Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Tuesday Note - eugenics, prejudice and national efficiency

I could swear I saw Neil Whitfield yesterday.

I came out of Central Station in the late afternoon rush to see this shortish bloke wearing a hat standing stock still in the middle of the footpath trying to take a photo. As I walked past him, he turned suddenly, giving an impression of great annoyance; perhaps he was just preoccupied. I started to call out, but by the time I had my wits about me he was gone up the laneway to the station.

I see that Neil has written a companion piece to the posts I have written on the views of J H Curle.

In my comments on Jim Fletcher's history of Aboriginal education in NSW I made the point that some of the worst things were done by people with the best motives. The same comment applies to eugenics. Here I found some of Mr Curle's comments quite chilling.

Leaving aside the insanity of Nazi Germany, the politicians and officials who introduced eugenics laws in countries that we think of as advanced, Sweden is an example, did so for what they saw as very modern public policy reasons. They had little time for what they saw as the foibles of the past.

There is a lesson here for the present. It's not just, as Neil noted, that eugenics is back in a new guise. The real lesson is the way in which Governments can do quite dreadful things for what they see as the national interest.

In writing of Mr Curle's views, I generally used the phrase "race, people and nations." I did so because his views applied to all three, and indeed he mixes all three together.

In the decades immediately before the First World War, as is true today, ideas of national competition and of national efficiency were paramount. At a purely local level, they drove changes to technical education in Australia, changes that drew (among other things) from German experience.

These ideas mixed with perceptions about nations and people - them and us.

The blind insular US parochialism and prejudice revealed in the opening of Japan were equally matched by Japanese concepts of their own cultural and racial superiority. The creation of modern Japan was a direct result, a Japanese response to what we now call the West. Exactly the same idea sets played out in the period leading up to the Second World War.

Globally, the end of the Cold War has seen the re-appearance of ethnic and race based politics in a way not seen since the period just before the First World War. This may be disguised under the guise of national competition, but it is there.

In saying this, I am not talking about the rise of far right parties in certain countries, although that is one element. It is far more pervasive.

I am out of time. I will continue later.


Anonymous said...

I think it was me, and the results are now on the photoblog. It's hard getting a good shot in the midst of a constantly moving crowd, so I guess I was just concentrating, not being annoyed.

Jim Belshaw said...

I am sure that it was you, Neil. And I am sure that pre-occupation was the answer. But you looked so fierce!

Anonymous said...


You write: "Globally, the end of the Cold War has seen the re-appearance of ethnic and race based politics in a way not seen since the period just before the First World War."

This is a complex statement. I'm troubled by the potential for it to be misinterpreted.

I'd be OK about the statement if a contrast is being made between, in my terminology, an ideologically expressed Cold War (put bluntly capitalism vs communism or colonialism vs decolonisation) as against an ethnically/racially expressed set of current wars.

Perhaps another way to put the statement is that removal or reduction of the political, economic and military grip of the various previously mentioned "ism"s has allowed old ethnic/racial perspectives among the "little peoples" to be expressed politically.

On the other hand one can interpret the so-called ideological Cold War as also ethnic politics anyway, eg Americans vs Russian. Strange that, because on the so-called "Russian" side in fact there were 15 Soviet Republics, many with ethnic groups or even races quite unrelated to the category of "Russian".

I guess what troubles me is that big peoples and nations don't talk about themselves as "ethnic" or "race", yet very often their politics is ethnic/race in reality. For example English speaking countries, an a few others roped into waging violence in Iraq or Afghanistan when it suited them to do so.

Nuff said.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting comment, SA, one that caused me to pause and think.

When I wrote I wasn't thinking about a causal connection between the end of the cold war and the rise of ethic tensions, simply a temporal one.

Because of my train reading, I was comparing in my mind two slices, the world 1900-1914 and the world today. So it was a comparative analysis.

Now that you raise the issue, you make me wonder.