Imbeciles by Adam Cohen, a book review by Jono McKeown

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (published by Penguin Press, New York 2016). A brief recommendation by Jono McKeown.

I heard Adam Cohen interviewed on Radio National a while back and was at once intrigued by the subject of his book – the shadowy history of American eugenics – but also impressed by the fact that when asked about his motivation for writing it he linked the endeavour explicitly to his Christian faith and vocation. I scrawled down the author’s name and the title of his book on a scrap of paper (while stopped at a set of lights) with the intention of ordering it on-line when I got home later that evening, but in the hurly burly of the day lost my note and it slipped my mind. Until one day, a couple of months later, while shopping in Gleebooks for a present for a friend, I came across it and was reminded. I bought it, took it home and it sat on one of my piles for a few months more before I got around to actually reading it, but once I’d embarked there was no looking back. It is a well written book and more compelling than many novels I’ve read (or started to read). The story of Carrie Buck is told in a series of biographical sketches of the key players and personalities that were decisive in her fate. Carrie was a humble, helpless, unfortunate young woman who was used as the “test case” culminating in Buck v. Bell and the Supreme Court ruling handed down in 1927 that “championed” the mass sterilization of undesirable citizens for the greater good of the country. (That’s right, 1927, before the Nazis gave eugenics a bad name.) Before doing this, however, her “people” (as she trustingly referred them on the one occasion she was invited to speak for herself in court) had to build a case that Carrie was a hereditary “mental defective” who would produce more “feebleminded” offspring which the state would have to support unless and end were put to it – that is, by state-sanctioned sterilization. The process of building this case entailed, among other highly dubious methods, being assessed by scientific experts of the day using the Binet-Simon intelligence test, as a result of which she was designated a “Middle grade Moron.”

What struck me most forcefully as I was reading was just how suasive ideologies can be, in this case Social Darwinism. From the beginning to the end of the story it was not unintelligent or uneducated people (though they were certainly ignorant) that were tempted and ultimately perverted by a ripening idea, it was the elite of American society: doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, academics. “The 8-1 ruling was signed by some of the most revered figures in American Law – including Chief Justice William Taft, a former U.S. president … Louis Brandeis, a progressive icon … [and] Oliver Wendell Holmes, considered by many the greatest Supreme Court justice in history.” Interestingly (although this was not over-stated in the book), the one and only dissenting voice to this ruling was a Catholic Christian. To see how ideological convictions perverted the highest legal court of justice in America was eye-opening to say the least. And the result was not just the sterilization of Carrie Buck for the good of the nation; seventy thousand other Americans were also sterilized as a consequence of that ruling before the horrors of German Nazism woke American justice from its moral and intellectual slumber.

This book gave me a better vantage from which to reflect more critically – not just on the contemporary (potential) forms of eugenics on offer (screening pre-natally for down’s syndrome and other “defects”, “designer” babies, our (medical) culture of abortion on demand, IVF, and euthanasia) – but on other ideologies that have taken possession of our own era and that make it virtually impossible for us to see anything other as possessing rational or moral plausibility, let alone validity or legitimacy: “gender theory” and its dogma of “gender fluidity”; “globalization” whose dogmatic buzz word is “economic growth”; even, dare I say, “feminism”. (To see, during the recent staging of the same-sex marriage “debate”, how even public institutions like the ABC can be hijacked by ideological agendas was a wake-up call to me.) Or most subtle of all (because most profound) is the Nietzschean-Heideggarian-Foucauldian ideological program of “deconstruction” which has all but succeeded in remaking categories like “true” and “good” and “beautiful” (to name just a few) into mere trophies of a will to power.

Imbeciles inspired me to be more vigilant and clear-sighted as a Christian. I closed the book feeling many things but above all proud (in a humbled kind of way) that it was a Christian, justice Pierce Butler, that had courageously dissented to the Supreme Court ruling, and that it was another Christian, Adam Cohen, that had bothered to do the painstaking work of research and writing to bring this secret history to light. That was how they served and, in so doing, bore witness to our Lord, Jesus Christ.

P.S. My holiday reading list: I am currently reading a book of short stories by Anton Chekhov About Love and Other Stories; The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics by David Bentley Hart; Birds: Poems by Judith Wright; and have just finished Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton. Next on my list is Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler.