The Corner

Szasz

Derb – I’ve grown to appreciate Szasz a lot more than I used to, but I was starting from a very low base. At the theoretical level, I think he’s got a lot of interesting things to say. But as someone who grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s and 1980s and saw the real-world effects of some of his ideas put into practice, I think the man has a lot to answer for. In the 1970s, a coalition of leftwing and rightwing civil libertarians, budget cutters and finger-in-the-wind politicians released thousands of dangerous, mentally sick, people onto the streets of New York. Perhaps more than any other intellectual, Szasz was responsible for this movement. He lent credibility to, among other things,  the idiotic moral equivalence argument that America put its political dissidents in mental hospitals just like the Soviets. He argued that mental disease was a political category. “`Mental illness’ is [only] a metaphor,” he wrote. “Minds can be `sick’ only in the sense that jokes are `sick’ or economics are `sick’.”  When Szasz’s children, as it were,  were released from the mental hospitals they set up camp all over the city, defecating in the street, scaring little kids, living in parks, taking drugs and generally causing great harm to civil life and to themselves. Of course, the leftwing press immediately hailed the “homeless” as economic victims, particularly when Ronald Reagan came to power. They weren’t crazy! They were  the dross of  industrial capitalism, the lumpen proletariat, the victims of  “Reagan greed.” The media’s treatment of homelessness in the 1980s was one of the great journalistic frauds of our age, rife with all sorts of weak-tea Marxist nonsense. 

Regardless, I agree with you that there’s much nonsense in psychiatry. And I think it’s telling that a profession which was willing, to some extent, to write off truly sick poor people is constantly inventing new mental illnesses for rich kids. 

But, while it’s all fine in some seminar on Foucault to claim the woman who slept in her own filth not 100 yards from where I grew up, and who scratched my brother’s face  as he walked-by was really just a maverick from bourgeois norms. And it’s fine to write a term paper on how Larry Hogue was some kind of political dissident.  But in the real world, the idea that mental disease is just a political metaphor is nonsense, dangerous nonsense. 

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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