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Manliness, Social Darwinism, and The Racial Exclusions of "Civilization"

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Daniel Lanza

on 23 September 2016

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Transcript of Manliness, Social Darwinism, and The Racial Exclusions of "Civilization"

While Darwin defined fitness through ecological measures like evolutionary adaptation and population size, many political leaders and intellectuals read "survival of the fittest" as a measure of a species' ability to expand & dominate its sphere of influence.
Social Darwinism
Tapping into popular thinking, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt understood this new racial/national logic as further justification of America's exceptional nature. Read in this way, Darwin's theories could support the claim that American greatness came from its domination of its environment through Westward expansion, and its (implicitly white and male) citizen's ability to "out-perform" non-white and native people.
Theodore Roosevelt's "Strenuous Manliness"
Riding on white anxieties about the result of racial uplift, Teddy Roosevelt coined the term "the strenuous life" in an 1899 speech on global relations, however the term soon came to stand in for a specific notion of self-reliant white manliness.
And though Roosevelt claimed that, "No nation capable of self-government and of developing, by its own efforts a sane and orderly civilization... has anything to fear from us," Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were not seen as meeting these requirements (189).
Manliness and American Nationalism
"Ostensibly, "The Strenuous Life" preached the virtues of military American preparedness and imperialism, but contemporaries understood it as a speech about manhood. The practical import of the speech was to urge the nation to build up its army... and to take control of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines [in the Spanish-American War]... Underlying these immediate objectives lay the message that American manhood... must retain the strength of its Indian-fighter ancestors, or another race would prove itself more manly and overtake America in the Darwinian struggle to be the world's most dominant race."
"I preach to you then, my countrymen, that our country calls not for the life of ease but for the life of strenuous endeavor... If we stand idly by... then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world. Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully"
- Teddy Roosevelt, "The Strenuous Life" (194).
Social Darwinism, Manliness, & the Racial Exclusions of "Civilization"
Strenuous Manliness and Racial Animality
"As Roosevelt described it, in modern Kenya life for both "wild man and wild beast, did not and does not differ materially from what it was in Europe in the Pleistocene" (209).
"Yet, although TR saw African men and African beasts as equally primitive, he related to their evolutionary primitivism in different ways. Roosevelt measured his manhood against that of African men by comparing their "primitiveness"; to his glorious, civilized manliness. As he saw it, African men were weak, backward, and childlike--barely men at all" (210)
"In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment."
- Charles Darwin
"In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed."
-Charles Darwin
So, what does this have to do with caveman masculinity?
In America, this new take negotiation of manliness coincided with the continuing failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction, Fredrick Jackson Turner's announcement that the American frontier had "closed," and with the influx of immigrants to American shores.
The "Scientific" Roots of Social Darwinism
What some scholars call "romantic racialisms" played an essential role in the way that Americans understood race and gender throughout this period.
This notion of racial difference as a special difference was circulated by the "science" of phrenology, which claimed that non-white humans were intellectually and developmentally different than their Anglo-saxon (white/European) counter-parts.
Phrenology was pretty entrenched at this time. So such so that abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe used ideas from racial science to argue for the freedom of African American slaves on the grounds that they were more feminine and thus could be incorporated into the white family as uncivilized dependents.
Darwin's theories found favor in Victorian English and American societies, which were beginning to transition away from social norms that defined masculinity through the repression of emotional passions and an emphasis on social decorum.
By the turn of the century, social interpretations of Darwin's theories were finding their way into emerging notions of masculinity, which defined masculinity through bulkier physiques, virile sexuality, and a fierce, yet controlled capacity for violence.
Shrugging off Victorian Manliness
This manliness drew heavily from frontier fantasies that claimed that white Americans had created a new national race in the battle for the frontier, and that this race faced the possibility of extinction if American men did not maintain their edge through continued expansion.
- Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization, p. 193
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