Jean Paul Sartre and Dorothy Parker walk into a bar. Dorothy asks, "What fresh hell is this?" And Jean Paul answers, "Hell is...other people!" To be fair, Sartre wrote "No Exit," not about science or social policy, but about three people, trapped for eternity, intent on draining the life out of each other, not unlike the life being drained out of American democracy and universal human decency right now.
In this summer of 2016, in the wake of unspeakable carnage in Orlando, the belief that hell is "the others" enjoys a wretched renaissance. At the edge of a tumultuous presidential election, as gun sales soar, the endlessly broadcast rhetoric of fear and hate are the toxic air we breathe. Our nation is armed and aimed at millions of fellow human beings, because deep in our American psyche is the belief that these groups of people are genetically wired to menace American national security, prosperity and genetic purity. Actions are determined by beliefs and no beliefs are more powerful than those that are unconscious and therefore unexamined. Until we unearth and study the history of eugenics, we cannot dismantle its power.
Eugenics inspired legalized means to control the 'subhuman menace" by segregation, incarceration in asylums and prisons, forced sterilization, deportation, medicalized and out-right killing. Collaboration with American eugenicists in the 1930's inspired the German euthanasia program. Begun in hospitals and asylums, mechanized killing became the unspeakable horror of 20th century genocide. At the end of World War Two, when the horrors of the Final Solution came to light, the term "eugenics" disappeared, quite probably buried in shame.
Some academic writings have treated the history of eugenics, but few address its rooted endurance today. One excellent book, In the Name of Eugenics. Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, cites the dangers. (Daniel J. Kevles, 1985)
Of the many long strands in the history of ethnic and racial hatred, the most virulent is the scientific proof that certain types of people can be identified as inherently criminal. In 1920 German academics, Binding and Hoche, identified these as "life unworthy of life," and "useless eaters." In the first 4 decades of the 20th century America led the world in eugenics research and social policy. Its many proponents claimed that every social ill plaguing humanity could be dispelled by enhancing and protecting America's superior Northern European gene pool. Juvenile vice and delinquency, sexual immorality, prostitution, illegitimacy, homosexuality, vagrancy, venereal disease, pauperism, rape, theft, murder, arson, drug addiction, alcoholism, and insanity were blamed on the "feeble minded," whose unrelenting lust passed their poisonous traits to generations of lunatics, morons, imbeciles, epileptics, the blind, the deaf, the physically disabled, loose women, and the incurably ill. Groups identified as "feeble minded" criminals included: Jews, Irish, Asians, Africans, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Southern and Central Americans, and anyone whose skin was even slightly off-white. Draconian immigration laws were enacted to deny these "others" entry. The American 'subhuman menace" were legally segregated, incarcerated in asylums and prisons, deported, euthanized, and killed out right. Women in particular were legally sterilized without their consent or knowledge.
The word, "eugenics," from the Greek "well born," is rarely heard today, but eugenic perspectives remain widely prevalent, expressed in detoxified terminology. A border wall will keep out Mexican "rapists;" women are intellectually and morally inferior to men; transgendered women will prey on Southern ladies; non-white immigrants are a threat to our economy and our superior but increasingly 'polluted' gene pool; American Muslims are terrorists, or potential terrorists; their like-minded Islamic relatives, fleeing from terror, must be stopped; and now we have all those swarthy Syrians wanting in! What fresh hell, indeed! This morning, in America, right wing pundits, elected officials, academics, and morally challenged Republicans declare, "Pick up your guns and stand your ground against criminals and paupers, the 'others', and America will be great again!" Does anyone doubt that the stealth slogan is, "Make America White Again"?
Science is our friend after all. In the mid-19th century Gregor Mendel had proved that "elements" (genes) in plants are inherited. If selective breeding of crops could benefit farming, selective breeding of people could benefit humanity. The wonders of science promised a crime-free American future of health, happiness, and prosperity. Just as physical strength, height, intelligence, and fair skin, would be passed from generation to generation, so would productivity and moral fitness. Scientific measurements, particularly the original IQ tests of the time, legitimized eugenics theory.
Eugenics fired the imaginations of famous legislators, physicians, social scientists, prominent academics, at least two Justices of the US Supreme Court, and many progressive social reformers. Prominent liberal clergy asked, "What would Jesus do?" He'd cheer for smart, upright, fair-skinned Christian blonds like Him.
From 1946 to 1953 boys at the Fernald State School for the Mentally Retarded were the subjects of atomic research. Honored as the "Fernald Science Club," they were told that vitamins & calcium would be added to their oatmeal for nutritional benefit. In fact the cereal was laced with radioactive calcium. Participants included Harvard, MIT, the Atomic Energy Commission, Quaker Oats, and the Fernald administration. The boys enjoyed a special status at Fernald and got taken to Red Sox games as a reward for eating the enriched oatmeal. Years later they learned the truth. As a result of exposure to radiation some later died. All suffered severe illnesses. The emotional wounds were less visible, but as severe, perhaps more so. The boys of the "Science Club" were deceived, treated as subhuman subjects of a dangerous experiment.
Of the many groups of people targeted, the systematic dehumanization of African Americans is the most enduring and pernicious. The infamous Tuskegee experiment on the effects of syphilis on African American men (from 1932 to1972) is another example of human beings deceived. The view that black lives don't matter still contributes to African Americans being falsely accused, condemned, incarcerated, exploited for their labor, openly brutalized, and murdered. Poisonous municipal water continues to flow in Flint, as does poisonous air in American Indian schools. According to eugenics, the darker the skin, the greater the threat.
How is it possible for people to fight for their human rights when they are seen as less than human? During apartheid, martyred Black South African activist Stephen Biko, challenged his people, "man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being." Galvanized and sustained for more than thirty years the struggle dismantled a brutal system. Biko is heard in the fierce declaration, "Black Lives Matter!"
Today's shameless demonization of "the others" is a betrayal. The long, hard fight for American redemption from the sins of racism has, is, and will continue to be thwarted by an unacknowledged enemy shrouded in toxic science.