The Tucson Massacre And The End Of The Merely Political

Ralph Benko
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Posted: Jan 14, 2011 5:00 PM

The Tucson Massacre dominated the political discourse in America. That is a symptom of a preoccupation with politics that narrows our possibilities as a society to renew the American spirit, society and culture.

There is an axiom on the Left: “The personal is political.” This is a phrase made famous by radical feminist Carol Hanisch in a 1969 essay. It is famous because it presents, vividly, something very true and, at the time, new. But it does not contain the whole truth. The time for its centrality has expired.

All of the evidence suggests that Jared Loughner’s mayhem was a function of severe mental illness. His YouTube videos are redolent with signs of severe dissociation, words that almost seem to make sense yet do not: The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.

Loughner’s MySpace profile contains a long list of favorite books. Much attention has been directed to his referencing of The Communist Manifesto and of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. But the really telling reference has been almost completely overlooked: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

This 1962 novel is a dramatization of (among other things) an inhumane, and indefensible, system of institutionalizing the mentally ill–along with mere eccentrics, those with below-average IQ and social misfits. It, and the award-winning movie based on it, became a counterculture classic. It may have been the trigger for a dramatic shift in social consensus against institutionalization of the non-criminal insane and others.

Those who remember the pre-Cuckoo’s Nest days have not forgotten the prescribed torments, rarely curative, to which those diagnosed as insane were subjected. Electroshock therapy, pharmaceutical regimes designed to stupefy, and, most heinously, prefrontal lobotomy. This litany does not include the inmate-on-inmate violence and abuse that was rife in understaffed institutions.

The very real abuses dramatized in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest led to general revulsion to the undignified and unbearably inhumane way our society dealt, institutionally, with the mentally ill, the below-average IQ and the socially odd. The social consensus that followed led to a wholesale deinstitutionalization on humanitarian grounds.

To say that the current policy is imperfect is a massive understatement.

According to Noel Hentschel, a former mental health adviser for the U.K. Royal Society of Medicine, the shooting [was] “a critical breakdown of mental health care in America.” She wrote in the Huffington Post, “The bar is so high for proving someone is a threat to themselves or to others that they literally have to already be in the middle of a horrendous act like this vicious attack for law enforcement, family or medical professionals to be able to provide treatment to the disturbed person. … What a travesty of justice for all concerned!”

Most of those among the mentally ill, those below-average IQ and the misfits are perfectly harmless. And yet some are dangerous to themselves and others.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jan. 10 Review and Outlook aptly notes that “Jared Loughner’s sickness is not the product of politics” and deftly deconstructs the efforts forthcoming from some on the Left to posit that Tea Partiers, Townhallers and conservatives somehow are culpable. The Journal and many others, including President Barack Obama in a speech that rivals Ronald Reagan’s eulogy for those who died in the Challenger, properly exonerates conservatives as innocent. America’s revered Founders indulged in abundant vitriol, some of which makes our era’s look tame.

That said, a much larger principle is at stake. A society is much more than government and its handmaiden, politics. A culture that immediately looks at everything through the lens of politics gives a creepy credence to Nietzsche’s 157th aphorism from Beyond Good and Evil: “Insanity in individuals is something rare–but in groups, parties, nations and epochs it is the rule.” This aphorism may have been, and still be, apt. It need not continue to be apt.

The personal is political. But it is not only political. The personal is economic. The personal is familial. The personal is social. The personal is cultural. The personal is spiritual. We are emerging from an epoch of war, an emergence that this writer has addressed elsewhere. It thus becomes possible anew to find meaning in events that are much more than the merely political.

By doing so, as a society, we move much further away from “big government” than any amount of budget cutting can effect. By moving beyond the axiom that the personal is political we begin to move away from Nietzsche’s indictment of insanity in nations as the rule. We can move toward new possibilities of social vibrancy and social harmony.

The personal is more than political.