A Contemporary Tragedy
For the too many nativists who currently embrace the ignorant and racially divisive rhetoric of Donald J. Trump as he grandstands his way toward the GOPʼs nomination for the 2016 presidency—and who erroneously believe that the U.S. is not only the greatest nation on the planet but who also believe that it is the singular, exclusively infallible government that has ever existed—arenʼt really paying attention or havenʼt studied our nationʼs history very thoroughly, and Iʼm not going to mention the way we, as a nation, destroyed almost entirely the aboriginal population that Christopher Columbus “discovered” on his failed journey to find a western oceanic passage to India; the unconscionable institution of slavery; the subjugation of women, including unequal pay for equal work; the emetic acceptance that the Japanese internment camps of WWII are a verity of our nationʼs history; the failure of Reaganomic hubris; and the equally embarrassing wars on drugs and poverty. These are but a few examples of what may go awry when groups of people become clans of chaos.
In the early 20th century, a popular Eugenics program emerging from Great Britain infiltrated into the U.S. political scene. Eugenics is a social philosophy advocating the improvement of human genetic traits through the promotion of breeding couples with superior genetic traits while reducing reproduction in couples with inferior genetic traits via sterilization, marriage restriction, or forced abstinence. Unfortunately, since there was no unified, codified test for negative genetic inferiority, many groups were exploited. People with mental and physical disabilities, people who scored negatively on various IQ tests, criminals, deviants; and members of minority groups: Jews, homosexuals, Muslims, Romani, and the homeless were targeted by supporters of what was, and is, in reality, justified genocide.
The various IQ tests that were given to the social outcasts were laughable. They were very primitive tests of the time which included insipid questions that were irrelevant to whether or not one was deemed an imbecile, idiot, or moron, yet this was the formal hierarchy established by conventions of the time, a hierarchy established by the psychological profession and was actually written in government pamphlets. The state of Virginia used these tests as a way to promote Eugenics that resulted in the sterilization of a young woman named Carrie Buck.
In 1927, the United States Supreme Court case of Buck vs Bell upheld a statute that enabled the state of Virginia to sterilize people who had been deemed mentally defective even if their diagnosis wasnʼt conducted by objective scientific methodology. Carrie Buck had been confined to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded even though she was neither mentally disabled nor epileptic; she was merely poor, and as a result of her penury, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Virginia had the right to sterilize her. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., one of our nationʼs most celebrated justices, wrote the majority opinion stating with authoritarian confidence that “Three generations of imbeciles is enough… [The nation must sterilize those who] sap the strength of the state [to] prevent our being swamped with incompetence… It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” The chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time was William Howard Taft, the former President of the U.S. as well as former president of Yale Law School.
This embarrassing decision, considered unconscionable now, resulted in 60,000 to 70,000 sterilizations of American citizens deemed “unfit” to reproduce under questionable guidelines. The Supreme Court decision was not only accepted by a significant number of our nationʼs citizenry, it became justification to pursue Eugenics. Sadly, there are some who even today, with all the scientific evidence to the contrary, embrace Eugenics as a way to justify racial supremacy and stereotypes that are simply ignorant.
During this time period, the “Roaring Twenties” with its flappers, bootleg whiskey, and sensual jazz music, there was major international support for eugenics. Among its proponents were such notable historical icons as Teddy Roosevelt (who wrote in the January 1914 edition of The Outlook magazine, “I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding… Feeble-minded persons [should be] forbidden to leave offspring behind them”), FDR (who thought that the Japanese were inherently inferior, which facilitated the internment camps during WWII), Alexander Graham Bell, H. G. Wells (who later rescinded), Winston Churchill, Herbert Hoover, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, W. E. B. Du Bois even Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Eugenics was taught in major universities. It was popular in the press and in best-selling books, all part of a major movement.
People throughout the world honestly believed that their respective nations needed to uplift racial profiles by manipulating their gene pools. This very sad example of U.S. jurisprudence was also cited by lawyers for Nazi scientists in defense of their WWII war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials. In 1925, Adolf Hitler praised and incorporated eugenic ideas in his book “Mein Kampf” and emulated eugenic legislation for the sterilization of “defectives” that had been pioneered in the United States. The state of Indiana, in 1907, passed a eugenics sterilization law, well before the rise of the Nazi party. In fact, Harry Laughlin, a U.S. citizen who ran the Eugenic Records Office of Long Island and who was granted an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1936—the same year that the university purged all Jews from its faculty—was in correspondence with the Nazi scientists throughout the whole period. In his eugenics-based magazine, he often wrote how the Nazi Partyʼs eugenics program was based on his.
Contrarily, the Labor Party and the Catholic church each opposed eugenics. In the Buck vs Bell decision, eight of the nine judges voted in favor of the state of Virginiaʼs sterilization of human beings deemed somehow inferior even through questionable processes of determination. The only vote against it was the Catholic judge Pierce Butler. However, the American Eugenics Society initially gained some Catholic support, but it quickly waned after Pope Pius XIʼs 1930 encyclical that stated “Public magistrates have no direct political power over the bodies of their subjects, therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason.” (I reckon that even though public magistrates have “no direct political power over the bodies of their subjects,” religious magistrates, probably exclusive to the papacy and, by extension, the Catholic community, can and do have power over oneʼs body when considering the right to abort unwanted pregnancies.)
A more negative reaction to eugenics nourished after it became associated with Nazi Germany and its holocaust movement wherein the German state murdered approximately 11 million people deemed inferior to the fabled Aryan myth. Many of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials decried that there was little difference between Nazi eugenics and the eugenics espoused by, among others, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. One of the many things of which the Naziʼs were accused was their setting up a eugenics program in which they sterilized over 375,000 people. The Nazis argued that the U.S. Supreme Court declared eugenic sterilization Constitutional and thereby beneficent to society. Our own revered Oliver Wendell Holmes agreed. Why then was it a bane in Germany?
After WWII and the emergence of the concept of human rights, many nations abandoned their overt associations with Eugenics, criticizing a vulnerability towards abuse due to a criteria of selection that is determined by whoever holds political power at any given time. The fact that Eugenics directly violates basic human rights, including the right to reproduction, along with the possible loss of genetic diversity and interbreeding depression, also led to the movementʼs decline.
During the early twentieth century, Eugenics dealt more with sterilization and enforced reproduction laws (no inter-racial marriage and marriage restrictions based on land ownership). Modern Eugenics has unprecedented capabilities to map genomes; embryos can be tested for life-altering diseases, and vitro fertilization is increasingly more common. Eugenics no longer has much to do with living adults and their biological relationships but, instead, now mainly deals with preemptive action on the unborn. Still and all, Eugenics can lead to loss of genetic diversity—the ability to manipulate the fetus and determine who the child will be is something questioned by both opponents and proponents of eugenics. Most of the ethical concerns over Eugenics involve issues of morality and power. Obviously, Eugenics controls racial determination within the fetus as well as other measurable aspects of the human condition that can be manipulated by the powerful and, as such, must be debated assiduously before something possibly cataclysmic results. In this particular instance, objective scientific methodology should be considered before subjective political prowess.
Although Eugenics declined shortly after its association with Nazi Germany and its abominable holocaust, its connection with racial supremacy helped develop the Southern Strategy. In U.S. politics, the Southern Strategy refers to a strategy used by Republican Party candidates to gain Southern support by appealing to racism against African-Americans, mostly as a reaction against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which pushed to dismantle the restrictive Jim Crow laws that had enforced legal segregation in the South since the Reconstruction Era. President Nixon used it very effectively, attracting white Southern voters who had traditionally voted Democratic to vote Republican instead by consciously appealing to southern votersʼ racial resentments to gain support. In 2005, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman formerly apologized to the NAACP for exploiting racial polarization to win elections and ignoring the black vote.
One of the more overt strategies was for the GOP to express support for state rights, which was, and is, a covert way to associate their support for a pre-Civil War opposition to the federal government that ended slavery. It became a code-word to represent opposition to federal enforcement of Civil Rights. The Southern Strategy moved from national politics and soon incorporated local government, and as the GOP gained power, minority voters, including the poor, began experiencing difficulty in voting. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and making voter registration increasingly more difficult helped suppress minority votes. Richard Milhouse Nixon and his staff took the Southern Strategy that had its humble origins in the late nineteenth century and developed a more detailed plan beginning with appealing directly to issues of white supremacy without overtly expressing it. Obfuscation, i.e. plausible denial, became the popular strategy to appeal to racially motivated voters. The key was to devise a system that recognized white supremacy while not appearing so. Key phrases such as “state rights,” “law and order,” “food stamps,” “forced busing,” “welfare state,” resentment against “affirmative action,” “welfare queen,” and “young fellow” to refer to fictional healthy, black welfare recipients, became ubiquitous in GOP campaigning, and it was dividing the nation along racial lines.
The covert white supremacy of the Southern Strategy has now transmogrified into the overt, racially divisive, nativist rhetoric of Donald J. Trump, the self-indulgent monster that the GOP itself not only created but nourished into the formidable behemoth heʼs become—recall how practically the GOP candidates sequaciously exposed their underbellies, spreading their legs to expose their semiprecious family jewels to Trumpʼs scrutiny for the billionaireʼs endorsement throughout the 2012 presidential campaign against President Obama. Trump now seems to have the support of a constituency dedicated to blaming the African-American president for each national failure while raising the Confederate flag to honor its Caucasian supremacy.
For nearly four decades, the GOP has maliciously morphed from a business-centered, small town, pasty-white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant set of beliefs into quite possibly America’s primary proponent of bigotry, ignorance, war- and fear-mongering and the calloused exploitation of the vulnerable and powerless, but Donald Trump isnʼt the exclusive destructive element of the GOP; he is the fulfillment of everything the party has been ambiguously stating for two score or more. He is merely proffering hatred much more plangently and with a concise clarity that is unequivocal even for prepubescent comprehension. Times are as tense now as they were in 1927 when the Supreme Court, with nationalistic support, constitutionalized the legal sterilization of U.S. citizens deemed unfit by questionable criteria. What happens next is unknown, but it is my hope that the ignorant, nihilistic flock that endorses social chaos will ultimately see the light and start ignoring such base ignorance.
Adam Cohen is a journalist and lawyer, previously a member of The New York Times editorial board and senior writer for Time magazine. In his book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, Adam writes about Buck vs Bell in detail. On March 18, 2016, Amy Goodman, reporter for Democracy Now! interviews Adam, He talks about Carrie Buck:
[Carrie Buck] a young woman who is growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, being raised by a single mother. Back then, there was a belief that it was better often to take poor children away from their parents and put them in middle-class homes. So she was put in a foster family that treated her very badly. She wasn’t allowed to call the parents “mother” and “father.” She did a lot of housekeeping for them and was rented out to the neighbors. And then, one summer, she was raped by the nephew of her foster mother. She becomes pregnant out of wedlock. And rather than help her with this pregnancy, they decide to get her declared epileptic and feebleminded, though she was neither, and she’s shipped off to the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded outside of Lynchburg, Virginia… she gets there at just the wrong time. Virginia has just passed an eugenics sterilization law, and they want to test it in the courts. So they seize on Carrie Buck as the perfect plaintiff in this lawsuit. So they decide to make her the first person in Virginia who will be eugenically sterilized, and suddenly she’s in the middle of a case that’s headed to the U.S. Supreme Court… they decide to put her in the middle of this test case to see if the Virginia law is constitutional. And they give her a lawyer who’s actually not on her side. It’s a former chairman of the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded’s own board of directors. He clearly wants to see her sterilized. He does a terrible job writing short briefs that don’t cite the relevant cases. It goes up to the Supreme Court, and the court rules eight to one that, yes, the Virginia law is constitutional, and, yes, Carrie, who there’s nothing wrong with, should be sterilized against her will.
Adam Cohen continues the interview suggesting that the early twentieth century in the U.S. was rife with anxiety; the establishment of the U.S. saw the threat of mass immigration from, among others, Jews and Italians:
Yes. [The eugenics movement] came over in the early ’10s and ’20s, 1910s and 1920s. This was actually a very nervous time. You know, you see movies now about the 1920s, you see flappers and Prohibition and parties. But America was actually at a time of quiet turmoil. There were the highest rates of immigration that there had been in American history, so the nation’s cities were flooded with new immigrants, often with different religions, different nationalities from the people who were already here. Also, people were leaving the farms and moving to the cities. So it was a time of instability. And historians suggest that in this time of instability, the upper classes, the Anglo-Saxons in the United States, wanted to somehow control a changing country. And the way they saw of controlling it was eugenics: “We need to firm up our gene pool.” So it was that anxiety that got moved into this eugenics movement. And they combined it with the new science of genetics that was emerging, and they came up with these crazy sterilization laws.
Eugenics and its mass appeal led to the 1924 Immigration Act. Cohen responds:
Yes, it was largely, in large part, motivated by eugenics. So, … Harry Laughlin, he was actually appointed expert eugenics agent to Congress. There’s letterhead from the U.S. House Committee on Immigration that says “expert eugenics agent.” He testified about the eugenic advantages and disadvantages of various nationalities, and he persuaded Congress that Eastern European Jews, Italians, Asians were genetically inferior and we had to keep them out. That ends up being translated into the 1924 law, which puts in place for the first time national quotas. So you can no longer just show up at Ellis Island. If you’re coming from some countries, we don’t want you. If you’re coming from England and northern Europe, we do want you. So, this ended up completely changing the national composition of immigration, and it was because certain people were deemed to be inferior.
And one thing that I thought about when I wrote the book is, when we read The Diary of Anne Frank and we realize that she died in a concentration camp, we think about how the Nazis thought the Jews were a lesser race, and that’s why they were put in concentration camps. What we don’t think about it is, Anne Frank’s father was actually trying to get her and the family to America. He was writing repeatedly to the State Department for visas. He was turned down. He was turned down because of this 1924 act. So when we hear that Anne Frank died in a concentration camp, it’s also because the U.S. Congress, like the Nazis, thought the Jews were an inferior race.
Cohen also describes the sterilization operation:
It’s kind of barbaric to think about. And actually, before, in the early stage of eugenics, it started out with castration. And the eugenicists were having trouble getting legislatures to adopt eugenic sterilization laws, because people didn’t like the idea of actually castrating people. And it was actually the medical advances—the rise of the vasectomy and the salpingectomy, which is what was done to women, the cauterizing of the Fallopian tubes—that made it a little bit more palatable. But these were still terrible operations, and you can imagine what surgery was like in the 1920s. So someone like Carrie Buck was sterilized at the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by the man, the doctor, who was the superintendent of the colony, and it was a terribly invasive operation. She had to recover for two weeks. They cut her open. And, you know, all kinds of anesthesia and medical procedures were rather primitive then.
So this is what the government was doing. I mean, you think about governmental invasion of your rights. Now we’re concerned, as we should be, about the government, you know, reading our emails and listening in to our phone calls. They are operating on women and men in this most barbaric way. And, I mean, it’s really shocking. And as we’ve seen, the Supreme Court, eight to one, said not only that this is fine, but the Supreme Court encouraged the nation to do more. It said, you know, not only is the Virginia law constitutional, not only is it OK to sterilize Carrie Buck, we need more of these operations.
Unfortunately, Buck vs Bell is still the law of the land. In 2001, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Missouri, which is one step below the U.S. Supreme Court, cited Buck vs Bell in a case involving sterilization of a mildly mentally retarded woman. It is still the law of the land. There are cases where women in prisons are sterilized against their wills. There is currently a lot of fear in this land, and no one knows how far this fear will grow. This fear seems to parallel the Southern Strategy in its hate- and fear-mongering as well as our nationʼs current xenophobia.
In conclusion, Cohen then talks about a final couple of very sad notes about Carrie Buck. First, Carrie was not mentally impaired:
People who knew her later in life said she absolutely was not feebleminded. When she was at a retirement home, she loved getting the newspaper every day, and she used to work on the crossword puzzle.
And one other sad—there are so many sad parts of the story, but she had a sister, Doris, who was also at the colony. Doris was sterilized shortly after she was. Years later, when she was an old woman, she wanted to get Social Security, and she wrote to the colony to find out how old she was, because she didn’t know. And the colony director came and visited her and told her that she was old enough for Social Security. He also told her that she had been sterilized. She and her husband began crying, because they had been trying their whole lives to have children. No one had ever told her that the government had sterilized her. She had been told that she had an appendectomy. And when she went to the doctor, he said, “You have this scar.” And she said, “Yeah, it’s because they did an appendectomy on me.” They had actually sterilized her, and her whole life, she never knew.
It amazes me on a personal level how there are still too many people who vote for incapable public servants because of their belief that the government somehow knows whatʼs best for someone elseʼs body, especially women… as long as the governmental encroachment doesnʼt concern them or their bodies. Voters continually fail to realize that politicians, especially male politicians, are merely employing divisive rhetoric to get votes… and vasts amounts of money. If men actually gave birth, abortion would not only be legal but strongly encouraged. “You want me to pass something the size of a bowling ball through THAT small hole?” Bring on the test tubes!
Earlier this year, one of my favorite kin capriciously shocked me when she admitted, proudly, that she not only watched Fox “Entertainment” as her exclusive source for news but that she voted an exclusive Republican ticket in the last election cycle without investigating any candidates. What surprised me the most, other than her overt ignorance, was the anger and fear in her voice, an unjustified vitriol that propelled from her aura like the pyroclastic explosion of Krakatoa. Sadly, she is not the only of my kin—our kith, for that matter—who has this myopic and lackluster political agenda. But that shouldnʼt surprise me. She grew up in the cult of Catholicism, a powerful religious institution that promotes a superiority to the rest of mankind by offering an idyllic post-terrestrial paradise for anyone who strictly adheres to the dogmatic doctrines as professed by its faithful congregation. This promise by Catholicism, and Christianity as well, encourages a deep, irrevocable acceptance in its membersʼ of their superiority to all other humans, but the hubris is wrapped in more palatable pious rhetoric that belies the underlying reality of social malfeasance, a universally acceptable faith that their “humble” superiority is of divine origin.
It threw me for a loop that my favorite kin unintentionally admitted that she was a racist, which, to me, was an awkward, possibly subconscious admission of white supremacy; her admission was ambiguous, admittedly, but she, like the aforementioned metaphoric lost sheep who collectively jumped on the band wagon of Eugenics… she justifies—or simply ignores—her racially motivated voting proclivities by claiming allegiance to the fabled fight against abortion. She has convinced herself that the GOP is serious about ending the legality of abortion even though the GOP never has… even when theyʼve controlled all the branches of government; the topic of abortion does make them a bunch of money in outrageous speaking fees. It is, however, this kind of herd mentality that encouraged many U.S. citizens to embrace Eugenics in the early twentieth century, the same kind of social pressure that currently directs many U.S. citizens to vote along racial criteria. If, only somehow, we could associate white supremacy with Nazism and the Holocaust, maybe we could end racism and finally unite our country in a national co-existence of peaceful, ethnic diversity.
Peace Through Music
March 19, 2016
NOTICE – This article is a commentary based on an interview as seen on television’s Democracy Now! when Amy Goodman interviewed Adam Cohen on March 18, 2016. It is also inspired by articles I read on wikipedia.com.