonathan Spiro--a biography of eugenicist Madison Grant--I'm struck by how odd reality is. The book documents how WASP elites like Grant succeeded in bringing immigration to a halt in the mid-1920s, and how a desire to stop Jewish immigration was at the center of their concerns.

WASP scientists from the most elite institutions were convinced that Jews were dumb, illiterate, culturally backward, unclean, genetically inferior, and unassimilable. Recent scholarship shows that these scientists were zero out of six. They were wrong about so many characteristics, but at the same time, many Jews did join with others to eventually turn the country into a PC basketcase. Jews did help change the country in ways that men like Grant wouldn't have wanted. (Of course, they also contributed positively in many unexpected ways.) So how do we explain that, on the one hand, the restrictionists were so wrong about Jews, but, on the other, there was something to their fears? 

My hunch is that people feel something in the gut, and then try to explain it to themselves in a rational way. Madison Grant saw all these guys from Poland dressed in weird clothes, speaking a foreign language, and he sensed in his mammalian brain that something wasn't quite right. Ordinary ethnocentrism and wariness of the stranger is enough to lead a person to biased thinking, but add to it all to a sense of WASP superiority and a respect for science, and you end up with a pseudoscience about the inferiority of the Jew. 

I mean, after all, I wouldn't expect a person like Grant to see lowly bearded aliens as people who were as capable as himself. He rationalized his gut feeling of wariness into a fantasy of the inferior, verminous Jew.

It might be argued that elite WASPs knew very well that Jews were a strong, not a weak, group, and knew that many of these folks would some day pass them by. It could be a case of conscious ethnic competition, but I don't see it. (References to the contrary would be appreciated.) These elites really seemed to believe their own propaganda.

I suppose there are a couple of lessons to be learned. First, it is really hard to do objective science. Spiro tells a tale of Old American bias, and I harp all the time on the current leftist bias by mainstream social science. Objectivity is much more the exception than the rule. Second, gut reactions probably tell you something, but the useful message is not so obvious, and it is likely to be self-serving. On the other hand, if you're the dominant group, and you don't want that position to slip, you might want to follow your gut.


  1. "WASP scientists from the most elite institutions were convinced that Jews were dumb, illiterate,"

    What are you talking about? Certainly not history as it happened. Nor, as far as I can tell, history as reported by Spiro. A quote from Charles Davenport mentioned by Spiro:

    In earning capacity both male and female Hebrew immigrants rank high and the literacy is above the mean of all immigrants. Statistics indicate that the crimes of Hebrews are chiefly "gainful offenses," especially thieving and receiving stolen goods, while they rarely commit offenses of personal violence. On the other hand, they show the greatest proportion of offenses against chastity and in connection with prostitution, the lowest of crimes. There is no question that, taken as a whole, the hordes of Jews that are now coming to us from Russia and the extreme southeast of Europe, with their intense individualism and ideals of gain at the cost of any interest, represent the opposite extreme from the early English and the more recent Scandinavian immigration with their ideals of community life in the open country, advancement by the sweat of the brow, and the uprearing of families in the fear of God and the love of country. (From Heredity in Relation to Eugenics)

    "culturally backward, unclean,"

    Jews were backward.

    "genetically inferior, and unassimilable."

    You're saying Jews have satisfactorily assimilated?

  2. "WASP scientists from the most elite institutions were convinced that Jews were dumb, illiterate..."

    I'm sure some had these kinds of beliefs, but this is not an accurate description of elite beliefs of the time period.

  3. Chesterton makes a comment, I believe in his book written while making the lecture circuit in America, about stereotypes having to be based to some degree on truth. What I found particularly amusing, given the fact that I had heard this trope before, was his using the example that if you tried to create a stereotype of jews as unintelligent nobody would believe it. This was, of course, the exact time period to which you refer.

  4. Anonymous7:02 AM

    Jews haven't assimilated. That's why they're still jews.

  5. Anonymous10:21 AM

    In Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence Gregory Cochran, et al. disputes the claims that Jews were stereotyped as unintelligent.

    This high IQ and corresponding high academic ability have been long known. In 1900 in London Jews took a disproportionate number of academic prizes and scholarships in spite of their poverty (Russell and Lewis, 1900). In the 1920s a survey of IQ scores in three London schools (Hughes, 1928) with mixed Jewish and non-Jewish student bodies showed that Jewish students had higher IQs than their schoolmates in each of three school, one prosperous, one poor, and one very poor. The differences between Jews and non-Jews were all slightly less than one standard deviation. The students at the poorest Jewish school in London had IQ scores equal to the overall city mean of non-Jewish children.

    The Hughes study is important because it contradicts a widely cited misrepresentation by Kamin (Kamin, 1974) of a paper by Henry Goddard (Goddard, 1917). Goddard gave IQ tests to people suspected of being retarded, and he found that the tests identified retarded Jews as well as retarded people of other groups. Kamin reported, instead, that Jews had low IQs, and this erroneous report was picked up by many authors including Stephen Jay Gould, who used it as evidence of the unreliability of the tests (Seligman, 1992).

    Also notable, Wilhelm Marr who was one of the earliest to write critically of the Jews in terms of ethnic differences instead of religious also considered Jews to dangerous, not because of intellectual inferiority, but instead because they were highly capable.

    See: Wilhelm Marr's The Victory of Judaism over Germanism (1879)


  6. I don't know about the 1920s, but from the 1930s the Ivy League operated Jewish quotas - Richard Feynman was turned down by Columbia for this reason (he went to MIT instead).

    And City College New York (which was almost wholly Jewish, I believe) trained an amazing number of Nobel Laureates etc.

    It seems hard to believe that the most WASPs could believe that Jews were dumb yet also needed to operate quotas to keep them out of elite academic institutions.

  7. "Jews haven't assimilated. That's why they're still jews."

    not from where i'm sitting. jews are pretty much white ppl to me. they're smarter, sure. but still a bunch of white ppl.

  8. Moshe Rudner12:32 AM

    Without getting into the other subjects that you touch upon here or those which underpin your understanding and interest of the matter, I'll just note that the presently popular belief regarding how Jews were viewed by the smarter minds of the day in the 19th and early 20th centuries is quite inaccurate. It was no secret that Jews weren't dull and this came through sharply from the pens of scribblers like Mencken and Twain as much as from the writings of the more staid sort of observers. No doubt quotes can be cherry picked to support practically ANY view on the subject but the general tenor (if not the pleasantly encyclopedic review) of this article in "Science" from 1886 (starting on page 247) seems to be fairly representative of what knowledgeable people were noting regarding "Jewish characteristics" back in the day.

  9. A commenter at n/a's claimed that Madison Grant was not very focused on Jews, they were just another group of funny-looking foreigners.

  10. Grant's beliefs about Jews are a little complicated. He didn't seem to understand the Jews as a race, but as a collection of members of other races, as did his major influence- William Z. Ripley of MIT. Most of the east and south European, as well as Middle Eastern, immigrants were threatening to America because of their racial inferiority. He may not have concentrated on Jews only because non-Jews simply greatly outnumbered them in the immigration wave.

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