Saturday, March 7, 2009

From the Bronx Zoo to the Third Reich

When I was a young boy, the Bronx Zoo was my backyard, my playing field. We only lived a few blocks away, on E. 180th Street, and when my two brothers and I were growing up. And about once a week (generally on Thursday, I think, when there was no admission charge), my mom would take us to the zoo, and we would quack with the ducks, growl with the lions, bark with the seals, sway with the elephants, and curl menacingly with the pythons. The Bronx Zoo was my world, and it was the world, in three hundred acres, with veldts, savannas, pampas, taigas, and fjords. Although since we moved out of the Bronx when I was ten years old, my zoo-going has diminished somewhat, I suspect that I have been to the zoo at least 100 times. And all that time I never really knew its dark secret, that the true creator of the Bronx Zoo, the person who had the vision, the smarts, and the persistence to create the world’s greatest zoo in northern New York City was Madison Grant, lifelong New Yorker, who was also, arguably, the most influential racist and anti-Semite in American history. And his role in the Bronx Zoo was not a random act of beneficence. Grant was probably along with John Muir, the leading conservationist in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was sophisticated; one of the first to call for the preservation of predators as well as ruminants, and he was indefatigable. He probably single-handedly saved the buffalo from extinction, and founded the Save the Redwoods League, and saved the Humboldt Grove in northern California, largely ended commercial hunting in the United States, and created Glacier National Park, among an astounding list of environmental good deeds.

And, in 1916, he published the Passing of the Great Race, a lament for the decline of the Nordics and Teutons, how race mixing destroyed the great civilizations of Europe, and were in the process of destroying the great white race that made the United States. Although he hated blacks, and the eugenically unfit (and was one of the great advocates of forced sterilizations of the supposedly unfit, the chief motivator was a vile and undisguised antisemtism. Polish Jews, saith Grant around 1920, were ”a wretched mass of degraded human beings,” who “like rats, have formed a race able to survive gutter conditions which quickly destroy higher types.” It is not surprising that Grant was rapidly translated into German, and was praised by Hitler, and was an inspiration to the Nazi’s race science. And his greatest monument, the Bronx Zoo aside, was the 1924 National Origins Act, which reduced eastern and southern European immigration to a tiny trickle of what had been the prewar flow. He was the act’s major architect, and in his successful advocacy for immigration restriction, Grant remained a calm, unflappable, tireless advocate, committed to “science,” avoiding “sentimentalism.” He died in 1937, before his ideas about eliminating the bacillus of Judaism was actually put into practice, but he did his part in providing the intellectual justification of the Holocaust, and the immigration restriction he put into place in the United States, ensured that thousands upon thousands of German Jews were trapped in Europe, with nowhere to go, a fate that would have pleased Grant immensely. He seems to have been, in his private life, personable and affable, but if there is a more evil or despicable person in all of American history, he or she does not immediately come to mind.

All of this information about Grant is contained in Jonathan Peter Spiro’s excellent book, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant. The book is a tad overwritten in places, a sin I am very familiar with, and the author seems strangely obsessed that Grant, who never married, and many of the other eugenic advocates, had no children, which Spiro seems to think disqualifies them having any say in what happens to the successive generations of humanity. (Hey, Spiro, I don’t have any kids either, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t have an opinion on what the world should be like after I am gone. When it comes to the future of humanity, your grandchildren are my grandchildren. We have all given birth and parented the world to come.) But Spiro rescues Grant from his obligatory paragraph in standard histories of the period with a rich and compelling biography.

Common to both of Grant’s major obsessions was a concern with “preservation,” and “contamination” with stemming racial decline, with creating refuges where the purebreds could multiply. After about 1910 he turned his attention from pure breed buffalos to pure breed white men, and was convinced that both were on the verge of extinction. He wanted to remake the United States as a nature preserve, off limits to everyone except its original (white) inhabitants. It is not news, precisely, that there was a deeply reactionary strain in the early 20th century conservation movement, but it is still uncomfortable to read of all of Grant’s many laudable and meritorious deeds in pursuit of preserving our natural environment. Everyone who loves the beautiful American landscape and its flora and fauna is in Grant’s debt; and everyone who loves the American people, in its glorious variegations and complexity, can only be thankful that Grant’s damage to our country, as significant as it was, wasn’t greater, and that, in 2008, we were mature enough as a nation to elect a self-described racial "mutt" as president of the United States. And what a wonderful irony it was, that by the time Grant died in 1937, the area near the Bronx Zoo was heavily Jewish in its population. Every time my brothers and I and my mom went to the Bronx Zoo we were trampling on Madison Grant's evil legacy.

1 comment:

Rob Snyder said...

As Peter's colleague in the creation of Greater New York, it is my pleasure to note that I, too enjoyed childhood visits to the Bronx Zoo. My Bronx grandparents referred to the zoo as "Bronx Park," a moniker that always made the place seem very inviting to me.

In my entire childhood, nothing made me more curious about the larger world than the zoo's African Plains exhibit. I made a vow that I would one day visit that part of the world, and in 1989 visited East Africa to live out the dreams of a lifetime and climb Kilimanjaro, hike across the Serengeti Plain, and sail the Indian Ocean in a dhow, an ancient and beautiful boat much used in that part of the world.

That a man of such evil opinions as Madison Grant contributed to my happiness, and the happiness of so many other people, is a great irony.