Truth Matters: The Margaret Sanger Myth

by John Ellis

In an article published by The Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt argues that social media has circumvented the societal and political checks our founding fathers folded into the warp and woof of this country to guard against the worst excesses of democracy. Best known as the co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind, the social psychologist warns that, “social media turns many of our most politically engaged citizens into Madison’s nightmare: arsonists who compete to create the most inflammatory posts and images, which they can distribute across the country in an instant while their public sociometer displays how far their creations have traveled.”

He ain’t wrong.

Arsonists. What an apt description for most of us who engage in online dialogue.[1]

Yes, I am cynical. But I’m cynical for good reasons. Not only have I seen the dialectical dumpster fires burning in social media’s echo champers, I’ve started some of those fires, to my shame and regret. I am guilty of the charge of being included in James Madison’s nightmare.

I’m also cynical because, frankly, no matter how loudly writers and thinkers like Haidt and Neil Postman and others shout warnings about the dangerous ways technology continues to reshape our epistemology and, by extension, our overall worldview, we collectively ignore them, happy to settle deeper into our entertaining Brave New World. And even many of us who read and recommend their books, share their prophetic articles, and turn our noses up at social media do so from high-up on the white-washed temple steps of our “sophisticatedly” curated Facebook and Twitter accounts. As the part vapid, part poignant children’s “nana nana boo boo” saying goes, we point one smug, accusatory finger at others while we have four pointing back at us. And, yes, there’s a good chance I’m speaking directly to you. And, yes, I’m aware that the majority of my fingers are aimed in a different direction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself and should probably save some of my targets for the article I mentioned in footnote #1. For the purpose of this current post, I want to narrow down into how problematic our social media fed tribalism is because it has created an epidemic of strawman dishonesty, not to mention plain old-fashioned dishonesty, when talking about the “other side.” And because I am a conservative Christian, I am going to focus solely on my “tribe.”  

While working as an online writer, I became increasingly frustrated and, frankly, disgusted with how our ability to dialogue with one another has been undermined by the combination of things like our hardening tribalism, the ways in which the internet has altered how we receive and process information, and how social media has led many of us to be convinced that we have knowledge when, in fact, we do not. The data is clear: reading comprehension is down; attention spans have shortened; what constitutes knowledge has been upended; and the internet is largely to blame.

To demonstrate my complaint, I’m going to offer two examples.

If you spend any amount of time on social media, you’ve probably seen (if not shared) a meme poking Democrats because their party was the pro-slavery party in the mid-19th century. According to the meme, Republicans aren’t racist because Republicans ended slavery.

That is an infuriatingly stupid argument. Yet otherwise intelligent people make it.

Whether today’s Democrat Party is racist or not, the party platform of 1860 is irrelevant, unless demonstrated through valid arguments otherwise. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that many of those who taunt Democrats with this are often the ones who are adamantly arguing against reparations for slavery because, “we can’t/shouldn’t apologize/make restitution for the sins of others.”

Well, which is it, fellow conservatives? Are we answerable for or absolved from the sins of the previous generations? You can’t insist that no one in the 21st century should apologize for slavery (unless they own slaves, of course) and then insist that your Democrat friends and family own Stephen A. Douglas’ campaign promises. (For the record, my rhetorical point is an oversimplification. For example, it may very well be true that both contemporary Democrats are not answerable for Stephen Douglas’ campaign promises and we in the 21st century should have a serious discussion about reparations. By no means am I intending to inseparably connect the two.)

Look, if you want to continue to insist that Democrats are racist, fine; I don’t really care. But, if you do so, at least adhere to legitimate rules of rhetoric and make a valid argument. You see, there is a major flaw in my claim above that the meme is an infuriatingly stupid argument. Do you know what that flaw is?

The meme in all its derivatives is not an argument, at all; it’s an assertion.

Maybe the ideology of the contemporary Democratic Party does owe a dept to the party’s platform of 1860. But if that’s true, you’ve got to demonstrate it via arguments rooted in primary sources, not “gotcha” memes. And unless you’re willing to do the hard work of delving into the primary sources, making connections in light of changing contexts, and defending your thesis through thoughtful analysis, stop claiming that Democrats are racist and Republicans are not because of events that happened a century and a half ago. It’s not only lazy, it’s a level of epistemic malfeasance that’s embarrassing. And it reflects how much you’ve been shaped by social media, to the detriment of yourself and society at large while continuing to help the divide grow that, as Haidt points out, may very well be, “the political equivalent of buildings collapsing, birds falling from the sky, and the Earth moving closer to the sun.”

My second example of how conservatives add to the detritus that is social media discourse is the use of Margaret Sanger in pro-life arguments.   

If this post’s tone seems overly combative, I want to remind you of the platitude that we are the angriest at the things we hate about ourselves. I have written many articles throwing Margaret Sanger in the face of those who support abortion as a “gotcha” argument about how their beloved Planned Parenthood is racist. So, yes, my tone is combative because I’m mad at myself for helping perpetuate contra-useful, misleading, and even deceitful arguments.

Arguments can and have been made about the racism inherent in the abortion industry (if not in the intent, in the results). But, as prooftext and meme handy Margaret Sanger is, the ways in which pro-lifers use her life and words are dishonest. I own everything that Sanger published minus a small handful of her published letters (I have read them, though). There is much about her life and beliefs that I find objectionable; there is much about her that should embarrass Planned Parenthood. But she doesn’t reach the level of racist eugenics monster that many in my tribe make her out to have been – at least, in the way(s) they make her out to have been.

For those unaware, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League which changed its name to Planned Parenthood in 1942. Involved in several reform causes, her main emphasis, as can be deduced from the name of the organization she started, was birth control. At the time, contraceptives were largely illegal, owing to the Comstock Act. Not only was Sanger dedicated to securing women’s reproductive freedom, her birth control activism was also shaped by her eugenic ideology that was informed by Havelock Ellis. And her eugenics is where pro-lifers play fast and loose with context in order to set up a bogeywoman in attempts to discredit Planned Parenthood as a racist, eugenics organization. Again, Planned Parenthood may very well be guilty of those things, but taking Margaret Sanger out of context only serves to whip our tribe into a frenzy while damaging dialogue opportunities with those who are pro-abortion. This, of course, raises the question, how is she taken out of context?

For starters, it should be noted that Margaret Sanger was opposed to abortion. While later in life she supported abortion if the life of the mother was at stake, she believed the procedure to be barbaric and for most of her life refused to even recommend doctors who performed the procedure.

Secondly, she did not create a secret plan to exterminate the black population of this country. Was Margaret Sanger a racist? Yes. Was Margaret Sanger a classist? Yes. But you’d be hard pressed to find many white individuals born in the 19th century who weren’t those things, and that includes among conservative heroes. That doesn’t mean that Sanger harbored an intense hatred of people of color that drove a diabolical plot to erase them from the face of the planet.

When writing articles about Margaret Sanger, it took rhetorical chicanery for me to connect her more inflammatory statements directly to blacks. Like almost everyone else writing pre-Civil Rights era, Sanger used language that is now considered racially insensitive. And, yes, she made racist comments. Yet, her descriptors of “weeds” and “undesirables,” while explicitly connected to uneducated immigrants, the poor, and those with mental challenges, are never directly connected to blacks. Nowhere in her writings and speeches does Sanger ever say that people of African descent are undesirable[2]. What’s more, the Margaret Sanger ace-in-the-hole racist card that pro-lifers enjoy playing is taken out of context to the point of being a fabrication.

Sanger’s “Negro Project” shows up time and again in pro-life memes and arguments intended to expose Planned Parenthood. The smoking gun, so to speak, is found in a letter she wrote to Dr. C. J. Gamble, saying in the oft-prooftexted section, “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”

A fair reading of her letter in the context of the project as a whole doesn’t allow for the conclusion that many of my tribe insist on when sharing pull-quotes of Sanger. Working with black community leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois to help disseminate contraceptives and birth control education in black communities, she was accepted and championed by many of the early Civil Rights leaders. Her Negro Project was simply an extension of her earlier work in Harlem. Ironically, when her plan was finally adopted and implemented in the early 1940s, her desire to fund clinics staffed solely by black doctors and nurses was scrapped, as was the educational aspect of her original plan. Instead, the money was funneled to existing clinics, some of them located on HBC campuses, and the program was reduced to merely distributing birth control.

In the letter to Dr. Gamble, Sanger wasn’t wanting to protect the “real” agenda of the Negro Project. Nowhere in any of her other communications is something like the extermination of African Americans even hinted at. Sanger meant what she wrote to Dr. Gamble: she was afraid that some would be suspicious of her efforts and she realized that black ministers were better spokespeople for the program than a white lady. In that same letter, she stressed the importance of having clinics staffed by black doctors and nurses.  

Whatever Margaret Sanger’s flaws and sins were (which are many), advocating for racial genocide is not included. Using out of context pull quotes to craft a dishonest picture of her to support conservative positions should not be done, especially not by Christians. We don’t need to resort to straw men and even deceit to expose the wickedness of abortion.

A final thought on Sanger: if it hasn’t already happened, some enterprising progressive is going to create memes connected Sanger’s comments on immigration with Donald Trump and his supporters’ similar comments. For example, during a radio address, she said, “I am glad to say that the United States government has already taken certain steps to control the quality of our population through its drastic immigration laws, whereby our gates are closed to those whom she considers undesirables.”[3] Or another example, in which she complains, “That these foreigners who have come in hordes have brought with them their ignorance of hygiene and modern ways of living.”[4]

You see, if your arguments live by the Margaret-Sanger-is-pure-evil sword, you run the risk of having other arguments that President Trump and his supporters cherish die by that same sword.

Arguing via memes, click bait articles, and shocking pull quotes should not be tools that are used very often (if at all) by those interested in the truth. Unfortunately, social media has negatively altered our collective ability to listen and engage in healthy debate. Christians, especially, should resist the urge to be rhetorical arsonists. The truth matters far more than winning arguments and scoring rhetorical blows. Engaging in discourse in a manner that reflects the age of social media creates a hindrance to our ability to share the greatest Truth. Why should our non-Christian friends and family listen to us when we share the gospel of Jesus Christ if much of the rest of our dialogue is often characterized by straw men and outright deceit?

Jonathan Haidt may be correct: social media may have already ushered in the beginning stages of the downfall of the founding father’s experiment. Even if that’s true, though, Christians are sojourners and pilgrims; we are citizens in a different Kingdom and we serve a different King. Allowing our voice to be co-opted by the prevailing sophistry of Facebook and Twitter at the expense of our ability to make disciples is a failure to obey our King and it doesn’t glorify our Heavenly Father.

[1] I’m working on a long-form article with the primary thesis that Facebook (social media, in general) is tailormade for Charles Taylor’s “disenchanted buffered self.” And while Haidt’s article is more instructive for my upcoming post, it contains points of contact for this current post. In fact, even though I began writing this current post prior to my upcoming long-form article, I’ve come to realize that this post actually serves the longer post to the point of possibly being a subpoint in it. In other words, I’ve been working on my Charles Taylor inspired article for longer than I realized. Frankly, over the last couple of months as I’ve existentially struggled with my own role/place in online writing, social media, and the anemic nature of American evangelicalism, Taylor’s dense insights have weighed heavily on my mind.

[2] You can find quite a few fake quotes that “prove” what a racist she was. And I’ll be more than happy to fact-check any that end up in my comment section.

[3] Margaret Sanger, “Racial Betterment” in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 1, The Woman Rebel (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 446.

[4] Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), 31.

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