I love Georgia…It’s one of the most beautiful states in the union. I first tagged along with my mom on a business trip to Atlanta in about 1987…I remember Peachtree Plaza, watching Dominique Wilkins and the Hawks beat the San Antonio Spurs, and a steak dinner fit for a king. Since then, I’ve been back many times, and spent lengthy periods in the late-90s exploring the meandering banks of the Chattahoochee River around Atlanta while visiting. I’ve seen most of the state, from the Smoky Mountains in the upcountry north to the beautiful squares and gardens (and Oglethorpes…) of the coastal low country in Savannah and environs.
All this to say I appreciate the subtleties and varieties of the southern experience. I’m no southerner, mind you, but I understand the sense of history and nostalgia that pervades this part of the U.S., despite ill-conceived tangents…
It thus comes as a pleasant surprise that the Georgia state legislature has decided to debate the idea of an apology for the eugenic sterilization programs carried out there in the interwar years. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has a piece about it here. There’s also an op-ed in the Macon Telegraph that makes a simple, but thoroughly worthwhile, point. The history of eugenics is something I know a bit about — to me the whole idea of its past popularity symbolizes the most misguided and hubristic aspects of state-sanctioned science and its human costs.
Eugenics was a widespread phenomena in the west (and beyond…countries like Brazil had eugenics programs, too — partly in an effort to emulate the progress-loving west), and its history in the deep south is well documented in Edward J. Larson’s Sex, Race and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). More general introductions can be found in the work of Daniel J. Kevles, and Stephen Jay Gould talks about eugenics in his classic The Mismeasure of Man. They’re all worth a look.
In the end it doesn’t really matter whether the legislature apologizes or not (apologies for historical injustices have limited meaning anyway, and are too often thinly veiled publicity stunts…) — the mere fact of it being made an issue and placed into the mainstream public sphere is an accomplishment. Sure, there may be conflicting reasons for doing so (heck, perhaps the right to life people are driving it…), but if the end result is a few more people aware of and perhaps even vigilant about the often dangerous relationship between science and the state, then so much the better. I think that’s just peachy.