In 1949, a few months after I was born, the latest edition of the 30 volume Encyclopedia Americana hit the streets of America. The collection of big books was the first multi-volume encyclopedia sold in the United States, starting way back in 1829.  Each year it grew in size, sometimes adding new volumes to cover more subjects. By 1949, it was truly comprehensive.

I own a complete set of the 1949 edition, which my wife’s dad passed on to me after his death a few years ago. By all accounts, the volumes were a sensation when first published. Not only were they successfully sold door to door throughout the United States, but libraries everywhere stocked them on their shelves for scholars and the general public alike to explore and absorb. 

1949 was only a few short years after the end of World War II.  Colleges overflowed with legions of returning GIs who studied for free courtesy of the recently passed GI BillThe Encyclopedia Americana became a beacon of knowledge and enlightenment for hundreds of thousands of optimistic Americans who were ramping up their skills to conquer the ignorance and backwardness of a world they knew all too well from their recent exposure to the wars overseas.

After perusing these volumes during the past few years, I have been struck by how much we knew in 1949, and by how much we thought we knew but really didn’t.  I was dumbfounded by racist patterns of thinking, which seemed to permeate the collection. It came as a complete surprise. Modern people could be excused for thinking that Hitler himself wrote some of the articles, I have sometimes thought to myself.

People have said that racism is the original sin of America; that we have never come to terms with the bad things we did (and continue to do), because some of our European forefathers, scientists even, actually believed that Africans were medically degenerate.  Our country enslaved blacks, because ostensibly responsible people told our ancestors that Negroes were animals, like lions or tigers. Of course it was OK to work them like pack-animals, some thought. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all.  Besides, slavery was in the Bible.

After slavery ended, we continued to segregate the races. And we still do

Look at Florida if you don’t believe it. In the State of Florida, segregation is a way of life. We Americans, some of us, seem to be oblivious to the evil of our actions and unaware of the demonic origin of many of our ideas about what is true and what is right.   

We tend to repeat lies that hurt whole classes of people; lies that help no one, but drive to despair and even suicide folks like South American immigrants, gays and, yes, Middle Eastern refugees who struggle to get by in a society that seems to value only excellence and perfection, money and power, symmetry and form, orthodoxy and moral rectitude.  

We look down on, shun, and isolate authentic human beings who typically possess attributes we don’t admire like humility, lowliness, incompetence, average intelligence, awkward manners, social inadequacy, clumsiness, unreliable physical ability, psychological disabilities, ugliness, poor hygiene, ravaged skin, lack of hair, too much hair, unpleasant smells, thinness, fatness, and on and on.  

We condemn millions to long prison terms who have done nothing more than act like fools; who have made mistakes, which with a little maturity and wisdom gained in the fresh air of freedom they might not ever make again. Many readers can probably think of many undesirable attributes of human beings, which they find repulsive and would like to repress with long prison terms, if only they could. It’s a desire best left unfulfilled.

Gated Arizona Community
Most are not permitted beyond these gates. They aren’t worthy.

Our inability to accept and live next to people who have less money, less education, different physical traits; who may be less attractive and less polished; who may not understand the world as we do; who are different in some way we find compelling—think about it— it’s destroying our humanity and ability to love and accept others. We wreck any chance for happiness; any sense of well-being for tens of millions of ordinary people—probably hundreds of millions—who, it turns out, have very few advantages in this life of dog-eat-dog competition; it’s a fight which some lack the temperament to endure. It is demoralizing for them and, I believe, destroying our country and our world.

We seem unable to even look at people with physical disabilities and handicaps; the blind; the deaf; the burned; the paraplegic; the paralyzed, the mentally incapacitated, the depressed, the hyperactive and the socially fearful. Many Americans are hiding themselves behind gates, guard shacks and walls to avoid facing the simple truth that people are diverse; that God demands we accept and respect everyone, because each person, even ones who are unattractive and ungrateful (in our own morally-damaged sight), are made from the stuff of God Himself and are, in the reality we seem so unwilling to view, beautiful and deserving of respect and simple deference. 

Jesus said that God loves even the wicked. He loves people who are weak and powerless and undesirable. How can we do less?

Anyway, I thought that these two entries from the 1949 Encyclopedia Americana, reprinted below in their brutal original version, might help open the eyes of folks who are blind to the cesspool of ideas which have corrupted our souls as a people and a country; which have driven some people to shun, ostracize, exclude, and even kill those who they think don’t deserve to enjoy the advantages and privileges they demand for themselves.

These tombs of hate from our past sat on bookshelves and in libraries where they were read for many decades after their publication. Hatred poured forth not only from encyclopedias like the Americana, but from all forms of media and public discourse, it turns out. The nasty rhetoric of race, exclusion, and the exaggerated elevation of our elites into a pantheon of god-like celebrities has poisoned our minds and our souls and continues to poison our churches and schools; the military and our public institutions. It’s all painfully evident in the rabid venom-spewing aspirants we find in our politics today, who I won’t name. Why demean a good essay?

People claim they mean well and are doing God’s will, but golly-gee, someone has to say it (it might as well be me): the movement to transfer children from public schools into homeschooling; the stampede to place civilians armed with concealed weapons into churches and schools; the attempts to scare women out of exercising their constitutionally protected freedom to make health care choices, even to the point of fire bombing healthcare clinics for the poor; the intimidation of writers like myself who publish views unpopular with morons are all symptomatic of a country which is becoming less free, more facist, and less brave—certainly less accepting, less tolerant, less nurturing, and less forgiving.  

America is a mean-spirited place for many people. Even upscale people in high places are afraid to speak their minds plainly, out of fear for the faceless billionaires who pull their strings and determine their futures. Look at all the safe-talk on television. Some people call it political correctness.  What does that term mean? 

It means people’s careers get ruined if they speak about certain subjects in a frank and unconventional way. When was the last time you heard a celebrity advocate for something as innocuous as a progressive income tax?  Shorter prison sentences?  Maximum incomes?  Limits on estate sizes?  Limits on inherited wealth?  It’s not right. 

Our celebrities are held back by tight leashes. And it isn’t the public holding the leashes. To remain in the spotlight, celebrities must wear muzzles. Does anyone really think they are going complain about it?  Of course not.

Try to remember the names of celebrities who said something controversial and were never heard from again. You might remember their faces, maybe even some of the shows they were on. You won’t remember their names, more likely than not. They’ve dropped off the face of the earth. They disappeared. The list is long, it really is.    

I write about forbidden subjects all the time, but I’m not a celebrity. No one controls me, not since I resigned my memberships in certain organizations. But the public doesn’t read my blog, either. And, yes, some subjects are off-limits, even for writers like me.

I don’t write about Israel, or North Korea, or drug cartels; I don’t bad-mouth artists; I don’t condemn creative people, because people with unusual points of view who have talent are fragile and easily frightened into silence; money and fame don’t change that. And I don’t publish articles about my own sexuality. I tried that once; it didn’t turn out well.

But let’s get back on message.

I don’t feel like I’m overstating it. Below are two examples of a viciously evil way of thinking, which was mainstream in the decades following 1949.  Today, in 2015, many folks continue to embrace this brand of crazy reasoning.  We need a national exorcism of these evil winds that are freeze-drying the hearts of people, many of them, in a grip of cold vice, which, deluded, they believe to be virtue. 

Tolerance is not the answer. It is too cold, too indifferent. Embracing outcasts in love is the answer. 

We can’t embrace the marginalized with true love, if we segregate ourselves by income, class and race.  We can’t do it, if we push aside and shun people who don’t think like us or look like us or act like us. We can’t do it, if we think diversity is a plague to be avoided. 

Think about it.  Seriously.  We can’t save our children and grand-children, if we lack the courage to confront the billionaires who built this gilded cell-block we call America. They built this prison to protect themselves from us.

Here’s the problem. Most of us don’t know the names of the billionaires who rule us. We can’t reason with them. We can’t find them. The truth is, they find us, usually when they need someone like a soldier to fight to protect their property or a worker who will add value to their estates by performing tasks for low wages.

The problem is: they don’t love us. Otherwise they would live in the world where we live, but they don’t. Then again, they might allow us to live in their world, where the water in their pools is blue and clean and the sun is warm. But they won’t do that either.

Maybe someday. Someday, maybe, if they ever change, they will. They will unlock the gates. They will throw away the keys. They will let us in.

On that day we will become one people, one nation, indivisible, under God. While we wait, we must change ourselves.

Billy Lee

[The following are excerpts from the 1949 edition of The Encyclopedia AmericanaBilly Lee does not endorse any of it.  The Editorial Board.]

Degeneracy, pic of Encyclopedia Americana

DEGENERACY.  Unfavorable environment is now generally recognized as the chief cause of the failure of individuals to attain the physical, mental, and moral norm of the race. In certain individuals, however, a defective constitution may predispose them toward an inadequate development of mental, and especially moral, qualities. Such individuals are known as degenerates. 

In many such cases the basis of degeneracy is a lesion of the nervous system or of the sense organs. Congenital blindness and deafness can result in idiocy unless early measures are taken. However, the fundamental defects may be obscure and inaccessible to the pathological anatomist of the present day.  The neuro-sensory defects are often, but not always, accompanied by malformations of a more conspicuous character, known as stigmata. 

These include various distortions of the external ear, facial asymmetry, very early or very late closure of the cranial sutures, polydactylism and other digital anomalies and various signs of imperfect or abnormal development.  Individual stigmata may be present in a person of normal mental and moral make-up, but the concurrence of a considerable number of stigmata is a fairly good sign of degeneracy.

The forms assumed by degeneracy are very various. The mental defect varies from utter idiocy, where the patient is unable to protect himself from immediate physical danger, through imbecility, where he is still incapable of carrying out the daily processes of dressing and undressing, washing, etc., to the various grades of feeble-mindedness, in which he is able to satisfy all his immediate personal needs, but cannot earn an independent livelihood nor associate with his fellows on equal terms.

The causes of degeneracy are manifold.  The racial poisons of alcohol, drugs and venereal diseases are responsible for a large proportion of the cases, though in many cases alcoholism and drug habits may be symptoms rather than causes of degeneracy. Any factor which enfeebles the mother—poverty, illness or the like—may injure the mental and moral constitution of the child as well as its physical constitution.  However, the most important cause of degeneracy is in all probability the inherent inferiority of the stock.

That certain forms of degeneracy exhibit a pedigree conforming to the Mendelian law is now an established fact.  This hereditary quality of degeneracy, together with the fact that degenerates are often likely to have many children, owing to their immorality, makes the problem of degeneracy a most serious one. 

The so-called Jukes family cost the taxpayers of New York State millions of dollars in the course of the 19th century.  For this reason many States have enacted laws making it legal in certain cases to perform on degenerates operations designed to prevent their propagating their kind. 


   Bibliography. —Gillin, J.L., Poverty and Delinquency (New York 1926) ; Slawson, J., Delinquent Boy (Boston 1926) ; Glueck, S. S. and E., Five Hundred Delinquent Women (New York 1934) ; Chassell, C. R., Relation Between Morality and Intellect (New York 1935) ; Lunden, W. A., Juvenile Delinquency (Pittsburg 1936) ; Burt, C. L., Subnormal Mind (New York 1937) ; Karpman, B., Case Studies in the Psychopathology of Crime (Washington 1944).

DEGENERATION, a work of Max Nordau (1895), which aimed at a scientific criticism of those degenerates not upon the acknowledged lists of the criminal classes.  Degenerates, asserted Nordau, are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and pronounced lunatics; they are often authors and artists. 

These, however, manifest the same mental characteristics, and for the most part the same somatic features, as the members of the above-mentioned anthropological family, who satisfy their unhealthy impulses with the knife of the assassin or the bomb of the dynamiter, instead of with pen and pencil…. 

Now I have undertaken the work of investigating the tendencies of the fashions in art and literature; of proving that they have their source in the degeneracy of their authors, and that the enthusiasm of their admirers is for manifestations of more or less pronounced moral insanity and dementia.

One word best describes my reaction to the above entries from the 1949 Encyclopedia Americana: Yikes! 

Billy Lee

2 Replies to “DEGENERACY”

  1. Enjoyed the article. There are truths hidden amongst the criticisms, but they get overcome alongside ideas that are too extreme for success. If the article had centered on the thoughts of cancer from that time period, the same disparities in knowledge could be found. Certainly, after this many years, we have grown in our knowledge. The results are really not that negative.

    I’m not sure who your “we” is, but it is not me. I am not considered to be politically correct, but all must refrain from going too far out on either edge. I did not build fences around my property to keep out the poor, but the criminals. It doesn’t seem to me that we improve our country by continuing to hold with some of the ideas of the past, only changing the names of the groups (Irish, Jews, Italians, Japanese, Blacks, Muslims) that we condemn.

    Our country is not stuck in 1949. It is moving in the right direction. But, when the majority of voters control, then some acceptance of their will must be conceded. It operates as a pendulum, not a freeway. We are all in some different type of minority, and we have to figure out how to achieve our goals in conflict with the majority.

  2. degenerate
    adjective |diˈjenərit|
    1 having lost the physical, mental, or moral qualities considered normal and desirable; showing evidence of decline:

    degeneracy |diˈjenərəsē|
    the state or property of being degenerate

    Generally speaking I am glad I am not part of the “we” and “our” segment of the population you so closely identify with. Sadly there are many of you that have been left behind or refuse to grow forward. You are right about one thing, “Some really bad things are headed our way…” but there is no time limit on them. In the New America all your fears will come to fruition and all the battles those of us fought and won in America to put those fears to rest will wind up having been fought in vain. That’s what happens to a country or a world that turns its back on truth, justice, and morality. To coin a phrase, where there is no justice there is no peace… or freedom.

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