Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Weird Word of the Week: Degenerate

Do you, Dear Reader, know anyone who is degenerate? Here's the dictionary definition:

Adjective:  Having lost the physical, mental, or moral qualities considered normal and desirable; showing evidence of decline.

Noun: An immoral or corrupt person.

Verb: To decline or deteriorate physically, mentally, or morally.

Madame L is thinking of this word because she has just read an article about how Europeans, beginning in the time of Thomas Jefferson, thought that we, Americans, were degenerate.

The whole thing started with Count George-Louis Leclerc Buffon, who wrote in his Histoire Naturelle (Natural History) that, "because North America was a cold and wet clime, all species found there were weak, shriveled, and diminished—they were degenerate."

Europeans LOVED the idea and the fact that they now had a "scientific" justification for believing they were superior to the New World which seemed to threaten their supremacy. 

But Thomas Jefferson, who met Buffon on several occasions, proved him wrong by arguing against his premises and, eventually, having moose antlers shipped to the Frenchman (not an easy feat in the 1700s), showing that this American animal was NOT some degenerate version of a reindeer. (You are amazed, Dear Reader? So was Madame L!) 

Other Americans joined the fight. The Rev. Jedidiah Morse (Samuel Morse's grandfather) wrote a textbook, The History of America in Two Books (1790), which informed American students of the slanderous theory and how misguided it was.

Madame L recommends the entire article. Madame L also can't refrain from noting that certain right-wing politicians and groups which call themselves "conservative" but which should actually be called "destructive," for that is what they are, have taken to slandering half the American population by accusing them---us---of being degenerate, lazy, unproductive, and unsalvageable.  A pox upon them!

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