I've always had kind of a schoolboy crush on Margaret Sanger. Maybe it was the topic of her life's work that initially sparked the fire, maybe some of her fetching pictures. Either way, she's one of a number of people in American history who make me blush a bit. She of course wasn't perfect, but who is? And I'm not sure how my students react to me telling them this part of my personality, but perhaps they begin to see people in those black and white pictures as real people? Or maybe they just think their teacher is stranger than they initially thought.
Anyway, Ed's right, there is something almost boring about the Progressives, and I think he's right when he suggests that this is because the Progressives haven't yet experienced the 20th century and therefore haven't seen the true atrocities of the industrial age. I always get a bit giddy when I lecture (in a few weeks from now) on the decline of the Progressive and the rise of something new in the 1920s. The students read Gatsby, and I read aloud the last page. We're happy to be on more familiar, more cynical turf.
One question has come up in my class though, and it's in the title of the post. I was lecturing on the destruction of the Indians in the 1880s and 1890s, and specifically on Wounded Knee. A student shot up her arm and asked, to paraphrase, if these people were acting in the name of progress, how did they justify the wholesale and sanctioned slaughter of all these people?
We actually read a selection from the trial of the Sand Creek massacre, so the students learn: (1) not everyone did sanction it; and (2) those that did had the best science at their disposal. I discuss the hierarchy of races theory and the power of Manifest Destiny. I talk about measuring skulls, and about the idea that these people believed that god destined them to have this land.
I sensed, though, I had left her cold. The blatant murder of hundreds and thousands of people at one time didn't seem justifiable on these grounds. This was yet another reminder that history is always a foreign country. I also began to wonder about what things we might be doing today that will look immoral a hundred years hence. Eating meat? Execution? Corporal punishment? Imperialism? I didn't have time to do this with the class, although I wish I had.
Making sense of eugenics and its detestable brethren is a tall task after all.