The Charlotte News



Biological Suggestion:

Henry Is Loose Again

--Mr. Menken's Idea, By W. J. Cash

Site ed.note: The rather ludicrous suggestions of Mencken here being critiqued by Cash call up the Nazi ideas of the time regarding eugenics, albeit paid and voluntary under Mencken's proposal rather than enforced as in the Nazi dogma. But such a suggestion--albeit as Cash warns us, not to be taken too seriously--does indicate the desperation on the part of well-meaning people in those times of continued economic and social depression to eradicate incestuous poverty, disease, and ignorance, especially ignorance of the seemingly uneducable type. And try as society has for decades since, the fact of such poverty and ignorance remains, though in certainly lesser percentages of the overall population than earlier in the century. Cash, while expressing doubt of the feasibility of Mencken's proposed scheme, surprisingly does at least give it lip service and states that "the thing" might be accomplished in part out of "social conscience". Yet, whether Cash means by "the thing" paid sterilization, the raising of the standard of living of the poor, or both in tenuous combination, is unclear in the context of the article--and probably left so deliberately by Cash, as always in such less than plain instances in his writing, to induce his reader to stop and consider the options, indeed, with social conscience, even if the reader is thereby induced to discount the author's position as unclear.

For all the problems ingenuously envisioned on the horizon of civilization by the gloomy prospect of more and more ignorance and unfulfilled want begat of ignoble birth, however, one can scarcely balance the notions of equality of opportunity and essential fairness in life with any proposal, "voluntarily" induced by payment or otherwise, of routine sterilization aimed at the lower classes. Nevertheless, even during the last two decades, some have proposed just such a program especially as it relates to the poor, dependent on state-aided abortions, who seek multiple terminations.

Yet, as slow and as much agonizing patience as it may take over the course of perhaps another century, it would seem the only proper course is one of try-and-try-again education, realizing that social Darwinism takes care of the rest--not the state-aided purchase of family souls through a sterilization program which ultimately affects mainly poor blacks and Hispanics.

But we have the benefit of hindsight and considerably improved social and economic conditions at large which neither Mencken nor Cash had in 1937. Yet, Cash to his credit, especially considering the source of the proposal, does not really buy into the notion advanced by his mentor.


The terrible Mr. Mencken who has been giving the prohibitionists and the blue law advocates a long rest is threatening to appear on the scene again. The other day he was proposing in The Baltimore Sun to revamp the constitution after a fashion which left not a few of our leading patriots black in the face. And in the August issue of the American Mercury, which in its earlier and fatter incarnation he served as editor, he comes out with another proposition which--to say the least--is going to set a great many teeth to rattling for the safety of the Flag and the Republic.

What he proposes this time is to sterilize large numbers of American freemen, white and black, to the end that they could no longer beget their kind--and in order to induce them to submit--to indemnify them in cost.

The proposition is not really original with Henry, of course, save perhaps in the matter of the quaint suggestion as to the proper modus operandi. But the development of the notion is in the typical Mencken vein. Hear him:

"In the sharecropper areas of the South, to cite a salient example, there is probably not a woman between the ages of fourteen and forty-five who is not laboring at this very moment in one stage or another of the sorry physiological process whereby human souls acquire a habitation and a name. The birth rate... is precisely what the traffic will bear, and if it were not for the fact that the death rate, especially among children, is also inordinate, the region would swarm like a nest of maggots.

"The same mad rush to reproduce goes on in all the other backwaters of the nation, including the slums of the cities... No one, so far as I am aware, argues that this excessive fecundity is a good thing, whether for the high contracting parties, for the poor children they are unable to feed, or for the community in general. The generality of jail wardens, police captains, mental hygienists, coroners, truant officers, and other such experts agree unanimously that it would be a good thing if we could reduce the statistical differential that now run so heavily in favor of the unfit. If it is maintained indefinitely, there will be a wholesale degeneration of the American stock, and the average of sense and competence in the whole nation will sink to what it is now in the forlorn valleys of Appalachia."

Henry then proceeds to observe that there are obviously only two ways to go about remedying this: either the birth rate among the upper orders must somehow be increased, or that among the lower must be decreased. The first he says is obviously out of the question, not only because of the almost universal use of birth control among these higher orders but also because, for some reason not now clear to the biologists, fertility seems actually to fall as the standard of living goes up.

Such being the case, the only practical thing to do is to try to reduce the birth rate among the lower orders. For that, two methods are proposed. One is to raise living standards of those who are described as the "the unfit." Mencken doesn't think that is possible and, and in proof cites the harrowing case of an experiment with model farms in western Tennessee some years ago. Every farm was seated on good land and in every farm house there were all the conveniences of civilization including electric lights, a telephone, a washing machine, a mayonnaise mixer, a bathtub, and a full set of the annual reports of the secretary of agriculture. The plea was that those bumpkins so fulfilled would gradually metamorphose into high-bred subsistence farmers and become a credit to their country and one of its glories. What actually happened was that they quickly returned to their native barbarism. In a few years the hogs were rooting under every farm house, all the machinery in it was out of whack, the fields were given over to scrub corn and Jimpson weed, and the annual family wash was being done again in the ditch. The more fainthearted fled to the mountains at once and there resumed their tribal way of life; the more resolute hung on until the country had been reduced to something that met their ineradicable notions of the seemly, the comfortable, and the beautiful.

And so Mr. Mencken concludes that there is nothing to do but hire these unfit to submit to the painless and harmless sterilization operation for from $25 to $1000 a head--depending on their pretensions. But some doubt lingers with me as to the feasibility of the scheme as some doubt lingers also on the score of the absolute impossibility of raising the living standard among these people. One would have to begin with a new generation obviously and catch them young. Nor could the thing be done quickly or ever completely. Still given sufficient social conscience, it might be done in part.

Mencken, however, has done a good job in calling vividly to our attention a situation which we all know to exist but which most of us are to dull to contemplate. And, as usual, he probably does not intend himself to be taken too utterly and solemnly serious.

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