Saturday, July 14, 2018

War Against the Weak (some politics)

War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race

Author Edwin Black dedicates this expose on the topic of eugenics to his mother, who never got to read its original published edition but was witness to the implementation of the pseudoscience in Nazi-occupied Poland. He thanks several volunteer researchers from across the globe and American organizations such as Planned Parenthood, indicating that there were some roadblocks in his research such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum refusing some of his Freedom of Information Act requests, although he acknowledges that journalists tend not to halt their research amidst refusals to disclose data.

Black follows with a lengthy introduction indicating that eugenics affected America’s population for the first six decades of the twentieth century, given the forbiddance of Americans by governmental mandates to continue their bloodlines. Eugenics, he notes, depended upon widespread academic fraud with limitless corporate philanthropy to establish persecution rationales. Victims of eugenics included individuals such as poor urban citizens, “white trash” across America, immigrants, and the like.

The writer follows with a note that there are occasional inconsistencies within his resources, using phrases in his attempt to remaining loyal to the original texts, indicating that citing the Internet, given its constant evolution, proved a constant challenge. The first main chapter tells of the sterilization in the 1930s of the Brush Mountain hill folk scattered throughout the Appalachian Mountains, who lived in poverty. The cases of specific individuals such as Buck Smith and Mary Donald are mentioned, with American eugenicists commanding money, prestige, and international academic exchange to export their pseudoscience to other countries like Germany.

Black commences the second chapter by indicating that mankind’s quest for perfection almost always turns dark, with xenophobia towards fellow humans existing in virtually every culture throughout history and finding its way into science. He briefly discusses the history of charity that began when the Black Death ravaged Europe from 1348 to 1350, with the suffering of the poor intensifying during the mid-1500s with silver imported from the New World, and charity becoming a government responsibility with Pope Clement VII refusing to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

The following chapter notes that in America, class was largely a measure racial and ethnic. Feminist authors such as Victoria Woodhull indicated the evolving view that positive and negative breeding were essential for social improvement, America’s romantic myth of the “melting pot” (a term coined by British playwright Israel Zangwill) not existing even in the time of mass immigration to the United States. The 1880 Census Bureau Director Francis Walker coined the term “race suicide” regarding diversity, the author noting that thousands of black and white Americans were lynched between 1889 and 1918.

The Carnegie Institution’s Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor opened in 1904, its first years dedicated to preparatory work and initial experiments on animals, leading to the establishment of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in October 1910. The Amish were an initial target of eugenicists, with the increasing population of the American West largely making the tracing of genealogy difficult. The human rights attorney Louis Marshall questioned the constitutionality of compulsory sterilization, with a few eugenic supporters proposing polygamy as a means by which to multiply “desirable” bloodlines.

When Sir Francis Galton’s eugenic principles crossed the ocean from Britain to America, Kansan physician F. Hoyt Pilcher became the first doctor in modern times to castrate someone to prevent procreation. Similarly, Dr. Harry Clay Sharp, a physician at the Indiana Reformatory in Jeffersonville, castrated a man to prevent his self-gratification, with compulsory vasectomy performed even when not legal. Indiana would ultimately become the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize forced sterilization of its mentally-impaired patients, poorhouse residents, and prisoners, and eugenics would find several prominent supporters such as future American President Woodrow Wilson and future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Most Americans opposed eugenics, although the pantheon of eugenics was not interested in furthering democracy, but rather creating a supremacy. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, would found the Race Betterment Foundation, and famed telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell yearned for the emphasis of researching positive traits in humans rather than those negative, as other eugenicists desired. The Rockefellers would become major financial backers of eugenics, and the pseudoscience found other prominent supporters such as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and a few Episcopalian priests.

Black dedicates a chapter to Margaret Sanger’s birth control advocacy, with the dissemination of information on the subject criminalized in her time, birth control advocates and early feminists identifying with the eugenics movement. Sanger became a Social Darwinist, disdainful of charity, believing insanity cost taxpayers millions and seventy percent of America was feebleminded, and allying with racists and white supremacists. She advocated negative eugenics over constructive implementation of the pseudoscience, with eugenicists wanting birth control separate from their own movement, somewhat crippled by the onset of the Great Depression.

Blindness prevention became one of the eugenics movement’s priorities in the 1920s, with the condition seen as hereditary, Lucien Howe becoming a legendary champion in the cause of better vision, wishing to halt marriage among those whom they considered “defective,” and suggesting that the blind receive the choice of isolation or sterilization. Margaret Sanger pervaded this movement, and Howe died before his radical plans took effect.

The American Census Bureau would not cooperate with the eugenics movement, although advocates perpetually attempted to get them to change their minds. A Virginian registrar of vital statistics named Walter Ashby Plecker became a raceologist and eugenicist despite having fond childhood memories of his family’s Negro servant Delia, hoping to halt marriage between whites and those with even one drop of non-white blood, antagonizing a fellow registrar from Pera, Virginia named Pal S. Beverly for having some Negro blood. Black ends the first part of the book suggesting that the eugenics movement at this time was ready to go overseas.

Immigration became a hot-button issue among eugenicists for their alleged “contamination” of American bloodlines, with the country in economic and demographic turmoil after the First World War, postwar immigrants booming and concentrating on urban centers. The 1920 Census revealed for the first time in the country’s history, the population’s majority had shifted from rural to urban areas, and eugenicists exploited the best and worst of the nation’s feelings about immigration, ultimately leading to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 to reduce non-Nordic migrants, which ended in 1952 with the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act.

Although some considered England the cradle of eugenics, British eugenic science and doctrine were almost completely imported from the United States, with Americanized eugenics taking root in the early twentieth century thanks to Liverpool surgeon Robert Reid Rentoul. Home Secretary Winston Churchill assured eugenicists that Britain’s alleged twelve-hundred-thousand feebleminded citizens would have their bloodlines terminated. Minister of Health and future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain further supported a sterilization act. Although Pope Pius XI condemned eugenics as a fraudulent science, the movement would continue to gain ground.

American eugenicists saw mankind as a biological cesspool, taking this attitude globally at the 1912 First International Congress of Eugenics in London, countries such as Canada and Germany dabbling in the pseudoscience. The lethal chamber would emerge in Britain during the Victorian era as a humane means of euthanizing dogs and cats, with worldwide debate on its use in humans, some “defective” newborns euthanized. A movie called The Black Stork would become propaganda for eugenicists, and a certain Austrian-turned-German named Adolf Hitler would take notice of the eugenics movement.

Other Germans such as physician Gustav Boeters advocate eugenic laws, with social theorist Alfred Jost arguing in his 1895 booklet The Right to Death that the state had the inherent right to kill the unfit and useless. After the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles crippled German finances given their owing of war reparations. Hitler would lead an unsuccessful coup in November 1923 at the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich and would ultimately seize power following an inconclusive election on January 30, 1933, spearheading the country’s eugenics movement.

On September 27, 1929, prominent eugenic leaders met in Rome at the Central Statistical Institute to deliberate and agree that paupers, mental defectives, criminals, alcoholics, and other “inferior” strains of humans deserved en masse incarceration, with Americans having financial connections to German biomedicine, and Hitler wanting his atrocities known to the world. Two separate chapters deal with Nazi atrocities respectively at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, the latter of which would be the last stand for the genocidal pseudoscience, the Nazis especially fascinated by twins, even Jewish, not to mention dwarfs and the physically-deformed.

The final part of Black’s book deals with the aftermath of the Nazi regime and the hunt for various war criminals such as Josef Mengele, camp doctor of Auschwitz and nicknamed “the Angel of Death.” Fellow eugenicist Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer also eluded prosecution, becoming a corresponding member of the newfound American Society of Human Genetics. The pursuit of Nazi perpetrators continued into the 1960s, with their doctors’ writings permeating both American medical journals and American doctoral literature.

Both Hitler’s ascend in Germany and eugenics’ founding father’s departure from Cold Spring Harbor caused a retreat of interest in the pseudoscience, with the American Philosophical Society today containing the largest consolidated eugenic collection anywhere. Despite America’s retreat from eugenics, its consequential policies did not, with sterilization of “defectives” still continuing. The American Civil Liberties Union would file lawsuits on behalf of the sterilized, and in 2000, Alabama became the last American State to repeal its anti-miscegenation law. The concept of “genocide” would be codified into the laws of the United Nations.

The eugenics movement would be renamed genetics, with some former eugenicists even going so far as to condemn Hitler’s policies. Planned Parenthood itself condemns its eugenic legacy and copes with the dark side of founder Margaret Sanger. Contemporary news would provide regular updates on genetic research, with DNA identification banks amassing, the events of September 11, 2001 accelerating fascination with genetics. The main text concludes with Black saying that global consensus is necessary to act against genetic abuse since no single nation’s law can alone anticipate the evolving nature of global genomics.

Edwin Black acknowledges a personal journey in the production of this book, which overall provides a detailed glimpse into a dark chapter of American history that pretty much every contemporary historical textbook ignores, with only a few errors the editor overlooked. The text somewhat hit home to this reviewer, who is on the autism spectrum and would have very likely in the period the story covers been considered “defective.” There are certain events throughout America’s history some believe its citizens should be ashamed of, and the book definitely shows that the eugenics movement is among them.

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