Pathologizing Politics: Eugenics and Political Discourse in the Modern United States

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tags: eugenics

Evan is a PhD candidate at the University at Albany studying the intersections between gender, disability, and war in the twentieth century. He focuses specifically on veteran disability and rehabilitation in the United States following the First World War.

Carrie Buck was three months shy of her twenty-second birthday when she was forcibly sterilized on October 19, 1927. Buck’s fate was based on the 1924 Virginia eugenic sterilization law, which marked individuals for sterilization based on vague and misleading concepts such as immorality, defectiveness, weak-mindedness, and promiscuity.1 Eugenicists, social hygienists, and lawmakers passed state laws across the country that hinged on a theory of degeneracy that described criminality and poverty, classified under the terms “feebleminded,” “moron,” or “idiot,” as genetic and inheritable and, therefore, preventable.2 Carrie Buck’s case made its way through the state courts and eventually to the Supreme Court of the United States. There, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. recorded the infamous court opinion, “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” defending the right of the state to sterilize an individual against their will for the protection of society.3

Buck’s sterilization was not an isolated incident. Rather, it was a pattern of widespread eugenic categorization, institutionalization, and sterilization through the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. This history is always important, but particularly so within the context of our country’s current political discourse, in which politicians pathologize political opponents, or erroneously use terms like “moron” or “idiot” rather than simply calling out injustices, racism, or poor policy choices meant to subjugate portions of society.

For example, in response to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent statement that “No one ever makes a billion dollars,” conservative media figure Mark Levin tweeted that AOC is a “barely literate moron,” a post that President Trump promptly retweeted. Rhetorical tactics like this one exist on all sides of the ideological spectrum. These terms have become part of the common lexicon. Americans enjoy near unity in resorting to eugenic terms for political purposes. Many may even share a common lack of knowledge about the horrific histories of the terms. Put simply, these are not just words, and using them perpetuates disability stigma while sidelining serious political debate.


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