Friday, February 14, 2014

"Homo Sapiens 1900" gives a shocking history of eugenics

Homo Sapiens 1900”, by Peter Cohen, is a somewhat crude by shocking documentary from Sweden, produced in 1998 and released in 2000 by First Run Features, giving the world history of eugenics, which was a popular idea around the world through the prelude to World War II.  The Swedish version is narrated by Jan Holmquist, the English by Stephen Rappaport.
  
The concept was popular in the US, much if Europe, including Sweden, and particularly Russia and then the Soviet Union, even before it started to take hold in Germany in the 1920s. 
  
There was a certain mindset or mentality, that the biological future of the human race was more important, in a moral sense, than the individual.  The film often mentions the idea that love and reproduction need to be viewed separately: love is experienced by the individual, but procreation and reproduction belong to society.  The level of science at the time may have left room for this kind of thinking.  The ideology would transform into ideas that seem shocking, that is more wrong to save the life of someone deformed than to save it. 

 Books at the time, like “My Black Stork” reinforced the idea.

The film attributes much of the ideology of eugenics to Francis Galton (1822-1911). 

As racial ideology of Nazi Germany became better known in the 1930s, the Soviet Union changed its own view of the subject, eventually banning it.  The film has a curious and chilling shot of the interior of a Moscow subway then.

But after WWII, the idea that some people should not have children persisted in many democratic countries, especially Sweden.

The film points out a connection between eugenics and the collective future of a people or “folk”, in both communists and fascist perspectives;  the two totalitarian antagonists had both been able to exploit it.  The film mentions some famous artists who supported it, like composer Alexander Glazounov.

The film also points out the conflict with "family values".  In conservative societies, families are supposed to love and take care of their own people who are less fortunate by birth.  But that sort of feeling would run counter to the values of eugenics.

The evangelical right, to its credit, in more modern times has emphasized the value of every human life, as it fights abortion and euthanasia (sometimes, indirectly, even contraception).  But the "conservatives" of the past might have favored forced abortions, as they did with sterilizations.  Many states (including Virginia) had forced sterilization laws in the past.

Race has virtually nothing to do with capability for individual performance. But in general societies make different moral judgments for disability.  In most of history, many cultures have viewed individual ability as connected to some idea of an absolute moral worthiness.  The universe changes.  Even the 1950 World Book Encyclopedia says that World War II was fought over the idea that there should exist such a thing as a master race or master nation of a particular peoples. 
    
The film brought back memories of my own period of “therapy” at NIH in 1962, where therapists were quite concerned about the “meaning” of my sexual attractions, and a desire to impute a moral meaning to these thoughts and feelings.  What seemed to be at issue was my unwillingness to allow a relationship with someone who was not “perfect”, as if that would become a reflection on me.  When that sort of attitude occurs in a person who is publicly visible, it can come across as hostile to the idea of other people with various issues getting married and having children. 



The film is shot in small aspect, entirely in black and white, mostly with old footage. It embeds an old cartoon, “Mr. Hitler’s Blood Tonic”.

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