Congressman Paul Ryan said: “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
In a letter to Charles Davenport, a leader of the US eugenics movement and head of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the epicenter of the movement, Theodore Roosevelt said: “I agree with you…that society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind…Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen type of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.”
In the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority: “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives,” Holmes wrote. “It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices [ i.e., forced sterilization], often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order 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.” Referring to Carrie Buck, the plaintiff in the case whom the state intended to sterilize, and whose mother and daughter both had been suspected by doctors to be afflicted with “feeblemindedness”, Holmes added: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
The Eugenics Movement which developed in the United States in the 19th Century and continued into the 20th Century inspired many including Adolph Hitler: “Adolf Hitler himself had followed the eugenics movement in this country for years. In 1916, American attorney, conservationist, and arch-bigot Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History, a landmark work of scientific racism that exalted people of Nordic ancestry. Hitler called the book his “Bible,” In fact after World War II the 1927 SCOTUS case was known in NAZI Germany: “Hitler was also aware of the 1927 Supreme Court ruling that gave legal sanction to eugenic sterilizations (a ruling, by the way, that’s never been overturned). Nazi leaders would later cite the Court’s decision in their own defense at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals.”
Charles Darwin’s conceptualization of evolution in his book “The Origin of the Species” sparked a scientific revolution that caused great debates in more than the scientific community. As with many great new insights, the intellectual progression that flowed outward in others thought processes sometime had consequences that were not quite what the author intended. Such was the Eugenics Movement in the United States which is the subject of this piece. Echoes of that discredited movement still exist today as illustrated by the quote above from Congressman Paul Ryan and other “Conservative” politicians and activists. Let’s look at the beginnings of the Eugenics Movement to see how it influences us even today.
“Adolf Hitler read racial hygiene tracts during his imprisonment in Landsberg Prison. He thought that Germany could become strong again only if the state applied the principles of racial hygiene and eugenics to German society.
Hitler believed the nation had become weak, corrupted by the infusion of degenerate elements into its bloodstream. These had to be removed quickly. He also believed that the strong and the racially pure should be encouraged to have more children, and that the weak and the racially impure should be neutralized by one means or another.
The racialism and idea of competition, termed social Darwinism in 1944, were discussed by European scientists and also in the Vienna press during the 1920s. Where Hitler picked up the ideas is uncertain. The theory of evolution had been generally accepted in Germany at the time but this sort of extremism was rare. In 1876, Ernst Haeckel had discussed the selective infanticide policy of the Greek city of ancient Sparta.
In his Second Book, which was unpublished during the Nazi era, Hitler praised Sparta, adding that he considered Sparta to be the first “Völkisch State”. He endorsed what he perceived to be an early eugenics treatment of deformed children:
“Sparta must be regarded as the first Völkisch State. The exposure of the sick, weak, deformed children, in short, their destruction, was more decent and in truth a thousand times more humane than the wretched insanity of our day which preserves the most pathological subject, and indeed at any price, and yet takes the life of a hundred thousand healthy children in consequence of birth control or through abortions, in order subsequently to breed a race of degenerates burdened with illnesses” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_eugenics
We see that Hitler was influenced by a movement that began in our country and in fact influenced some of the most important Americans in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Much of this movement was thought of as science and its originators were regarded in their time as scientists. Let’s look at how this came about:
Eugenics, as a modern concept, was originally developed by Francis Galton. It has roots in France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States in the 1860s-1870s. American William Goodell (lived from 1829 to 1894) advocated castration and spaying of the insane. Mortality rates from “Battey’s operation”, the surgical removal of healthy ovaries, was as high as one in five deaths at the time, but the surgery kept being performed.
Francis Galton had read his half-cousin Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution, which sought to explain the development of plant and animal species, and desired to apply it to humans. Galton believed that desirable traits were hereditary based on biographical studies. In 1883, one year after Darwin’s death, Galton gave his research a name: “eugenics”. Throughout its recent history, eugenics has remained a controversial concept. As a social movement, eugenics reached its greatest popularity in the early decades of the 20th century. At this point in time, eugenics was practiced around the world and was promoted by governments, and influential individuals and institutions. Many countries enacted various eugenics policies and programmes, including: genetic screening, birth control, promoting differential birth rates, marriage restrictions, segregation (both racial segregation and segregation of the mentally ill from the rest of the population), compulsory sterilization, forced abortions or forced pregnancies, and genocide. Most of these policies were later regarded as coercive or restrictive, and now few jurisdictions implement policies that are explicitly labelled as eugenic or unequivocally eugenic in substance. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics
Though the Eugenics Movement took hold in many countries and infamously Germany, our own country was greatly influenced by the Eugenics Movement. Not coincidentally the movement’s history in the U.S. coincided with the end of slavery and the massive immigration’s needed for America’s industrial revolution.
“Eugenics, the social movement claiming to improve the genetic features of human populations through selective breeding and sterilization, based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society, played a significant role in the history and culture of the United States prior to its involvement in World War II.
“Eugenics was practiced in the United States many years before eugenics programs in Nazi Germany and U.S. programs provided much of the inspiration for the latter. Stefan Kühl has documented the consensus between Nazi race policies and those of eugenicists in other countries, including the United States, and points out that eugenicists understood Nazi policies and measures as the realization of their goals and demands.
A hallmark of the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th century, now generally associated with racist and nativist elements (as the movement was to some extent a reaction to a change in emigration from Europe) rather than scientific genetics, eugenics was considered a method of preserving and improving the dominant groups in the population.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States
After seeing the horrors of World War II, the popularity of the Eugenics movement waned in the U.S.. However, the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement, with its offshoots branching into dealing with other oppression of people deemed “different”, aspects of “eugenicist” ideas crept in using coded words like “crime”, “urban” and “inner city”. The election of our first Black President was so traumatic for segments of our population that they have even begun to drop the use of “code” and are openly bemoaning the possibility of the loss of dominance by the “White Race”. Politicians of the “stature” of Paul Ryan and Rand Paul though, with higher political aspirations, still talk in “code” as they appeal to those groups such as the “Tea Party” who are motivated by racial privilege. However, in earlier times in America code was “less coded”.
“The American eugenics movement was rooted in the biological determinist ideas of Sir Francis Galton, which originated in the 1880s. Galton studied the upper classes of Britain, and arrived at the conclusion that their social positions were due to a superior genetic makeup. Early proponents of eugenics believed that, through selective breeding, the human species should direct its own evolution. They tended to believe in the genetic superiority of Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon peoples; supported strict immigration and anti-miscegenation laws; and supported the forcible sterilization of the poor, disabled and “immoral”.
“The American eugenics movement received extensive funding from various corporate foundations including the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harriman railroad fortune. In 1906 J.H. Kellogg provided funding to help found the Race Betterment Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan. The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) was founded in Cold Spring Harbor, New York in 1911 by the renowned biologist Charles B. Davenport, using money from both the Harriman railroad fortune and the Carnegie Institution. As late as the 1920s, the ERO was one of the leading organizations in the American eugenics movement. In years to come, the ERO collected a mass of family pedigrees and concluded that those who were unfit came from economically and socially poor backgrounds. Eugenicists such as Davenport, the psychologist Henry H. Goddard, Harry H. Laughlin, and the conservationist Madison Grant (all well respected in their time) began to lobby for various solutions to the problem of the “unfit”. Davenport favored immigration restriction and sterilization as primary methods; Goddard favored segregation in his The Kallikak Family; Grant favored all of the above and more, even entertaining the idea of extermination. The Eugenics Record Office later became the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.”
Some of the wealthiest Americans and their corporations provided the wealth to empower the Eugenics Movement, just as today some of the wealthiest Americans and their corporations funded the movements to neuter Barack Obama and to impose upon the U.S. their views on ensuring that the “mob” doesn’t rule. Then too were those in the early Progressive Movement who also endorsed the Eugenics view:
“Others who supported eugenics included Victoria Woodhull, the suffragist and progressive activist who was the first woman to run for president; the inventor Alexander Graham Bell (who later moved away from the movement); foundations connected with the Carnegies, the Harrimans and the Rockefellers, which donated large sums toward eugenics research; professors at leading universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Johns Hopkins; and editorialists of the New York Times. Bruinius also fingers Margaret Sanger, the birth control advocate who founded the American Birth Control League, the predecessor to Planned Parenthood, as having sympathy for eugenics; though Sanger did say many suspect things, her closeness to the movement has been questioned and rejected by her supporters. Then there was Theodore Roosevelt, who, in a letter to the eugenicist Charles Davenport in 1913, hoped that “Someday we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.” http://www.salon.com/2006/03/04/bruinius/
Theodore Roosevelt had always seemed to me to be a great President. He was the political leader of the Progressive Movement in the U.S. And as the history I learned in school taught me fought against corporate interests. The history I learned in High School though, was hardly the most in depth history available. My disillusion with Teddy Roosevelt became concrete when I read a book by Richard Slotkin called “Gunfighter Nation” in the early 1990’s and have since re-read it three times:
In Gunfighter nation: the myth of the frontier in twentieth-century America (Atheneum, 1992), the concluding volume of his highly acclaimed trilogy, Slotkin draws on a wide range of sources to examine the pervasive influence of Wild West myths on American culture and politics. In the third of a three-volume study in the development of the myth of the frontier in US literary, popular, and political culture from the colonial period to the present, Slotkin covers the expression of the frontier myth in such popular culture phenomena as dime novels, Buffalo Bill‘s Wild West, the formula fiction of 1900-40, and the Hollywood film. Covering historiography, Slotkin also discusses the exploration of the significance of the American frontier experience in Theodore Roosevelt‘s The Winning of the West and Frederick Jackson Turner‘s The Significance of the Frontier in American History. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Slotkin#Gunfighter_Nation
Slotkin in delineating how the “myth of the Cowboy” so influenced our country, writes extensively about TR’s theories influenced by the author Frederick Jackson Turner. Roosevelt believed that the “Anglo-Saxon” race was the most highly developed of all the “races” and that it was their duty to assume “stewardship” over all the more inferior racial types. The links I’ve provided thus far and the links below I think make my case very well and I encourage the reader to follow them because much of the information might be new, as it has been for me.
What is my point though? I believe that “eugenics” was never the result of true scientific inquiry. What it was instead was a means for intelligent people to rationalize their own prejudice and for self interested people to rationalize their own selfishness. America is and has been a country where prejudice against the “other” has played a central role in our political dynamics. I voted for Barack Obama because I felt he represented my personal political interests. As his terms played out for the most part I’ve been disappointed because in truth he represents he kind of moderate republicanism that I grew up disgusted with in the 50’s and 60’s. When I see the various “conservative” forces criticize him as a “communist”, “fascist”, “commufascist” and dictator” I know that what is really in play is that he is a Black man. In truth he is a moderately conservative, fairly ineffective President of the Bill Clinton stripe who has caved in to most of the principles that got him elected. The hatred of our President is so deep among so many because of the color of his skin, because other than that conservatives should be delighted with him.
Beyond the obvious racism though there is another strain. A strain that runs through the minds of many who are in the elite of this country, just as it was in the minds of those like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Harriman, Bell and Roosevelt in the 19th Century. They saw themselves then and they see themselves now as the “worthy elite” destined by fate, or God, to rule over the “masses”, whose lowlier position is the result of their own innate inferiority. The distinction so ofter raised between “the producers” and “the takers” is an expression of this. When Mitt Romney “privately” said to a group of wealthy donors that 47% percent of the population paid no taxes, with the implication that they were a “burden” on his class, that was an expression of the attitude that gave birth to eugenics. Naturally, neither Paul Ryan, nor Teddy Roosevelt are comparable to the monster Adolf Hitler, but they endorse and endorsed policies that make/made it possible for a person like Hitler to capture the public imagination in times of stress. American eugenic “scientists” worked with the infamous NAZI Dr. Joseph Mengele http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Mengele known for his disgusting “scientific” experiment at Auschwitz. As my father used to say: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”.