History repeating, volume ∞

Right now I’m reading Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen. It’s about Buck v. Bell, the 1927 Supreme Court decision on forced sterilization, and the shocking breadth of the surrounding eugenics movement. It’s leaving me frequently speechless and the writing is great. I recommend it.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

The driving force behind the eugenics movement of the 1920s was, historians suggest, the collective fears of the Anglo-Saxon upper and middle classes about a changing America. Record levels of immigration were transforming the nation’s ethnic and religious makeup. And with increased industrialization and urbanization, community and family ties were fraying. These anxieties were being redirected and expressed in the form of fears about the unfit…

Congress held hearings at which eugenicists explained the biological deficiencies of various nationalities. Their arguments were well received by senators and representatives who overwhelmingly shared the eugenicists’ prejudices. “Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country of pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock,” Senator Ellison DuRant of South Carolina declared, in support of new immigration policies. Acting on these eugenic arguments, Congress adopted the Immigration Act of 1924, which opened the door to more immigrants from Northern Europe, and shut it on southern and eastern Europeans.

This coming after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first U.S. law targeting a specific ethnic group in immigration policy, and at the height of Jim Crow.

Cohen’s undeniable argument is that the norms of a civil society depend on their support by the words and deeds of government, institutions, and professions. In the case of eugenics, professionals of various stripes “sided forcefully with the eugenic cause, and used their power and prestige to see that Carrie [Buck] was sterilized.”

I wonder how our current moment will be judged by this standard. Clearly the underlying forces have not gone away. Should we take heart from institutions and professions lining up against political candidates who threaten civil society? Or should we see history reflected in systemic complicity in oppression and marginalization? (Have you see 13th, by the way?) Is power being wielded for or against the powerless? Ideals do need defending, but actual people do too, and we can’t laud systems wholesale when they sometimes do such terrible things.

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