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Eugenics in the Pop Culture Imagination


Domenic Powell • Jun 06, 2013

For the most part, the summer blockbuster movie season is about diversion, getting out and enjoying some computer-generated explosions, surround-sound and comfortingly familiar story arcs. What we don’t expect is to get a keenly delivered run-down of twentieth century American eugenics, but that’s what we have in the closely timed releases of The Great Gatsby and Star Trek: Into Darkness.

The Great Gatsby gives us a glimpse into some of the intellectual justifications of the rich and powerful for their own superiority during the early twentieth century. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, at the height of the American eugenics movement, and scientific racism was very much en vogue among the nation’s elite. The United States had passed the Immigration Restriction Act the year prior with the extensive testimony of Harry Laughlin, the first president of the Pioneer Fund and director of the Eugenics Record Office—two projects toward advancing racial superiority.

“Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?” Tom Buchanan asks, in a subtle allusion to the 1920 publication The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy by Lothrop Stoddard. As a staunch advocate of immigration restriction and popular among America’s elite, Stoddard’s beliefs would be heavily influential in the crafting of the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act. “The influx of much lower elements into civilized societies is an unmitigated disaster,” Stoddard said in his 1922 book The Revolt against Civilization.

Lothrop Stoddard, and eugenics in general, became more socially taboo after World War II, for obvious reasons. Although it would not be entirely out of our own legal system until the 1970s (some would argue that it continues today), eugenics, particularly the “negative” eugenics involved in eliminating people from the gene pool was no longer a socially acceptable position.

Star Trek: Into Darkness, carries with it reservations about the possible future social conflicts driven by a “positive” form of eugenics: genetic engineering. Into Darkness is a careful reimagining of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), in the alternative timeline crafted by JJ Abrams. The malevolent Khan Noonien Singh, the villain of both films, is determined to destroy all inferior life. Khan first appeared in the 1967 “Space Seed” episode of Star Trek: the Original Series to a mid-century American audience closer to the consequences of notions of racial superiority. In the Star Trek future-history, Khan was a dictator, at one point controlling a quarter of the Earth, who was deposed in a worldwide conflict known as the Eugenics Wars that took place in the 1990s. Later revealed by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, genetic engineering is eventually outlawed in order to avoid another genocide.

While these two films give us an opportunity to ponder the influence of eugenics on the twentieth century, more than anything it should encourage us to be vigilant about its influence on the twenty-first (or even the twenty-third or  -fourth).  As the Center for New Community uncovered in the Quinacrine Report, we may very well be in a fight against another generation of eugenicists, even as some states continue to struggle with the consequences of the previous one.  Eugenicists continue to have a hazardous influence on our immigration system, just as they did in the 1920s.

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