Saturday, July 16, 2016

Biopower: poor whites in the US and eugenics

From Thomas Sugrue's review (NYT, June 26, 2016) of Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

She argues that British colonizers saw their North American empire as a place to dump their human waste: the idle, indigent and criminal...

In the book’s most ingenious passages, Isenberg offers a catalog of the insulting terms well-off Americans used to denigrate their economic inferiors. In 17th-century Virginia, critics of rebellious indentured servants denounced them as society’s “offscourings,” a term for fecal matter. A hundred years later, elites railed against the “useless lubbers” of “Poor Carolina,” a place she calls the “first white trash colony.” In the early 19th century, landowners described the landless rural poor as boisterous, foolish “crackers” and idle, vagabond “squatters”...

By the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, Isenberg shows, crude caricatures gave way to seemingly scientific explanations of lower-class status. “Class was congenital,” she writes, summarizing a mid-19th-century view of poor whites. One writer highlighted the “runtish forefathers” and “consumptive parents” who birthed a “notorious race” of inferior white people. Essayists described human differences by borrowing terminology from specialists in animal husbandry. Just as dogs could be distinguished by their breeds and horses distinguished from mules, so could people be characterized as superior or inferior based on their physical traits.

By the late 19th century, some writers used family genealogies to trace the roots of criminality, illness and insanity, and warn of the dangers of “degeneration.” By the early 20th century, armed with increasingly sophisticated statistical tools and new understandings of genetics, eugenicists offered the most chilling of responses to poor whites: They argued that the state should use its power to keep them from reproducing. Those arguments shaped one of the Supreme Court’s most notorious decisions, Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the court, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing for the majority, upheld a Virginia sterilization program to prevent “generations of imbeciles” from proliferating and thus to keep the nation from being “swamped with incompetence.”

The story of eugenics offers an example of the ways that, throughout the American past, questions of class status have been entangled with notions of racial inferiority. Isenberg makes a strong case that one of the most common ways of stigmatizing poor people was to question their racial identity. Backcountry vagabonds were often compared unfavorably with the “savage,” nomadic Indian. Sun-browned tenant farmers faced derision for their less-than-white appearance. After the emancipation of slaves, politicians warned of the rise of a “mongrel” nation, fearful that white bloodlines would be contaminated by blacks, a process that might expand the ranks of “trash” people.

(Sugrue also makes this critique of the book: "a history of class in America that assumes its whiteness and relegates the nonwhite poor to the backstage is one that misses the fundamental reality of economic inequality in American history, that race and class were — and are — fundamentally entwined.")

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Reproduction, marriage and the Constitution

Excellent article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker, May 25, 2015.

The Constitution never mentions sex, marriage, or reproduction. This is because the political order that the Constitution established was a fraternity of free men who, believing themselves to have been created equal, consented to be governed. Women did not and could not give their consent: they were neither free nor equal. Rule over women lay entirely outside a Lockean social contract in a relationship not of liberty and equality but of confinement and subjugation. As Mary Astell wondered, in 1706, “If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?” Essentially, the Constitution is inadequate. It speaks directly only to the sort of people who were enfranchised in 1787; the rest of us are left to make arguments by amendment and, failing that, by indirection.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

50 Essential Feminist Films

I've seen a few of these, so this is an aspirational list for me. Maybe it could be for you, too. Courtesy Flavorwire.

One that I have seen and really love is: Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy (#26).

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Family Guy: Sperm and Egg

Key phrases: “Every potential man for himself,” and “reaching the target objective thanks got the perilous intrepidity I developed at testicular boot camp.” The first minute of the clip has it all.

Friday, December 27, 2013

George Gilder on the nanny state

(Actually, he calls it "the compassionate state.")

Man is “cuckolded by the compassionate state”; the government usurps his age-old role [as provider], which is why “welfare now erodes work and family and thus keeps poor people poor.” When women are less dependent on men, men no longer benefit from women’s civilizing powers, and all hell breaks loose: “Because female sexuality, as it evolved over the millennia, is psychologically rooted in the bearing and nurturing of children, women have long horizons within their very bodies, glimpses of eternity within their wombs.” 

From Gilder's Wealth and Poverty, published 1981, a Book of the Month Club pick, and widely influential. (As quoted in Jennifer Szalai, "Just Deserts," The Nation, December 9, 2013.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Zach Howe: Against Being Born This Way

 Full title of Howe's column on Blunderbuss is: "I’m Queer & So Are You: Against Being Born This Way." An excerpt:

What a travesty we have made of a movement for sexual liberation! By refusing to question our sexuality—I was born this way, now leave me alone!—queers are often just as resistant to deviance as the straights we’re supposedly freeing ourselves from. Gay men talk a lot about our sexual development—when did you come out, what did your parents say, did you ever sleep with a woman? Countless men, learning that I have not only slept with a woman but was desperately in love with one for four years, have challenged me to prove I’m really gay—when was the last time you slept with a woman? Are you still into that? You’re not like bi are you?

Listen to yourselves. You sound like straight people.