Eugenics and Progressives
Eugenics represents a shameful period in the United States' history. The progressive idea that technocrats in government could improve society and cure social evils encouraged many scientists and policymakers to look for a way to do so through the field of genetics. Social Darwinism, racism, as well as some scientific research helped bring the eugenics movement into existence.
Eugenicists attempted to improve the gene pool using positive or negative eugenics. Positive eugenics focused on encouraging the higher classes of society to reproduce offspring. Negative eugenics focused on stopping the lower and "defective" classes from reproducing. Because the eugenicists believed that insanity, criminal tendencies, deafness, blindness, epilepsy, and even laziness were genetic traits, they thought that preventing the carriers of these traits from breeding would cut off the traits and improve society. Many in the United States, blinded by their goal of improving the gene pool, passed compulsory sterilization laws in 33 states for those members of society deemed "defective." The Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, upheld Virginia's law in 1927. By the 1970s, 60,000 people had been sterilized under these laws. One such victim, Carrie Buck (Buck v. Bell), is on the left of the picture above.
Though not all progressives or socialists were eugenicists, many individuals of influence in the United States and other countries who affiliated themselves with those schools of thought were indeed supporters of eugenics. Some of the more famous supporters were President Teddy Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, President Woodrow Wilson, Bertrand Russell, Alexander Graham Bell, George Bernard Shaw, Harry Laughlin, H.G. Wells, Margaret Sanger, foundations connected to the Rockefellers, Harrimans, and Carnegies, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others.
After the horrors of the Holocaust were widely publicized in the late 1940s, eugenics in America (and any progressive support of the idea) quickly faded into the past. Nonetheless, it's an important piece of American history that should not be forgotten. The temptation to manipulate science, to use aggressive propaganda in schools, and to enact repugnant laws in the belief that technocrats can mold a perfect society is something that will always linger in different forms. Americans should study the tactics and think of the eugenicists and some of the progressives from this period in order to guard against future acts of collective tyranny.
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