I Care. Do You?

Warm up your coffee or grab a beer. I have a lot to share this week.

When I was a college sophomore in 1968, the New York Urban Coalition launched a ubiquitous campaign to encourage people to “Give A Damn.” Public service announcements flooded the airwaves. Spanky and Our Gang released a song by that title. (It’s worth a listen: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFwfe4Sjvmw) I still have the one-inch button that I pinned to my purse; today it hangs in my basement alongside Free Nelson Mandela and John Bowne Senior. In stark relief, we now have our First Lady wearing a jacket that says “I really don’t care, do u?” – and, maybe as much to the point, we have a company that sold the jacket in the first place. What does this say about us? Have we totally lost our sense of empathy – so much so that we wear our disinterest proudly on our backs?

As a first generation American, the child of Jewish parents who escaped Nazi Germany, I have long pondered the waves of xenophobia and tribalism that have infected various societies over the years. Today we see nations, including our own, turning to populist right-wing politicians who exclude and punish based on the concept of preserving their “culture.” Even in the United States, our President is ready to throw out due process, a quintessentially American safeguard designed to prevent governmental overreach, when it comes to those trying to cross our southern border. The language, tone and, increasingly, actions of these leaders is deeply disturbing and eerily reminiscent of Adolph Hitler who supposedly said If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed. Know anyone who adheres to that practice?

It hardly needs to be said that we have been here before – over and over again. Recently, at a presentation by attorney Marc D. Brown at McMenamin’s History Pub at the Kennedy School, I was reminded of a lesser-known chapter of America’s history of racism: eugenics. I have always connected eugenics to Hitler’s efforts to “improve” the human race by eliminating Jews and other presumably inferior races like Gypsies, but I had no idea that the Fuehrer credited America’s burgeoning eugenics movement for his inspiration. (For a great primer on eugenics, see http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/eugenics/2-origins For information on Oregon, check out www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/OR/OR.html)

At its inception, eugenics was science-driven, though it was a science still young, full of flaws, and, most tragically, easily manipulated to serve wrongheaded and nefarious ends. In America, so-called positive eugenics encouraged healthy, capable people of above-average intelligence to bear more children, with the idea of building an “improved” human race. In Oregon, Better Baby contests were held at the State Fair in Salem. (In 1913, Governor Oswald West presented the prize to Jane Kanzler, the perfect child of sturdy German stock.) Doctors measured head and body size the way ranchers assessed horses. After all, the idea of improving the gene pool seemed a logical enterprise after breeding fatter cows and creating hybrid fruit. Modern medicine had interfered with natural selection, so why not take it into our own hands to “improve” the evolution of humankind? Why not sterilize people known to be moral degenerates (read promiscuity and homosexuality), criminals, or feeble-minded inmates? Even epilepsy might disappear if epileptics weren’t allowed to reproduce.

As abhorrent and clearly ill-fated as this sounds to our modern ears, Brown reminded me how nuanced and complex history can be. In Oregon, one of eugenics’ chief promoters was Dr. Bethania Adair-Owens, the first woman in Oregon to become a physician, a respected suffragist and a progressive thinker. In her mind, it made genetic sense to be selective about “breeding” the human race for the “best” traits to better life for both the individual and society. Obviously, we now know that genetics dictate traits like eye color and height, but eugenicists also believed they would predict propensity for crime or even pauperism. Eugenics was taught at Harvard, Columbia and Brown universities. All across the nation, State Boards of Sterilization were formed. Sometimes they were challenged but they kept bouncing back in one form or another because they were considered medical practices not punishment. Your fate might be castration if you were found to be a repeated felon, a victim of poor ancestral circumstances, or addicted to sodomy. If you were a victim of sexual abuse, accused of promiscuity, or unfortunate enough to be In “Reform School,” your tubes could be tied. You get the idea. By the time Oregon ended the practice in 1983, over 2,600 people had been sterilized.

As if so-called positive eugenics isn’t bad enough, it didn’t take long for negative eugenics to gain traction with middle and upper income families who were worried that a wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe would take jobs, procreate like bunnies, and degenerate the race. Even Teddy Roosevelt, a president whom I admire on so many other fronts, warned that the failure of couples of Anglo-Saxon heritage to produce large families would lead to “race suicide.” Oh my. In 1924, the Immigration Act developed a national origins quota for immigrants, completely excluding all Asians. (Check out this NY Times archived 2009 article for a retrospective on immigration: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/featured_articles/20090413monday.html)

According to Mark Brown, the extremes of eugenics as practiced by Nazi Germany may have stirred America’s conscience to reexamine the practice of sterilization and its inhumane use as a tool of racism. Still, the laws persisted well into the 1970s. In 1983, the Oregon Legislature finally repealed the 1923 law that had established eugenics sterilizations as legal. In 2002, Governor John Kitzhaber made a formal apology.

The strange intersection of eugenics and immigration is a reminder that differences are often unwelcome by majority populations. Native Americans, African-Americans and Asians were the first to feel the hardships of our inhumanity. Later it was the Irish, Italians and Eastern European Jews. Last year our President was railing against Muslims. Today the spotlight is on Mexicans and Central Americans fleeing violence. It could be any one of us. Let us hope that we don’t need a reminder as extreme as the Holocaust to wake us up.

I am proud that a Portland-based clothing company owned by women has created a jacket with the message I Really Care, Don’t U? WildFang is donating all proceeds from these sales to the Texas nonprofit RAICES – The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. Already the company has raised over $250,000. The jackets sold out fast, but hoodies and tee-shirts are still available.

It’s time we heeded the words of philosopher George Santayan: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s time to exercise our empathy gene – and give a damn.