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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Sunday, February 26, 2006


A Better Breed of American

The Sunday New York Times reviews a book that some of you might also be interested in: Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity by Harry Bruinius.

The book reveals how in 1904 biologist Charles Davenport established the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory on Long Island as a national center for eugenics reseach and policty planning. Several years later Davenport created a Eugenics Record Office with Harry Laughlin at its head, "sending field workers across the country to indentify the `germ-plasm' of unfit family strains so it could be eradicated... Bruinius deftly plays up the contrast between the eugenicist's obsession with cold measurements of human value and their own messy lives, which were marked by disease and behaviour that could have qualified them as unfit."

"Cold human measurments of human value," can be attributed all the way back to Gottfried Achenwall in 1749 who created the word statistik -- used as a political arithmetic, but that concept was later applied to the body in medical science. Bisset Hawkins defined medical stastics in 1829 as "the application of numbers to illustrate the natural history of health and disease." (Disability Studies Reader). It was the French, Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1847) who applied the most generalized sense of the normal. "He used the "law of error" by astronomers to locate a star by plotting all the sightings and then averaging the errors, [and noticed] it could be equally applied to the distribution of human features." (Disability Studies Reader, Edited by Lennard J. Davis, p.11) "He then too a further step of formulating the concept of l'homme moyen, the average man. As we can see, an ideology about a middle class was born from these early concepts.

"In America and elsewhere," The New York Times Review states, "enthusiasm for eugenics was broadly supported by elites. In Britain, people as varied as Winston Churchill and George Berhard Shaw embraced its goals, and there was lively debate about how much the state itself should control reproduction on individuals. Eugenic science especially appealed to Fabian socialists, who saw it as further justification for abolishing class -- after all. once the playing field was level the effect of heredity could finally express itself clearly and be studied....

Bruinius sees America's leadning role in the eugenics movement as a reflection of its utopianism. `Seeing their country as a land of innocence, many Americans had long clung to the idea of self-purification, attempting to excise that which posed a danger to the social good...Bruinius describes how Hitler modeled Germany's sterilization policies on California's 1909 sterilization law. While reports of Nazi racial policies provoked a growing outcry among the American public, eugenicists themselves remained enthusiastic, with some traveling to Germany to study its program."

Some of us may already know that the so-called "mentally ill" and "developmentally disabled" in 33 states underwent the procedure of sterilization.

Perhaps this book and understanding the history of eugenics and the quest for perfection only hovers beneath the frightening surface of the Holocaust and awaits its day to seep out of the cracks of biotechnology and genetic engineering. It lives in marketing pulls for things as seemingly trite as botox, plastic surgery and the quest to stay "perfect" for as long as possible.

It is the American Dream gone way way awry.


Blogger Kristina Chew said...

It's the long nightmare of modernism on many shores, indeed.

11:08 AM  
Blogger abfh said...

It's a timely reminder... those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Kev said...

Kristina's absolutely right - this isn't confined to the US. Us Brits had (have?) a disturbing propensity for eugenics. As you mention Estee, Churchill was a keen eugenicist, attending The First International Congress of Eugenics in London in 1912.

Scary stuff.

9:24 PM  

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