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Ordover's American Eugenics


American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism.

Ordover, Nancy. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 240 p., $18.95, hardcover. ISBN: 0816635595.

Even Bogus Science Has Political Consequences

Markus Rheindorf

<1> Nancy Ordover's American Eugenics is a very personal book, not so much in terms of its content, but because of the convictions and a deep-felt sense of injustice that have inspired it. And while the author is straightforward in acknowledging her personal motivations, this is not to suggest that American Eugenics ever lapses into personal anecdote or polemic; far from it, the book is a serious and tightly argued attempt to grasp, in Ordover's words "the resiliency of this often discredited but never dormant philosophy" (xvi). In order to do this, Ordover goes on to argue in her introduction as well as throughout the book, is to understand the consolidation of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation not only as critical categories but as weapons used by the pseudo-science of eugenics. Ordover is thus looking for both the inclusive and exclusive strategies employed by eugenics throughout its history - some of which were successfully marketed as "progressive" or "liberal" - such as IQ tests, the right to abortion, and immigration restriction.

<2> While Ordover focuses on the twentieth century up until the present, the starting point of her account is the cultural climate and legislation of nineteenth-century America. The range of her material therefore covers both the pages of eugenicist journals and the floor of the U.S. Congress, where eugenicists had and, in various guises, continue to have considerable influence. It is the evolving and increasingly technical matrix of charts, test results, surveys, and computations that eugenicists have brought to the fore which has allowed eugenics to persist when, in the late 1930s, the Third Reich made eugenics an ugly word. Later consolidations of scientific language and method, so Ordover, have allowed eugenics to survive up into the present-day world of the Human Genome Project and other genetic research endeavours. And in this lies Ordover's major contribution: to look behind the regimes of truth that have allowed eugenic thinking to mask itself from the public and insinuate itself into progressive, even feminist, agendas.

<3> This ability to converge with other trajectories is what the author means when she calls eugenics a hydra-like "scavenger ideology." In the course of the twentieth century, eugenics has proven to be an extremely nimble ideology that cannot by isolated from the movements and policies which, though their proponents may be quite unaware of it, have bolstered it: nationalism, reform-oriented liberalism, homophobia, white supremacy, misogyny, and racism. It is these covert confederacies, so Ordover argues, that have allowed eugenics to survive and flourish time and again. Uncovering these is therefore her main objective in writing American Eugenics.

<4> American Eugenics is organized into three sections, which, at least in theory, could be read independent from each other. However, since it is the large scale connections, influences, and alliances that Ordover is really after, important aspects of her general argument are fully comprehensible only if followed throughout their development in the course of the entire book.

<5> The first section on "National Hygiene: Twentieth Century Immigration and the Eugenics Lobby" focuses on anti-immigration movements in the United States. As might be expected, anti-immigration legislation is an area to which eugenicists have devoted much energy and in which they have also achieved considerable successes. In the service of such movements as nativism and white supremacy, eugenicist arguments have been the key factor in drafting U.S. immigration laws for the better part of the century.

<6> The second section tackles the subject of "Queer Anatomy: One Hundred Years of Diagnosis, Dissection, and Political Strategy," relating it to the ideology of "national hygiene" delineated in the first section. Ordover presents the often chilling facts of a hundred years of medical models and interventions imposed on lesbians, gays, transgendered people and bisexuals, highlighting the danger posed by a consolidation of medical and judicial discourse. Since the queer community has embraced the notion of the "gay gene" as a libratory concept to sometimes disastrous results, Ordover argues, it is becoming increasingly difficult to detect a eugenics operating under the guise of libratory biologism. In any event, Ordover's warning call to the queer community is clear: predicating civil rights on anatomy or genetics remains a risky strategy and one which, once established, is easily used against marginalized peoples.

<7> Moving to even trickier terrain, the third section on "Sterilization and Beyond: The Liberal Appeal of the Technofix" examines the ways in which eugenicists have been able to influence and shape policy outside of the political right. Liberal voices, so Ordover's argument, have been among the loudest praising eugenicist undertakings, especially mandatory sterilization policies. This seemingly paradoxical alliance between eugenicists and liberals was brought about by liberalism's elevation of the individual and the reliance on what the author refers to as the "technofix" - the mistaken belief that easy technological "fixes" can replace more basic social change. Ordover documents many of the cases in which the "elimination of the unfit" by means of sterilization has been directed against a number of marginalized peoples in the United States of America: Native American peoples, Chicanas, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. As programs such as Norplant and Depo-Provera continue to target population centres, it is not solely ethnicity which determines who will be viewed as unworthy of procreation; nearly always, class determines who falls easily to economic coercion. Ordover's criticism of liberal organizations, including some liberal feminist organizations, is quite explicit: to refuse to oppose practices that constitute population control policies and state-sponsored assaults on poor women and girls of colour, even as they espouse reproductive "choice."

<8> Though well-argued for the most part, Ordover's account of eugenics' longevity and many influences sometimes becomes a list of particular facts and dates: legislation passed, speeches delivered, studies published, etc. At times, the connection between all these pieces in the eugenics puzzle assembled by Ordover remains rather implicit. Her remarkable achievement notwithstanding, Ordover's failure to explicitly establish, in some parts of her book, the connections between individual events is the book's main weakness. Indeed, Ordover seems to lack the kind of conceptual framework that would allow her to bind together the disparate material she draws on - theories of articulation or Deleuzean rhizomatics spring to mind - to make clearly visible the lines of connection that remain implicit where no factual evidence could be found. This goes hand in hand with the book's general disregard for theory, which may, in part, be due to its broad addressivity and general appeal. Judging from her occasional references to Foucault, it's a compromise Ordover seems to have reached in writing the book. And, considering the overall merit of this concise historical overview, it's a compromise I was happy to live with while reading it.