Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Consensus psychosis

Express Staff Writer

John Rember

The late British psychiatrist R.D. Laing made a career out of his idea that Western civilization is a psychosis. He said you had to be crazy to even get out of bed in the morning in countries that routinely murder millions of human beings with carcinogenic products, have zombie-like militaries and follow pathological legal and medical practices. He said a diagnosis of mental illness is often the result of seeing things as they are instead of believing the consensual lies of our family or our culture.

Laing has lost his luster as a psychotherapist, because even if he was right, it's not a path to any kind of sanity if you believe you can see the truth and the rest of the world can't. Since Laing, we have gone back to judging psychoses by societal norms and have invented the neurochemistry to back those norms up.

Still, whenever I see Bush administration flunkies trying to explain Iraq policy or environmental policy or fiscal policy, I decide these people are caught up in a consensus reality that is batshit crazy. Listening to Attorney General Michael Mukasey talk about torture during his confirmation hearings was like listening to a mental patient talk around the family secrets that drove him nuts in the first place. Listening to Larry Craig tell the world he isn't gay convinced me that Larry Craig is one of the few people who doesn't think Larry Craig's gay. Listening to the latest bluenose Republican Congressman caught having sex with a prostitute or underage male page makes me think that blue noses and even Republicanism are inadequate defenses against unacceptable self-knowledge. Sen. Ted Stevens' saying that the oil company that built an extra story on his house was not making a political contribution makes me realize that at some point in a political career, reality testing simply becomes too much work.

And how to explain the differences between the official statements about interrogation and the facts of waterboarding and the sex-torture photos at Abu Ghraib? How to explain Colin Powell's shaking a vial of talcum powder at U.N. delegates and calling it anthrax? How to explain the optimism that still pervades a financial system that consists of derivatives of derivatives of derivatives, to the extent that most people don't even know which country their house belongs to? How to explain the humans who will starve because other humans burn biodiesel and ethanol?

These are all tacky questions, but I think they need to be considered by anyone who has an investment in the future. Kurt Vonnegut, before he died, was fond of saying, "Things are going to get worse and worse. But it's not really my problem." And it wasn't.

The rest of us might not be so lucky. The financial system, in particular, faces the reality that debts always get paid, even though it's not always certain whether the lender or the debtor will pay them. As a generation, we baby boomers have decided to pass enormous debt on to our children and grandchildren, and our health and safety as old people will depend on whether they accept it.

Given that we've spent our borrowed time and money on Iraq instead of infrastructure, on wall-size TVs rather than on education, on fossil fuels rather than on renewable energy, we shouldn't take for granted the kindness of strangers, particularly if those strangers are our own children.

What will they say about us? That at some point in our careers as voters, reality testing simply became too much work? Or that our consumption of plastic crap became a kind of drug, and we as a generation spiraled into the deadly psychosis of crap addiction? Or that our consensus reality deviated so far from the real that finally the story we told ourselves about ourselves became so much a lie even we couldn't believe it? That our once-strong defenses against unacceptable self-knowledge finally broke down?

I hope the next few generations are thoughtful enough to think of us in these ways. Because if they are, there's a chance that they'll go easy on us. They'll realize that their lives, even if nasty, brutish and short, are wonderful things. They'll understand that to be brought into this world, even if it's bombed out, mined out and toxic, is a gift.

R.D. Laing wouldn't necessarily call them sane, but he'd call them an improvement on us.

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