The first time I was told I did not ‘fit’ was in third grade. Before nodding off and drooling on her desk, Sr. D. bitterly complained, as she stared me in the eye, about having to teach us Italians and Blacks—unfit to be in her class, fit only for servitude or criminality—in place of her beloved Germans who had moved away to better neighborhoods.
I had never before been told I did not belong or that I was racially inferior. On a daily basis, Sr. D. made sure I understood these ‘facts of life’ as I wrestled with my own serious doubts about fitting into my world because of my sexuality and my love of ideas and books.
Conveniently for me since I came from a family that had no books, Andrew Carnegie, another believer in the survival of the fittest, had built—right up the corner from my parish school—a free public library where, through the assistance of the wise and learned librarian, I was able to read the works of Herbert Spencer and learn just how inferior I was.
I did not untangle ‘survival of the fittest’ from scientific theories of evolution until I was 15. With the help of Fr. H., a German priest who tutored me on Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species,’ I came to understand that Social Darwinism had seriously misunderstood Darwin and had made a philosophically invalid application of that biological mechanism to social processes. Natural selection does not mean that the strongest and best triumph over the weak: it means that those biological organisms survive which are best fitted to the actual conditions of their environment—a very different meaning.
Perversely, Social Darwinism, often combining false science with twisted Calvinism, made a virtue of exploiting those most in need and most unable to defend themselves, causing some robber baron capitalists to insist they were doing God’s Will when they underpaid, overworked and mistreated their employees, thus allowing the strong to survive and the weak to perish.
I had thought, naively, that Social Darwinism in all its sundry forms had been thoroughly discredited by science, reason and morality and could never again be preached from the pulpit, declaimed in our political assemblies and taught in our academies. I was wrong.
Trumpism has enabled several new species of Social Darwinism to take center stage, rearing their hideous heads in the ideology, rhetoric and actions of some members of the Republican Party in their efforts to fundamentally change the social contract underpinning our contemporary U.S.A. society.
In the name of liberty, these neo-Social Darwinists have pushed American Individualism to such obscene extremes that I do not recognize my own beloved country. I wonder whether Donald J. Trump himself understands what he has unleased.
As a rust-belt ethnic Catholic committed to social justice as well as to the liberty of the individual citizen in our republic, I find it difficult to understand how the Jesuit-trained Catholic Paul Ryan can embrace the ideology of Ayn Rand that considers ‘altruism’ a principle source of evil in society. ( SEE: Colin Woodard, American Character, 2016, pp. 38, 39. )
The liberty of the adult U.S.A. citizen does not require the death of children from lack of food and healthcare, inadequate gun-control regulations, inadequate regulations on predatory financial practices, the ‘right’ to pollute the environment, defunding scientific research, attacking innocent migrants, eroding the quality of our public schools, preventing citizens from voting, attacking the rights of sexual and other minorities.
Let me cite the thinking of an intelligent, authentic, conservative Republican, Herbert Hoover: “In our individualism we have long since abandoned the laissez faire of the 18th Century—the notion that it is ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.’ We abandoned that when we adopted the ideal of equality of opportunity—the fair chance of Abraham Lincoln.” ( American Individualism, 1922, p 10. )
We need a Republican Party that values both justice and liberty, that rejects racism in all its forms, that understands the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.
05 April 2017 WCTimes
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.