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Ted, Teddy, and the Natalist Impulse

11:10 AM, Dec 7, 2010 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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A couple days ago, Ted Turner jumped on the one-child bandwagon at the Cancun climate change farce, lecturing the audience about the planetary virtues of sub-replacement fertility. Among the creepy untermensch solutions Turner proposed to solving the world’s population “problem” was the selling of fertility rights, so that poor people could make some bucks by letting their betters reproduce for them. (Where are the people worried about “disparate impact” when you need them?)

As an antidote to Turner’s foolishness, it’s worth looking at an essay posted over the weekend by David Stokes. It’s about one of Teddy Roosevelt’s more famous speeches—his April 23, 1910 address to the Sorbonne, “Citizenship in a Republic.”

People tend to remember that speech for the “man in the arena” section. (Which is memorialized at the fantastic, but tragically overlooked, Teddy Roosevelt Memorial in Washington.) But Stokes points out that there’s another section of the speech worth remembering:

Finally, even more important than ability to work, even more important than ability to fight at need, is it to remember that chief of blessings for any nations is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land. . . . The greatest of all curses is the curse of sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility.

Roosevelt understood how falling fertility rates could threaten a society—he was an early pro-natalist.

This wasn’t the only time T.R. argued for fertility. On March 13, 1905 he addressed the National Congress of Mothers (the forerunner of today’s PTA) with a speech about motherhood and the family. It’s full of retrograde brilliance:

[F]ar more important than the question of the occupation of our citizens is the question of how their family life is conducted. No matter what that occupation may be, as long as there is a real home and as long as those who make up that home do their duty to one another, to their neighbors and to the State, it is of minor consequence whether the man's trade is plied in the country or in the city, whether it calls for the work of the hands or for the work of the head.

No piled-up wealth, no splendor of material growth, no brilliance of artistic development, will permanently avail any people unless its home life is healthy, unless the average man possesses honesty, courage, common sense, and decency, unless he works hard and is willing at need to fight hard; and unless the average woman is a good wife, a good mother, able and willing to perform the first and greatest duty of womanhood, able and willing to bear, and to bring up as they should be brought up, healthy children, sound in body, mind, and character, and numerous enough so that the race shall increase and not decrease.

T.R. has all sorts of troglodytic notions about the comparative advantages of men and women. But these were born of his admiration for the supreme importance of child-rearing:

There are certain old truths which will be true as long as this world endures, and which no amount of progress can alter. One of these is the truth that the primary duty of the husband is to be the home-maker, the breadwinner for his wife and children, and that the primary duty of the woman is to be the helpmate, the housewife, and mother. The woman should have ample educational advantages; but save in exceptional cases the man must be, and she need not be, and generally ought not to be, trained for a lifelong career as the family breadwinner; and, therefore, after a certain point, the training of the two must normally be different because the duties of the two are normally different. This does not mean inequality of function, but it does mean that normally there must be dissimilarity of function. On the whole, I think the duty of the woman the more important, the more difficult, and the more honorable of the two; on the whole I respect the woman who does her duty even more than I respect the man who does his.

It’s crackerjack stuff and worth reading in full. The most interesting part of the text is when Roosevelt foresees the creation of a global class of childfree folks, such as Japan’s parasaito shinguru:

Inasmuch as I am speaking to an assemblage of mothers, I shall have nothing whatever to say in praise of an easy life. Yours is the work which is never ended. No mother has an easy time, the most mothers have very hard times; and yet what true mother would barter her experience of joy and sorrow in exchange for a life of cold selfishness, which insists upon perpetual amusement and the avoidance of care, and which often finds its fit dwelling place in some flat designed to furnish with the least possible expenditure of effort the maximum of comfort and of luxury, but in which there is literally no place for children?

Ted Turner would be horrified. Or maybe not. The billionaire who wants the rest of the planet to stop having children has five kids himself.

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