Home » Canada, Culture, Darwinism, Intelligent Design » Eugenics and the Firewall: An interview with Jane Harris Zsovan, Part III

Eugenics and the Firewall: An interview with Jane Harris Zsovan, Part III

Denyse: First, step with us a moment into Scientific American’s past (a past it repudiates) where, in 1911, it enthusiastically editorialized about “The Science of Breeding Better Men.” How about this for an opening line: “ADA JUKE is known to anthropologists as the ‘mother of criminals.’” Well, how’s that for coming straight to the point? The solution?

The proper attitude to be taken toward the perpetuation of poor types is that which has been attributed to [Thomas] Huxley. “We are sorry for you,” he is reported to have said; “we will do our best for you (and in so doing we elevate ourselves, since mercy blesses him that gives and him that takes), but we deny you the right to parentage. You may live, but you must not propagate.”

Actually, her real name was “Margaret,” and the history was rather more complex than eugenics hysteria allowed for. In Canada, the worry surfaced as a fear that “the British race was ‘becoming small, dark, and emotional’” (p. 26). Maybe that’s code for “like the separatist-minded French-speaking Catholics of Quebec” …
(This is the third and final part of Uncommon Descent’s interview with Jane Harris Zsovan, author of Eugenics and the Firewall about her book on the controversial topic of social Darwinist eugenics in Western Canada in the mid-twentieth century. Here’s Part I and here’s Part II.)

anthropometry, one of the quack eugenics sciences

Anyway, I grew up in the shadows of all this and never knew how many of the early twentieth century Canadian notables we were taught to revere had been involved. Take the origin of the Well Baby contests (p. 18), as eugenics exercises in part: One reason they were abandoned in Ontario years ago was vicious catfights between the mothers. This is the sort of thing I mean by taking a bad situation and making it worse! How many women of the era would engage in a face-scratching fight in public if they had not been encouraged in this way? Is part of what went wrong the fact that some eugenics-origin policies were socially good?

Jane: I`ve hadn`t heard of the mother`s fighting: must have terrified the babies. Well, I think the fact is that eugenics infiltrated the older social reform movement. The socially good policies – land reform, universal education, public hospitals were not dreamed up by eugenicists. But what happened is that eugenicists made those ideas their own in order to get support for eugenics. Positive eugenics was influenced by older ideas of charity and equality. Negative eugenicists thought the positive eugenicists were a bit silly – that they were just encouraging the poor to reproduce and that this would be a drain on society. Negative eugenicists thought the core of the problem was this: too many defectives were on the planet. They wanted to stop them from reproducing and, at the extreme end, from even breathing.

Denyse: Could this be part of the explanation: Two streams meet and become a river? (p. 22) Eugenics was seen by some as a solution to affronts to Christian-inspired values (“lurid stories of murder, madness, drunkenness, and debauchery”), just as it was a (p. 23) perennial temptation for “progressive” politics (progressive in the sense of a politics based on the assumption that governments can alter the human race or human nature if they just have enough control).

Aberhardt must have, in that strict sense, been a progressive, … or? Thoughts?

Jane: Yes. Christians and women social reformers were targeted for indoctrination simply because their ideal society was a lot what the eugenics envisioned: no poverty, no crime, no vice. They tended to favour positive eugenics – education, well baby clinics, and temperance. In fact, the negative eugenics movement had to sugar coat their agenda to appeal these people. If you read Baptist preacher`s, Tommy Douglas`s university paper, `The Problems of the sub-normal Family“ you can see that Douglas is motivated by the idea of relieving poverty, eliminating vice and preventing suffering as he makes the argument for allowing sterilization. He`s not very clear about whether the sterilization should be forced. And he`s not real clear about whether it should only be offered to couples with several children. Interestingly, when Douglas got a glimpse of eugenics sterilization in action – on a 1936 trip to Europe – he was repelled by the idea and predicted that it would lead to a blood bath of the disabled. It did.

Aberhart, was a Baptist, just like Douglas. Both men would probably have called themselves progressives, but they also were social conservatives when it came to moral issues. Most Western Canadians in the 20th century were progressive on issues such as education, health care, and social mobility. In fact, most still are. Proudly so – even if that word is bandied about as a profanity by some political groups who really don`t understand the political culture or history of western Canada. In fact, you couldn`t create Canada without progressive ideas – like the public hospital movement, schools for every child, black loyalists, and cheap land available for all who wanted it. The problem wasn`t that Aberhart, Douglas and Manning were progressive. The problem was that they were deceived into believing it was o.k. to deny basic human rights to some citizens. Not just alright, but their duty, in order to make the world a better place.

It`s not our progressive heritage that made the eugenics scandal possible. It`s the dark side of populism. The self-righteous pack mentality, that allows the grassroots to demand that the rights of the socially, morally or economically defective be violated by the government. Or that turns its back when it sees these rights violated. That mindset made the Sexual Sterilization Act a political necessity under the UFA and the Social Credit administrations. It allowed it to exist for forty years. It also made racial segregation and forced sterilization of defectives and `criminals`thrive in the United States for decades. And it turned a blind eye when Hitler disbanded the German Parliament and began his holocaust of innocents.

Denyse: You write, “Many middle and upper classes no longer wanted to protect the vulnerable, they wanted protection from them” (P. 32). and this, as you say, characterized many Christian communities. Had anything changed in their way of looking at life? You talk there about what a departure it was from the Church of England “Prayer for Madmen” and other touching 19th century prayers, which suggest a traditional acceptance that some misfortunes cannot be remedied except, from an ethical perspective, by cures worse than the disease.

… we that have reason can deserve heaven no more than these can; but these do not deserve hell so much as we have done. Impute not to them their follies that are unavoidable, nor the sins which they discern not, nor the evils which they cannot understand; keep them from all the evil and sad mischances and make supply of their want of the defences of reason by the special guard of angel …

Instead, from church people, we got worries about “slums full of lunatics and morons.” (p. 32) And in Canada, of all places, where slums of any kind are an infinitesimal proportion of the landscape!

Jane: Yes, instead of feeling they needed to protect the weak, the middle and upper class, felt they needed protection from the burden of caring for them. One of the chief motivations for introducing the original Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928 was to cut the cost of housing the mentally ill. Sterilizing patients deemed capable of functioning on the farm or at work meant they could be released from the hospital and sent then out to earn a living, with no chance that they would reproduce. In some part of the United States, criminals were sterilized to prevent inherited criminality.

Denyse: What has the book’s reception been like? Do you feel that the discussion so far has been constructive?

Jane: I think the sales have been pretty good and we`ve had some good coverage in the mainstream press. But as for discussion about the issue, it hasn`t happened. The silence has been deafening. In my neck of the woods, you don`t discuss uncomfortable issues, you bury them. And you certainly don`t bring up your province`s dirty linen in front of the world. I understand that, but what`s is with the Christian and right-wing media in Canada? With issues like euthanasia, the rights of the disabled and even abortion hot on the agenda, you`d think they`d want to see what can be learned from Alberta`s case. But apparently, we still aren`t supposed mention the fact that most churches and respectable businessmen and women endorsed forced sterilization for reasons as varied as morality to the costs of housing the mentality ill. Worse yet, some national columnists keep insisting that it was only the CCF and the atheists who supported eugenics in Canada. Rubbish. In Canada, it was a Christian thing, an upright thing, a middle class thing that spanned every segment of society—except for the Catholics and the Conservatives in the Alberta legislature.

Denyse: So – and you knew this horse chestnut was coming, so don’t complain – What can we learn from history?

Jane: History is not about picking villains to blame, it`s about learning how we can prevent ourselves repeating the mistakes of the past. Thanks for asking the hard questions.

Jane will continue researching changing ideas about prison reform and civil justice for the poor throughout Canadian history. “Also, I`m writing a book about the third generation Wellington and Dufferin County people of Ontario who settled much of Central Alberta and Saskatchewan. Contrary to a lot of what you read in the media, Alberta isn’t Texas north. It`s rural Ontario West, named after a princess and largely built by Upper Canadian farmers and shopkeepers. And I have some other book ideas too. I like to shake things up.” – Shake on, Jane, – UD News

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