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A Quiet Bluegrass Genocide
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Sometimes, the comments on Bastiat’s Window take my breath away. Tuesday, (6/6/23) brought one such case. In his terrific Shiny Herd substack, Ted Balaker interviewed me on the mania for eugenic sterilization of those deemed “unfit to reproduce” for the first 75+ years of the 20th century. As Ted and I discussed:
“They were forced to undergo hysterectomies. Their tubes were tied and they were given vasectomies, sometimes without anesthesia.”
The scientific and political communities in America were solidly behind the project. Those performing the sterilizations were considered humanitarian heroes, and academics who questioned the idea were subject to vilification, loss of employment, and loss of academic funding. The press and political activists formed a solid phalanx to protect the pro-eugenics side. Glenn Reynolds of(another worthy subscribable) linked to the interview on Instapundit.com, framing it as follows:
PUBLIC HEALTH HAS ALWAYS INVOLVED A LOT OF GROUPTHINK: When Sterilization Was Dogma: Why the Eugenics Movement is Relevant Today. “Eugenicists sought to ‘improve’ the human species in the same way that one would improve cattle or soybeans—and using basically the same techniques.”
Later in the day, Glenn added an update—an excruciatingly poignant email that he had received from a reader:
“After giving birth to me in 1971, just months after turning 18, the rural community hospital staff convinced my mother to have a tubal ligation before she left.
Only decades later did I realize how improper this seemed for a healthy, married, drug-free young woman of 18. But she was in Appalachia, and poor. Was the hospital staff trying to avoid more of “her kind” being born?
Then I heard of the Family Planning Services Act and began to wonder if there was in 1971 a federally-funded bias toward sterilizing poor young women in Appalachia. Is this why I never had siblings and face being the sole caretaker and provider for my aging mother?
But I can only wonder because I can’t find any research or data or even articles inquiring about changes in birth and sterilization rates among women in Appalachia before/after the Family Planning Services Act took hold.
Maybe the Act didn’t make a difference at all. Or maybe it was a quiet Bluegrass Genocide.
No one seems to want to ask.”
This writer’s expression, “bluegrass genocide,” is a marvel of imagery, simplicity, and power. Nowhere to be found on the internet (till now), the term lashes an arcadian adjective to a dystopian noun. Just two words and five syllables describe a sweeping saga, imparting both sense of place and sense of horror. It starkly captures the inhumanity that, for the better part of the last century, exerted a vise grip over science, medicine, culture, politics, journalism, and public policy—the notion that experts are entitled to play God with lives in pursuit of their favored social goals. The writer’s addition of “quiet”—”a quiet Bluegrass Genocide”—makes the events described all the more vile.
Sometimes, the word “genocide” is used in hyperbolic and, in my view, inappropriate ways, but here, the term is more than apt. For linguistic sticklers (like me), the word “genocide” was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish legal scholar, to describe the systematic murder and exile of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire and Jews under Nazi Germany. But the word also applied to smaller, more subtle, events. Lemkin was a moving force behind the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention. That document defined genocide as any of five acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” with one of those acts being, “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”
The final lines of the email stick in the ears.
“Maybe the Act didn’t make a difference at all. Or maybe it was a quiet Bluegrass Genocide. … No one seems to want to ask.”
If, in fact, the question has not been asked, then it certainly should be.
While I know next-to-nothing about the Family Planning Services Act, I’m from Virginia, and I know how my state’s government, dominated by ostentatiously inbred elites, sent swarms of public health practitioners and social workers into the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains to round up and sterilize those they considered unworthy. My article on Tuesday recommended that readers view the The Lynchburg Story—a 49-minute video I used for two decades to shatter medical practioners’ perceptions of their own profession and of the conduct of science and governance in general. I’ll re-embed the link here—again with the caveat that there’s a buzzing sound at the beginning and a brief segment where the screen goes blank.
In this documentary, Roanoke Times writer Mary Bishop interviews one of the victims of Virginia’s sterilization program—a sad, gentle soul named Jesse Frank Meadows, who was incarcerated and sterilized at age 17. In the interview that elicited the Bluegrass Genocide letter, Ted Balaker asked me, “What types of people were sterilized?” If you want a relatively quick, depressing answer, read Mary Bishop’s “An Elite Said Their Kind Wasn’t Wanted”—and especially her description of Jesse Frank Meadows’s life of state-imposed loneliness.
In my estimation, the Bluegrass Genocide comment described above stands as the most meaningful response I’ve received to any Bastiat’s Window article. But here are a few other really fine comments that have been posted or emailed recently.
Life Is an Analog Experience
In “The Fatal Conceit and Effective Altruism,” I criticized the current vogue of applying central planning techniques to charitable giving. Quite a number of readers shared their thoughts through comments and emails. Here are three of my favorites:
[T]he willingness to think that pure theory can solve (or even mostly solve) social problems on a vast scale is an amazing act of pure faith, fully equivalent to a medieval monk embracing the Nicene Creed.
This comment was posted as a response to the Nicene Creed comment:
“I have … found that those whose careers are in programming and coding believe that they can model their way to the solution to any problem involving humans. And, when their solution/model does not work it seems to be the fault of the messy people and not the model. Frustration then ensues. … … Life is an analog experience. It’s messy. That’s the beauty of it.”
The following comment gently, politely took my thesis to task:
“I want to do as much good as I can with my giving, and I really don't know how. Being guided by experts examining the evidence is surely a sensible approach? For all the difficulties of measurement and prediction, I strongly suspect there is an opportunity to help more people by gathering and studying the evidence on what works well. The approach saves lives in medicine, and over time I really believe it will save lives in charity and public policy too.”
Equity in Limbo
My “Equity-toonz: One Meme is Worth a Thousand Pictures” criticized the insufferable and relentlessly replicated equity/equality stadium & fence meme, shown above. One reader offered a hilarious take which, on further thought, reveals a profoundly important point about the “equity” agenda:
“There's also the problem that the contexts in which ‘equity’ is even pursued or promoted as a goal are cherry-picked. Mr. Short might get a platform to boost him above the fence at the ballgame, but when it comes time for the limbo contest Mr. Tall is on his own.”
On the Virtues of Unavoidable Consequences
Toward the bottom of “20 Job Tips for 2020s 20-Somethings: Plus, with sheep comes optimism,” I described my great pleasure in seeing “poised, dignified, personable, proud, and eloquent” children exhibiting their prize animals at a sheep and wool festival. I wrote, “They had an air of maturity and accomplishment that’s hard to find among the cloistered, interconnected-but-disconnected children and teenagers of 21st century America.” A reader who was raised in a Mennonite community in Pennsylvania emailed me with her thoughts on children tasked with raising livestock:
“[T]here's nothing like experiencing the unavoidable consequences of your actions that no magic benefactor can undo to make kids grow up with a keen sense of responsibility and agency. … And despite the rhetoric to the contrary, most of us learn best with physical actions and consequences. A farm video game where you accidentally kill your sheep is not the same as a real farm where a moment's carelessness results in your sheep getting out and overeating grain and dying in agony three days later, despite all you do. … It also can't replace the awe, amazement and pride of watching a goat you raised from a kid become a mother and do exactly what she's supposed to do.”
Folks, please keep those comments and emails coming. (My address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Let Us Now Praise …
In 1941, writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a pathbreaking exposé of the lives and travails of tenant farm families during the Great Depression. Hailed as a literary and visual masterpiece, the book brought a sad nobility to the people eugenicist Harry Laughlin had maligned in the U.S. Supreme Court record as “the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” (Note: Not all of Agee and Evans’s subjects were white.) Here is a brief video of Evans describing his work.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men inspired Aaron Copland to write his 1954 opera, The Tender Land. A decade earlier, he had collaborated with choreographer Martha Graham to write the classic American ballet, Appalachian Spring. In November 1980, my wife, Alanna, and I saw Copland conduct this work on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The most famous song from the ballet is “Simple Gifts,” performed with aching beauty here by Allison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma.