A Very Brief Introduction to the Eugenic Paradigm
It has only been one day since Donald J. Trump was democratically elected President of the United States. Within this short time span, there has been a spike in violence against minorities that ranges in everything from graffiti of swastikas to physical altercations. This violence cannot be understood in a vacuum; it is neither new nor senseless. To understand where it came from, how it is unfolding, and potential ways to resist it, we must begin by analyzing its proper context, which one can call the “eugenic paradigm.” This article is a very brief introduction to that context. Let this be a manual, not of our misery, but of a better future.
Eu-genics is a word derived from Greek roots and literally means “well-born.” We are to understand from this that eugenics is a science of breeding. Francis Galton, an English scientist, coined the term in the nineteenth century. The Anthropometric Laboratory at London’s International Health Exhibition was opened by Galton in 1884. Although a scientific discourse of eugenics existed prior to 1884, it is the institutionalization of the Laboratory that is most significant to our context. The creation of the Laboratory allowed eugenics-as-scientific-discourse to be co-opted by the state in its pursuit to exercise control over the bodies of citizens.
Galton’s Laboratory was set up for one purpose only: to collect data about physical characteristics and family pedigrees through questionnaires. Despite the seeming innocence of this endeavor, one discovers here the general methodology of eugenics, which would lead to involuntary sterilizations within 25 years. Galton was fond of saying, “whenever you can, count.” This rule would be applied endlessly by the American Eugenics Movement through an indescribable fetish for records and documentation. This is not to suggest that the very possibility of statistics implies eugenics, but that the statistics would be arbitrarily applied to fit any eugenic goal. Eugenicists ultimately handpicked fact from fiction to achieve the desired results.
What has been said up to this point can be considered the pre-history of the eugenic paradigm. The American Eugenics Movement officially began in 1904, but it is not until 1907 that the eugenic paradigm properly comes into its own. Eugenics is not a personal belief, but a social program. Eugenicists, who lobbied for public policy reform since the days of Galton, saw as their first goal the passage of a law that allowed the state to compulsorily sterilize those deemed unfit for procreation. After two failed attempts, eugenicists found success in Indiana in 1907 with the first compulsory sterilization law that applied to confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists. This law would be eventually expanded to include other groups, but this extension mattered little since terms like “imbecile” were never defined and would include any individual according to a physician’s discretion. While this law was repealed in 1974, the constitutionality of compulsory sterilization has never been challenged.
During the greater part of the twentieth century, over 60,000 Americans were forcefully sterilized. Eugenicists were also successful in areas besides reproductive control, such as immigration reform. Popular eugenicists of the era were invited to Congress to present testimony regarding the hygienic health of the American population. They were pivotal in passing anti-immigrant legislation and the arguments they used can still be heard today in public debate. This success would soon be outdone by Nazi hygiene programs, which led one American eugenicist to quip in 1934: “The Germans are beating us at our own game.” Indeed, by all accounts sterilization was America’s “game” and this influence can be seen directly in the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 that virtually quote the plans of American scientists.
After revelations about the extent of the Holocaust in Europe, the term “eugenics” fell out of popular use in the United States. The practice of eugenics, however, was reinvigorated by this news and continued to grow, albeit with different buzzwords such as “birth control” and “genetic deficiency.” Public policy has been persistently changing to accommodate eugenic demands. Additionally, this mode of thinking finds itself more deeply imbedded in popular consciousness. In the contemporary world, eugenics thrives in institutional, discursive, and technical forms. The dispersion of eugenic logic makes it harder to track, but not impossible. The eugenic paradigm should be understood in terms of this proliferation of eugenic practices from 1907 until today.
A Few Eugenic Structures
The dispersion and proliferation of eugenic practices can be made sense of according to some fundamental structures. Three significant eugenic structures are Undesirables, posterity, and self-care.
The Undesirable was a person that did not belong in society according to eugenic norms. Undesirables were predominantly people of color, women, the poor, homosexuals, and anyone that did not fit the supposed ideal Nordic model of a human being. It was imperative for eugenicists to determine a perfectly healthy human form in order to designate derivative or deficient forms. Today, Americanness and whiteness have become the primary signifiers of the ideal type, although it is certainly more complicated than this.
Undesirability is marked in a variety of ways. One of the most common is innate criminality. Certain populations are said to be predisposed to committing crimes. This claim is meant to legitimate preemptive action against these populations. This way of selecting for undesirability is closely linked to the eugenic issue of fitness. The eugenic paradigm orders bodies on a gradient of fitness. The less fit a body is, the more obstacles and restrictions it will face. Only three years ago, it was discovered that dozens of women in a California state prison were compulsorily sterilized because they were deemed unfit (due to innate criminality).
One final way to understand how bodies are deemed undesirable is in terms of their threat to white American purity. The purity of the gene pool is the primary preoccupation of the eugenic paradigm. Those who can potentially introduce impurities into the gene pool must be isolated, deported, or sterilized. The national debate over immigration proceeds along this racial discourse of purity. The ideal, pure figure of a citizen also serves to create a category of life deserving of protection. Anything that falls outside of this category is undesirable and unworthy of life. (Animals occupy this category indefinitely, which is why “undesirable” humans are so often compared to them.)
The driving force of the eugenic paradigm is posterity. Eugenic techniques are designed to protect the progeny of “healthy” citizens, which is often the case before the actual birth of said progeny. In the same way that eugenics seeks to prevent crime by punishing potential criminals, it attempts to reduce the birth of undesirables through controlling populations. It does so in two ways, which the eugenicists refer to as “positive” and “negative.”
On one hand, positive eugenics merely seeks to preserve the purity of those that are already well-bred through techniques like isolation, deportation, sterilization, and so on. Negative eugenics, on the other hand, purports to purify the gene pool by expelling “undesirable” breeds or traits This negative aim can also be achieved through incarceration, but its advocates almost always see extermination as the only solution. In either case, it is always a matter of protecting or breeding the ideal human type. While positive eugenics maintains a firm footing in the United States and has even been commercialized, we are perhaps now seeing the resurgence of negative eugenics.
A crucial aspect of the eugenic paradigm that must always be kept in mind is that it gains most of its power from local and personal techniques. For instance, physicians and politicians will not force their way into your home and castrate you. We live in the age were you sterilize yourself. Theresia Degener writes, “Neo-eugenic population-control policies no longer principally rely on compulsory state intervention but on voluntary eugenics from below. The focus is now on the sovereign self-responsible individual with his/her own economic and social interests.”
Reproductive rights and birth control constitute the main arena of voluntary eugenics. After Trump’s election, some women, fearful of losing access to birth control, are recommending that all women have an IUD implanted as soon as possible. While getting an IUD may seem like a hassle-free and quick technofix for middle class white women, this device has been historically used to oppress and render virtually sterile poor women and women of color. Women who were on, or had family members on, government assistance have been coerced by doctors to remain on this form of birth control indefinitely. This is not to say that one should never get an IUD! Birth control technologies are essential for responsible family planning. They are, however, easily co-opted by eugenic pursuits that want to control populations rather than empower individuals.
There is no obvious escape route from eugenic violence, but a few clues exist. It is certain that one cannot vote away the eugenic paradigm. Public policy reform may ameliorate specific situations, but cannot completely liberate us either. Dialogue and democratic deliberation fail to account for the technical and institutional efficacy that eugenics now maintains. Eugenics, it would seem, must be confronted on its home turf, which is currently local distributions of power. That is, the eugenic paradigm must be fought from the bottom up. We must liberate ourselves and our communities from eugenic techniques before imagining a path to national or global liberation. The local Trump supporter, far more than Trump himself, is the representative of the eugenic paradigm.
Guaranteeing the safety of ourselves and our communities is only an immediate and material response. There must also be an abstract or philosophical resistance to the logic and discourse of contemporary eugenics. Against the eu-genic (well-born), one should counter-pose the eu-phoric (well-carried). What matters most is what we do here and now with each other. The fascist imaginary of a pure posterity and a future without crime cannot withstand the reality of our beauty and excellence in the present. In other words, breeding well will always be a poor substitute for living well. Writers like Arthur Rimbaud and Virginia Woolf have hinted at this form of resistance, but it is up to us to embrace a political euphoria.