Every year or so some right-winger in America lets fly in public with a ripe salvo of racism and the liberal watchdogs come tearing out of their kennels and the neighborhood echoes with the barks and shouts. The right winger says he didn’t mean it, the President “distances himself” and the liberals claim they’re shocked, shocked beyond all measure. Then everyday life in racist America resumes its even course.
This past fortnight it’s been the turn of that public moralizer and noted Las Vegas habitué, William Bennett. He should have known better than to loose off a hypothetical on his radio show. Announce publicly that ” if you wanted to reduce crime, you could you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down,” and many Americans reckon that’s no hypothesis, that’s a plan waiting to happen.
Amid the dutiful uproar when his remarks finally drew notice Bennett kept insisting that he was being purely hypothetical, but Americans don’t take hypotheses lightly, any more than they feel at ease with irony. Particularly in the age of the internet, literalism is the order of the day. Qualifications such as Bennett added (to the effect that this would be “an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do”) are useless.
The deeper irony here is that liberals have pondered longer and deeper than conservatives on how exactly to carry out Bennett’s hypothetical plan, either by sterilization or compulsory contraception.
Before Hitler and his fellow Nazis (who said they had learned much from US sterilization laws and immigration restrictions) made the discipline unfashionable, eugenics and the prevention of socially unworthy babies were hot topics among America’s social cleansers.
The keenest of these cleansers were not Southern crackers but Northern liberals. States pioneering sterilization laws included La Follette’s Wisconsin and Woodrow Wilson’s New Jersey. Around the country, after Indiana led the way in 1909, eugenic sterilization was most energetically pushed by progressive politicians, medical experts and genteel women’s groups. In the mid-1930s Alabama’s governor, Bibb Graves, vetoed a sterilization bill enthusiastically passed by the legislature. The populist Graves cited “the hazard to personal rights”.
Behind this sterilization drive was the Malthusian fear that poor people reproduce at a faster rate than rich ones or those endowed with a high IQ. The highly regarded biologist Garrett Hardin wrote in his 1949 book Biology: Its Human Implications that “Either there must be a relatively painless weeding out before birth or a more painful and wasteful elimination of individuals after birth. If we neglect a program of eugenics, will the production of children be non-selective? By 1968 Paul Ehrlich, in his Population Bomb, was urging a cutback in government programs of “death control”, i.e., public health. Nixon cut health benefits and pumped money into population control.
Allan Chase, in The Legacy of Malthus, says 63,678 people were compulsorily sterilized in America between 1907 and 1964 in the thirty states and one colony with such laws. But there were hundreds of thousands more sterilizations which were nominally voluntary but actually coerced. Chase quotes federal judge Gerhard Gesell as saying in 1974, in a suit brought on behalf of poor victims of involuntary sterilization, “Over the past few years an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 low-income persons have been sterilized annually by state and federal agencies.” This rate equals that achieved in Nazi Germany.
Gesell said that “an indefinite number of poor people have been improperly coerced into accepting a sterilization operation under the threat that various federally supported welfare benefits would be withdrawn unless they submitted to irreversible sterilization. Patients receiving Medicaid assistance at childbirth are evidently the most frequent targets of this pressure.”
Writing towards the end of the 1970s, Chase reckoned that probably at least 200,000 Americans per year were the victims of involuntary and irreversible sterilization.
In the mid-1990s liberals flourished the same basic hypothesis as Bennett. They said there was a cycle of poverty and welfare dependency that bred crime. In 1994 Arizona and Nebraska prohibited welfare increases for recipients who had additional babies while on the dole. Connecticut in the same year gave serious consideration to a bill providing additional subsidies for welfare mothers who accepted a conctraceptive implant (called Norplant).
Though race specific terms were usually avoided by eugenicists, who preferred words like “weak minded” or “imbeciles” (a favorite of that enthusiast for sterilizing, Oliver Wendell Homes, a jurist much admired by liberals) the target was, by and large, blacks. What direct sterilization could not prevent, incarceration or medically justified confinement has also sought to achieve.
Bill Bennett didn’t know the half of it. He’s about a century behind the curve.
Forty Million on Strike in India
The left unions in India had an industrial strike on September 29. It was huge. Industries and units employing over 40 million workers participated in great strength. Millions of workers across the country came out on the streets.
According to Sainath, CounterPunch’s well qualified man on the spot, the Indian media hated it and kept trying to undermine it — ‘SMS’ polls (i.e. cellphone msgs) polls were held by TV channels to show how much people hated the strike. Then they tried to say many services were not affected. By evening they changed tack and took the line that the strike was devastating, a loss to national economy, a blow to India’s image as an investment destination and so forth.
The strike was against the privatization policies of this UPA government. One of the main sectors was airport employees (NOT airlines) who were fighting against privatization of the airports. The TV anchors kept saying that Delhi and Mumbai airports were normal (the airlines were not part of the strike anyway) and below them the ticket kept announcing how many flights from those airports were either cancelled or clubbed together for lack of passengers.
In Kerala, Sainath tells us, two devastating things happened: one, the strike was total. Two, the Left swept to its biggest ever victory in local body polls, from the gram (village) panchayats to the district panchayats and municipal councils and municipal corporations. This suggests a huge victory is in the offing for them in next year’s assembly polls.
The news from Wyanad, the upland region in northern Kerala where I spent time with Sainath last spring, was particularly striking. For 50 years this had been a Congress stronghold. Last assembly elections, the Congress won all three assembly seats by huge margins. This time, in the local body polls, they were beaten by equally large margins. Such margins are very unusual in Kerala.
Wayanad was always a rich farmer-Church haven. So it’s a measure of how badly the agrarian crisis has hit the people there. Hard-core Congress supporters either did not go out to vote, disgusted with their party’s policy; or went out and voted against it.