The Personalist Project

Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist. Why are we still celebrating her? That's the title of an article by John J. Conley I ran across in America Magazine the other day. Her views on the desirability of a "race of thoroughbreds" and the dangers of being "overrun with human weeds" are well known, at least in the circles I frequent. But a couple new things struck me this time.

One was this: How controlling can you get?

I think a sensitivity to the evils of being "controlling" is a genuine modern (and very personalist) insight. The idea is that it's not just wrong to bend people to your will by coercion and violence. It's also wrong to manipulate, pressure, and gaslight them into submission, so that they see things the way you do, and act in ways convenient to yourself.* The arrogance of blithely micromanaging, or simply vetoing, the lives of others is obvious to us in a way it apparently wasn't in Sanger's day.

What, after all, could be more "controlling" than to set yourself up as an authority on who gets to exist and who doesn't? More striking yet is the way Sanger makes such decisions not on a case-by-case basis, but according to the broadest and crudest of categories, and on the grandest of scales. Listen to this (keeping in mind that I've taken pains to choose quotations the authenticity of which is not in dispute. They're pulled from a pro-Sanger website, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project). In a speech entitled "My Way to Peace," she proposes a Population Congress, the aims of which include the following:

[A]pply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization, and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.

[T]o insure the country against future burdens of maintenance for numerous offspring as may be born of feeble-minded parents, the government would pension all persons with transmissible diseases who voluntarily consent to sterilization.

Note the disingenuous use of "voluntary"

The whole dysgenic population would have its choice of segregation or sterilization.

I hope the word "choice," too, rings false to modern sensibilities, even if it didn't to many at the time.

And then there is this: 

There would be farmlands and homesteads where these segregated persons would be taught to work under competent instructors for the period of their entire lives.

The first step would thus be to control the intake and output on morons, mental defectives, and epileptics.

The second step would be to take an inventory of the secondary group such as illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends; classify them in special departments under government medical protection and segregate on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the strengthening and development of moral conduct.

There follows an impressive block of doublespeak:

Having corralled this enormous part of our population and placed it on a basis of health not punishment, it is safe to say that about fifteen or twenty millions of our population would then be organized into soldiers of defense--defending the unborn against their own disabilities. [emphasis mine]

Say what you like about the way words like "morons," "idiots," "mental defectives" and "dope fiends" were considered conventional medical terminology at the time; the speech still tells you something about the speaker. Especially when the speaker's not just lobbing random insults but is proposing a wide-reaching program to be implemented at the federal level. Say what you like about the popularity of eugenicist assumptions and rhetoric at the time, and how it was embraced by other influential and still-admired figures like Winston Churchill. What emerges here is not the portrait of a benevolent woman caught up in the spirit of the age but the soul of an engineer who aspired to make that spirit the wellspring of the treatment of "this enormous part of our population" for "the period of their entire lives, " as well as the blueprint for the future.

Whatever you think of birth control, and whatever you think of the present state of Sanger's brainchild, Planned Parenthood, I bet her words ring false to you.

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The second thing that struck me is this: What's with this penchant for treating anything and everything as an immutable characteristic? As my sister Sarah Johnson points out, 

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?

And my friend Sarah Eliot adds:

Interesting that being illiterate qualifies one for moral retraining.

Strangely enough, there's a clear explanation for this. Tune in next week to find out what it might be, and let me know me how convincing it sounds to you.

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*Of course, when the evils of being "controlling" are misunderstood, you get the kind of thing that of course never, ever happens in my house: Daddy says, "No, Child X, you can't take the car to go to the movies, because I need it to go to work," and Child X retorts, "Oh, Daddy, don't be so controlling."

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Image credit: Wikipedia

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