Defaming Herbert Spencer? A Reply to Edwin Black

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.

On 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 Spencer.

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 grapple.

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 theses:

  1. Herbert Spencer was an advocate of compulsory sterilization.
  2. Herbert Spencer bears responsibility for the later movement for compulsory sterilization.

Mr. 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.

In 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 off.

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 Statics. 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:

Buck 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.

October 13, 2003