Defaming Herbert Spencer? A Reply to Edwin Black

Email Print

On August 28th I wrote a column for LRC titled “Herbert Spencer:
The Defamation Continues
,” in which I criticized Edwin Black’s
book War Against
the Weak
for its misrepresentation of the 19th-century classical
liberal theorist Herbert Spencer.

October 11th I received the following bizarre note from Mr. Black:

I have
sent these to two others in your circle and I send it to you
as well.

Dear Sir:

Being on
a 40-city 24×7 book tour for War Against the Weak. I
am writing this from an airplane, and I regret my brevity. Catching
up on some email from a few weeks back I have now come across
your remarks and those of your like-minded friends defending

You wrote,
as shown below: “Spencer, of course, was a radical liberal,
steadfastly opposed to all coercive state control over the individual;
associating Spencer with compulsory sterilization, or indeed
compulsory anything, is ludicrous.”

You are
correct in that statement, and the only thing ludicrous in this
matter is that you and your quoted and unquoted colleagues think
that I “defamed” Spencer by suggesting he was indeed linked
to and advocating compulsory sterilization or eugenics. This
is idiotic. Let me be explicit. Spencer was not adcoating [sic]
or responsibility [sic] for coercive sterilization, Darwin
was not, Malthus was not. Nor is the Holy Bible a justification
for the KKK or the Inquisition. My book is about the distortion
of 19th Century ideas and 20th Century science to create the
sham science eugenics which misused every notion they could

There has
been no defamation by me of Spencer – only a defamation
of me by you those [sic] in your circle who have falsely
and deliberately circulated this notion that I blame Spencer
for the ideas implemented by American and Nazi eugenics. I do
not. Repeat, I do not. Now kindly remove all such references
from the Internet, cease your campaign of falsity, and spread
the word amongst your colleagues that I know the true definition
of defamation, libel and slander.

edwin black

I have no
idea what the phrases “your circle,” “your like-minded friends,”
and “your quoted and unquoted colleagues” refer to (I am the only
author quoted in his letter), unless he just means people who
read my columns. (I’m aware that my article has been cited favorably
by other critics of Mr. Black’s work, and I’ve seen some evidence
that attempts may have been made, by parties unknown, to suppress
those criticisms – see my blog
entry for September 18th
– but I’m not personally acquainted
with any of the people involved, nor am I involved in a “campaign”
against anybody, unless writing a negative book review
(!) can be so described.)

But since
Mr. Black has apparently sent his allegations of defamation against
me to other (unnamed) persons, I feel it is appropriate for me
to post his letter and to respond publicly.

Mr. Black
accuses me of “defaming” him by attributing to him the following

  1. Herbert Spencer was an advocate of compulsory sterilization.

  2. Herbert Spencer bears responsibility for the later movement
    for compulsory sterilization.

Black’s accusation is erroneous. Nowhere in my original article
do I attribute to him thesis (a). For the record: Edwin Black does
not accuse Spencer of advocating compulsory sterilization,
and I have never said anything to the contrary. Mr. Black’s assertion
that I have done so is without basis in fact.

Nor do I attribute to him thesis (b), though I do attribute
to him a closely related thesis. I claim in my article that Mr.
Black’s book “treat[s] the campaign for compulsory sterilization
as a natural outgrowth of Herbert Spencer’s philosophy.” In short,
I describe Mr. Black as holding that:

  1. Herbert Spencer bears responsibility for contributing to an
    intellectual climate that helped to bring about compulsory sterilization.

addition, my article also attributes to him the claim that:

  1. Herbert Spencer “completely denounced charity,” favored the
    strong over the weak, and advocated allowing the unfit to die

Now thesis
(c) bears some resemblance to thesis (b), but it is not the same
thesis. (For a defense of the distinction between being responsible
for X and being responsible for contributing to a climate leading
to X, see David Kelley's book The
Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand
, especially Chapter 3.) So
I’m happy to take Mr. Black’s word for it that he does not hold
thesis (b). But then I never attributed thesis (b) to Mr. Black
in the first place, any more than I attributed (a). I did, and
do, attribute (c) and (d). Rebutting his thesis (d) was in fact
the central point of my article, though you’d never guess it from
Mr. Black’s reply, which utterly ignores the subject of thesis
(d), and reads as though my concern had been compulsory sterilization
and nothing else. Compulsory sterilization was not even the
main, let alone the sole, topic of my article.

In short,
the criticisms Mr. Black complains about are criticisms I did
not make, and the criticisms I actually made are ones that Mr.
Black’s response says nothing to dispel.

My original
article fully documents my claim that Mr. Black asserts thesis
(d). It also fully documents my claim that thesis (d) is false.
If falsely asserting thesis (d) does not count as a defamation
of Spencer, I can’t imagine what would. (I also criticized Mr.
Black for misdescribing the theological position of Social
. That’s not a defamation, exactly, but it is certainly
a worrisome inaccuracy in a book that prides itself on rigorous
fact-checking.) If Mr. Black thinks I am wrong to describe him
as defaming Spencer, then he must show either that thesis (d)
is true, or else that his book does not after all assert thesis
(d). So far Mr. Black has done neither.

What about thesis (c)? In my original article I describe Mr. Black’s
book as suggesting not only that Spencer held repugnant ideas, but
also that the influence of his ideas naturally led in the
end to the 20th century’s campaigns for compulsory sterilization.
In offering this interpretation, have I misrepresented what Mr.
Black wrote? Judge for yourself:

Mr. Black’s main discussion of Herbert Spencer occurs in the
book’s opening section, which is titled “From Peapod to Persecution.”
The obvious implication is that this section describes the small
beginnings (peapod) from which the later eugenics movement (persecution)
grew. The organic metaphor of “peapod” also implies that the movement
was a natural outgrowth of these early beginnings rather
than a perversion of them.

After a brief, hostile, and thoroughly inaccurate summary of
Social Statics, Spencer’s thought is classified among the
“new philosophies [that] suggested society would only improve
when the unwashed classes faded away.” (p. 12) The reader is clearly
invited to conclude that coercive measures to help these
classes fade away are a logical extension of Spencer’s ideas.
(Mr. Black’s treatment of Spencer is incidentally far more hostile,
and insinuates far more affinity with the eugenics movement, than
anything he says about Malthus or Darwin.)

This implication is strengthened by Mr. Black’s treatment of
Buck v. Bell, the notorious case in which Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes upheld compulsory sterilization. Notice how Mr.
Black introduces the issue of Spencer’s influence:

v. Bell would be decided in May of 1927. But the eighty-six-year-old
Holmes was in many ways defined by the Civil War and ethically
shaped by the nineteenth century. While recovering from the wounds
of Chancellorsville, his reading included Spencer's Social
Statics, the turning-point tract that advocated social Darwinism
and so significantly influenced Galtonian thought. Spencer argued
the strong over the weak, and believed that human entitlements
and charity itself were false and against nature. Indeed, Holmes’
1881 lecture series in The Common Law also asserted that
the idea of inherent rights was “intrinsically absurd.”
(War Against the Weak, p. 119)
In this passage
Mr. Black not only grossly mischaracterizes Spencer’s views (which,
as I’ve shown, were in fact diametrically opposed to the ones described),
but he clearly implies that Spencer’s ideas were among the nineteenth-century
influences that “ethically shaped” Holmes’ thinking and thereby
helped determine the outcome of Buck v. Bell. Mr. Black appeals
to Spencer’s influence to explain Holmes’ decision in Buck
v. Bell; otherwise a reference to Spencer in this paragraph
would be pointless. And there is no suggestion that Holmes misused
or perverted Spencer’s teachings. On the contrary, the phrase
“Holmes … also asserted” plainly suggests, in context, that Holmes
and Spencer were in agreement on fundamentals, and that Holmes was
simply taking Spencer’s ideas to their logical conclusion. (The
fact that Holmes’ most famous reference to Spencer was hostile is
not mentioned.)

Given that Mr. Black asserts thesis (d), there is nothing surprising
in his also being committed to thesis (c). Indeed, if thesis (d)
were true, that would be an excellent reason for believing
thesis (c). Unfortunately, it is the only reason for believing thesis (c). Hence if (d) falls, as it must, (c)
falls as well.

In short, the theses Mr. Black repudiates – (a) and (b)
– are theses I never attributed to him, and the theses I
do attribute to him – (c) and (d) – he ignores. Thesis
(d) is explicitly asserted in his book (see the passages quoted
in my original article), while thesis (c) is unmistakably implied.
Both (c) and (d) are demonstrably false (again, as I showed in
my original article).

I am astonished by Mr. Black’s closing suggestion that criticisms
of his book should be “remove[d] from the Internet” rather than
answered. That is not my conception of how free civil discussion
operates. I have not, for example, written secret notes to Mr.
Black’s publisher demanding that his book be withdrawn from circulation.
Instead I have answered Mr. Black’s assertions in a public forum,
presented my evidence, and left the verdict to my readers. Doesn’t
Mr. Black owe his readers the same courtesy?

As I mentioned above and elsewhere, there are indications that some online criticisms of Mr.
Black’s book have been silently suppressed. A Google
search on my name and his reveals numerous webpages on which critical
reviews of his book, citing my article, have been mysteriously
deleted (they’re in the “cached” but not the current version of
the pages), though comments favorable to the book remain untouched.
I sincerely hope that Mr. Black himself has not been involved
in this apparent campaign to suppress criticism of his work, since
that would be a far more serious breach of professionalism than
anything I originally complained of in the book itself.

In closing: Mr. Black’s charge that I have misrepresented his
book is false. Instead he has misrepresented my article. More
importantly, he has misrepresented the views of Herbert Spencer,
a hero of liberty, by recycling (whether knowingly or unknowingly)
ancient smears first invented in the 19th century by Spencer’s
political enemies. Mr. Black has not yet addressed my criticisms;
instead he has denounced other criticisms that I did not make,
and he has by his own testimony sent accusations of defamation
against me to persons he does not name.

I stand by my original article,
and I request a retraction of Mr. Black’s misrepresentations both
of Spencer and of myself.

13, 2003

T. Long [send him mail]
is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn
; author of Reason
and Value: Aristotle versus Rand
; Editor of the Libertarian
Nation Foundation periodical Formulations;
and an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1992,
and maintains the website,
as well as the web journal In
a Blog’s Stead


Email Print