Monday, January 11, 2016

Description of the World - Part 40

Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, culture, and politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (It’s easy to think of the various right-wing dictators as cynics who reject the values that go along with modern science but not the weapons and other technologies that science makes possible. I’ve done that myself, though I should know better. You can’t help living in your own times, and the reactionaries of the last two centuries were modernists in their own fashion. The reactionaries didn’t simply reject technology or put up with it for purely utilitarian reasons. They mythologized it, glamorized it, sometimes saw it as a visible and terrible manifestation of human will. That’s still true. The same American politicians who angrily reject the conclusions of the climatologists love Tom Clancy novels and fetishize guns and drones.)

Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism: Action Francaise, Italian Fascism, National Socialism (What I know of Nolte’s take on fascism is derived from secondary sources and things I read about the author’s later controversial statements about Nazism and the Holocaust. The English translation of the book came out in ’65, and in those days I didn’t always read what I bought. I doubt if my work habits got any better, more that reading books becomes easier and easier because you already have a framework for the new facts and opinions you encounter. Nolte looked on the various forms of fascism as negative phenomena, specifically as rejections of transcendence, aka, Marxism and modernity. He didn’t have very much patience for the sociological explanations I favor. As a cultural conservative and German philosopher—he studied under Heidegger—it’s small wonder that he understood events in a highfalutin, meta-historical fashion. On the other hand, in his later career he rejected the idea that Nazism had been an unprecedented and inexplicable event. He saw the Shoah, in particular as having been partly inspired by the Armenian genocide and the Soviet Gulag, claims that set off a noisy debate in Germany, the so-called Historikerstreit. I’m inclined to think that fascism, sensu latu, that is actually a business-as-usual political stance; but we find difficult to understand it as such because we judge it by its most obscene outlier. Nationalism, machismo, xenophobia, authoritarianism, and contempt for parliamentary democracy are a routine and recurrent constellation of traits that has never wanted for defenders among the intellectuals as well as the people at large. Since we’ve got to deal with this sort of thing again these days, it behooves us not to mystify the phenomenon or get complacent about Trump or Cruz because it is perfectly true that neither one of them is Hitler. Still, I don’t think that we should even romanticize the Holocaust as a unique horror as if it were the only apocalyptic manifestation of the last century: I count the Gulag, Nanking, and Hiroshima on my short list. I also keep in mind that the leaders of the most powerful nations spent most of the last seventy years preparing to destroy the Northern hemisphere.)  

Ellen Dwyer, Homes for the Mad: Life Inside Two Nineteenth Century Asylums (Ellen Dwyer is an old friend of mine and I would have read her book whatever its subject, but I have had an interest in the confinement of the insane for a long time and appreciated her careful examination of the institutional and human reality of the practice. It isn’t ancient history, after all. People forget that thought the building of asylums took place on an industrial scale in 19th Century America, it continued in the next and only began to end with the emptying of the asylums in the 60s and 70s. I was born in Santa Paula, California not all that far from Camarillo State Mental Hospital, an immense facility that had over 7,000 patients/inmates in it heyday. I remember seeing the place from the freeway. Jokes about Camarillo were common on early television. The transition to the current system or non system in which the insane are treated as outpatients, housed in prisons, or left on their own to roam the streets took place during my early adulthood. It was a major issue of intellectual debate and political contention, a snag that that formed as several tendencies and themes latched on to one another. Foucault’s first major book was on the topic of the confinement of the insane. Although the reality of the condition is merely miserable, certain forms of insanity, especially schizophrenia, were romanticized during the psychedelic era, not only by literary folks, musicians, and cultural entrepreneurs but by psychiatrists such as R.D. Laing. Like drug use and political utopianism, it was part of the search for transcendence that defined the times. Phenomenological approaches to madness focused neither on its material or functional causes or its possible cure but obsessed on the inward experiences of the mad, which were regarded with respect if not envy. How helpful this attitude was to the patient is unclear. It seemed you could always tell if you were reading a case study by a practitioner of existential psychiatry because the patient commits suicide at the end. For those in this current of thought, confining a person because of their nonstandard view of the world seemed like a denial of their dignity, of the validity of their inwardness. There was also a libertarian version of this line of thought. Thomas Szasz denied that there was such a thing as mental illness, though people certainly suffered from what he called problems in living, some of which could benefit from psychiatric treatment—Szasz was an orthodox Freudian in his own practice. He maintained that many of the insane were simply faking it and many others were people whose behavior or ideas were criminal or merely inconvenient to their families or to political authority. Szasz drew on a large literature about the abuse of commitment by families and governments. Railroading, as it was called, was certainly a real thing; and the Soviets resorted to psychiatric confinement in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a replacement for the Gulag. Whatever you think of Szasz, there sociological evidence of the rationality if not premeditation involved in the behavior of the insane surfaced at about the same time. The social psychologist Benjamin Braginski is best know for studies that showed that chronic schizophrenics could control their behavior, appearing crazier when they were afraid they were going to be released and less crazy when they were trying to get moved to a less restrictive ward. He once showed me an enormous map of Connecticut that was stuck with pushpins for every person who had been committed to a mental hospital. It looked like one of those old cholera maps. The cases were obviously clustered, especially in poorer areas. Braginski figured that the example of one person who escaped their unpleasant social and familial circumstances by escaping to the asylum would inspire others in the neighborhood to follow suit—the subtitle of Methods of Madness, the book he wrote with his wife, is the Mental Hospital as a Last Resort. I don’t know if Braginski was a liberal or a conservative in politics; there was opposition to mass commitment from both sides. The Conservatives thought of the big mental hospitals as welfare and their inmates as freeloaders, and many of them were also concerned that the men in white coats might be coming for them—paranoia was one of the most prevalent problems in living of the radial right in the ‘50s and ‘60s just as it is today. The liberals had their own civil rights concerns about commitment and also believed, with good reason, that institutionalization was both ineffective and inhumane. Meanwhile, the advent of new pharmaceuticals made it feasible to control some of the worst manifestations of insanity without locking people up; and governments were less and less willing or able to pay for the big asylums. Granted the political realities, how the emptying of madhouses played out shouldn’t have surprised anybody. The evicted patients weren’t supposed to be thrown out on the street without help. The optimists imagined that out patient programs and help with housing and jobs would await them, but the states and localities had every reason not to do that. Anyhow, during a period of rapidly rising crime rates the public was more eager to punish deviants than to treat them even if the prisons were more expensive than the hospitals. Anyhow, since the insurance companies were not going to pay for long-term psychotherapy anymore, it was conveniently concluded that talking doesn’t work even when it does and pills do work, even when they don’t. You don’t need in-patient hospitals to hand out pills. The approach to dealing with insanity which has characterized the last several decades seems to be failing, which is to say, it is beginning to be recognized as a failure; but what new policies are possible is unclear. Even the NRA calls for improvements in the mental health system, but what does that mean in practice? Changing the laws so that those of dubious sanity will be subject to intense surveillance and control raises its own civil rights issues since it makes the whole country into an asylum, a madhouse without walls. Do we really care enough about the inhabitants of the nation to pay for psychiatrists who are something better than parole officers?  )

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