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Statist Anti-Individualism, from Eugenic Sterilization to COVID.

Statist Anti-Individualism, from Eugenic Sterilization to COVID.

Posted by Ed Folsom

August 14, 2023

“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 our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, 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. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), upholding Virginia’s forced sterilization of “feeble minded” 18-year-old Carrie Buck against due process and equal protection challenges.

Whenever it appears to the medical staff or institution physician of any institution in this state which has the care of insane or feeble minded persons that any inmate under the care or custody of such institution would be likely, if released without sterilization, to produce a child or children who by reason of inheritance would have a tendency to serious mental disease or mental deficiency, said medical staff or institution physician shall submit to the governing board of such institution a recommendation that a surgical operation be performed upon said patient for the prevention of parenthood.

If, in the judgment of the governing board, procreation by said inmate would be likely to produce a child or children who by reason of inheritance would have a tendency to serious mental deficiency it shall be the duty of the board to approve said recommendation within 30 days.

Maine’s forced sterilization act of 1931: “An Act to Regulate the Sterilization of Inmates of Institutions.”

In the early 20th Century, heavily under the influence of progressivism, more than thirty U.S. States passed involuntary sterilization laws that targeted categories of people deemed too defective to be allowed to breed. More than 60,000 people were sterilized under these laws, including 326 people sterilized under Maine’s sterilization laws between 1925 and 1963. The first of the Maine statutes, passed in 1925, required “consent,” even though the people giving “consent” to sterilization were prohibited from marrying on the theory that they were incompetent to enter into the commitment. The 1931 law, quoted above and passed in the wake of Buck v. Bell, contained no consent requirement.

As Melissa Davenport chronicles (here), in the time leading up to the passage of Maine’s sterilization statutes, eugenic ideas were very much in fashion among Maine’s medical, public health, higher education and scientific communities. Dr. Bigelow Sanborn, a “progressive” elected president of the Maine Medical Association in 1900, was instrumental in establishing institutionalized care of the “feeble minded” and “insane” in Maine, largely for eugenic purposes. In 1913, The University of Maine was one of the first Universities in the U.S. to begin teaching courses on eugenics, continuing until 1930.

This reflected the popularity of eugenics among progressives nationally, as catalogued by Princeton University Professor Thomas C. Leonard in his book, Illiberal Reformers — Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era. It might come as a surprise to some that the eugenics movement and forced sterilization laws were propelled by U.S. progressivism, but they were. That is to say, they were propelled by very anti-individualist people with a very statist view of the relationship between the individual and government.

Progressivism’s proselytizers conceived of the nation as a living social organism. As Leonard tells us:

“The organism metaphor captured the progressive idea that a society, unlike a machine, grows and evolves. Looking forward, society’s growth and direction can be nurtured, trained, and directed. Looking backward, organisms have a lived past and an evolutionary lineage. To understand the social organism, one had to study its evolutionary history.

The social organism metaphor, especially when anthropomorphized by [prominent progressives] Ely, Ross, Croly, and others, also lent vital credibility to the reform doctrine of a national administrative state. If society really was a person—possessing a mind, interests, and a conscience—then the problem of determining what 75 million people wanted was vastly simplified.

The social organism metaphor also embedded progressive anti-individualism. A complex organ is alive, something greater than the sum of its parts. When actual individuals were deemed organs or cells, they were made subordinate to the social whole. An organism cannot survive internal conflict [Woodrow] Wilson said.”

Leonard Quotes Woodrow Wilson:

“[Government] falls under not the theory of a universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live…Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and practice.”

In other words, the U.S. system of constitutional checks and balances will not allow the American organism to live. We need a living, breathing constitution, Darwinian in structure and practice, continuously evolving into forms more fit for survival.

To the progressivist mind, it was not adequate for Darwinian natural selection to take its course, when rationality, science and progressive enlightenment showed the way to superior means of selection. Charles Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, developed the idea of eugenics, in 1888, as a way of producing an improved human race, primarily through the regulation of marriage and reproduction. Galton envisioned a so-called “positive eugenics” that would encourage people of superior breeding stock to marry and reproduce. The science was there to allow the breeding of superior animal stock. How could we fail to use it to breed superior human stock?

Of course, the logic of this led to “negative eugenics” as well. Under Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the weak and defective would eventually be selected out. But, in the progressive era, who had patience for eventuality? Oliver Wendall Holmes expressed the progressive-era’s impatience when he declared: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Throw in the progressive-era beliefs that much of behavior is genetically determined and that the environment can be scientifically manipulated to produce desired traits that will be passed on genetically to the next generation (Lamarckian/Social Darwinist theory), and there was no time for patience.

Was the idea of improving the human stock through scientifically-informed enlightened selection a fascist idea? If it was exclusively fascist, then progressivism was clearly fascist. The forced sterilization of people with identified defects to clean up and strengthen the human stock is certainly authoritarian. It’s also statist. Progressivism’s anti-individualist view of society as a living organism, in which the individual is merely a subordinate cell, is certainly collectivist. And all of this was ideologically driven. So, eugenic progressivism was authoritarian, statist, collectivist and ideological — all traits that progressivism shared with the German National Socialist Worker’s Party, the Nazis.

It’s enough to make me wonder why so many authoritarian, statist-collectivist ideologues still proudly identify themselves as “progressive.” Sure, they like to point out that progressivism brought us child labor and workplace safety laws, food safety regulations, etc. But progressivism also brought us prohibition, forced sterilization, and the U.S. eugenics movement. The Nazis were very impressed with the latter two. In fact, they patterned their own forced sterilization law on U.S. forced sterilization laws shortly after they took power in 1933.

In his essay, Useless Eaters: Disability as a Genocidal Marker in Nazi Germany, Mark Mostert chronicles Nazi Germany’s descent into genocide. The first groups of people marked for extinction at the beginning of the slide were people initially targeted for involuntary sterilization.

In Mostert’s well-sourced accounting, the German public was first introduced to the idea of justified forcible euthanasia by two university professors, Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, in their 1920 paper, “Permission for the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life.” Binding and Hoche argued that “incurable idiots” had no individual will or sense of living. They burdened society and its resources while failing to contribute anything useful. They were “useless eaters” who should be thrown over the side to balance the economic ship of State. Because they had no will and were therefore essentially “empty human husks,” euthanizing them raised no questions of voluntariness versus involuntariness. It was simply a matter of what should be done for the greater good. Following the public debate that Binding’s and Hoche’s paper sparked, parents of children confined to asylums were surveyed about their views of euthanasia. Although the parents professed to love their disabled children, most also expressed a positive view of euthanizing them. Very few entirely rejected the concept.

Darwinism, Social Darwinism and eugenics held sway in certain circles in Germany as they did in the U.S. at the time. It was pseudo-scientific stuff that bore the imprimatur of “science,” pushed by a scientific and social elite; progressives who believed they knew how to use it to perfect the human condition. As discussed above, forced sterilization was once the law in more than 30 U.S. States, including Maine. The U.S. Supreme Court decided Buck v. Bell in 1927. In Germany, even though the public appeared to soften its views of euthanasia for the disabled in the 1920’s, forced sterilization remained illegal until 1933. That year, the Nazis took power and enacted a forced sterilization law that targeted the “hereditarily sick.” In 1935, they enacted the Nuremberg Laws that, among other things, barred the marriage of people with mental disabilities or “hereditary disease.” This paralleled marriage restrictions that were already in effect in the U.S., including in Maine.

Still, according to Mostert, euthanasia did not get underway in Germany until 1937-1938. Between 1935 and 1937, the Nazis began a campaign of mass propaganda, including the use of film, depicting the difficulties of living with severe mental and physical disabilities. This propaganda later turned to the subject of mercy killing. The popular novel, Ich Klage An! (I Accuse!) was turned into a film that dealt with a beautiful young woman who suffered from multiple sclerosis. She begged her husband, a doctor, to give her a merciful death. He euthanized her by lethal injection and was placed on trial for it. But he was acquitted after putting on a sympathy defense asking, “Would you, if you were a cripple, want to vegetate forever?” In the film’s closing scenes, the audience was told that “medicine is love.”

People began to petition the German government to allow themselves or their severely disabled children to be mercy killed. And a couple of high-profile mercy killings of severely disabled children received widespread media attention: one by a parent, and another by a doctor who was given permission by Hitler’s personal physician, after the child’s parents begged for it to be done. The latter case breached a new threshold – State sanctioning of a mercy killing that was illegal under the existing law.

From there, the killing escalated rapidly. The Nazis set up a system to require doctors and midwives to catalogue and report all obvious congenital defects in newborns. Their reports were submitted to administrative panels that voted on whether each such child should be removed from his or her parents to an institution. Parents of children who receive a “yes” vote were pressured to send their child to an institution for “care.” But once the children were removed there, they were killed by varying methods ranging from starvation and exposure to the elements to lethal poisoning. The program was later expanded to older children, then to adolescents, and then to adults identified through newly established bureaucratic processes to be carriers of defective genetic markers.

If you wonder how an entire people can be led to participate in a great evil, this is how. They must be made to believe that what they are doing is good. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed from the bowels of the Soviet Socialist beast:

“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.

Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his actions seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.”

Once war broke out, in 1939, the Nazis undertook an even more concerted effort to exterminate the disabled who populated institutions both inside Germany and in the newly occupied territories. Killing methods eventually came to include the use of poison gas. The Nazis refined this method and the mass cremation of remains at a group of six killing centers. They later used the refined methods mainly against Jews at Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and the killing center at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ever since then, eugenics has had a bad reputation – a Nazi reputation.

But eugenics wasn’t just a Nazi idea. It was also a “progressive” idea. Yet somehow another set of ideas has been cemented in the public mind: the idea that forced sterilizations and eugenics are exclusively right-wing, fascist, Nazi ideas; the idea that progressivism is the opposite of right-wing, fascist and Nazi; and the idea that therefore progressivism has nothing to do with bad stuff like forced sterilizations and eugenics. Neat trick. Wrong.

Eugenics was an ideologically-driven, statist-collectivist idea; an idea held in common by many people who had little to no regard for the concept of natural human rights; people who believed that rights are nothing more than what the State declares them to be; people with no patience for constitutional checks on power that impede the doing of their superior, scientifically enlightened will; people with no patience for individual cells out of sync with the social organism’s greater good as they determined it; people who were deeply illiberal, anti-liberal, anti-individualist. All these characteristics are common to Nazis, socialists/communists and progressives, both those of old and to this day.

And there has been no clearer example in this country of how quickly that mindset can turn to government-inflamed hatred of one group against another than what occurred recently during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Returning to the quoted passage from Buck v. Bell, above, note Justices Holmes’ reference to Jacobson v. Massachusetts as authority for the proposition that, “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.” You might recall that when certain states and the federal government mandated people to submit to COVID-19 vaccinations for work and travel purposes, a lot of people argued that the constitutionality of these edicts was already clearly settled by Jacobson v. Massachusetts. Oh yes, the same 1905 case in which the Supreme Court declared that there were no grounds to declare that Massachusetts’ compulsory smallpox vaccination scheme violated the 14th Amendment’s privileges and immunities or due processes clauses — the same case that the Supreme Court declared twenty-two years later was based on a principle broad enough to cover cutting an “imbecile’s” fallopian tubes. That case, they told us, settled the issue that any COVID vaccination mandate that the government might order, state or federal, would be constitutional. What might these same people say if the government were to once again insist on sterilizing defective human gene stock?

The mob was stoked to hatred for anyone who resisted COVID vaccination. They had already been whipped into a frenzy against people who resisted government edicts on business closings; stay-at-home orders; bans on gatherings that prohibited funerals, religious services and weddings; and bans on interstate travel. Members of the public health elite told us that resistance to these unprecedented measures was rooted in “white supremacy,” while they simultaneously encouraged mass gatherings to protest “systemic racism.” That’s pure ideology at work — statist-collectivist ideology.

And then there were masks. President Biden began to always appear in public with a mask on, at first on his chin, later dangling from one ear, and eventually covering his mouth and nose. He began telling all the governors that they should impose a mask mandate. Then he instituted a mask mandate on federal property. A full-scale effort got underway to stoke mob hatred of people who resisted wearing them.

But the demonization of people who balked at the State’s COVID orders really picked up steam when it came to vaccine mandates. For the first time in my life, I saw formerly ordinary-seeming people, including professionals and society’s elite, openly express death wishes against fellow Americans. It was as if they believed their expressions of hatred signaled their virtue and superior social consciousness. People openly advocated for unvaccinated people to be refused medical treatment. Organ transplant candidates were refused transplants unless they submitted to vaccination, even patients with natural immunity from a previous infection. And when high-profile unvaccinated people died with COVID-19, their deaths were cheered.

This hatred was stoked by a massive media propaganda campaign. Although minority communities were over-represented among those who refused vaccination, media messaging promoted the idea that vaccine refusal was a right-wing, “white-supremacist” phenomenon – a rhetorical tactic that tied vaccine refusers to fascism and Nazis. When lots of people sought out Ivermectin as a preventative and treatment for COVID-19, they were dismissed as low-class, idiot white bumpkins, mostly from the south, who were so stupid they chose to take “horse dewormer” instead of “following the science,” even though the Ivermectin that they sought was not the “horse dewormer” form of the drug. The Ivermectin that they sought was the human form that the public health authorities managed to demonize, frightening doctors against prescribing it; frightening pharmacies into refusing to fill prescriptions for it and reporting prescribing doctors to medical boards for punishment.

Even though COVID-19 vaccines did not stop the spread of the virus, and even though our public health authorities knew this very early on, unvaccinated people were vilified as unclean, disease carrying threats to the health of the vaccinated. The hate-stoking propaganda came from the top. As documented in a July, 2023 federal court ruling in Missouri v. Biden, President Biden joined a campaign to call the COVID-19 pandemic a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” He told us that the unvaccinated were “killing people” and dismissed civil liberties concerns as the desire for “the freedom to kill you with my COVID.” All of it whipped the mob into an orgy of hatred. Unity! We need unity! The kind that leaves no room for the dangers to the public health of dissent. After all, “No one is allowed to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater!”

What all of this taught some of us is that a great percentage of the American people are simply unquestioning followers, anxious for the government to instruct them what they must do to be the good ones. This can work well, in the sense that automatic abidance with the government’s rules allows a society to function smoothly without the need for coercion at every turn. But it also allows the government to lead many people anywhere, including to very dark places. We have seen that a great many people are also anxious for the government to instruct them on what they must do to be “safe.” They want to be a part of a community that’s in some way superior others, in this particular instance one that acts in accordance with dictates of “the science.” We have seen first-hand, that when the State runs a propaganda campaign to frighten people into believing they will die if they don’t follow the government’s orders, most people will believe it no matter how irrational the orders are in relation to the declared threat. And when the State demonizes people who refuse to follow its orders, a great percentage of the people will treat the refuseniks as demons.

Many people are swept up in anti-individualist, statist collectivism as soon as the State identifies a threat to the social organism. If the State happens to identify you as one of the social organism’s enemies, a great mass of people will scream for you to be removed. And they will believe that their hatred is righteous. This is no different when the State’s collectivist ideology is progressivism than when it is fascism; when it is socialism/communism than when it is Naziism. None of the people who stoked hatred of the non-compliant during the COVID-19 pandemic were Nazis, even though Nazis are also clearly ideological statist-collectivists. Were they fascists? That depends on whether you define “fascism” merely as coercive, statist authoritarianism. Many were progressives. Some were socialists. But I don’t recall seeing a single liberal individualist either in the mob or stoking it.

Ideological statist collectivism will always present an existential threat to its unbelievers. Beware of them all. When they call for unity, how do they intend to achieve it? You might turn out to be among those they target for elimination.