Does the past matter? When confronted by facts that are uncomfortable, but which relate to people long dead, should we put them aside and, to use a phrase very much of our time, move on? And there’s a separate, but related, question: how should we treat the otherwise admirable thought or writings of people when we discover that those same people also held views we find repugnant?
Those questions are triggered in part by the early responses to Pantheon, my new novel published this week under the pseudonym Sam Bourne. The book is a thriller, set in the Oxford and Yale of 1940, but it rests on several true stories. Among those is one of the grisliest skeletons in the cupboard of the British intellectual elite, a skeleton that rattles especially loudly inside the closet of the left.
It is eugenics, the belief that society’s fate rested on its ability to breed more of the strong and fewer of the weak. So-called positive eugenics meant encouraging those of greater intellectual ability and “moral worth” to have more children, while negative eugenics sought to urge, or even force, those deemed inferior to reproduce less often or not at all. The aim was to increase the overall quality of the national herd, multiplying the thoroughbreds and weeding out the runts.
Such talk repels us now, but in the prewar era it was the common sense of the age. Most alarming, many of its leading advocates were found among the luminaries of the Fabian and socialist left, men and women revered to this day.