They say that history repeats itself. It’s up to us to remember terrible atrocities so they never happen again.
Memoirist and poet Kenny Fries talked about the history of how disabled people were the first to be murdered under the Nazi regime on Wednesday’s “The Glenn Beck Radio Program.” Born missing bones in both of his legs, Fries knows what it’s like to face life with a disability.
The disabled were sterilized, used for experiments and killed even before the Nazis were in power; the Germans began abusing people with disabilities as far back as the 1920s. “Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life” by psychiatrist Alfred Hoche and the jurist Karl Binding was later used as a template by the Third Reich to exterminate disabled people.
“These feelings about disability are prevalent in a lot of cultures; I would say probably all cultures,” Fries said. “They just manifest themselves differently.”
People in the U.S. often don’t realize their own country’s history of abusing disabled people. In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilization of “unfit” people was constitutional, and the decision still technically stands. “Ugly laws” beginning in the late 1860s made it illegal for “unsightly or unseemly” people to be out in public; the last one was repealed in 1974.
Glenn Beck talked about his own experience of being a dad with a child who has disabilities.
“I wouldn’t wish this for my child. It’s difficult; however, her life has real meaning and real purpose,” Glenn said. When it comes to our society deciding which people are valuable, “we’re crossing some spooky lines,” he said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article provided courtesy of TheBlaze.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors.
GLENN: We’re changing as a people. And I just want to drop a pin in the map. And I just want to say, we’re going over a cliff. And as I learn from one of the Righteous Among the Nations in Poland a few years ago, and I’ve shared many times, the righteous didn’t suddenly become righteous. They just refused to go over the cliff with everyone else. Don’t go over the cliff. There’s a — there’s a new survey out. We’ll talk about it later, about how so many college students are now saying freedom of speech is not that important.
It is. Societies can go crazy quickly. In 1923, there was a survey of parents of disabled children. Would you agree, definitely, to a painless shortcut of your child’s life after it’s determined by experts that it is incurably stupid?
The results of this survey, this study were published in 1925. 73 percent of those — of those adults who had children said they were willing to have their children killed if they weren’t told about it.
Well, what do you think happened in Germany after these kinds of polls started to come out? And we’re headed down the same road.
STU: Stat comes from an amazing op-ed in the New York Times called the Nazi’s first victims were disabled. Comes from Kenny Fries. He’s the author of not only that op-ed, but also the book In the Province of the Gods. And he joins us live from Germany.
GLENN: So, Kenny, first of all, you were born without bones in your legs?
KENNY: Yep. I was born in 1960, missing fibula in my legs, and spent the first four weeks of my life in an incubator. People didn’t know whether I would be able to walk. Some thought I shouldn’t be, you know, allowed to live. But luckily, my parents weren’t amongst them. So, yeah. And then lived a pretty, you know, normal life. I was one of the first kids to be schooled in the mainstream school in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1960s. And, you know, went to college. And after college, I started to write about my disability experience. Which then, you know, much later in 2002, brought me to Japan. I wanted to look at what another country — culture very different from our own looked at how they looked at disability. So I went to Japan. And the result was my new book In the Province of the Gods.
And I learned some interesting things there, Glenn. I was very surprised when I went to Japan that I was treated more as a foreigner, which I was, than I was as a disabled person. Whereas, in my own country, in the United States, I was always looked at as different because I was disabled. I kind of felt like a foreigner in my own country.
I also found out a lot about how central disability — you know, central disability was to Japanese culture at the — you know, historically at the same time where it was looked at as something shameful. And you talk about, you know, what happened with Germany. There was a story that happened in Yokohama, Japan, in the early 1970s, where a mother had a child with cerebral palsy. And she had numerous children. And in true Japanese fashion, you know, the husband was away a lot. And she was very overburdened by having the child. And she killed the child.
And though she was — she was, you know, charged with murder and found guilty, the outcry was so great, that people felt so sorry for her, that she really got off without any — any — you know, any — any punishment for killing her own child.
GLENN: Kenny, there was a story that came out in a couple of weeks ago, I think, about Reykjavik. How Reykjavik is becoming a country that will — and it was celebrated. The — this first city or country now that will be Down syndrome-free. Because they’re doing early testing. And most people are aborting these children before they’re born.
So Reykjavik now is Down syndrome-free birth. And I found that article really disturbing. As a dad of a child of special needs, my daughter has cerebral palsy, I wouldn’t wish this for my child. It is — it’s difficult. However, her life has real meaning and real purpose. And I don’t understand — we’re — we’re crossing some spooky lines.
KENNY: Yep. We are. And we can’t forget that — and, you know, as I pointed out in my New York Times article that the history of — in our own country in the United States is not free of these things. Back in 1927 in the Buck v. Bell decision, you know, Oliver Wendell Holmes, that three generations of imbeciles was enough. And it was constitutional to sterilize, you know, disabled people. So that was one thing. In our own culture, we used to have what they called ugly laws. Where you were prohibited from being in public if you were disabled, if you looked different, if you looked, you know, deformed. And the last of those laws wasn’t rescinded until 1974, Glenn.
GLENN: Was that — because I had never heard — I’ve never heard of the ugly law. I mean, I know about the human betterment society. And I know all about the nastiness of what we’ve done with eugenics. I think we were — in some ways, we taught the Germans an awful lot.
But when it comes to — when it comes to the ugly laws, was that one of those laws that just happened to still be on the looks like, you know, you can’t tie your horse up at the supermarket. And it just wasn’t removed?
KENNY: No. They started being passed in the 1860s, 1870s, in various cities across the country. Some states tried to pass them. And they weren’t as successful as cities. So there were basic local odor ordinances that just basically said that you can’t —
GLENN: That’s crazy.
KENNY: Yeah, yeah. There’s also a case in Germany that happened a couple of decades ago called the Frankfurt judgment, where people went on a holiday — you know, they booked a holiday, and they encountered disabled people on their holiday. And they asked to be reimbursed for — by their travel agents, you know, because they happened upon these disabled people. And they got — they got — they won in court.
KENNY: So these feelings about disability are prevalent in a lot of cultures. I would say probably all cultures. They just manifest themselves differently.
GLENN: So can we have an adult conversation here, Kenny? And it’s not popular to do. And it will be taken and chopped up. But we have to have real conversations. Because we’re dealing with really scary stuff.
I — I — as we’re looking at health care, the argument is about, we just can’t let people die. Et cetera, et cetera. But when a state is in control, it — there has not been — there’s too many examples of, it just comes down to the money. And if you can’t opt out of that, you know, and the state says, hey, you’re not producing enough potatoes, I got to give this to somebody else who has a better quality of life and who are actually going to put into the system. And it becomes this horror show, versus, well, these people can’t afford any health care. And so they’re just going to die. Which is also awful.
I mean, how do you balance those two? In my mind, I would rather have the chance to opt out or opt in, than being stuck in a system where whatever they call and say, I’m sorry, you’re done. You’re done.
KENNY: Well, I mean, you know, to go back to Japan. You know, in Japan, I don’t know if you know the movie Ballad of Narayama, where they basically take these small villages in Japan — a while back, they would take their elderly, when they were go to just go to the mountain and to basically die alone in the mountain. Which I don’t think is a good thing to do either.
GLENN: No. That’s like Logan’s Run, low-tech.
KENNY: Yeah. But the problem, Glenn is you — in a society that disvalues disability, that misunderstands disability, that fears disability, you can’t make a true voluntary choice. If, you know, people say that if — if somebody — when I get dementia, Alzheimer’s, I don’t want to live like that. It’s not a dignified life. But what are they reacting to? They’re reacting to a fear about the body changing. And if the disability experience teaches anything, it’s about the fact that that’s what our life is. Our life is change.
You know, I talk about this in, In the Province of the Gods. Because Japan deals with the idea of change — which, ultimate change is mortality. That we’re all, you know, not going to be here for a while.
So it’s this fear that I think gets in the way of making a decision of what one would want to do if one was severely disabled, you know, Alzheimer’s or whatever it is. And I don’t think you can make a rational choice in a society that disvalues disability and disabled lives.
So what is dignity? The only dignity you could have is to die? I mean, is that dignified? I don’t think that’s dignified.
GLENN: What you’re saying, Kenny, is going counter culture. I mean, I agree with you. But it’s really going counter culture now. And I, as a Libertarian, I don’t want to tell you what you have to do. But we are going into a culture that is wanting to make the decisions for people. And — and based on quality of — of life.
I — I don’t know where to — how do we change this? How do we restart this human spark?
KENNY: We look at why we’re afraid of difference. And why in this particular — why are we afraid of disability? Why are we afraid of morality?
GLENN: So why are we? Do you have a thought on it? Why are we?
KENNY: Well, yeah, I have lots of thoughts on it. I think we’re afraid because we’re all afraid of death. For example, I was once — I was once on book tour with an anthology called Staring Back, that I edited. And a very, very wonderful writer named Susan (inaudible), who lives in Chicago, was sitting at breakfast, minding her own business, and a woman just came over to her and said, “I’m so glad you’re here.” And Susan looked at her and said, “What? I’m eating breakfast. What do you mean I’m so glad you’re here?”
And the woman said to her, “I’m so glad I’m not you,” because she had a disability.
GLENN: Oh, my gosh.
KENNY: Yeah, and this woman had the need to go over and actually say that to Susan. It wasn’t like, you know, she was in conversation with her. Susan was just minding her own business. And it’s — what’s the — I’m Jewish, I’m not Christian. So if I mess up the phrase, as for the grace of God, go I, yeah, if you look, throughout history, disability has been looked at through the religious moral model. Where the disabled person is looked at as either totally good, a saint, or evil, a devil.
And then we move to the medical model, where the only way to deal with disability is to basically kill it or cure it. When if you really look at it as the only way — disability is really defined by the society that you’re in, by the barriers that are put in your way. It’s really the society that disables people, not the impairment itself in most cases.
I mean, if you ask anybody, you know, what’s more difficult, being disabled or dealing with the barriers put in your way, they’re going to say it’s the barriers. So that’s — that’s the dilemma we’re in.
GLENN: Kenny, I hope that we get a chance to speak again. I thank you so much for your time. But I’d love to have you in and — and to have this continuing conversation with you. It’s one I think we desperately need as a society. Thanks.