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It is often the case that people
prefer to deal with the symptoms of social problems rather than the cause of
these problems. Eugenicists attempt to save society from individuals that it
deems problematic, such as minorities, gays, and immigrants, rather than deal
with social conditions that lead to prejudice. By contrast, however, Nancy Ordover's
American Eugenics is an informative and provocative account of the
eugenics movement in the United States that concentrates on justifications used
by eugenicists to further their agenda and expose the fallacies committed
showing they are not relevant in understanding past and present social
conditions. In doing so, she provides an account showing that eugenics is as
she argues an
ideology, exploiting and reinforcing
anxieties over race, gender, sexuality, and class and bringing them into the
service of nationalism, [W]hite supremacy, and heterosexism, […] under cover of
a new phraseology.
Eugenics provides a critical view of eugenicists' notions of the most
vulnerable groups in the United States through analyzing eugenicists' efforts
in biological science, statistical methods, and influencing cultural
assumptions. This short book that divides twenty chapters into three parts with
a detailed bibliography is another contribution to critical theory examining
issues of race, gender, class, and immigration. Ordover, however, focuses
exclusively on eugenics to show the role it has played and plays in American
society. It combines the views of well-known eugenicists, politicians,
academics, social activists, and scientists. Her approach of combating
eugenicists' views is influenced by her own views that eugenics "scapegoat[s]
and calls it sound public policy" as well as "it defends a violent
status quo as a viable political strategy" of presenting eugenicists'
views and explaining the fallacies inherent with these views.
book begins with a descriptive account of how eugenics has validated
discrimination. Ordover points out that eugenics is ongoing in the mainstream
society as evident with the Bell Curve and California's
Proposition 187 that legitimatizes and promotes mythical ideas of genetic
inferiority predisposes certain groups to the underclass of American society.
She then retraces the inaction and adherence by liberal and feminist
organizations to eugenic measures like race and class based sterilization
the first section, Ordover examines the eugenicists' efforts to promote race
and nationality concerns to advance its goals. This section focuses on the
history of American immigration policy as well as sets out the nature of
eugenic research and, probably most importantly, outlines why eugenic policies
have succeeded and failed. She shows that the eugenicists have succeeded in
gaining acceptance of their portrayal of "immigrants and their children as
inassimilable foreign bodies, as polluters, as both infected and infectors."
She views the immigration legislation and laws as examples of how eugenics can
impact the federal and state governments, claiming that through the use of
persuasion, communication, money, and research eugenicists are able to use both
their reputation as expert agents and their widely respected positions as an 'honest
broker' merely representing the best interest of the United States. Their
status as defenders of United States' interests allows eugenicists to take a
leading role in defining those who should be deemed worthy to be citizens and
to continue to strive towards the ultimate eugenic objective: "more
exhaustive race-based enactments."
While in the second section Ordover
"call[s] for queers to opt out of nature versus nurture argument
altogether," many would interpret this as simply 'making do' with social
prejudices that shape American society's explanations of their existence. For
example, castration, testicular tissue transplants, psychiatry treatment, and
hormone inundation have been suggested as potential cures for homosexuality.
According to Ordover, eugenicists have termed homosexuality as a sexual perversion,
warning that homosexuality can be caused by prenatal stress, germ, gene, and
hormone imbalance. With AIDS, initially viewed as "gay cancer,"
identification with homosexuals caused it to be ignored and underfunded for "decades
of death and debilitation and loss." In her words,
a struggle civil and human rights on the biological fixity of homosexuality
ultimately does a disservice to the LGBT community. History reveals how
dangerous such tactics have been to all marginalized groups, how often scientific
hypothesis has acted as defender of the social, economic, and political status
in part three, Ordover recognizes sterilization as the most pervasive
eugenicists' measure to defend the status quo. It could "fit easily into
a larger history of genocide, threatening a 'gentler' form of eventual
eradication." She cites infractions at Indian Health Services that
sterilized up to "42 percent of women of childbearing age and 10 percent
of the men" and "20 to 30 percent of the doctors" at the Los Angeles Medical Hospital that "aggressively
pushed" sterilization on women as well sterilized Chicanas against their
will or without their knowledge. According to Ordover, the eugenic belief in
sterilization of the "unfit in the United
States" is a racial based ideology
described as for the "betterment and protection of the [W]hite race."
At the same time, sterilization is a punitive measure targeting the
incarcerated, the institutionalized, and the poor. In spite of being
distinguishable from their predecessors new and temporary sterilization methods
have similar goals: to control or reduce the population of minorities and the
poor and thus to be able to shape society to along the lines of eugenicists'
exposes eugenicists' methods and notions that cloak their objective of ethnic
cleansing. This represents a compelling review of the conceptual,
methodological and practical shortcomings of the often self-described melting
pot of the United States. It is an account based on eugenicists' attempts to
solve social problems by attacking vulnerable groups and preserve their
mythical gene pool from being undermined by intrusion from these groups. It
may be a mistake to turn to this book with an expectation that it will provide
the answers to dealing with the problem of prejudice presented by groups like
eugenicists, but her account shows that to ignore their practices will be "at
our own peril." As such, American Eugenics is an insightful read
for any person seeking to better understand the nature of eugenics and the
culture that allows it to flourish.
© 2004 Aaron Peron Ogletree
Aaron Peron Ogletree
holds a Juris Doctor from University of Minnesota Law School. He also holds a
Bachelors of Arts degree in Honors-Political Science, University Honors, and
International Studies from Wayne State University.