Jane Harris Zsovan, author of Eugenics and the Firewall talked to Uncommon Descent recently about her book on the controversial topic of social Darwinist eugenics in Western Canada in the mid-twentieth century.
Part I is here.
Denyse: You mentioned the silent American eugenics film The Black Stork (1917) (P. 16):
A young man and woman are considering marriage; eugenicist Harry J Haiselden warns that they are ill-matched and will produce defective offspring. He is right; their baby is born defective, dies quickly and floats into heaven.
Courtesy the Moral Uplift League in Baltimore. (Floats into heaven? Well, that gives an oomph to “uplift”, I guess.) Yes, I’d heard of that one, but long forgotten. Looked it up again. And, sure enough, here’s something, from a book called The Black Stork (Oxford, 1999) I’d never heard before – about the famed Helen Keller:
In the late 1910s Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, a prominent Chicago surgeon, electrified the nation by allowing the deaths of at least six infants he diagnosed as “defectives”. He displayed the dying infants to journalists, wrote about them for the Hearst newspapers, and starred in a feature film about his crusade. Prominent Americans from Clarence Darrow to Helen Keller rallied to his support. Martin Pernick tells this captivating story–uncovering forgotten sources and long-lost motion pictures–in order to show how efforts to improve human heredity (eugenics) became linked with mercy killing, as well as with race, class, gender and ethnicity. It documents the impact of cultural values on science along with the way scientific claims of objectivity shape modern culture. While focused on early 20th century America, The Black Stork traces these issues from antiquity to the rise of Nazism, and to the “Baby Doe”, “assisted suicide” and human genome initiative debates of today.
In connection with eugenics, most people think of hugely popular Nazi propaganda films of this sort, and don’t even know about the agitation in North America.
Mostly it’s ignorance of the sheer popularity of genetic determinism across the Western world in the 20th century up to the post-war period. But is there a sense in which many parties who had not actually lost the War just wanted to forget about it?*
Jane: Partly, but it’s more than that. We want to see ourselves as the good guys. So, we can easily point the other guy’s sins out, but when it comes to our own failures, we either justify them by saying “we didn’t know better” or “it was necessary,” or we simply bury that history. Pretend it never happened. (For example, few Albertans know that the eugenics board travelled the province, that the premier tried to rescind freedom of the press, or that even the meagre human rights protections and limitation within the Sexual Sterilization Act were ignored. Many don’t want to know because it brings up uncomfortable questions about who the “Alberta Advantage” is for. It`s not as easy to limit legal aid or protect the rights of the poor and mentally ill if you think about this history.
It’s also easier to see yourself as the good guy if you don’t have to remember a time when you were very wrong. That may be why we’re not taught this history in school and it’s not something you`ll hear provincial politicians talking about. That and the fact that Aberhart [the premier under whom the eugenics laws were passed] successfully inculcated Albertans with the idea that they are both victims of the powerful (usually Ottawa) and the elect (entitled to wealth) and also entitled to protection from those who stand in the way.
Denyse: * I note where the repeal sponsor said (1970), “We should be careful about celebrating the repeal of the Act. If we aren’t careful, we may think we have nothing to learn, because we are celebrating having fixed the mistake. Maybe we should think of ourselves as marking the 80th anniversary (almost) of a grave public policy mistake which it took our community 44 years and much tragedy to fix.” (p. 6) Strikes the right note. Yet the Conservative premier Ralph Klein tried to use the Notwithstanding Clause of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to limit compensation to victims. How could we paraphrase the mindset here? I mean, admittedly, it’s a pretty hard mistake to fix, and money doesn’t cover it, but is usually offered a gesture of goodwill, and a waning to future governments about overweening assumptions of power. Thoughts?
Jane: Well, I think it’s the mindset that Albertans have – that we’re pretty much on the side of right. And we have this terrible poverty mentality hanging on from the pre-oil industry days. The big cars, big houses, and rampant materialism are just symptoms of the fact that we “never want to be the poor men and women of Confederation again.” God help anyone who threatens to take any of it away in a lawsuit.
We certainly don`t want to look at the dark side of populism—the pack mentality that overrides the opinions and rights of your political opponents and of the weak.
to be continued