Blowback: Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Not Enough

A talk by Mark Willis (2006)

The term “blowback” originated inside the C.I.A. as a euphemism for the unexpected consequences of geopolitical events in which the C.I.A. had a hand. They intended to keep it as technical jargon for use only inside the company, but the word blew back on them in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Blowback gained traction in the foreign policy community in 2000 when the Asia specialist Chalmers Johnson made it the title of a book about American empire. Since September 11, 2001, blowback has become a pop culture buzzword for many kinds of events which no longer seem to be under our control.

The concept should be obvious, and you can think of it in terms of policy wonks reverse-engineering the Golden Rule. Chalmers Johnson suggested it to be as simple as the proverb, reap what you sow. Blowback sounds like one of Newton’s law’s of physics – for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction – but it cannot be fitted into that neat a formula. We don’t perceive much Newtonian order anymore. We see asymmetrical power relations wherever we turn. Even the U.S. military, after trillions of dollars spent on high-tech weapons acquisition, needs to retool for asymmetrical warfare.

In this talk I want to apply the idea of blowback to language itself. I will explore how single words in apparently simple utterances can wield narrative power and provoke dialogic response, asymmetrical or otherwise, across space and time. In other words, I want to look at how narrative begets narrative. I am not terribly interested in talking about narrative only in theoretical terms, though, so I also want to tell you a story about my own experience with blowback.

The second element of my title should sound familiar. It is a rebuttal of the most notorious sentence of Buck v. Bell, the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1927 which upheld the police power of the states to compel sterilization of mentally incompetent people confined in state institutions. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Great Dissenter, wrote for the majority in that case. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” That’s what the Justice said. Some historians and biographers write this sentence off as the punch of an acerbic old man who earned the right to speak bluntly. Others are embarrassed and skip over it altogether as an anomaly in Justice Holmes’s jurisprudence. To my ear, that sentence is a narrative, a narrative about power, a narrative about disability. It is the triggering text for my story. When I hear it I have to respond.

The complete text of Buck v. Bell is only about a thousand words long. It is rich with language and ideology that deserve to be unpacked and interpreted at length. When Justice Holmes stated that “experience has shown that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility, &c.” he affirmed without question a central idea of the American eugenics movement. Then and now, it is an idea based on dubious science. When he observed that “the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives” he may have alluded to his own patriotic service in the Civil War. He also gave voice to the thinly disguised class prejudice that fueled American eugenics. When he equated the cutting of the Fallopian tubes with public health vaccinations, I think he revealed more about his own sexual politics than he ever understood or articulated in rational terms.

I cannot delve further into these issues now. In the interest of time, I’ll focus on the sentence about three generations of imbeciles, and why it matters so much to me.

I was a child of the 1960s, which makes me just another old hippie now. There was no limit to my eyesight then, no limit to my reading. As I began to pay attention to events in the world around me, particularly the civil rights and anti-war protests, I found an appealing role model in the Great Dissenter. I read a popular biography from the 1940s called Yankee from Olympus. As the title suggests, it cast Oliver Wendell Holmes in the mold of American hero. I think I came to Justice Holmes’s ideas about freedom of speech by way of Justice William Brennan, which was not a bad place to start. Then I read the great dissenting opinions in my brother’s college textbook on constitutional law.

I was deeply affected at an impressionable age by the dissent in the 1919 case of Abrams v. United States. Justice Holmes asserted that “our Constitution… is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge.” When I read this it gave me goose bumps. It still does. I internalized his argument about “free trade in ideas” — “the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” I put this in my own words and took it as a personal credo: speech, no matter how extreme, must be trusted to the free marketplace of ideas.

Yankee from Olympus and my brother’s constitutional law text never mentioned Buck v. Bell. I didn’t hear about that case until early adulthood, after I had embraced my political identity as a person with a disability. I could never have imagined as a child that one day I would read the sentence — “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” — and feel betrayed.

At this point, I want to introduce several ideas about language that can illuminate this personal relationship with the words of Justice Holmes. The ideas come from the Russian philosopher of language Mikhail Bakhtin. I don’t know whether American constitutional law has been discussed in light of Bakhtin’s theories. I don’t think Bakhtin has been explored at any depth in the field of disability studies. So I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m going to do it anyway. Bakhtin has been as influential on me in later life as Justice Holmes was in the early days.

At about the same time that Justice Holmes was writing Buck v. Bell, Bakhtin was writing a book called Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. The book was perhaps too Marxist and insufficiently Stalinist for its time. Like most of his work, it is a dense, difficult text that must have perplexed the Soviet censors. Bakhtin published it in the name of his friend, V.N. Volosinov. None of this protective coloring prevented Bakhtin’s arrest and internal exile during Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s. Bakhtin’s work remained proscribed and marginalized for most of his life. It began to be published widely in Russian and English only in the1970s. Today he is best known among folklorists and critics of post-colonial literature for his book on Francois Rabelais. It articulated a theory of carnival as the ritual interplay of contending social pressures in highly stratified societies. The term “carnivalesque” is indelibly associated with Mikhail Bakhtin in much the way “Kafkaesque” is linked to the narrative writing of a certain lawyer from Prague.

In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language Bakhtin argued that all language was social and material – that’s the most solidly Marxist aspect of his work. This means that language cannot be isolated from the concrete social and historical contexts in which it is used. Bakhtin also picked a fight with prevailing linguistic dogma at the time by insisting that the fundamental unit for linguistic analysis was not the syllable – not tiny bits of sound or semantic meaning – but the utterance. This is a chunk of language expressed by one person with the expectation or likelihood of a response by another. An utterance can be as simple as a one-word command or expletive: “No.” Or it can be as complex and fully deployed as a novel such as War and Peace. What is richly interesting, what is worth analyzing linguistically, is the interactive social process surrounding the utterance. Bakhtin called this process dialogic, and the idea is sometimes called dialogism.

So – “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” – is an utterance. It may be that Justice Holmes expected it to be so self-evident and conclusive that it would remain the final word on compulsory sterilization. It was not. It reverberated dialogically. It continues to reverberate today. It has had unexpected consequences which we can call blowback.

Let’s take a closer look at that one word: imbecile. It is an utterance, and it is not just one word. Bakhtin’s biographers say that the E=mc2 of his thought is this: “Word is a two-sided act. It is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant… A word is territory shared by both addressor and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor.” It may be that Justice Holmes intended the word to be understood in a strictly scientific sense. Strange as it sounds to us today, in his time, imbecile was a specific diagnostic category posited between idiot and moron (low-grade and high-grade) in the intelligence hierarchy measured by the Stanford-Binet IQ test. It also was a pejorative term, often slang, with a rich history of usage dating back at least as far as the 17th century. I learned to use the word from Three Stooges cartoons when they would poke each other’s eyes and say, “Imbecile!” When Justice Holmes’s notorious utterance crossed my conceptual horizon, as Bakhtin would say, I thought of Larry, Curly, and Mo. That’s blowback.

It is my gut feeling that Justice Holmes knew he was uttering a double entendre. He wanted his imbeciles both ways. He may not have understood that he was de-stabilizing his own narrative. That brings me to a final idea about language which Bakhtin elaborated in Discourse in the Novel. Just as the meanings of words reverberate in dialogic tension between speaker and interlocutor, language as a whole is the continual flux between centripetal and centrifugal forces. Centripetal forces work to order language from above. Think of sacred texts, legal codices, dictionaries and prescriptive grammar. Centrifugal forces work to undermine that order from below. Think of jokes and slang, popular ballads and folklore. Bakhtin’s theory of centripetal and centrifugal forces has been influential in the study of post-colonial literature. When you recall that Carrie Buck was sterilized in an institution called the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, it is not a stretch to see Buck v. Bell as an expression of colonial power. Codified by the highest court in the land , its narrative became a centripetal force of great magnitude. But it pushed down so hard, particularly through the word imbecile, that it begat its own blowback.

Exploring the extent of that blowback in historical terms is beyond the scope of this talk. Let me say briefly that the American sterilization laws upheld by Buck. V. Bell became the model for similar legislation in Nazi Germany. And when Nazi crimes against humanity were prosecuted at Nuremburg, the survivors of compulsory sterilization were not entitled to reparations because such sterilization was not a crime in the United States. Many people believe that the American eugenics movement endorsed by Buck v. Bell was completely eclipsed by the monstrosity of Nazi genocide. American eugenics did not begin to achieve the Nazis’ industrial efficiency or scale of human destruction. But I am not convinced that American eugenics ended with World War II. I believe its legacy continues to “haunt the future,” to quote Chalmers Johnson’s observations about blowback.

Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge something for the record. The lawyers among you may be wondering, just what is my standing in the case of Buck v. Bell and its most notorious utterance? Like most of us, I have been called an imbecile more than once in my time, but it has never been applied to me as a diagnostic category. I was diagnosed with a genetic eye disease 35 years ago. My sister has the same disease. In the heyday of American eugenics, we could have been labeled “hereditary defective.” That “&c” in Buck v. Bell (“insanity, imbecility, &c.”) still gives me pause. Its ambiguity is broader and more dangerous today than ever before. It summons forth from me my deepest sense of otherness in the world. It motivates the dialogic response of my writing. If there is an emerging genetic underclass, as Dorothy Nelkin predicted, I could run for class president or class clown.

In conclusion, let me reaffirm that credo from my childhood. I still admire Justice Holmes, with qualifications. I do believe in the marketplace of free ideas. I also believe that it will never be as free or complete as we imagine unless it includes the ideas and stories of people across the vast continuum of ability and disability. To those of you who acknowledge the identity of “person with a disability,” let me add this: If we do not continue to tell our own stories in that marketplace, we will be forced to live with the stories others tell about us.

This talk was presented at the Disability, Narrative, and the Law Conference at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University on February 17, 2006. 

2 Responses to Blowback: Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Not Enough

  1. Pingback: a blind flaneur » George Carlin was an American Rabelais

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