Friday, April 25, 2008

Retro-Journal: Bush, Stossel, and Unnatural Portents in Early 2001

The first half of 2001 saw my final six months working for ABC News, a period that began with the airing of what was without question the most libertarian hour in the history of network television, the special John Stossel Goes to Washington, for which I was an associate producer (perhaps the future of libertarian TV lies partly online, thanks to, staffers of which I was lucky enough to hang out with last night, but in 2001 Stossel seemed very much alone).

That Stossel hour crammed an astonishing number of governmental failures into one hour — with a nice theoretical framework wrapped around it to suggest that government’s failures are not incidental or easily avoided, given government’s inevitable lack of market-style correctives and filters. The show was ahead of the curve in a few ways, including its suggestion that government would likely grow under George Bush (he’d been in office only days when the show aired), just as it tends to grow under either party, despite talk of a mythical “pendulum” that supposedly swings back and forth between Big Government and periods of nineteenth-century-style laissez-faire.

Interestingly, in a deceptively quiet little end segment, the hour offered one consistently anti-government congressman from Texas, Rep. Ron Paul, as a sign of hope. We didn’t think to ask him about conspiracy theories or embarrassing old ghostwritten newsletters (and since as of this entry he’s history in more than one sense, I’ll hereby lift the self-imposed ban of the past couple months on me mentioning his name on this blog, since I don’t expect to be doing so very often regardless — after all, now there’s Bob Barr to keep an eye on, for good or ill).


I was not so libertarian even in those heady times as to buy into the idea popularized by Dr. Thomas Szasz — not a logically necessary element of libertarianism but popular in some corners of the movement — that there is “no such thing” as mental illness. Szasz, inspired partly by his self-analysis of his childhood tendency to be a malingerer (convincing himself he was ill to get attention from his mother), was instrumental in spreading the idea that acting crazy is not in itself grounds for institutionalization — arguably just a quirky personality type or lifestyle choice — absent a threat of harm to others, the premise underlying the deinstitutionalization that did so much to contribute to “homelessness” in recent decades (his arguments are often useful from a civil liberties perspective — we would not want everyone whose behavior was out of the ordinary locked up).

The core Szaszian argument is that since you cannot reliably point to physical damage in the brain to show that something is objectively wrong, you cannot diagnose even something like severe schizophrenia as an “illness” in any scientific sense — but Szasz followers never really seem to have a comeback to the argument that all sorts of real, physical, objective illnesses are diagnosed based on behavior and patient reports rather than direct observation of the physical damage. If a knee can be damaged and thus malfunctioning for reasons that are not immediately visible, so too, no doubt, can a mechanism as complex and easily perturbed as the brain (and we certainly know from experiments with drugs and all sorts of brain injury studies how easily perturbed the brain is).

It is only recently that we’ve begun to understand the physical changes in the brain that cause Alzheimer’s — for years blamed in a vague, hypothetical way on “hardening of the arteries” — so by Szasz’s absurd criteria, Alzheimer’s did not exist back in the 1980s when my grandmother died from it (she must simply have been making a radical lifestyle choice to lose her memory and eventually even her ability to swallow correctly), nor did schizophrenia exist in 2001, when with disturbing suddenness it turned a writer of my acquaintance from a charismatic and argumentative dynamo into a visibly withered and haunted, dysfunctional person frightened of a looming conspiracy of would-be poisoners (we have since fallen out of contact).

Szasz is a fanatic and a monomaniac, though rest assured I mean that in a non-clinical way. He would also make a poor philosopher.


Nature sucks, as schizophrenia cases — which are terribly draining, depressing, and frightening to witness first-hand — remind us. Much as I loved wandering around in the woods when I was young, I always assumed the future obviously lay with industry, robots, and other things mechanical. Indeed, looking back, I realize I had always wanted to promote science and battle evildoers, in one way or another, from a young age. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that as I left ABC and went on a few dates with a former co-worker, I found myself having a dream, hokey as it sounds, in which we were astronauts, though I was a bit concerned because I had not read the flight manual — but despite this portentous vision, we didn’t end up romantically involved until a couple years later, so more (just a very discreet, tiny bit more) about that in a few weeks.

Another portentous dream of mine, which I had had periodically for years, involved me being safely on the ground but watching a passenger jet crash, always just out of view as it hit the ground and sent up a big smoke cloud. Interestingly, later that year I’d stop having that dream — not, I’m confident, because it was some “psychic” prophecy that had been fulfilled but simply because reality had outpaced and rendered ineffectual my old subconscious fears.

The only other recurring dream I can recall ever having was one I’d have occasionally as a very small child — much too young to have any real interest in sex or romance — in which I was a groom on the verge of getting married in a vast, pillar-filled underground chamber resembling Mordor Moria from the Lord of the Rings movies (which of course I hadn’t yet seen at that time), only to be chased away by a gorilla. Now go ahead and tell me I’d been culturally encoded with male-chauvinist metaphorical imagery by age three or four. Again, I think a great many mental patterns are dictated by nature, not culture or this illusory thing called “individual free will” — but rest assured I found the gorilla, not the bride, scary.


The X-Files spin-off called The Lone Gunmen premiered in March 2001 with an episode, you may recall, about terrorists attempting to fly a passenger jet into the World Trade Center — but the crash was prevented by…heroic conspiracy theorists. What a spectacular accident that would be, I thought — likely producing some amazing footage if it ever happened. Seven years later, given what transpired later that year, I can’t help wondering whether that episode of the short-lived show gets shown as the comedy relief at 9/11 Truther conventions.

In another sci-fi-type development, I donated a big chunk of my old comic book stash to a social worker who had lamented that she had an emotionally disturbed teenage male charge who showed some interest in writing and art but wasn’t quite motivated enough to read conventional books. My act of compassion led him to begin drawing monsters, then eventually to begin drawing and describing scenes of terrible violence, then to confess that he wasn’t confident he could resist acting on his violent impulses, leading to him — as even Szasz might condone — being put away for a while. Comic books change lives.

So, too, of course, does TV news, and it was in that category that I functioned as an Emmys judge that year, just as my time at ABC was ending. Like a lot of things in TV, it was not as glamorous as it sounds, consisting mainly of sitting in a room with about ten other TV professionals and putting sample nominated tapes in a VCR, either watching whole pieces or occasionally nodding if someone looked around and said “So do we all agree this one’s terrible and we should just move on?”

Indeed, far from seeing TV as glamorous at that point, I had a bit of ’zine envy — getting to know author Pagan Kennedy, mainly from her occasional readings in New York City, and sometimes wishing that, like her, I’d started a ’zine circa 1990, with all the fun and freedom and permissible amateurishness that implies. Not surprisingly, now I have a blog (and Pagan has a tenth book coming out in September — but more about that in a few months).

Tiring of TV, I had begun doing more freelance writing assignments in preparation for my intended departure into the all-freelance post-ABC world that summer. One assignment that began while I was at ABC but stretched into what would turn out to be my brief time as a fulltime freelancer was the writing of entries about famous authors for a set of encyclopedias produced in conjunction with Facts on File. One of the first ones I wrote was about James Mill, the real founder of utilitarianism and father of the more famous John Stuart Mill. For me, that’s a bit like a Mormon getting assigned to write about Joseph Smith. Life was good, and despite that Stossel hour’s dire predictions about Bush, I was pretty confident that barring some huge terrorist incident, the world was on an upward track to increasing peace, happiness, and non-stop albeit uneven prosperity.

The final Stossel hour on which I worked — one that was largely outlined by me in response to Stossel’s desire to find some less-boring way to discuss environmental issues — was Tampering with Nature, about the rising tide of opposition, from both left and right, to various aspects of biotechnology. As always, I was on the side of tampering, not (an overblown, idealized version of) nature — but nonetheless, I am finally going tomorrow to that farm-themed party that I mentioned was delayed in a Retro-Journal entry a few weeks ago. The more efficient the robots get, the more space we can leave for the animals and the more humane the cow-milking can be, so in the final analysis I don’t feel I really need to choose just one side of the equation.


Scott Nybakken said...

Nerd alert: the vast, pillar-filled underground chamber in Lord of the Rings is the great underground city of Moria, not the blasted, ash-covered plains of Mordor.

Todd Seavey said...

Egad. How embarrassing — and mere days before I am scheduled to start this blog’s “Month of the Nerd” featuring all sci-fi-type-stuff all the time.

To make up for my error (now corrected above), I offer something that looks _even more_ like those childhood dreams, the video, fittingly, for “Is Your Love Strong Enough?” by Bryan Ferry (from the movie _Legend_, which was out a couple decades before Peter Jackson’s LOTR but may have been influenced by Ralph Bakshi’s animated version, Tolkien’s text descriptions, or for that matter the big crazy pillars in St. Peter’s):

Todd Seavey said...

By the way, five cool things about that video:

–uses big-columns set from the movie

–David Gilmour surprise appearance

–Ridley Scott film direction

–Tim Curry of Rocky Horror fame as horned Prince of Darkness

–Tom Cruise unseen despite starring in the film, due to some contractual problem, thus taint of Scientology avoided

Ted said...

“Szasz, inspired partly by his self-analysis of his childhood tendency to be a malingerer (convincing himself he was ill to get attention from his mother)”

Do you have a reference for this claim?

“by Szasz’s absurd criteria, Alzheimer’s did not exist back in the 1980s when my grandmother died from it”

No, he doesn’t say that. Until the particular physical pathology was located, it was not a proven disease. This does not rule out weird behavior being strongly related to a putative literal disease, which of course can help with research into the *bodily* malfunction. Furthermore, medical treatment is premised on consent, which psychiatry is not.

“Szasz followers never really seem to have a comeback to the argument that all sorts of real, physical, objective illnesses are diagnosed based on behavior and patient reports rather than direct observation of the physical damage”

What comeback is required? You seem to be confusing diagnosis and disease here. There are four (logically) possible scenarios involving diagnosis and disease – having neither, having one but not the other (either way), and having both. When the same set of possibilities is applied to mental illness, it is obvious not only that there is nothing behind the diagnosis, but that irrespective of medical advances, only the (prescriptive) diagnosis is important for the psychiatric establishment. The issue which those who denounce Szasz so often fail to address is why anyone with a putative disease should be coerced with what is officially called “treatment.”



Anonymous said...

I think you're missing the point about criticism of mental illness.

You're attacking a strawman that says people don't have mental problems. Having a mental problem does not make it a "disease," "illness," or "disorder" as is understood by a charitable understanding of everyday language.

Are you for or against involuntary commitment and treatment? (Personally, I'm open to temporary involuntary confinment, counseling and possibly even "emergency" sedatives, but not to involuntary or coercive medicating, such as confining someone unless or untill they agree to be medicated either "voluntarily," or involuntarily.)

You can be for involuntary commitment and not believe mental illness is a disease like Alzheimer's, and you can believe mental illness is a problem not a preference, but perhaps you can't and still be a "consistent" libertarian. (I beleive it can be both a problem and a preference.)

Heavy metals poisoning has a scientific diagnostic test, and phsyical symptoms, including death. There is no urine or blood test for mental illness and you can not die from it.

Diabetics lose limbs, fall into comas, etc. There is no corresponding result from mental illness.

People with common colds are not usually treated against their will.

(Basically you can believe mental illness is real, but not an illness.)

The "best" argument that it is not only real but an illness is saying mental illness "causes" suicide, self-harm, self-starvation, etc. the "same way" diabetes causes limb loss.(I don't believe this is a strong argument.)

It's the rhetoric around mental illness that is a problem. If you're "mentally ill" you're not told medication is an option, you're told medication is necessary. You're told you have a disease with no cure. You're told involuntary confinement and shots are getting help. The best advocates still say medication is necessary just not enough. It's this false status of mental health treatment as medicine that limits the control and options of patients.