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Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American…
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Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of… (original 2016; edition 2017)

by Adam Cohen (Author)

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2161190,938 (3.95)4
"One of America's great miscarriages of justice, the Supreme Court's infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling made government sterilization of "undesirable" citizens the law of the land New York Times bestselling author Adam Cohen tells the story in Imbeciles of one of the darkest moments in the American legal tradition: the Supreme Court's decision to champion eugenic sterilization for the greater good of the country. In 1927, when the nation was caught up in eugenic fervor, the justices allowed Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck, a perfectly normal young woman, for being an "imbecile." It is a story with many villains, from the superintendent of the Dickensian Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded who chose Carrie for sterilization to the former Missouri agriculture professor and Nazi sympathizer who was the nation's leading advocate for eugenic sterilization. But the most troubling actors of all were the eight Supreme Court justices who were in the majority--including William Howard Taft, the former president; Louis Brandeis, the legendary progressive; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., America's most esteemed justice, who wrote the decision urging the nation to embark on a program of mass eugenic sterilization"--… (more)
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Title:Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck
Authors:Adam Cohen (Author)
Info:Penguin Books (2017), Edition: Reprint, 416 pages
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Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (2016)

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This book is the history of eugenics in the United States, and in particular the story of a young woman named Carrie Buck that was labeled mentally deficient and given an hysterectomy with no evidence to support it. The immigration laws passed during this time also prevented Jewish from immigrating from Europe even though they were certain to die in concentration camps. This is a shameful history of the US based on white supremacy with no scientific evidence that certain races were feeble minded, morally deficient, or should not be allowed to reproduce. I know this went on as well on the US Indian reservations when the federal government was giving hysterectomies to young Native American women, as I have an elderly Native American friend that lived on the reservations when this was happening. ( )
  kerryp | Jul 4, 2020 |
A deeply humane and outrage-provoking book about a dark current in American history that is still with us. My only complaint is Cohen's unfathomable defense of Strode. In a book that rips into the villain's of Carrie Buck's life -- with Oliver Wendell Holmes getting some of the worst of it -- the treatment of Strode is strange. At every awful action he takes, Cohen is there to soften it. ( )
  ajdesasha | Nov 8, 2019 |
This book is a chronicle on an important but little known chapter of American history, the eugenics movement, which culminated with the Supreme Court decision known as Buck v. Bell. In that case, which stands to this day, the Supreme Court held that the involuntary sterilization of those deemed mentally deficient did not violate the equal protection clause or due process clause of the 14th amendment. Perhaps most chillingly, the case was cited by the Nazis during the post-war Nuremberg trials to justify their own crimes. While the subject is making a comeback in some recent literature, to my knowledge this is one of the few books written for the general public on the subject (for an intellectual history, abet a controversial one, of the Progressive Era with a focus on eugenics consider Illiberal Reformers by Thomas Leonard). That by itself entitles this book to a higher review than I would have given it otherwise.

Structurally the book is divided into mini-biographies of the main players in the case, Albert Priddy, the zealous reformist head of the hospital pushing to legalize involuntary sterilization in Virginia, Harry Laughlin the national reformer pushing for involuntary sterilization as a solution to the middle class racialized anxieties about immigrants and other undesirables, Aubrey Strode as the lawyer who drafted and litigated the statute that would legalize sterilization across the united states, Oliver Wendell Holmes the illustrious justice who wrote Buck v. Bell and Carrie Buck the ultimate victim of this injustice. While this format inevitably leads to some repetition, the book could have been more tightly edited as it was often repetitive even within the same chapter. Better editing would have improved the book by a lot.

A few general lessons that I draw out of the book. The first is that the eugenics movement was not a fringe movement at the time, it was incredibly pervasive throughout the American elite at the time. The book does a good job of showing how a broad the support for the movement was, from Alexander Bell, to Irving Fisher and leading intellectuals at the time. The book also does a good job of explaining that this support was often a barely disguised racialized animus against immigrants and the poor supported by junk science that purported to find hereditary causation for all the ills of the country (attributing to genetics what could easily be from environmental factors, intelligence tests that found 40-50% of immigrants were mentally deficient, and there was clear support from white supremacists). While other supporters thought eugenics was the logical extension of reforming spirit of the progressive movement to reduce suffering. The catholic church was the only organized opposition to the eugenics movement (the only dissenter in Buck v. Bell was the catholic Butler). The second lesson I took out of the book was the risk of the Supreme Court on legitimizing practices based off of thin factual records. The legal status of eugenics was always gray, while there were waves of statutes passed in various states, by the time of Buck v. Bell state supreme courts were striking down these statutes as violations of the 14th amendment. When Buck v. Bell was handed down, it not only bound state court's interpretations of the 14th amendment but legitimized the eugenics movement (until its credibility was destroyed by nazi practice, and resistance from the scientific community). What makes the case even more onerous was that it was a sham from the start, designed to put the Supreme Court's stamp of approval. Carrie Buck was chosen specifically because it was believed that she was the second generation of mentally deficient women, and was pregnant out of wedlock because of her poor moral character (an exemplar of the fear that reproduction of the poor would "flood" the American stock). Carrie's mother was allegedly mentally deficient, as was Carrie. Carrie's baby was judged to be mentally deficient as well, despite being a baby and not actually even tested using the flawed intelligence tests of the time. Later school records showed that Carrie's daughter performed normally in school. Carrie herself did averagely in school before being taken out of school by her foster parents to be a domestic servant. The scientist Steven Gould would later find Carrie as an old woman, who seemed of normal intelligence and neighbors regarded as very bright. In her old age, Carrie was known for enjoying cross word puzzles. Tragically, historical evidence suggests that Carrie was pregnant because she was raped by her foster parent's nephew. The foster parents sent her to a colony to get rid of the potential embarrassment that such a revelation would cause the family. However, none of this was revealed during the trial, which was set up to affirm the legal status of the VA statute. The book suggests that the trial was a setup, that both sides were working together to have Carrie sterilized. Carrie's defense lawyer did not introduce evidence of Carrie's adequate grades or cross examine obvious weaknesses in the case (a witness said Carrie's baby was mentally deficient because she looked strange, and expert witnesses botched simple concepts like Mendelian genetics). At the time, many sterilization laws were struck down as violations of equal protection by the lower courts, since only patients of colonies could be sterilized and not outsiders (the colonies were set up to take undesirables out of the population so they could not reproduce, but the amount of people and length of time advocates wanted to take out of society was prohibitively expensive. Sterilization was seen as a cheaper and more humane way to deal with the issue, sterilized undesirables could be released into the general population). The VA statute required sterilization to be for the good of society and the patient herself (the second requirement a relatively generous concession compared to other laws). Carrie's lawyer argued that if Carrie was let out of the colony she would become a fireship of venereal disease, infecting unsuspecting men. The case eventually went up to the Supreme Court, where Holmes wrote a 8-1 decision with the now famous line, three generation of imbeciles is enough, and that it did not violate Carrie's 14th amendment right to equal protection or due process to be sterilized. As a result Carrie was sterilized and tens of thousands of people lost the ability to have children.

As a law student, I found some of the more fascinating characters to be lawyers, from Strode, the drafter of the VA statute to the famous Justice Holmes. The book has an interesting take on Strode, who as a state legislator had the opportunity but did not support a eugenics law. Strode did not seem like an eugenics acolyte such Laughlin (who was instrumental in passing the immigration quota laws, and complied the legal materials on eugenics in a treatise along with a model statute) who sent "expert" evidence to the trial or Priddy. Strode drafted the statute limiting sterilization to a small set of undesirables (relative to many other state laws), and only to be executed once its constitutionality was established by the Supreme Court. Most interestingly, Strobe rejected Laughlin's treatise's advice to not limit sterilization to colony patients (state courts held that such a limitation violated equal protection, Strobe later made a "clearinghouse" argument of colonies that would hold the patients until sterilization and release, then it was possible for anyone to be sterilized). The book speculates if this was Strobe's effort to defeat his own law. However, ultimately Strobe defended the law up to the highest court of the land. The character sketch on Holmes is interesting but not novel, most of the material seems to come out of Law Without Values and the White monograph on Holmes, which are both critical of Holmes. Unfortunately for Carrie, Holmes was an elitist from birth (part of the Boston Braham), who believed in an amoral power-oriented politics. While Holmes was lauded as Progressive, Holmes actually believed in a dark social Darwinism, where the strong who managed to capture the legislature deserved to rule. Holmes's philosophy of deference to majoritarian legislatures happened to coincide with the progressive attempts to use the legislatures to pass reform, though Holmes was probably not sympathetic to the actual causes outside of his famous dissents in freedom of expression cases. While Holmes generally was not a supporter of causes (the Civil War seemed to destroy his idealism), eugenics fit his philosophy in hereditary causes and the survival of the fittest. Holmes took real "pleasure" in writing Buck v. Bell according his letters.

The book notes that social Darwinism actually preceded Darwin's theory of natural selection. Darwin recognized that while nature rooted out the weak, it would be against man's better instinct to let the vulnerable perish. Unfortunately, purporting to follow Darwin's science, the luminaries of the progressive age forgot Darwin's warning. ( )
  vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
http://tinyurl.com/ybayl9vo

Oh, for heavens sake. This is such an important topic, and unfortunately it's mired down by either the author's and/or the editor's inability to recognize the bizarre repetitive nature of the writing. It makes reading this quite a slog. (Or very easy if you like skimming.)

So, here are the take-aways (seriously, this book could have been an article...):

1. Be extremely wary of our legal system, especially the supreme courts (of our nation and our states). It isn't necessarily going to help the underdog. In fact, time and time again it doesn't do that as a matter of course. Rely on some other system(s) to do that work.

2. Just don't ever use the phrase "feeble-minded". Regardless of the fact that it isn't anywhere near a scientific term, it sounds utterly ridiculous. Even "imbecile" and "moron" are better than that.

3. We helped the Nazis because of our nation's pro-eugenic stance. I think that's enough said about that.

4. Oliver Wendell Holmes is not the man you thought he was. He imbued the essence of judicial passivity, so you can figure it out from there.

5. And, lastly, so that you leave feeling worse than when you started this review, the original law allowing sterilization of "feeble-minded" people is still on the Supreme Court rolls. Meaning, someone could actually use it in this day and age. And you all know what this age is turning into, so beware. ( )
  khage | Aug 21, 2018 |
From a historical perspective, this is an excellent book. It extensively details the US Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell. The book discusses a very, very shameful period in the United States and Europe. The only complaint I have about it is that I think the author includes a vast number of details about individuals, perhaps not all of which were necessary, and inclusion of which led to an authoritative piece longer than I think was needed to provide sufficient knowledge of the case.

I was somewhat familiar with the concept of eugenics – i.e., selectively sterilizing, legally, certain people that the elites believed would be likely to pass on inferior genes/traits to their offspring. By doing so, the “science” of eugenics held that society would be improved overall, and eventually “cleansed” of the so-called feeble-minded, imbeciles, morons, idiots, and other undesirables. Unfortunately, there was no “science” that supported it. The “intelligence” tests used to determine who should be sterilized were not scientifically valid.

This book covers the movement leading up to the US Supreme Court’s finding in Buck v. Bell that involuntary, legal sterilization of the “undesirables” under Virginia’s law could proceed. Many states had similar laws, leading to an estimated 60-70,000 involuntary, legal sterilizations nationwide from the early 20th century until the 1970s, many of which occurred without the sterilized individuals ever being informed of what was being done to them (many of which would never find out, or perhaps much later in life learn why they could not succeed at having children).

It is astounding the names of individuals and institutions that come up as supporters of the concept of eugenics…Oliver Wendell Holmes (“Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”), former President William Howard Taft, Harlan Fiske Stone, Teddy Roosevelt, W. E. B. Dubois (“only fit blacks should procreate to eradicate the race's heritage of moral iniquity.”), J. H. Kellogg (yes that Kellogg), Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, and the U. S. Academic community (in 1928, there were 376 university courses that included eugenics in the curriculum), to name a few.

In addition, the US eugenics movement was used by Nazi Germany as much of that country’s basis for their racial restriction laws and ultimate slaughter of millions (although at first Nazi Germany’s laws led to involuntary sterilization, the numbers of these done were minuscule compared to the exterminations carried out).

Although one might think that the eugenics movement is dead and gone, the author properly points out that it simply lies below the surface of our culture and others around the world, not specifically resulting in involuntary sterilizations. Understanding of the human genome might lead society to consider “designer” children, gene splicing, gene replacement or other processes to “eliminate” undesirable traits in offspring. I think the author correctly does not argue the morality of such decisions or science, but he does imply that if not properly controlled, such knowledge might lead to involuntary selective processes in these areas. ( )
  highlander6022 | Mar 30, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
An unsuspecting innocent, an ambitious country doctor, a nation briefly infatuated with a despicable ideology — these would all seem to be the elements of a captivating narrative. Yet “Imbeciles” is often a boggy read, and a disorganized one at that. Mr. Cohen, now a senior writer at Time magazine, repeats himself early and often, which suggests that the basic outline of a propulsive story eluded him. (Strange, given that he’s written brisk, readable narratives before, including “Nothing to Fear” and “The Perfect Store.”) He takes the reader down a couple of biographical sinkholes, giving us pages of back stories when a simple paragraph would have done the trick.

Most crucially, he writes as if he’s retrying Buck v. Bell. But we already know the decision was an egregious miscarriage of justice — it was the unenlightened product of an unenlightened time. And the case itself was unsuspenseful. The fix was in from the start.
 
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Professing to be wise, they became fools . . .  
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(Introduction) On May 2, 2002, the governor of Virginia offered a "sincere apology" for his state's "participation in eugenics."
In early 1924 Carrie Buck, a dark-haired seventeen-year-old girl with a tomboy spirit, was living with a foster family in downtiwn Charlottesville, Virginia.
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"One of America's great miscarriages of justice, the Supreme Court's infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling made government sterilization of "undesirable" citizens the law of the land New York Times bestselling author Adam Cohen tells the story in Imbeciles of one of the darkest moments in the American legal tradition: the Supreme Court's decision to champion eugenic sterilization for the greater good of the country. In 1927, when the nation was caught up in eugenic fervor, the justices allowed Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck, a perfectly normal young woman, for being an "imbecile." It is a story with many villains, from the superintendent of the Dickensian Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded who chose Carrie for sterilization to the former Missouri agriculture professor and Nazi sympathizer who was the nation's leading advocate for eugenic sterilization. But the most troubling actors of all were the eight Supreme Court justices who were in the majority--including William Howard Taft, the former president; Louis Brandeis, the legendary progressive; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., America's most esteemed justice, who wrote the decision urging the nation to embark on a program of mass eugenic sterilization"--

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