The Personalist Project

Last week, in a depressing turn of events, I decided to do a little investigation of birth-control activist Margaret Sanger's hopes and dreams. I don't have the stomach to continue with that, but I do want to take a look at how she (and so many others of her time) came to believe such outlandish things, things that even her defenders now concede are "unsettling to modern sensibilities." Yeah, the way a Taco Bell binge with a six-pack of Bud Light for dessert might be "unsettling." But let that go.

By her own account, she hoped to subject "fifteen or twenty millions" of "unfit" Americans to segregation, sterilization, or both. The "morons," "mental defectives," and "epileptics" would be just plain sterilized; the "illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, [and] dope-fiends" would be farmed out (literally) to "farmlands and homesteads where these segregated persons would be taught to work under competent instructors for the period of their entire lives."

At this point, most 21st-century people, for all our faults, find that an obvious question starts screaming out for an answer. As my sister Sarah puts it:

Just to take one small point, her solution to illiteracy is to quarantine illiterate people till they develop moral character. Wouldn't it actually be easier to teach them to read?

Good point. Were they just plain irrational, or is there some other explanation?

In keeping with my determination to give credit where credit is due and to acknowledge grains of truth in unlikely places, I sought out the defense that her admirers offer for these ideas. At the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, I found the assertion that she wasn't really that interested in eugenics--that her driving passion lay with helping women reclaim their lives and health from "uncontrolled fertility." She just found it convenient, since she wanted to grow her audience, to hitch that ideological wagon to the then-current enthusiasm for big-picture "improvement" of the human race.

I found that awfully unconvincing, given the documents on their own website in which she divulges her hopes for controlling the destinies of all those "millions"--not because she had found them, one by one, distressed by their fertility, but just because they fit into some gigantic and crudely defined category like "feeble-minded." But you can read the defense for yourself here, such as it is.

It's true that eugenics, with all its ugly progeny of forced sterilization, dangerous and unreliable methods of birth control, and abortion, was embraced by the most powerful and influential business moguls and politicians at the time. It took the Holocaust to make the ugliness seem less acceptable in polite company. But Sanger was clearly not just one more person who breathed in whatever toxins were floating around in the sociological air at the time. Her grand-scale plans are too detailed to make that plausible.

Still, why not teach, reform, assist, or rescue people, rather than pushing them to the margins, there to remain invisible to the fortunate "fit" until their generation died out? Why move straight to elimination? 

Here the Margaret Sanger Papers Project has a more plausible explanation. Part of the problem was biological determinism. It was thought at the time that all sorts of negative traits were heritable. but also that "selective breeding" was the no-brainer solution, since Sanger and others "believed scientific studies that concluded that those with mental or physical challenges included criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. and that these groups were incapable of resisting their sexual urges."

You get the sense that the problem in those days was not so much faulty or primitive science, but science wed to an anti-personalist mindset. These days, we idolize science, but we do so because it seems to promise the power to change us--not just the means to aid collectivist megalomaniacs in organizing society for maximum efficiency. We might fall for "better living through science," but we look to it to give individuals abilities that we lack.

People no longer talk openly about segregating the marginalized into farms and camps (not that our rhetoric about inclusion necessarily leads to anything better). We might look to science to alter the bodies and mental health of those who need help--but not  just to alter the ratio of fit to unfit. We're confident about our powers, even believing there's such a thing as turning a man into a women, but you don't hear much about abolishing entire classes to usher in an age of higher intelligence and impeccable mental health. When we do push genetic engineering, we at least feel the need to offer the pretext of helping individuals flee suffering.

Sanger's sadly static view of the human person, with its pessimism about possibilities for development and its utter lack of supernatural hope, is the kind of thing collectivism spawns. Ideas for enhancing the lives or abilities or happiness of actual persons are replaced by schemes for eliminating this "kind" or that. People are divided into high- or low-quality specimens, frozen in their present state. All the considerable--even in those days--resources of science are marshalled to manipulate the big picture: to improve not the lot of the individual, but the status of the stock.

But enough. Next week I fully intend to return to some more pleasant subject.

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