a litany on eugenics, population control, and virus rhetoric

the Eiffel Tower as seen from below, no people, only a pigeon, during Covid-19.
I don’t find empty cities beautiful, either. Giphy

There’s not a lot to be said about the virus bearing down on us. Some of us live in states or regions with governors or local governments that care. As an Illinoisan, I know not only that my governor cares but that each death weighs on him: I can see it in his face when he speaks. I also know the current president of this country my ancestors helped build doesn’t give a damn. I am not, for now, here to talk about policy failures, nor about naked fear. I’m not sure anyone wants to hear about mine anyway, since most of us are living with our own. (And I don’t recommend my coping strategies: working fourteen hours a day and forgetting meals isn’t a great idea.) Instead, I’m going to talk about some of the rhetoric I’ve seen floating around, and why I think it’s a lousy idea, pulling straight from the shameful annals of eugenics.

Crises tend to make us think of other crises, and it stands to reason that a lot of folks will be thinking, right now, about climate change, and about what differences to the earth this period of enforced quarantine will make. It is also true that periods of crisis beget other crises, from the Black Death1 to anti-Asian racism sweeping the United States (and beyond) right now. And so I guess it doesn’t exactly surprise me to see people saying that “people are the virus!” or that the Earth will now take revenge on all of us for being awful!!, but it does infuriate me. You see, this rhetoric comes straight out of the annals of eugenics and population control—and, of course, population control itself spins out from racism and sexism, and the belief that some people are more equal than other people.2

Some of the earliest proponents of limited immigration and population control (and stuff we would now call ecofascism) operated under the banner of environmentalism. It didn’t really end, either: as The Grist discusses, population control built on racism and xenophobia has been part of the environmental movement for a long, long time. The Grist true-names it, calling the ideology ecofascism. I’m grateful that they do so, but it is maddening, and frustrating, watching otherwise decent people engage in rhetoric pulled straight from the depths of eugenics and fascism. The United States has for years engaged in forced sterilization, largely of women of color but also of white women deemed mentally unfit. Nazi Germany was pretty into forced sterilization, too. Puerto Rican women were sterilized against their wills; Native women are sterilized still, in both Canada and the United States. An essential facet of being a reproductive rights advocate, as I am, is advocacy for the right of a person capable of becoming pregnant to bear children (or not), on their terms. That fundamental right is denied people of color and those deemed “unfit,” even now—and that virus rhetoric comes from the same well as forced sterilization.

There is no great equalizer in this country, nor probably even in this world. The wealthy sit in their palaces and complain about quarantine; the rest of us huddle in too-small spaces with walls growing closer, worrying about money for food or toilet paper. There is no equalizer, and death itself remains divided: Covid-19 strikes hardest at people of color, particularly Black Americans. My governor has spoken about the racial disparities of Covid-19, and of health and healthcare in the United States; Mayor Lightfoot in Chicago has spoken of it as well. The CDC, on the other hand, acknowledged nothing—until finally presenting limited data. We don’t need limited data. We need, as Governor Pritzker has done, to confront this racial disparity head-on, and to acknowledge its ugly, pernicious roots in American history and culture. We also need to remember, as we discuss this plague, that we are not all harmed equally: those on whom the burden of structural oppression sits the heaviest suffer the most.

The personal is political, and rhetoric is, too, no matter what we might mean of it. The rhetoric of humans as virus, of population control, of suffering because we have sinned, is a violent rhetoric, one built on the colonialist bones of eugenics and racist and classist sterilization. We have seen, certainly, that smog has lifted, that fat and cocky squirrels are trying to take over our cities, that pigeons waddle unconcerned. But our silent, sad cities are not a good thing, but a tragedy, the step we must take because other steps were not taken soon enough. We should argue for a better, less polluted world, but not this way, treading in eugenics and in hate. Let us advocate for better public transit, for more efficient cars, or cars that rely on other methods altogether. Let us always, always remember the importance of the human—and remember that, in times like this, those who have been structurally disenfranchised suffer worse. The violent rhetoric of humans as virus, of virus as punishment for sin, of Earth’s revenge, falls back on old and ugly tropes, just as do today’s waves of anti-Asian racism. We can, and must, do better.

1 Hate crimes swept Europe following the Black Death, too. (They largely targeted Jewish people, as discussed in these articles from from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Wikipedia, and Past & Present, hanging out on JSTOR.) So much for having evolved since then.

2 This riffs on the famous Animal Farm quote, of course: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. SparkNotes talks about it here as a chapter summary and here as a exploration of language use.

Selected Bibliography

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