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Doc Savage & Criminology

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One of the more interesting things about the pulp star Doc Savage, the man of bronze, is that he carried out operations on the brains of criminals in order to correct them. These exercises in popular culture — the 181 pulp novels written by Lester Dent — are thus one of the most basic advocates for eugenics throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

It is also interesting to note, en passant, that Doc Savage is referenced by an old Kansan in Truman Capote’s famous non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, where it is suggested that the two desperadoes who murder the Clutter family could have their brains operated on to make them more docile and less violent, hence saving them from the scaffold. None of this came to pass (obviously). Yet the very fact that one could suggest — without shock and horror — that criminals could be experimented on in this way shows you the sharply divergent mores of the hour.

This is more than enough to set a keen observer thinking about the two distinct approaches to criminology which still reverberate today.

The first, which we could call the New Left approach, envisages crime as totally mediated by the social. Criminals are made and not born. The greater the amount of fiscal inequality in a society, the higher the preponderance of crime. This eventually locks itself into a reductio ad absurdum where, in a text like Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the more severe the penology the more vicious the crime you get as a result.

In this leftist schema, crime is essentially deserved — it is a form of societal vengeance on the bourgeois class. Of course, in societies where the fissures are more racial than social, then the corresponding class biases in discussion of crime become racial ones instead. This brew makes the issue even more toxic to the liberal mind than hitherto.

The other great polarity in this debate is provided by what we might call a New Right discourse — some of whose ideas are very ancient indeed — and streak back to the origins of criminology as a subject in 1878 when Cesare Lombroso published Criminal Man. This viewpoint sees crime as sociobiological in aspect. According to its register, criminals are born and not made, and although there may not be a criminal gene, as such, an absence of oxygen to the brain at birth in certain cases, together with the fact that widespread criminal families exist, tends to posit a physical basis to the criminaloid.

This ramifies with the recurrent idea of abnormality and lowness being a part of the criminal urge; whereby it can be seen that around a third of all mugshots in Black Museums or Encyclopedias of murder are grossly abnormal. Many criminals are habitual recidivists.

They repeat their offenses because they want to; they enjoy doing so; and criminality can be perceived as a lifestyle choice. Recurrent bouts of imprisonment then become a source of pride rather than the reverse.

In this outlook, a whole cluster of criminal attitudes go together, such as the belief that morality is about getting away with it, rape is normal sex, working is an idiot’s game, lying is as natural as talking, and that the social order is only there to be exploited or taken advantage of.

If at the heart of the criminal sub-class, criminals are born and not made, this revolutionizes criminology as a subject. It also opens up the way for experimentation on criminals who show the most pronounced symptoms of abnormality. By this viewpoint, criminality goes much deeper than amorality, heedlessness, the retention of an adolescent attitude into adult life, and so forth. It is no longer about alienation or rage. Nor is it a personal rebellion against society. Likewise, the criminal can never again be depicted as a victim of a harsh or unjust social order.

A large part of criminality is linked to anti-creativity and destructiveness as an end in itself. Erich Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness is a key text here. The front cover of the 1980s paperback edition in Europe showed an Old Master painting which had been damaged by knife or razor slashes. This related to a real series of mutilations and attacks on great paintings throughout Europe during that decade. Many of these attacks were copy-cat efforts, given the chronic uncreativity of the criminal mind. They also led to the institution of security models which you see in all galleries to this day.

The anatomy of human destructiveness views destruction and anti-creativity as a creativity. It wishes to destroy because it’s there. This rubric is difficult for most people to grasp, since the wish to destroy as a tainted death-instinct, as an end in itself, is alien to most normally constituted people.

A moral heightening, however, can lead to a greater awareness of this negative trope, and certain criminals can undergo traumatic instants of moral remorse. This is the prospect of renewal about which all moralists preach. Could such a redemptive urge be prescripted to order — through the use of chemicals or brain operations, if and when the science has caught up with the speculation, and enables us to do so?

“Who knows?,” is the honest answer to this. But, as always, fiction has already stolen a march on us. Let us imagine a scenario where not only Doc Savage in the 1930s but many heroes of a contemporary vintage advocate eugenics as a progressive end-point for crime. It would literally provide a bone-shaking jolt to contemporary mores.

After all, eugenics began as essentially a leftist orientation prior to the era in which Lester Dent (Kenneth Robeson) had Clark Savage Junior and the Amazing Five — Monk, Ham, Johnny, Renny and Long Tom — strut their stuff. If ever these attitudes return to popular culture then you will know that you are living through a seismic alteration in judgement.