This week, Eric Michael Garcia tells Sarah about America’s barely forgotten pastime, plus the Supreme Court’s long history of horrifying decisions. Digressions include due process, The Evil Dead, and what Hitler admired about the United States.
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YWA - Eugenics
Sarah: This is another problem with American history, you get one fancy guy with issues and then a whole generation suffers.
“It may come as a surprise, but a sterilization policy known as eugenics existed in this country for years. Entire categories of people were considered unfit for reproduction, including immigrants, people of color, and people with disabilities. It's also important to remember that this is not some long ago history. This program lasted until the seventies, at least.”
“What will make my family feel better is that we continue to help with the fight. My mother's gone, but she still lives through us. And we will continue to fight this, to see that justice is done not only for our family, but for all of the families, over 7,000 or more.”
Sarah: Welcome to You’re Wrong About, I'm Sarah Marshall. Today we are welcoming back fan favorite, returning champion, I don't know how you wanted this show, but he did, Eric Michael Garcia to talk about eugenics. Sometimes, or maybe a lot of the time, we do episodes whose full title could more reasonably be, “You Might Want to Think More About” rather than “You're Wrong About”.
I specifically brought Eric on because I wanted to test out a theory I have that eugenics is just below the surface as long standing in American tradition as apple pie. We recorded this episode earlier this year before Roe v. Wade was overturned. And I think you can probably hear in this conversation that we are watching something brewing with regards to bodily autonomy in America, but that the explosion has perhaps not yet occurred.
If you want to hear more from Eric on You're Wrong About, he did an episode with us not long ago on the ‘vaccines cause autism’ myth. And he also did a bonus episode a few months ago talking about Sia's Music, the movie Music, and it was a very educational conversation about a, I would argue, non-educational movie. And you can get that episode on Patreon or via Apple+ subscriptions, or you can spend your money on a snow cone like I did this week.
Also, we just had an announcement about this but it's worth mentioning again. You're Wrong About is having a teeny, tiny tour. We are coming to Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in mid-September, there's a link to tour information in the show description. And I am so excited about it. And if you're excited about that and you can come, you should get a ticket if you want to. I would advise moving quickly because those have been selling shockingly fast. All right. I hope I got to see you soon. Here's our episode.
Welcome to You’re Wrong About, the show where we discuss America's pastime, and it isn't baseball.
Eric: Noooo! I love that. I love that.
Sarah: Thank you. Who are you and what are we talking about?
Eric: My name is Eric Garcia. I am the senior Washington correspondent at The Independent, I am a columnist at MSNBC, and I am You're Wrong About’s resident disability correspondent.
Sarah: You are. I'm going to make you a plaque. I feel like you need a plaque for this.
So today we are talking about eugenics, and it seems like this should be a hard turn into this topic, but I feel like we've already been prefacing this by talking about the pandemic, because I feel like one of the themes that we have been discussing this entire time is, well, if you don't have comorbidities, you'll be okay.
Eric: Yeah. That was really what got a lot of people upset at the CDC director, Rochelle Olenski in January when she said that, like the people who were dying, who were vaccinated already were people with forum or comorbidities anyway. And so really these were people who were unwell to begin with, it was basically saying, fuck the disabled. Because a lot of people with disabilities and chronically ill people have those comorbidities and it made them feel like they were being disregarded and it made them feel like they were being devalued by their government. And I feel like, and you see it also with cutting down quarantine times, because we need to have people come back to even when there's outbreaks. And there's this urgency to keep the economy going at the expense of sick people with disabilities and people with chronic illnesses. The discussion around COVID is really to borrow from the great You're Wrong About line, “It was capitalism all along.”
A lot of these discussions we're having right now are about eugenics. And it's important to remember that after the Spanish flu pandemic, there was a resurgence of eugenics. And it began in earnest, and we all know what happened a few years, a few decades after the Spanish flu pandemic.
Sarah: Sock hops.
Sarah: Sock hops. yeah. To get into what you're saying, I feel like one of the problems is not that we all love capitalism so much. Like I'm not saying that. No. I think that everyone feels accurately pretty trapped inside of it. And I feel the debate around school obviously has a lot to do with the fact that school is the only affordable childcare. That the vast majority of Americans have, and I feel like to me it's important to be able to zoom out and be like, the problem is that we are so fucked and we have been fucked for so long that it is just impossible to even conceive of a society organized in a way that would allow us to protect vulnerable people from a raging pandemic, let alone figure out how to do that. I feel like there's a degree of learned helplessness on display here.
Eric: Yeah. So it's like we've offloaded the necessities to schools, which is we're asking schools to care for our children, provide them good health, provide them good services, feed them, because we choose not to.
Sarah: And schools are enmeshed with the police more than they used to be. So it, it all comes back to the police in the end at times. I don't know how to solve that, but I feel like conceiving of another reality is the beginning.
Eric: Yeah, absolutely.
Sarah: Okay. So we are now going to carry forth the warmth of this fire we've been sitting by and plunge into the wintery cold of the history of eugenics. And I guess I would start by asking where, for you, does this story begin?
Eric: When you think of eugenics, what do you think of? Because I think that's a good way to start.
Sarah: I think of head measuring, is the first thing that comes to mind. Weirdly I have a mental image, although I think this is totally explainable, of depictions of sort of 1950s type aliens or like the aliens in the alien autopsy who have giant heads and giant eyes. Cause I feel like that's the goal.
Eric: Yeah, exactly. That's some X-Files shit.
Sarah: And I think that comes to mind because. When we imagine aliens, if we see the like big head, big eye childlike aliens, then I think that's supposed to communicate. I learned this from someone talking about this on cable in the nineties, that they are of a superior race because they have giant brains and childlike features.
And then there's this whole other thread with how are aliens depicted racially, which was a thing in the mid 20th century. And we wouldn't even get into that, but that's an area you could research if you wanted to.
Eric: Now I really want to see who has done research into that and who's written about that now.
Sarah: Yeah. Colin Dickey's The Unidentified talks about racial politics and aliens. So I recommend that.
Eric: Oh, that sounds fantastic. I think a lot of people, when they think of eugenics, they think of skull measuring. But I think most people think of Nazi Germany, understandably, because that's the apotheosis of it.
And I feel like also eugenics, having been raised an Evangelical Christian household, I feel like a lot of people use eugenics to say, “Oh, well, that's what happens if you believe in evolution?” Or they're like, “Did you know Darwin's cousin was the person who started evolution?” As if as if somebody's cousin… am I my cousin's keeper. I may be my brother's keeper, but my cousins, I don't know. I have a lot of cousins who I don't keep.
But then I feel like a lot of people say, “Oh, well, Planned Parenthood was eugenics.” I think that eugenics is one of those things that gets thrown around a lot without people actually taking the time to know what it is or what it means or what they're talking about. It didn't start with the death camps. There's some people who say it goes back to Plato. But for me, it goes back to Sir Francis Galton, who was a British intellectual, who was the half cousin of Charles Darwin. His research really began with seeing how characteristics of England's upper classes, he basically analyzed the traits, superior intelligence and England's upper classes, ignoring the fact that the upper classes have better access to education.
Sarah: And is also full of twits, generally speaking.
Eric: The upper-class twit of the year, who don't know how to unhook bra, if I remember Monty Python correctly.
So in between these twits, Galton said, “Consequently, as it is easy to obtain careful selection, a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running or of doing anything else. So it would be quite practicable to produce a highly gifted race of men, of judicious marriages, during several consecutive generations.”
Sarah: Well, yeah, they did that in Dune.
Eric: Yeah, they did. Yeah, basically.
Sarah: It's definitely sinister, but I feel like it's not entirely sinister. Because I feel like this is a period of great, excited curiosity about, “Oh my God, look at these peas”, or whatever.
Eric: Yeah. Yeah. The pea pods. Because it was basically a bastardization of his cousins, the origin of species ideas, and Gregor Mendel's pea pod suggestions.
Sarah: It's like being a lesser member of a celebrity family, it's like being Billy Baldwin.
Eric: I also think it's important to differentiate between positive eugenics and negative eugenics.
Sarah: Yeah, what's that?
Eric: Positive eugenics is what he's discussing, which is like breeding desirable traits from upper classes reproducing. And there's the negative eugenics of sterilization, right? People either think about one or the other, but they're the two sides of the same coin. And I think that's really important. Because just as much as people want to get rid of the undesirables, they also wanted to reproduce upper classes. Because if you keep on reproducing upper class people, and if you believe that these are inherently good traits, then it almost justifies caste systems. The upper classes are just naturally imbued with these things.
Sarah: Just look at Prince Charles. Just look at him.
Eric: lJust look at him. This is the reason why a lot of upper class people, whether it was John Mayard Cannes or Theodore Roosevelt or Winston Churchill, all adopted eugenics. Because it was this means of justifying wealth. And what was interesting, so like it's no real coincidence Theodore Roosevelt appointed Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was the Supreme Court Justice who decided Buck v. Bell. That's given that Theodore Roosevelt was himself in his State of the Union address I think in 1903, talked about sterilization. He was a big proponent of it his own letters.
Sarah: Why would you talk about that in a State of the Union address? That's more of a “Hi, how are you? I'm the President. These are our upcoming challenges, please like me.”
Eric: Right? But again, you had to remember that this is one of those things that is seen as a state goal. And it's funny how eugenics and sterilization really took off in the progressive era, much like how the progressive era was progressive for a lot of whites, but it wasn't for a lot of black people.
There was also a lot of eugenics for people who would consider quote unquote, “poor, white trash”. That was a way of justifying racial hierarchies as well. You can't have the master race ethnically superior if there are vagrants, or if there are people who are drunkards, or people who are prostitutes, or people who are seen as undesirables in the master race.
I knew that John Harvey Kellogg, who was the founder of Kellogg's brands, was incredibly eugenics, but did you know that he basically created cornflakes because he thought that diet and healthy food could be a way of fixing undesirables?
Sarah: I did know that. I didn't have that in the front of my head, but when you said that I was like, yes, I remember now why Corn Flakes were invented.
Eric: He was also actively anti-masturbation, which was then called I believe ‘onanism’.
Sarah: Which also by the way, if anyone's concerned about the Bible not liking masturbation, that's not even technically the sin of Onan. I'm going to get out my little soap box. The issue was that he was being asked to impregnate someone, I believe his sister, for some reason. And so rather than doing that, he spilled his seed upon the ground so his sin was not conceiving a child through incest. So I don't know. I think it's fine. I think the Bible says jerk yourself, like chicken, honestly.
Eric: *singing* “God will make them pay, for each sperm that can’t be found.” Monty Python, I mean…
Sarah: It's a classic. Yeah. I'm sure you also read about this, and I find it also wonderful, that Sylvester Graham invented the Graham cracker also to discourage lust.
Eric: Yes, exactly. It was like, so, so much of our breakfast and our snack food is meant to curb our lust. Why is that? Yeah, inspired by his religious art or to save me.
In kind, Graham encouraged people to take control of their health by reusing their carnal urges. These were easily stimulated by an all-American diet, the flavorful, fatty, and meaty dishes, in Graham's view. The correlation between sex and health was simple. The more immoral the activity, the more bodily harm was done.
Sarah: Yikes. Oh, this guy had issues. This is another problem with American history, you get one fancy guy with issues and then a whole generation suffers.
Eric: The fact that all these men were incredibly upper class and talkish says it. So like essentially, he made his name by giving popular speeches admonishing masturbations, believing it to inflame the brain more than natural arousal.
Sarah: Wait until he hears about flesh lights. Am I right?
Eric: And then Graham is considered also to be one of the fathers of the American vegetarian movement, which John Hardy Kellogg was also of ardent vegetarian.
Sarah: This whole theory is ridiculous to me because when have you ever gone out and eaten a bunch of barbecue, you're like all full of brisket, and then you're like, “My lust is inflamed.”
Basically Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg and their ilk, and many other people working in different fields, are like, what can we do to stop working class people from having babies?
Eric: Yeah, essentially. I think it can't be overstated that this was around the time people were largely moving from rural families where people had a lot of babies.
Sarah: They got a hoe.
Eric: They got a hoe. Yeah, exactly. This was around the time when you were starting to see a lot of people from Catholic countries and Jewish countries come to the United States. You start to see a lot of Irish people, a lot of Italians, a lot of Poles.
Sarah: A lot of Antipapas literature, I’m pretty sure.
Eric: You start to have people from the rural areas of America, move into the urban areas like in New York and Boston. And then on the west coast you're seeing a lot of Asian Americans, you're seeing a lot of Chinese immigrants, you're seeing a lot of Japanese immigrants.
So it is the same thing that drove xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1920s, and also the same thing that drove eugenics. Because it's important to recognize that 1924 was the year that the Johnson-Reed Act, which was this law that basically restricted immigration and put in place the quota system to basically reduce the amount of immigrants coming in from, non-Anglo European countries, came out the same year that the Buck v. Bell decision begins in earnest.
Sarah: Yeah. Tell us about Buck v. Bell. Which I think for my background, this was my introduction to how prevalent eugenic was and how unashamedly many Americans practiced it as a belief system at this time. And I remain scandalized by it. I have been scandalized ever since I first heard about it years and years ago.
Eric: Yeah. Carrie Buck was born in 1904. She lived in Virginia. Her father either abandoned her or died, there's no real accurate records. And this is from a New York article that reviewed Adam Cohen's book, Imbeciles, which I recommend people read. So she was left to be raised by her mother and her grandmother. Midway through in her youth she was adopted by this family called the Dobbs family who pulled her. And for a while she was in school, then the Dobb’s family - who were her foster parents - pulled her out of school so she could do housework. At around 17 she was raped by one of their nephews. And before then, there had been no evidence that she herself had been feeble minded, though there was some evidence that her parents in the past had. They immediately declared her mentally deficient and sent her to this place called The Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded. And it's important to remember that between 1904 and 1920 when the rate of institutionalization for feeble mindedness had tripled.
Sarah: I have two questions which is A) how do you define feeble mindedness? What does that translate to today generally? Because I feel like that could be quite a few different things. And B) who has the authority to do this to her?
Eric: So this was going on, this was around the time when there were a lot of these homes for feeble minded people, this was colonies for epileptics, and this was seen as the compassionate thing to do was to send them out to these colonies.
What we would consider when we consider feeble minded, we might consider someone with an intellectual disability today, or someone with a mental disability today. Or not a mental disability, a developmental disability or somebody with both an intellectual and developmental disability.
But what was interesting was that, so we know that terms like idiot and insole, these were medical terms. Right? One thing I didn't realize until I was learning this, when I was doing research was, she was actually not called in idiot or an imbecile. She was graded a “middle grade moron”.
It's funny because in this article, in New Yorker, they say that morons were considered dangerous because they were smart enough to pass undetected and breed with… non-morons.
Sarah: Non-morons? Isn't it so weird that these generic, sitcom insults of our childhood used to be medical terminology?
Eric: Realizing the roots of it left a kind of bad taste in the mouth. So I could no longer call anybody an idiot.
Sarah: It's kind of like the classic horror movie thing where you find the book of the dead and you read the inscription and you're like, oh, those words actually are more powerful than I had an ability to realize within my own lifespan.
Eric: I saw really great Instagram post of somebody saying, “I find it harder to insult people when I can't use the words ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile.’ Then I realize, that's the point. You shouldn't be saying those things.” But that's why you'll see me on social media call people a ‘turnip’ or a ‘’pine cone.
Sarah: I like that. I like calling people ‘jerks’, because and it's all about the nature of the insult. Right. Because if you're complaining about someone's level of intelligence, it's well by definition they have no control of that. So that's a weird thing to be mean about.
Eric: I feel if you're a jerk you're actively choosing to be a jerk. If you're an asshole, you're choosing to be an asshole. One of the things that I've never liked is that when autistic people, particularly autistic men say, “Well, I'm autistic. Of course, I don't understand social cues. That's why I'm rude.” I'm like, there's only one S and Asperger, buddy.
Sarah: Can that be the title of your podcast?
Eric: But what's interesting is that around the same time, the person who was running this place was a guy by the name of Albert Priddy, P R I D D Y. But his ideology was not that pretty. It's important to recognize that he was basically trying to turn his institution basically into sort of, as the New Yorker called it, basically a sort of eugenics factory.
Sarah: This is what I'm trying to get at. I feel like with this whole thing is that like in 1920, whatever, you could be like, “I'm going to start a eugenics factory.” That's how people talked back then. And your like, fiancé would be like, “Oh how good of you”, or whatever.
Eric: Yeah, exactly. But you know, so what happened is that he basically met with an attorney named Aubrey Strode. And the reason why he did this is because he was sued by a patient who he'd sterilized without her consent. And he turned to a friend named Aubrey Strode, who was a lawmaker and a politician who basically helped make Virginia's sterilization law. Strode basically borrowed that from a law that had been drafted by Harry Laughlin, who's the director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories Eugenics Record Office, which was the mecca of eugenics at the time. And he was the most influential person at the time. He was also the driving force, the main advisor in Congress, when the Johnson and Reed Act passed.
Sarah: He's basically the Secretary of Eugenics, it seems like.
Eric: The Secretary of Eugenics.
Sarah: You used to be able to write your own ticket with a eugenics degree.
Eric: Yeah, exactly. So incidentally, so it should be stated, Indiana was the first state that had passed a eugenics sterile law in 1907. They didn't meet constitutional muster. So Laughlin's law basically serves as a template. And the Virginia law was that was passed in 1924 was based on this model. And basically what happened is cur buck. Obviously, his birthday's daughter, there's a whole thing. The colony review board basically concluded that Buck was quote “feeble minded and by the law of hereditary is the probable potential parent of a socially inadequate offspring. And therefore she should be sexually sterilized.” It goes all the way to the Supreme Courts. And what was interesting is that one of the people who argued for this was Harry Laughlin. But Harry Loughlin, he actually created this really detailed chart - I'm about to send it to you right now - justifying her sterilization.
So take a look at this chart and it's really crude. It shows the immediate blood kit of Carrie Buck showing illegitimacy and heredity and hereditary feeble mindedness. And then it shows a bolted line, illegitimate mating.
Sarah: This looks like that thing they do in football where they're like, I don't even understand how that works, but they're like, the quarterback is going to swoop over here and the football thing.
Eric: Yeah, exactly. And incidentally, so Theodore Roosevelt appointed Judge Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. And of course, Harry Laughlin was an expert witness in this case. But here's the twist that a lot of people don't know. Harry Laughlin never actually met Carrie Buck. He gave this evaluation without ever having met her.
Sarah: Oh, he shouldn't do that. So what did he base this on then?
Eric: He based it on information provided by the colony. And of course the colony had a vested interest in this because they were the ones who wanted to sterilize Buck. By the time it goes to the Supreme Court, the head of the Lynchburg colony was Priddy’s assistant, Dr.
Bell. Which is how we get the term Buck v. Bell. And then the ruling was of course, 8-1. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, we often consider as this great progressive thinker. He said in his ruling, and this is probably the most infamous ruling of all, which is where he says, “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned. In order to prevent being swamped within incompetence, it is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime…”
Sarah: Ahhh! Sorry. I didn't realize we were waiting to execute everybody.
Eric: Yeah. “…or let them star for their facility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind, the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes.” Yeah. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Sarah: I can't believe that I once read that and remembered only the line “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” I was like, isn't that terrible? And in retrospect, like it is, but it's the least awful part of that entire paragraph.
Eric: It's the least terrible thing. Yeah,
Sarah: Exactly. So sorry I kept screaming.
Eric: No, I wanted to scream, too. I was trying. I was worried about quoting this paragraph in its entirety because I felt like I was worried that it would be too legalese. But I was like, oh my God, Jesus Christ. All over Wendell Holmes, Jr. Yeah. Like, you are terrible.
Sarah: This man is not talking about penumbras over here.
Eric: Yeah, exactly. And so it should also be noted that this was a catch and release thing. She is sterilized in October 1927, paroled from the colony. And then after the operation, she was sent out and she just had to report to officials annually. And she was married, widowed, remarried, and died at a nursing home in 1983. So, this was recent history.
Virginia officials also sterilized Buck's sister. She was told the operation was to remove her appendix, and it was only in 1980 that she learned why she was unable to have a child.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Eric: This was something that was inspiring Adolf Hitler. This is from the LA Times, “From 1909 until its repeal in 1979, California coercively sterilized more than 20,000 citizens. Nearly a third of the sterilizations in the United States were done in California. Legislators also followed suit and by 1924, 15 states had similar laws. And in Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote in 1920 when he was in prison, he celebrated the ideology. He says, “There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception of citizenship are noticeable. Of course it is not in our own model German Republic, but the United States.”
So Mein Kampf came out two years before Buck v. Bell was ruled. So these were influencing Buck v. Bell, as it gave the green light for other states to do so.
Sarah: What essentially are they trying to decide here? Is it basically are they deciding whether for sterilization is acceptable at all constitutionally?
Eric: Basically the question in it was, did the Virginia statute which authorized the sterilization of Buck, deny her the right to due process of the law and the equal protection of laws as protected by the 14th Amendment? And does sterilization as a whole deny people their due process rights? Buck v. Bell is still on the books.
Sarah: That's me hitting my head on the table.
Eric: Yeah, I, yeah, I noticed.
Sarah: While we're in this general area, I'm just demanding that you explain all kinds of stuff that you didn't prep for, but I would love you to talk about due process. Because it's probably my favorite American legal concept.
Eric: Due process basically says the fifth amendment of the Constitution says that the Federal government requires to the Federal government that no one shall be deprived of their life, liberty, or due process of the law. And I'm getting this from Cornell Law School.
And then the 14th Amendment adds to that the 14th amendment, which is the one that gives civil rights to newly freed black people, uses the same 11 words and it's called the ‘Due Process Clause of the Constitution’. So I think that the 14th Amendment, all persons born in naturalizing the United States and are subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States, and no states shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens in the United States, nor shall any state deprive any person of liberty or property with other due process of the law, nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Sarah: Equal protection. Love that phrase. Big fan.
Eric: Yeah, exactly. So essentially what it was that it was saying is that you could not take black people's property or their life from them. Or new laws, basically the Jim Crow laws, was the precursor to Jim Crow laws - this is during Reconstruction - could not take away their life and their liberty.
What Buck v. Bell basically does is it says forced sterilization isn't a violation of the law. And can we please just go back to Holmes saying, “the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes”?
Sarah: Yeah. That doesn't make my friend vaccination look great.
Eric: It doesn't make vaccination look really good whatsoever. And as we're talking about this, literally a few days ago the Supreme Court just said that a vaccine mandate for COVID is, you basically blocked the federal government's vaccine mandate. Vaccination mandates basically could have been used and were used to cover sterilization. So these rationales were created. They were shoehorned with the explicit intent of trying to harm people.
Sarah: Listen, I think if you possibly can get vaccinated, get boosted, do it all, big fan of vaccine. But I do think that having the position that you are reluctant to let the us government inject chemicals into you is not a historically unsupported position at all. And I feel like we have to acknowledge the fact that there is some precedent for that being a terrible idea to just, I don't know, get through this present moment with a little less carnage, I hope.
Eric: For those who don't know, go back and listen to our vaccine episode about autism. Yes, sterilization was used in the context of public safety, and the context that this was seen as a public act that must be done. This was seen as something that we as a society must collectively do is weed out the undesirables. This language is used in the language of collectivism rather than this one person is deficient, so therefore we should sterilize. But we should sterilize for the betterment of society. It's fascinating how women's bodies are simultaneously used sometimes to propagate and continue reproducing. But then we also police women's bodies, we talk about being pro-choice, but the flip side of that is allowing people to have bodily autonomy.
Sarah: It seems like this is something we started thinking about in a pseudoscientific manner sometime in the 19th century, but then that it really exploded in the U.S. in the 1920s, 1930s. So why was that?
Eric: So first and foremost, you had to talk about how the fact that this was at the end of World War I. So there was a lot of xenophobia after World War I, as there is after war. There's always a lot of xenophobia.
Sarah: There were hate crimes against dachshunds during World War I, at least one of them.
Eric: Yeah, exactly. Even after the war in Iraq is over in the United States and the war in Afghanistan is ending, there still Islamophobia. At the same time at the end of World War I, what was also going on was the Spanish flu pandemic. Much like the COVID 19 pandemic, the people who were most affected by it were poor people, immigrants, people of color. And it wasn't because they were constitutionally inferior, but it was because they worked in chronic conditions, they ate worse, they suffered from underlying diseases. They were, to borrow from the current director of the CDC, they were unwell to begin with. And mind you, that's what the current director of the CDC said. And that's why she had a meeting with disability rights activists and apologized to them.
At the same time, what happened was that it also debunked something from eugenics, because it showed us that infectious diseases really aren't about whether you're morally upright or morally deficient or anything.
Sarah: So it's about whether you’re rich.
Eric: Yeah, whether you're rich. So as a result, a lot of countries set up their reorganize their health ministries, or set up ecosystems for disease surveillance. One of the things about public health is the question of who is part of the public. I think for a long time, we've considered people with disabilities and people with intellectual disabilities and chronic illness as not part of the public. And we still don't consider people of color part of the public a lot. still don't see poor people as part of the public.
Sarah: Right. And who are the people to bring the law back in, as always. And so essentially coming out of the pandemic of a hundred years ago were people selling eugenics with this idea of poor people spread disease, let's eradicate the poor.
Eric: It was more still the idea that poor people were still deficient. I'm sure that a lot of people thought that they brought the disease to the United States. Which is funny, because if you want to talk about colonization, who is it that brought disease to the new world? It was white people.
Sarah: Oh yeah. That rings a bell.
Eric: You know what the last territory that the United States that passed the eugentis law was?
Sarah: Rhode Island.
Eric: Puerto Rico. They blamed overpopulation. They blamed poverty. And then basically what they did is they targeted poor women for sterilization And then according to a report in 1976 from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare - which was a precursor to our HHS - 37% of women from child of childbearing age in Puerto Rico had been sterilized. And the vast majority of them were in their twenties.
And one of the big movers of this was Clarence Gamble, who was the head of the Pennsylvania Birth Control Federation. He was the heir to the Proctor and Gamble fortune. A lot of these big companies we think of today were big movers on eugenics. We just talked about Kellogg’s, now we're talking about toothpaste.
Sarah: How can you even get out of bed in the morning without assaulting yourself with eugenics history?
Eric: Eugenics, part of a balanced breakfast.
Sarah: Eugenics, it's what's for dinner. But it seems like we are repeating this moment right now, where we are recognizing, oh my God, this country is completely unable to take care of the number of people it needs to take care of. And we have a gigantic, vulnerable population that is trying to weather many crises simultaneously. And so I guess the solution is to kill them.
Eric: Or just let them die. It's almost like we're going to just blame the unvaccinated. The problem is a lot of people with disabilities want to get vaccinated, but how do you get vaccinated? You go online and a lot of blind people don't have access to it. A lot of people with disabilities don't have access to internet.
Oh, this is the other thing that a lot of people don't recognize. Is that for a while, Helen Keller adopted eugenic ideas before she later disavowed them. Because one of the people who tried to help her was Alexander Graham Bell, and he was one of the big promoters. So it wasn't until later that she moved away from that position.
Sarah: Yeah. Do you want to hear my Alexander Graham Bell impression? I've invented the telephone. Now to be evil for the rest of my life.” Because his whole thing, and this is not an exaggeration, he wanted to eradicate deaf people, which included his mother and wife.
Eric: Exactly. A lot of people think, oh, Alexander Graham Bell, he helped Helen Keller. No. It's because he wanted to eradicate deaf people.
Sarah: Weird fucking guy.
Eric: He was a fucking asshole is what he was. Yeah. But that shows how it could be that even someone like Helen Keller, who a lot of people consider an important figure, could even be swayed by really melevolent forces in society.
Sarah: And then after that, she was a big, old socialist, joined the Wobblies. Good second act.
Eric: God bless her for that. It should also be noted that during the Nuremberg trials, a lot of Nazis sited Buck v. Bell and the sterilization.
Sarah: Why wasn't I taught about this in all of my American schools. And about how Hitler was like, that California, they're doing great over there. Like I've never heard that before. And I just, I don't know. I think the fact that Hitler was inspired by aspects of the way the U.S. was running a country is just useful information to have.
Eric: All of this was before Germany, but it's also important to remember that there was sterilization after Nazi Germany, sterilization in North Carolina. It went up after Nazi Germany. A lot of times it was women who were either considered promiscuous, lazy, or unfit, or sexually uncontrollable. And we should talk about this. It's interesting how sexually uncontrollable women are seen as the prime targets.
Sarah: Also, what do we mean by that? Like I know that there was a sense, at least around Buck v. Bell, that if you were feeble minded that made you more sexual as a woman. What's going on here? What is this?
Eric: A lot of it, what I remember was that a lot of it was unwed mothers or women who got pregnant in their teens. So this people who were seen as uncontrollable sexually.
Sarah: God knows. That's how that always happens.
Eric: Yeah, exactly. And the head of these welfare agencies agree that the value of sterilization was reducing general welfare relief and aid for dependent children payments. By the end, the cumulative amount of sterilizations was more than 6,000 people were sterilized. And it's only been recently that the people who were sterilized have gotten some kind of restitution in North Carolina. And I learned this when I was only when I was a student in North Carolina.
Sarah: Yes. And there are things, I grew up in the Portland, Oregon area and there are horrifying aspects of our local history that I didn't learn until college or grad school or after that.
Eric: And I should say that the law were remain effective until 1973, so that's important to note. That those cumulative was by 1983. That was just what we knew, but the last one was in 1973.
Sarah: The last is in 1973, but yeah, that's 1973.
Eric: Led Zeppelin was still together,
Sarah: Led Zeppelin was still together! Exactly. Yes. Thank you. Yeah. I feel as a country, one of our other national pastimes is inventing ways to ignore the existence of rape and sexual abuse.
Eric: Yeah, you're right. Absolutely. That it's a way to justify policing sexually active women and also to justify not dealing with rape. And not dealing with sexual assault.
Sarah: And if it's your family member, I can imagine that rationale being like, well, it's troubling to think of anyone we're related to, boys will be boys. I'm sure that she seduced him with her sexy, feeble-minded ways.
Eric: Yeah, exactly.
Sarah: So really, it's like feeble mind. It can mean many things. But feeble minded could also encompasses the category of young, unmarried woman or just any unmarried woman or girl who gets pregnant for any reason.
Eric: Yeah. And can we also talk about the fact that Buck v. Bell, that the Virginia sterilization law happened four years after women were given the right to vote?
Sarah: Yeah, that seems, yeah. I feel like those things are connected.
Eric: It feels like it's a fear of women's autonomy. So when a woman accuses a man of rape, the thing is to immediately say they must be feeble minded. And that was the argument against women having the right to vote is that they, it was too big of a burden for their poor, little, female brains.
Sarah: Sounds like, women can't run marathons because it'll reorganize our internal organs.
Eric: Yeah. Or something like that. That's this is not to say nothing to the fact that plenty of wayward, that plenty of boys were sterilized.
Sarah: A lot of this comes back to recognizing the existence of social problems, and then solving them by blaming the victim. And then sterilizing the victim and saying, “Now you can't have any children, so you won't have bad babies that these things will happen to also.”
Eric: That’s absolutely the principle. That's absolutely the same principle.
Sarah: This involves a lot of motivations, and one is just a turning away from the giant of running a society where you have, you've said that everyone has certain inalienable rights and that are doing everything you can to bail as many categories of the human out of that rights lifeboat.
Eric: Or to shrink the idea of what the public is, and to shrink the idea of who could be a citizen. And shrink the idea of who is a human.
And I think I should also import, this is just a side note because I want to include this. Because a lot of people, as I said, think that Darwin was a eugenicist. And he had a lot of… I'm not defending Darwin. He had a lot of other fucked up things about him.
Sarah: He was literally a guy in the 19th century. So, there you go.
Eric: Yeah. One pop passage that's often used to accuse him of being a eugenicist is that there's this one passage that says, “And it’s surprising how soon a want of care or care wrongly directed leads to the degeneration of a domestic race but accepting in the case of man itself. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” But then the next paragraph, a few paragraphs later says, “If we were to intentionally neglect the weak and the helpless, it would only be for a contingent benefit with overwhelming present evils, as we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak in surviving and propagating their kind.” So that actually shows that we shouldn't get rid of discard the people.
Sarah: So he's like listen, we all hate the poor, but we just got to live with it. I'm very sorry.
Eric: Fuck the poor, but don't kill them. Could he have at least called his cousin Francis and said, “Buddy, you got it wrong, man.”
Sarah: He was waiting for Alexander Graham Bell to invent the telephone.
Eric: I was literally just thinking of Alexander Graham Bell when you mentioned that. I think that you still see eugenics in some ways today, when you see things with gene editing now. You see it with potentials for CRISPR? It's like my friend David Perry says, we're not prepared for gene editing, and we're not prepared for being able to weed out certain types of potential disabled life. Because we still are generally afraid of disabled life.
And I think one of the things is that, especially if you are a pro-choice, that you can't discriminate against someone when they have an abortion for disability. But at the same time, you should also say that I think the best thing to do is to say that disabled lives are worth living.
Sarah: To me, that question gets to the heart of a lot of that. Because it feels like this idea of what lives are worth living, what makes life worth living part of. It seems to me the contemporary American bias against any disabled life seems based on the fact that according to a lot of us, what makes life worth living is being the best at something. Achieving things, being exceptionally great and better than other people. And I think that being the defining feature of the life that you want to live and that you want for your children is bad.
Eric: I agree. I agree. And I think also it goes to this idea. You see it with Oregon discrimination for people with disabilities. You saw it when people during the COVID pandemic, when there was a scarcity of ventilators, and you're seeing it again, wondering which people are going to get care or not. You see people actively arguing that some people with disabilities shouldn't get care. It helps that a lot of the people who are writing these standards are themselves able and not disabled. Our worth shouldn't be whether we're productive or whether we are a net plus to the economy or something like that. Our worth of life should be measured by how good of people we are.
So like I came to the disability, even though I was born disabled. The way I learned about autism is I was born autistic. I came into understanding disability much later in life when I was in my twenties. But one of the most rewarding things about learning and understanding disabilities is that I've met so many good autistic and otherwise disabled people who live good lives and who are fantastic parents because they are disabled and because their children are disabled, and they're being disabled helps them to be better parents to their disabled children. And that shouldn't be something we fear. We shouldn't fear three or four or five or 20 generations of disabled people. We should fear the world that we build for them. And I should say this, I'm afraid of having children. For no reason that I might bring disabled children to the world. I'm afraid of the world that they exist in. I'm afraid that when I send my kids out into the world that they won't have a good life.
Sarah: Like, what a concept that well, my little baby is a greater danger to the world than the world is to my baby. Look at the world. Are you kidding me?
Eric: I think the thing that inspires me to maybe rethink that is that we should instead try to build a better life and stop fretting about the world that exists. And I think that's what we try to do. And I think that's what you try to do by trying to build better understanding.
Sarah: I'm not exactly out here building accessible playgrounds.
Eric But you are destigmatizing and that's important, right?
Sarah: Well, you do that, too. And I think here's a question, because I feel as if you were describing this period when Americans were just like open, proud eugenicists. And how there's like all these institutes that are like the National Eugenic Library or whatever. And you obviously don't see that. And I do not think it's because we have stopped thinking about or practicing or espousing eugenics, but like when did we stop being open about it?
Eric: I think after the war we stopped being open, because we were like, oh. And I think, especially when we realized that Nazis took ideas from us. We were able to call Nazis evil because it was a way for us to say, well, we couldn't do that. We never did that.
Sarah: We're the opposite of that. We joined that war to fight the Nazis eventually.
Eric: Yeah, exactly. We twiddled our thumbs for a bit, but Alexander Graham Bell may be dead. Oliver Wendell Holmes may be dead. Theodore Roosevelt may be dead. But you know, their ideas persist, and we still see them and hear them today. And I think that the reason why you're seeing the word ‘eugenics’ thrown around so much in the pandemic is that because people are seeing that those ideas never really went away. And at our core, we still deal with. pandemics and illness the same way we did during the 1918 pandemic.
Sarah: Yeah. It really feels comfortably similar. To me, what's always one of the core themes of the show, because that if we want to hold someone up as an icon of evil or wickedness or whatever, then it often seems like we are looking at something on the far end of a spectrum on which we live and breathe. This idea of looking at the Nazis and being like, okay, well that's bad, that's very bad. Yeah. Don't be a Nazi. And we will just keep quietly espousing some of the same beliefs and organizing our communities by the same ideas. But as long as it's not that extreme, then it's fine. And it's the degree of intensity of a belief system is relevant, but ultimately having roughly the same ideas and not acting on them in the same way doesn't put you in the clear either.
Eric: Yeah. And at the same time, it should be noted that even after the war attempts to change the quota system and for immigration in the United States, they people fought like health.
There were multiple times where they tried to fix the quota system and they couldn't because there were xenophobes actively blocking it, people like Pat McLaren. If we hadn't put those quota systems in place, there would be probably maybe not 6 million more Jews would be alive. You would've survived, but at least a larger amount of Jews, and disabled people, and homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses could have been alive.
So it's important to remember that. And it's important to realize that it's one thing to say, well, the Nazis were evil. It's another thing to say, well, what could we have done about it? Could we have let more Jews in? Yeah. Could we have let more homosexuals, could we have let more Roma, and disabled people? We didn't. It says as much about our culpability as the fact that we created laws that Adolf Hitler really liked.
Sarah: It's one thing to decry a genocide, and then to sort of sit idly by when you actually could save people from it, and to be like no, we are also actually protecting our national eugenic standard and racial purity. And it's wrong to murder people, but you can let them die. So you should just do that.
Eric: Because I think immediately when people say that eugenic enable, when I use the word eugenic enablism, they immediately recoil because they're like, are you called accusing me of being a Nazi? I'm not accusing you of being a Nazi. Nazis are Nazis. But you are contributing to that same ideology and that same pathway that that the Nazis exploited, they created it much like how the Rolling Stones got famous for rock and roll. The Nazis became famous for eugenics, but we originated it.
Sarah: It's American roots.
Eric: Yeah. It's American roots. Exactly.
Sarah: Once again, the most constructive and positive thing we can do is understand who we are as a country, knowing what we are capable of and have done and are doing as a country that is terrible and destructive and genocidal. And in a lot of ways that makes it more remarkable that we're ever capable of doing anything right. It's not the whole reason, but.
Eric: But it also gives us reason for hope. Because if we have the capacity for evil, we must also have the capacity for good. These systems are… it's never about one individual person. So just like systems can be put in place starting with one person with bad ideas who has hang-ups about his mom and wife, people who maybe don't have hang-ups about their mom and wife can dismantle those systems.
Sarah: Like, knowing this, it makes me love America more. Like it's not that I love the history or that I love that we are capable of this, but I don't know. I feel more highly invested. I feel more determined to stick it out as an American.
Eric: Yeah. Yeah. I feel determined, too. I live here too, damnit.
Sarah: Right, right. Like this is your country. Like you are an American, I am an American. To grow up in a country and have its real history kind of obscured to you or to intentionally not really engage with things like this. I feel like that means that you don't really know the country you live in. And I feel like love is a function of intimacy, and intimacy is a function of knowledge. And can you love America if you don't know America? I don't think you really can. I think you're loving something else.
Eric: You're not in love with them. You're infatuated with them, because you don't even bother to know them.
Sarah: And then I guess the question I want to end with is, how can we bring this around to a story of love and possibility and creation rather than distraction?
Eric: What we can say is that loving disabled people should be the root of any policy to deal with them rather than to see them as undesirables or people to be weeded out or people to stop reproducing. We should ask ourselves, why is the world so bad for them? Why can they not get around and navigate? And the only way you can do that is if you love.
And the other thing that we should say is that disabled love and the ability for disabled people to love others and to love each other, to bring more disabled people into the world or not disabled people in the world. It's not something to be feared. You shouldn't be afraid to love disabled people and disabled people shouldn't be afraid to love. Because we've seen the horrific consequences of that.
Sarah: Yeah, love is an active, powerful, dangerous thing. And not just this nice feeling we have sometimes when we watch the Hallmark Channel. I would love to know where can people find your work? And also just, what do you recommend? I want to do a little Reading Rainbow here, what should people look into for this as well?
Eric: So I have a whole book about this called, We're Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation. I write regularly from MSNBC. I'm a correspondent for The Independent. You could find me on Twitter at @EricMGarcia. There are plenty of people who I follow. I will later on tweet out a list of disabled people to follow after this episode comes out. And I will tweet out a list of groups and things that people can follow and we will continue from there.
Sarah: I love having you on because I think I love giving you a platform to talk about what you care about. I think people need to learn about these things. And also I feel like personally, I always end these conversations, just feeling more hopeful and more engaged and more invested and just feeling connected to the part of me that really loves humanity in a kind of… well, here's a story. Literally the first moment that I found out that Trump had won the election, my first impulse for whatever combination of reasons was to listen to, I think it's just called, I Am Telling You I'm Not Going from Dream Girls. Because my feeling about it was like, fuck you America. I'm gonna love you even harder. Now you can’t escape me. Like you need me to keep loving you. Oh my God. I'm committed here. I love you, even though you don't want me to, I will even more now. And that's the feeling I have ending these conversations with you. And it just makes me feel alive and connected. And I love feeling that way.
And that was our episode. Thank you for coming into the haunted house that I call American history, with me and Eric Michael Garcia, our amazing guest. Thank you to Eric. Thank you to Miranda Zickler, our amazing editor. And thank you to Carolyn Kendrick, who is more than amazing. She is 100 mazes worth of amazing. Thank you for listening. We'll see you in two weeks.