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Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Fight Card: Jane Harris Zsovan vs. It Couldn’t Happen Here - O'Leary


When social Darwinism hit Alberta, some of the episodes could have come from a sci-fi novel about human breeding programs. That’s what we learn from member Jane Harris Zsovan’s new book, Eugenics and the Firewall: Canada’s nasty little secret. The nasty little secret is out, it seems, and the firewall has been breached.





(Photo captions: Jane Harris Zsovan, left; Denyse O'Leary, right)

Eugenics (killing or sterilizing people to improve the human breeding stock) is not new. It happened in the United States too, and was much worse in Africa. But many are surprised to know it happened in Canada.

Lethbridge-based Harris-Zsovan pored over a mountain of yellowed newspaper clippings at the nearby Galt Museum’s archives, among other things, to ferret out the details of the story.

One is struck by two things: the intensity of Alberta’s sterilization program, and the fact that prominent evangelicals were involved. That could be one reason why the story is not often told ...

I was heartened by Harris Zsovan’s book, because it is a primary contribution to public awareness of the huge breach of our traditional ethics that eugenic sterilization entailed. And it pulls no punches. Most books on current social history coming out of the Christian community are jeremiads, scholarly reflections, defenses of Christ or Christians, etc. Good and useful, to be sure, but working with others’ facts. Without gathering our own facts, we are at the mercy of those who withhold some critical ones. That certainly happened in this case.

The duty roster put me down for blogging today and, alas, I’m only part way through Firewall. But, given that I have already learned that “Bible So-and-So’s” removed the need for consent for sterilization, the book sure won’t get less interesting.

This for now: In my view, as a community, we tend to either avoid issues or adopt someone else’s voice when talking about them. For example, too many Christian projects for the relief of poverty morph into socialism - the comforting arms of Big Government replaces the comforting arms of a Christian community. But that problem is related to the problem I opened with - a problem that Harris Zsovan ably avoids - we don’t do enough of our own research, so we can’t grow our own vision.

The Alberta Christian support for forced sterilization is a case in point: Why on earth did anyone think that social Darwinism was a reasonable fit with Christianity? It can’t be, and the original social Darwinists were hostile to Christianity for precisely that reason. But, of course, some social Darwinists ingratiated themselves with Christians to gain influence for their policies.

Generally, Christians depended on social Darwinists to do the primary research about the lives of the poor, and then reacted to their carefully staged* horror stories out of sentiment and zeal rather than information and reflection.

Well, congratulations to Jane for a long step in the right direction for all of us.

carefully staged* horror stories?: In the famous American Buck v. Bell case, the early teen girl who was sterilized was labelled an imbecile by a famous Supreme Court judge. But the evidence is mixed, at best. Let’s just say that the social Darwinists needed an imbecile, or someone to stand in for one, to get the court judgment that later resulted in 60 000 such sterilizations.

Here’s an excerpt from Firewall. Order here.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain, and the author of By Design or by Chance?.

2 comments:

Peter Black said...

Denyse,
Thank you again for bringing out nuances of understanding that others of us (certainly, speaking for myself) would otherwise not have. It's also nice to see your encouraging support for our colleague, Jane's work.

Glynis said...

Fascinating - shockingly so!