Gerson: Will we owe future generations an apology for what we are doing now?

Michael Gerson
Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON — In the early 1930s, one of America's leading eugenicists, Madison Grant, received a letter thanking him for writing his book "The Passing of a Great Race," which the letter's author called his "Bible." The compliment came from Adolf Hitler.

And no wonder. In "The Passing of a Great Race," Grant wrote: "Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race."

In his brilliant history of the eugenics movement, "War Against the Weak," Edwin Black traces the influence of Grant's book in paragraph after paragraph of "Mein Kampf." In the early 20th century, America was the world leader in the practice of eugenics, which was generally viewed as modern, scientific and progressive. The promotion of eugenics was generously supported by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Mary Harriman. "It is better for all the world," argued Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, "if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for this imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind." Teddy Roosevelt wrote that "society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind." There was sporadic resistance to eugenics among scientists and religious leaders. But states eventually coercively sterilized around 60,000 human beings. It was only after Germany pressed eugenics to Grant's logical conclusion that the practice was medically discredited (though not entirely discontinued).

Why did so many decent people in America at the time fail to see the cruelty and unfairness of what they were doing? What caused such blindness to democratic and humane values? These questions are comforting to us, because they are accusations against the past. More importantly and less comfortably: What are the social practices we currently encourage or accept that future generations might find inexplicable?

One might be the historically unprecedented level of imprisonment in a free nation. The number of people behind bars in America rose from 314,000 in 1979 to about 2 million in mid-2013. Taking violent criminals off the streets for longer periods surely had some good social effects. But routine incarceration involving millions of people is a vast, high-stakes social experiment. What happens when a criminal justice system sweeps up large numbers of people for relatively nonviolent offenses, including many African-Americans, and places them in dangerous, dysfunctional institutions and then, upon release, denies them basic democratic rights?

Or consider the widespread use of psychoactive drugs. Three decades ago, about one in 50 Americans was on antidepressant medication. Today, it is one in nine. I am the last to dispute that antidepressants can play an essential role in the treatment of depression and have improved countless lives, but it is hard to deny a broader social tendency to use chemical compounds to take the hard edges off of life. This includes the 13 percent of Americans who currently use marijuana. Add to this the estimated 12.5 million people 12 and older who have become dependent on or abused prescription pain pills or heroin. Will future generations wonder at this crisis of despair and ennui, and at the broad search for chemically induced numbness?

My candidate for our most stunning form of complacency concerns the application of market principles to the control of humankind's genetic makeup — a kind of decentralized eugenics based on parental choice. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 126 million women are now "missing" around the world due to gender-biased sex selection — which includes abortion after ultrasound scans, death from neglect and infanticide. In some places since the 1990s, there have been 25 percent more births of males than females. What will be the social effects of this kind of gender imbalance on things like sexual violence and trafficking?

In the West, this form of parental power has taken the form of eliminating fetuses with Down syndrome and other disabilities, which unavoidably increases the discrimination against the dwindling number that survive. But we are only beginning to see how the aggregation of private choices can lead to injustice. What will prevent parents who spend massive amounts on education to get their children into Harvard from also spending massive amounts on the selection of genetic traits that will get their children into Harvard? And how will this affect the problem of social and economic inequality?

You probably have your own candidates for social blind spots. But it is worth stepping back and considering what apologies we might owe to the future.