Matthew Connelly is an historian at Columbia University whose new book, Fatal Misconception, looks at the disturbing history of government-sponsored population policies. newmatilda.com spoke to him on his recent visit to Australia.
The talented young academic, who has been named one of History News Network’s top young historians published his first book, A Diplomatic Revolution on the Algerian war of independence against the French in the 1950s and 1960s. As anyone who has seen Gillo Pontocorvo’s riveting film The Battle of Algiers will know, the Algerian struggle pre-figured many of the characteristics of the Iraqi insurgency — so much so, in fact, that in 2003 the film was shown to US generals at the Pentagon in a special screening organised by the Directorate of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.
The film also had a profound effect on Connelly, who saw it just after completing his first course in graduate history on the end of empires.
As Connelly notes, the Algerian insurrectionists "didn’t win the battles but they did isolate France in the world and they made De Gaulle realise that he had to give up Algeria if France was ever to be a great power again".
"From having written that book," Connelly continues, "I realised that it wasn’t enough just to study relations between states, that international and even non-government organisations could be increasingly important. So I wanted to study something where the United Nations and NGOs would be front and centre from the word go."
This was the genesis of Connelly’s interest in population contol.
"I wanted to figure out how, even at the height of the Cold War 50 years ago, whether we’re looking at the spread of transnational jihadist movements, or the increasing importance of the international media, or the way the UN becomes a battleground, you could see a lot of the things that people associate with the post-Cold War world already up and running."
Demographics, Connelly argues, is becoming ever more important to contemporary politics — a critical tool of analysis not just for market researchers and pollsters but also politicians, bureaucrats, spies and generals.
"We live in a world where people count other people as a way to understand political change. In countries like France, Islam is already the second-largest religion — what’s that going to mean? Is France going to be France in the future when the population of France changes so profoundly?"
"But that’s something relatively new in the world. If you look back more than a hundred years ago, most governments weren’t counting their populations, they weren’t tracking their fertility rates, they didn’t look at population the way we look at it now. Before the 19th Century, if someone was within the walls of your city, as long as they could take up arms, as long as they pay their way, you would count them alongside everyone else.
"But when having a national identity and having citzenship came instead with a whole set of rights and privileges like receiving social security and free medical care and all the rest, it became important to count people, not just as people but as citizens, and also to begin to exclude certain people who were thought unworthy or incapable of being citizens."
I asked Connelly when this trend began. Does it go back to Bismarck’s famously efficient Prussian state?
"Even in Prussia in the 1880s, people were crossing the border relatively freely. In fact, the United States was a pioneer in tracking movement across borders, and beginning to exclude certain kinds of people from citizenship. The first laws to ban Asian immigration in the US started in the 1870s."
"Over time, this became a global trend, as you would know from Australian history. Australia, South Africa, Canada and eventually several states in Latin America began to exclude Chinese immigrants. And the idea was that if you allowed in these people, which seemed ‘lesser’ people, and your own citizens had to compete with them for lower wages, there would be a race to the bottom, where the Chinese people who could live on less and reproduce more would come to outnumber everyone else. So that was the idea behind what became a world-wide movement to contain Asians within their own continent."
If these ideas sound uncannily similar to eugenics, that’s because they were.
"The eugenicists were prominent among the members of the early immigration control movements, especially in the US. They tried to export their ideas worldwide. They found many people who were willing to work with them. You will find there were eugenics movements across South America, in India, China, in Japan. They weren’t all the same, but there were commonalities among people who believed it would be possible to breed better people."
Fatal Misconception takes up the story in the 1870s when people all over the world began to think that populations had run out of control. "The thing is," Connelly says with a slight smile, "populations are always out of control. If you want to control fertility, for instance, the only way you can do that with any certainty or predictability is through coercion, as China did with the One Child Policy."
Eugenics was one example of the attempt to control the quality of populations, but just as common was the attempt to control numbers. "By the end of the 19th Century there was a ‘Neo-Malthusian League’ that had branches across Europe. These were relatively small organisations, but over time, some women, people like Margaret Sanger in the US began to think that providing contraception to women would be a way to empower them, to give them control over their lives."
Eventually, Sanger forged political alliances with the eugenicists. Sanger "signed up, in a sense, for a whole agenda of not just giving women contraception but also making sure that those who were ‘unfit’ would be prevented from having children."
By the 1920s, more than 20 American states had signed compulsory sterilisation laws. "Typically, it was women on public assistance or women who were in institutions, but in some cases women who were considered to be anti-social — women who were of ‘loose morals’, who on a doctor’s order or by the ruling of a judge — would be subject to compulsory sterilisation."
Connelly goes into detail about the famous US Supreme Court ruling that upheld these compulsory sterilisation laws. "What [US Supreme Court justice] Oliver Wendell Holmes said was that, just as the state can order compulsory immunisation, so too can it order compulsory sterilisation. He was actually talking about a family: the woman in question’s name was Carrie Buck. Based on the evidence presented to the court, he believed this was a family of imbeciles, in fact ‘generations’ of imbeciles."
"Well it turned out that they were nothing of the kind. At the time, people had a very vague sense of what they called ‘feeble mindedness’, and all sorts of people including Carrie Buck were swept up. People who typically didn’t have money or education were sterilised, sometimes with no notion of what was happening to them. In some cases they were told they were getting an appendectomy. So the US pioneered not just control of migration and exclusion of Asian immigrants, but also the compulsory sterilisation of their own citizens, and that’s something that became common in many countries, across Scandanavia, in Japan and most notoriously in Nazi Germany."
Of course, as Connelly readily concedes, population and fertility policies are not just about limiting populations. They have also been about trying to increase birth-rates — such as Peter Costello’s baby bonus.
"You know the evidence is that these kinds of programs only have a very marginal impact on the fertility rate. If governments want to make it easier for parents to have kids, they should do it because it’s good policy. Rather than cash, most parents would rather have decent maternity and paternity leave, and especially access to decent day-care and child-care options — those are the kinds of policies that I think actually do make a difference for parents."
"What I’m afraid of, if not in Australia then in other countries, is that when these kinds of policies don’t work, as they have not worked in the past, that governments will try more coercive policies."
"The Nazis tried this, and so did Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s USSR and Vichy France — all of them tried to increase fertility rates by withdrawing access to contraception. In France, beginning in the 1920s, it was illegal to even advocate use of birth-control, and under Vichy women who performed abortions were sent to the guillotine."
"What happens when you try to increase fertility rates by withdrawing contraception and access to abortion?" Connelly asks. "A lot of people die — because women in desperate circumstances will get abortions illegally and they will often get unsafe abortions. A more recent example is Romania under Ceauşescu, where the maternal mortality rate soared when they withdrew access to abortion."
"That’s why [I’m arguing] that if we’re going to provide access to contraception — which we should — and if we’re going to provide access to safe and legal abortion, and if we’re also going to provide access to infertility treatment, so parents can have help in having children if they want and need it — we should do it because it’s the right thing to do [from a moral point of view], not because we think it’s going to raise or reduce infertility rates."
Thus the title of Connelly’s book is explained: It is a "fatal misconception", he argues, to think that we can control people "as though they were populations".
Connelly’s next book is about an equally interesting topic: the history of futurology and prediction.
He is fascinated with the way governments "use the future as evidence" for setting policies, with important implications for the current debates about future scenarios that concern both the left (climate change) and right (terrorism), and the radical social engineering programs that can arise from them.
Matthew Connelly’s home page is at http://www.matthewconnelly.net/
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