How to avoid doing eugenics: Adam Cohen’s “Imbeciles”

I have been managing to get some reading done in the last month or so and to build up a record for myself of having actually finished things, I’m dumping some rambling thoughts on Adam Cohen’s book Imbeciles here. Warning: This post talks a lot about eugenics based on IQ.

This book is very very very effective at getting you to mistrust authority if, like me, you tend to put your faith in edifices that are supposed to trend toward justice. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the Supreme Court cases that Cohen brings up where the Court made a straight-up evil decision, and I guess I should have, but we hear a lot about cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia (evidence–these were the only two Supreme Court cases I could name off the top of my head) and less about say Lum v. Rice, 30 years prior to Brown v. Board, which the Court ruled that it was totally fine to disallow a Chinese girl from going to high school with whites, which is itself a fascinating and horrifying case in terms of horizontal relations between people of colour in early-20th-c America because apparently the defense was essentially “Okay, but she’s not Black, so what’s your problem?”

I also gather from talking to others about this book that other people had a better sense of the scale of eugenics around this time period, but I definitely was not aware that, for instance, Harvard and Stanford taught classes on eugenics, or that for a time eugenics was scientific consensus even though it seemed like the science was really really fudged. Eventually truth won out and other scientists started interrogating data more carefully, but the bad science was sufficient to convince a generation of lawmakers that America was being dragged down by “feebleminded” individuals reproducing at a disproportionate rate, even when it seems so clear in retrospect that a) it makes no sense that should have suddenly started happening in 1920 to lead to the apocalypse that the proponents envisioned and b) something is wrong with your test if you can judge as huge a population of the States as they did “feebleminded” when nobody had ever, like, noticed before that apparently a third of the population or something had the mental age of a 9-year-old. You’d think we would have noticed.

I’m a person who tends to trust in scientific consensus where I can find it, and this really concerned me! I don’t know how early the rumbles of “this is bad science though?” started coming from people who understood genetics, but Cohen writes as though there was a period of about a decade where the foremost people in the relevant discipline all thought this super unethical thing was totally necessary for the greater good. And as consequentialists we have to sort of trust in what experts tell us will be the consequences, sometimes; when it comes to large-scale decisions it’s impossible for each of us to individually make the choice that will lead to the best consequence without the input of people who have intimate knowledge of what the different options entail. But the experts can be wrong, too, especially the “experts” who write extremely popular books and prosecute court cases.

And there’s a maddening, farcical, pathetic story near the centre of this case–the prosecutor, Audrey Strode, who Cohen describes as the most infuriatingly Lawful Neutral person in the whole mess. Basically, this guy drafted the legislation to permit doctors to sterilize the “unfit”, at the request of the doctor (Priddy) who wanted this to be allowed in Virginia. But it’s really, really bad legislation, in ways that he absolutely knew would break the law if somebody really wanted it to be broken. Cohen argues that he was essentially building the exhaust port into the Death Star. Cohen thinks he didn’t really believe in eugenics. And then he prosecuted the case, because Priddy asked him to. And then they went to the Supreme Court. And then they legalized eugenics in Virginia. And then they forcibly sterilized hundreds of women. It’s just really stunning to think that somebody might have started out the case thinking “I’ll break this from the inside” or even “there’s no way this will get too far,” and ended up being a part of something so terrible, and never really dared to take a stand and divorce himself from it, maybe because It Was His Job, or he liked the doctor, or he wanted to argue in front of the Supreme Court.

What I took away from this book is that allowing yourself to believe things that don’t make sense because they suit your sense of what should be right can be really, really dangerous. Something to remember when I’m tempted to keep defending something that sounds good and right which I think in my heart may not be true, which has happened more than I am proud to admit as I poke my head outside the ethics cyberbubble I was in in my teens. I feel like if everyone in this case had looked really hard at their evidence they would have been unable to avoid seeing that it was straight-up-and-down false. The central quote of the case–“Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” from the decision in this case written by the unbelievably Lawful Evil judge Oliver Wendell Holmes–is literally based on a lie, because the “third generation” he’s talking about was like a six-month-old baby and their evidence for her being an “imbecile” was a nurse saying she seemed, like, oh, I don’t know, somehow lethargic. That’s pretty goddamn scary.

Two-tined forks

At my university there’s a little gallery of materials that our art history professors have used to teach. Among the displays of potsherds and fabrics there’s also a couple of sets of cutlery.

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Count ’em. (This particular fork is 18th c. Scottish.)

(I feel bad skimming over the fabrics–they’re astonishing ikat blankets from fieldwork in Borneo. Weaving is called the “women’s warpath” in the area the cloths are from and cloth and wood are contrasted as feminine and masculine materials. Women dye the threads before they’re woven, thread by thread, and we’re talking cloths that would cover your wall. Then they can be used for lots of sacred purposes, including, lest one think that “warpath” is a cutesy euphemism, cradling the decapitated heads of enemies brought back by male warriors.)

But this is about cutlery. When I write, “Baron von Past picked up a fork,” I would assume that fork looks much like a fork I have in my house, except maybe it’s rougher and made out of wood. My mental image is actually one of those soft-tined, cutesy camping forks like maybe you could see laid beside a quinoa bowl in a lifestyle magazine. It definitely has three tines.

Nope. And why should it? Why shouldn’t it have four tines? Just because all my forks have three tines means nothing. Where did we even get that extra tine?

This seems like a big problem for writing historical fantasy. And especially writing historical fantasy for an era that’s never been in your cultural orbit, since odds get better and better that your assumptions are wrong the farther you stray from England circa 1800. I’m sure historians have written extensively about this but I’m no historian; I’ll hope to read some words from them later and respond to my own post with takeaways from the papers I review. But in the meantime, this comes up often enough to make a poor amateur stress about describing anything. For instance, I learned that hand fans are one of the objects associated with the òrìṣà Ọ̀ṣun (a spirit/goddess/entity/facet of the universe), and thoughtlessly started to doodle a paper folding fan. Nope!

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From the collection of the Met museum.

“Why is it metal?” I thought. Then, “….Why not?

I’m focusing a lot on objects because it’s so easy to contrast the assumption with the reality, but of course, the knottiest examples of this problem concern much more intangible things.When I write about Baron von Past’s marriage, I’ll probably be sharp enough to catch that “bride is dressed in white dress” is an assumption imposed by my understanding of marriage and have them exchange bracelets or something instead of rings. But this isn’t enough. The fantasy marriages I would write in this framework are just reskins of modern Western marriage. I may still carry a lot of assumptions about Western marriage into Baron von Past’s attitudes toward his marriage and his wife; about his wife’s attitudes toward him and their marriage; about what is acceptable within their marriage to their community and what isn’t; what they’ll do together, what they’ll do apart. When I started writing about marriage in Geometry of Ashes, I really didn’t recognize the extent to which marriage means something different in different cultures. And because nobody ever creates semantic networks of what they mean by “marriage” in books where they briefly discuss marriage, I’m still only scratching the surface and it’s difficult to articulate. Here’s two anecdotes from Igbo books I found very striking:

In Things Fall Apart, of course, Ekwefi remembers running away from her first husband to join Okonkwo. I’ll just repeat the passage; it’s on page 99.

She had married Anene because Okonkwo was too poor then to marry. Two years after her marriage to Anene she could bear it no longer and she ran away to Okonkwo. It had been early in the morning. The moon was shining. She was going to the stream to fetch water. Okonkwo’s house was on the way to the stream. She went in and knocked at his door and he came out. Even in those days he was not a man of many words. He just carried her into his bed and in the darkness began to feel around her waist for the loose end of her cloth.

I still haven’t close-read Things Fall Apart, so if there’s something I’m about to say that contradicts the wealth of scholarship, let me know. But here’s some assumptions I had made about marriage that this passage shows us are not true for Ekwefi:

  • Marriage is either forever or it takes a lot of work to break. I presume that Ekwefi went through some kind of divorce proceedings after this but apparently they weren’t arduous enough to make it into the text. (Imagine me writing the word “presume”, then looking back over my writing, sighing and putting my face in my hands.)
  • You wouldn’t marry somebody just to be married. Clearly there’s economic incentive for Ekwefi to marry Anene, but I think our Western assumption is that you would marry a rich man for his riches, not because you have to be married and he’s the best option. Marriage is something you opt into–even though implicit cultural pressure might suggest otherwise–not something you must have, like a job.
  • Taking a lover outside marriage demands secrecy. It’s not like women elsewhere in the book aren’t judged for supposedly having lovers outside their marriage, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem like Ekwefi is planning to have Okonkwo be her side guy. The pattern of extramarital sexual relations we’re used to in the West is of, like, an executive who’s banging his secretary and stringing his wife along. Rather than keeping a lover in secret, she just leaves her husband.

Here’s a second one: I don’t currently have a copy of Male Daughters, Female Husbands on me, but in it, Imi Amadiume explains that in the language under discussion (Nnobi Igbo dialect), the female slaves of a woman are called her “wives.” She clarifies that this relationship is probably not sexual. This is an interesting one because I actually suspect this ends up at pure synonymy, so I don’t want to draw strong conclusions from it. (Imagine if an Igbo blogger studying English-speaking cultures declared that because English men call their penises “cocks” they must have subliminal connections between penises and roosters that suggest they think their penis wakes people up at the break of day.) But, this case isn’t so absurd as that, and “wife” and “female slave” are at least the same category of thing (human women). So, similarly, although I assumed the following things, we can maybe think that for Nnobi Igbo speakers they are not necessarily intrinsic to marriage or at least for “wifehood”:

  • Marriage is an equal economic exchange between two families or an equal emotional exchange between two people. Elephant in the room: we can construe this synonymy as suggesting that wives are in a position of servitude to their husbands. This is anathema to any Westerner, but I keep coming back to thinking of marriage as labour. Maybe you have a boss who expects certain things from you, but in return, you expect certain things from him. You can be friendly with your boss, but he’s still your boss. You might think your boss is the best boss on earth, and sing his praises to all your friends, but he’s still your boss. In this case, your boss doesn’t pay you, but has responsibility to care for your well-being. And (coincidentally or not?) this is also the arrangement as far as I can tell in most West African traditional slavery. This isn’t to say any of that isn’t unjust, but boss-employee relations are still accepted by the majority of Westerners and really how just can we judge the average boss-employee relationship to be?
  • Marriage is a specific relationship, not a type of relationship. It doesn’t mean “a love relationship to another person.” It means this specific love relationship to another person. You wouldn’t say “I married my dog” even though you have a love relationship with your dog, live with your dog, and sleep in the same bed with your dog. But if we believe that the word for “female slave of a woman” and “wife” have a meaningful semantic relationship, which remember we aren’t convinced of, that means that “being a wife” is a category of relationships in this translation; “wife” is a category of people at one end of a power relationship.

Now imagine going through this process for every word and concept in your book and you start to understand why people might slap a new skin on Western marriage and call it a day. But maybe, like me, you’re insufferably pedantic, I said as I realized Ekwefi also calls a pre-dawn time morning, dragged my nails down my face, and highlighted each instance of “morning” over the last 200 pages of novel.