Oliver Wendell Breyer: “three generations of seeds is enough”

February 19th, 2013

In the past, I have compared Justice Breyer to Justice Holmes. Based on his questions in Bowman v. Monsanto Co., Justice Breyer must be in on the joke.

JUSTICE BREYER: No, but you are allowing him to use those seeds for anything else he wants to do. It has nothing to do with those seeds. There are three generations of seeds. Maybe three generations of seeds is enough.


JUSTICE BREYER: It is for this example. First of you have the Monsanto, the first generation they sold. They have children, which is the second generation. And those children have children, which is the third generation, okay? So, bad joke. (Laughter.)

Yes, making fun of sterilizing mentally handicapped people is a bad joke.

Lest we forget what Justice Holmes repugnantly wrote in Buck v. Bell:

 The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 , 25 S. Ct. 358, 3 Ann. Cas. 765. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Update: Bill Araiza comments:

I don’t want to be a humorless scold.  On the other hand, riffing off a truly cruel remark seems gratuitous: there are enough funny lines in the U.S. Reports that we don’t need to pick up on problematic ones.  Or is there a reason this particular line is not problematic?  Has the word “imbecile” been defanged by its increasingly humorous connotation of someone as just plain dumb?  (I guess that’s possible: after all, “idiot” had the same clinical connotation at one point, which it seems to have lost.)  But it seems to me the problem with the phrase in question is not just with the word “imbecile,” but with the entire phrase, which inevitably calls to mind the cruel ideology behind Buck.  Is it really OK to make that reference as a joke?  Have we so clearly moved past Buck that it’s safe to joke about it?

I’m truly curious about this.  In what seems to be a hyper-cautious age, using this phrase doesn’t seem to elicit any reaction.  Is there a good reason for that?