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Arrogance and Eugenics

January 24, 2019

For weeks I've been studying the eugenics movement: a movement in which people considered "feebleminded" (the poor, Black/Indigenous/people of color, disabled folks, queer/trans/gnc folks, immigrants) were forcefully sterilized by the state while those considered "fit" (the rich, white, property owning, educated, cis-straight, able-bodied) were encouraged to marry and reproduce. While the eugenics movement is most often associated with Hitler and the Nazi regime who took it to its natural ends in genocide, the movement actually began in the United States. It was promoted by Professors at Harvard and Stanford and Yale and Princeton, systematized by psychologists who created the IQ test and the SAT, and funded by the Rockefeller and Carnegie families. All folks who wanted to have a more "fit" society, free of "defectives" and "imbeciles."

 

Pictured, Carrie and, her mother, Emma Buck: the victims of one of the most infamous sterilization cases in the United States Buck v. Bell (1927). The Supreme Court decision ruled that when Carrie Buck was forcefully sterilized while an inmate in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded no laws were broken. It affirmed that the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924 which allowed this sterilization was indeed constitutional. This landmark case established precedence for forced sterilization of institutionalized peoples considered "feebleminded" in the United States. For more information on the case, see journalist Adam Cohen's book entitled Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.

 

And as I'm sitting with this evil I've been trying to figure out why. Why would people do this. And this quote by journalist Edwin Black really stands out: 

 

"I ask how did this happen in a progressive society? After reviewing thousands upon thousands of pages and documentation, and pondering the question day and night for nearly two years, I realize it comes down to just one word. It was more than the self-validation and self-certification of the elite, more than just power and influence joining forces with prejudice. It was the corruptor of us all: it was arrogance" (*War Against the Weak,* 2003).

 

There's something to that. We can put the eugenicists in their context, explain why their worldview made sense, and indeed we can come up with compelling answers. And also, there's something to be said about studying people who saw the human suffering their worldview produced and *still* claimed to be in the right.

 

There's a lesson there...A lesson that extends beyond the eugenics movement...About how arrogance combined with unlimited resources and no fear of consequences can lead to evil and atrocities...There's a lesson there...

 

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