In the United States where symbols are so often monolithic it’s easy to ignore how ghastly a statue is because oppressive emblems are commonly believed to be unremarkable. Still there comes a time when some monuments can’t be blinked away. Let’s take Margaret Sanger for example.
Sanger was was a eugenicist. She was an “equal opportunity” eugenicist as she believed people of color and the disabled should not be born. Today she’s mostly remembered as a champion for women’s reproductive rights but make no mistake: she wanted to prevent black births and eliminate the disabled.
Still a bust of Sanger is proudly on display at the National Portrait Gallery alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. I think it is fair to say that if Sanger had had her way neither King or Parks would’ve been born. Certainly she’d have voted against the birth of any disabled child. I’m a member of that group, blind since birth.
The National Portrait Gallery does have a sign mentioning Sanger’s work with eugenics. This puts the gallery’s curators a step ahead of the defenders of confederate statues, most of whom want untroubled devotion to a vicious past. Sanger’s bust stands on its pedestal warts and all. Isn’t that enough?
Perhaps. Maybe we should simply put cautionary footnotes on all our nation’s offensive monuments.
Yet I don’t think Sanger should be in the gallery at all. She actively advocated for the deaths of minorities. This is a litmus test: in life did you stand for human dignity and equality or not? Sanger fought for the rights of women to have control over their reproductive lives. She’s heroic for that. Until one admits she wanted some people in the lifeboats and not others.
I say she’s a vile figure. She lectured to the KKK. That’s a second litmus test. Anyone who spent her or his time in the vicinity of a burning cross deserves lasting condemnation.
The full history of eugenics in the United States is still being uncovered. The Carnegie Foundation, J.H. Kellogg, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Leland Stanford, all promoted theories of racial superiority and advocated for eliminating certain minorities.
Some statues are horrific. They belong in an atrocity museum and not in places of customary veneration. Certainly Margaret Sanger doesn’t belong in the same room with Rosa Parks and Dr. King.
Last week I wrote the following on this blog about journalist Chris Hedges’ post on Truthdig concerning the decision by paralyzed veteran Tomas Young to end his life–a decision that Hedges doesn’t question and which is being spread across news outlets without interrogation. That a depressed, disillusioned, and paralyzed veteran would chose to end his life seems “right” to liberal commentators because in point of fact they haven’t examined their assumptions about disability and the actual living of disability lives:
“The facts are otherwise as disability activists convincingly demonstrate. Has anyone given Tomas Young some useful books on living as a quad? One wonders if he’s read Nancy Mairs’ incomparable memoir “Waist High in the World” or if he’s encountered the amazing artistic work of Neil Marcus. One also imagines the answer is no. What is clear is that Chris Hedges is using the language of religious sacrifice as an altogether easy analect–that is, he critiques the moral condition of the American people using Young’s condition as metaphor, a thing that is detestable though not unsurprising for many liberals are no more adept with disability culture than they are with nano-flowers. Let’s just say that Hedges’ use of Christian metaphors of sacrifice depends upon hideous sentimentality and the unexamined dialectic of valued bodies vs. devalued bodies, a position that’s essentially neo-Victorian and largely uncivilized.”
I read this morning a new piece by Nick Wing over at the Huffington Post which repackages Hedges’ narrative frame, again without any critical irony. What seems to be emerging is a liberal cheering section for a veteran’s suicide, tricked out in the language of outrage against America’s war in Iraq. Fair enough: I belong to Poets Against War and have been opposed to American military interventions since Viet Nam–but I don’t have to kill myself in a glass box to make my point. Tomas Young is being rooted for–cheered to turn himself into a sacrificial martyr in a Kafka-esque display. Why is this okay? Why are people not lining up to tell Young that a paralyzed but imaginative life is fully worth living?
It can’t be that the spirit of eugenics has reared its head can it? It wouldn’t be the case that the recent state sanctioned euthanizing of blind-deaf twins in Belgium (whose deaths were wholly unnecessary) represents a failure of the western cultural imagination to conceive of disabled lives as noble lives? I phrase the matter in rhetorical terms not because I think I know the answer but because I’m afraid I might know. The giveaway is the fealty of pathos in the posts by Hedges and Wing, who both essentially frame Young’s imminent death as inevitable, which is to say they imagine his terminus as a dark mercy. In turn, they see the flames of his funeral pyre lighting the faces of Cheney and Bush. Instead what’s being illuminated is a crowd of bleacher bums cheering for a man to end it all–a man who would be better off alive, as, in fact he has lots to live for if only he and his posse could imagine it. In the meantime I’m chilled by the ample evidence that people think Young has made the right choice. Shame on Truthdig. Shame on Huffpost.