Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: Problems of American Democracy

Title: Problems of American Democracy

(Reprints are available, and may be cheaper, but this is the book I physically read and reviewed.)

Author: Henry Reed Burch (and S. Howard Patterson)

Date: 1922, 1928

ISBN: none

Length: 575 pages, plus reprint of the U.S. Constitution and index

Quote: “[T]he aim has been to provide the student with typical material for a general introductory course in problems of democracy, which not only stresses certain fundamental characteristics of our own civilization, but preserves at the same time a proper balance between the political, the economic, and the social factors in American life.”

After studying several books like this gem of the “Progressive” thought of the 1920s, Erica Carle concluded that sociology as taught in American high schools was not a science at all, but a religion—or pseudo-religion. How else could schools justify using this collection of opinions as if it were a scientific study of facts? Burch and Patterson do present occasional, usually isolated, facts but they're more concerned with sharing their faith that “Man” can perfect his collective self by collective, or collectivist, efforts.

In the 1920s it was still possible to bloviate at length about “Man,” theoretically meaning humankind (and in practice, if anything real, meaning the (always male) leaders of your own party). Children were given books about The Story of Man (kind). Burch and Patterson commendably avoid the tendency to blather about “Man” but they make up for it whenever they consider the female half of humankind, as on pages 392-394: “Women as well as children became workers under the new factory system. The economic causes of both problems are much the same and their effects quite similar...For physical reasons the efficiency of woman is sometimes not so high as that of man...[I]t is necessary to protect her [“Woman”] in the exercise of this new freedom. Therefore laws have been passed to regulate the industries into which she may enter.”

Discussions of “the negro” and “the Indian” (meaning the Native American; Burch and Patterson said very little about India) are also not to be missed, but if you're looking for quotes that ought to be really embarrassing to any latter-day Prog, go directly to the discussion of “Defectives in Society” on pages 500-517. By the standards of their day the authors were being both progressive and liberal in saying that people with physical disabilities (“defects”) deserved education and employment that would allow them to make some profit on what they could do. Other people who fantasized about a perfect human society fantasized that disabilities could be bred out or, as in the Nazional Sozialistische schema, people with disabilities could be used up in scientific experiments. However, at no point anywhere in this book do the authors miss a chance, after any passing mention of “defective” intelligence, to insist that all “defective” people need to be “segregated” and prevented from breeding their “defective” genes back into the pool. Heavenforbidandfend anyone else should give birth to a child like Helen Keller or Albert Einstein.

The ignorance about genetic conditions in the 1920s was truly awesome. Burch and Patterson were so fully cocooned in this ignorance that they display only a smidgen of it, themselves. Little did they know that nobody has truly healthy genes—that when an individual's genes don't produce any obvious disease effects all by themselves, they'll still produce undesirable or lethal effects in combination with just about anyone the individual might choose to be the other parent of his or her children. Physical attraction turns out to be one way a majority of young people, given the choice, avoid the most lethal combinations of DNA, but it's not infallible, and it now appears that nature did not intend that humankind ever succeed in eliminating “bad” genes from the pool. 

Some of the deadliest genetic conditions are produced when individuals inherit two “good” genes for resistance to diseases that are otherwise fatal. Two survivors of a typhoid epidemic who have children together are likely to have children with cystic fibrosis; two survivors of a malaria epidemic are likely to have children with sickle cell anemia; two people with high resistance to tuberculosis are likely to have children with Tay-Sachs Disease, and so on. However, Burch and Patterson were still at the naïve, idealistic stage where people imagined that if those blessed with good health, high I.Q. scores, and admirable characters would only marry each other, they'd give birth to “the Super-Man,” rather than to babies with genetic diseases.

The Roaring Twenties were, as Jonah Goldberg has reminded us, a period when Hitler still seemed like a failure at life in general but Stalin and Mussolini were truly Bright Young Things, much admired by many “progressive” Americans. Their bold totalitarian programs promised to produce one version or another of the Paradise on Earth that many left-wing Christians still believe Jesus commanded us to build.

Hence the problematic use of a title like Problems of American Democracy. “Problems” are to be solved; the title was not Shortcomings of American Democracy or What's Wrong with American Democracy. But neither was it Advantages of American Democracy Over European Monarchy and Dictatorship, which might have been the title of a more useful book for high school students. copy of Problems of American Democracy was handed down through another family, and came into my hands as a specimen of “old schoolbooks as items of décor.” It has a nice old-schoolbook look, with the name of the boy its owner had a crush on scribbled on the flyleaves and “Amo Tui” written in small letters in among the text, and lightly frayed but clean covers, darkened but fungus-free pages. It's most likely to appeal to those looking for a décor item, a deep, cool shade of greenish-blackish-grey.

A pity, that is. For anyone who takes the time to read it, Problems of American Democracy is quite an informative read. 

It has, in fact, been reprinted as a "classic," and is even available as an "e-book," so copies aren't hard to find unless you insist on a really old book in excellent condition. If you're willing to take a reprint, we can offer this book for $10 per copy + $5 per package (two to four books of this size fit into one package) + $1 per online payment.