We humans have done some strange things throughout history, often in the name of good. Slavery is an obvious blunder and for the life of me I will never be able to fully comprehend how anyone at anytime was able to believe that owning another human being was not wrong. Indentured servitude was bad enough but at least my ancestors who found passage to America by binding themselves to a contract for their labor knew that they would one day be free once they had worked off their debt. Slavery is just so heinous and so much of history is replete with stories of conquered groups of humans being used to build cities and fortunes. It took Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt and Abraham Lincoln to do the same for African Americans in the United States.
We are appalled when we see the images of Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps. It seems as though a country that was as modern and refined as Germany would have reeled at the very thought of such horrific acts as those perpetrated on the Jews, gypsies, mentally ill, handicapped, and homosexuals who often died in those hell holes. Ironically it was not Hitler and his minions who first considered the idea of a master race free from all so called inferior people. The study of eugenics was a popular past time among progressives at the dawn of the twentieth century. There was a belief among some intellectuals that humanity was on the cusp of determining which traits were those of the strongest, healthiest, and brightest among us. Eugenicists hoped to one day be able to breed a race of humans virtually devoid of any weaknesses or defects. Margaret Sanger was not just a heroine of the birth control movement. Her work was inspired by the idea of limiting the numbers of the weakest among us. She once urged society to “weed out the Negro.” The poor, those with chronic diseases, and so on were considered to be prime candidates for population control. When Adolf Hitler took the ideas of the eugenics movement a bit too far the ideas mostly died and the history of those who had once espoused such things in the United States and Europe was quietly hidden away in the dustbin of time.
We’ve all heard of the diabolical Tuskagee experiment in which poor black sharecroppers with syphilis were studied over a period of years without ever being told about their disease. Instead they were tricked into thinking that they had a blood disease and that ordeals such as spinal taps were a benevolent form of treatment. Even when penicillin became an accepted way of curing the disease the participants in the study were never given the opportunity to receive the care that would have made them well. The cover up of this scandal along with the blatant disregard for the health of the unwitting men who were part of this study was egregious, especially considering that it lasted well into the nineteen seventies.
Today I read about a social experiment that took place in Greenland during the nineteen fifties that was seemingly based on good intentions but which was instead the result of gross ignorance and racism. After World War II some well meaning members of the Danish social services worried about the children of the native people of Greenland, a country which had been a Danish colony. Many of these children lived in poor conditions due to the poverty and lack of education of their parents. In an attempt to save some of the kids the teachers in Greenland were instructed to find the brightest who were also living in less than ideal conditions. Once these children were identified government workers convinced their parents to allow them to be sent to Denmark where they would have the opportunity to grow up in what were thought to be homes more conducive to positive development. One little girl was the child of a single mother who was struggling to care for her family after the death of her husband. The youngster was taken to Denmark and placed in the foster care of a doctor whose as it happened had a wife who spent most of her time in bed suffering from depression. The tyke was eventually moved to yet another family where life was better but she desperately missed her own mother. When it became apparent that the some of the children who had been brought to Denmark were not flourishing as well as had been expected many of them were returned to Greenland, not to be reunited with their real parents but to be sent to an orphanage where they were taught in the Danish language by a woman trained to turn them into so called model citizens. Many of the kids who participated in this ridiculous project of human engineering had always believed that their parents had given them away because they did not love them. When they were finally told the truth they were appalled and felt that their true identities had been stolen all in the name of making them “better people.”
I could go on and on and on with the countless stories of so called scientists and social scientists who have attempted to play god. They have over and over again demeaned people, cultures, religions, and beliefs that they did not choose to understand. Instead they thought that such individuals deserved to be eliminated, owned, or made over. Ironically the society at large often looked the other way when such travesties took place. The perpetrators cloaked their grand designs in language that made their motivations appear to be noble and all too often the citizenry simply played along.
I sometimes wonder what kinds of things that we do today will be considered to be malicious by future, more enlightened people. There are a number of things that bother me and I worry that so many are so willing to continue practices that under the microscope of deep analysis are somewhat barbaric. We answer heinous crimes by using death as a punishment. We tell women that they have a right to their own bodies while tearing out the life of fetuses from their wombs. We cast judgement upon gays and call them sinners as though we are capable of discerning what God thinks. We say little or nothing when we see ethnic cleansing taking place across the globe. We claim to be a society that values women and yet we are silent when we see women being abused and relegated to an almost slave like existence. Is this the way that so many of the travesties of history were allowed to exist longer than they should have? Is it fear or is it ignorance or is it indifference that creates and solidifies human tragedies?
There was a time when I naively believed that humankind was well on its way to evolving into ever more rational and compassionate beings. I saw random instances of cruelty as being anomalies in an ever improving society. Sometimes I begin to think that we are simply flawed and while we have souls who are brave enough to speak out when they see wrongs, the vast majority just want to be left alone to lead their lives. That is how tyrants manage to wield their power.
I suppose that rather than getting better by leaps and bonds the process is incremental and sometimes so slow that we can’t even see it happening until there appears to be a cataclysmic shift. Hopefully when we are judged by our descendants they will see evidence that we at least tried to right the wrongs that plague our world and that we attempted to defeat those who would harm the innocent. To keep our world from devolving we still need those “children” who point out the times when “the emperor has no clothes.”