Roger’s Rules

We're mad. We're glad. Get used to it!

What makes a typical New York Times story so awful? Well might you ask. Connoisseurs of cant have devoted many hours to the question. Some have proposed detailed criteria, noting that a peculiar union of smugness and political correctness accompanies most characteristic specimens of the genre. Other critics point out that such typologies tend to be hopelessly ad hoc, that the Times is awful in so many ways simultaneously that to focus on smugness and political correctness is to ignore the contributions of many other aspects of journalistic and rhetorical failure, not to mention intellectual shallowness and blatant political animus. The best we can do, these critics say, is to acknowledge, as St. Augustine did with respect to the mystery of time (or Justice Potter Stewart did with respect to pornography), that we “know it when we see it” but are–such are the limitations of human intelligence (to say nothing of the human stomach)–utterly unable to provide anything like an accurate and comprehensive definition of the phenomenon.

Still, like a coleopterologist in the field, we can all do our little bit towards building up a library of examples in the hope that some future social Linnaeus will appear among us to impart system and order to these apparently miscellaneous scraps of pathology.

It is in that humble spirit that I direct my readers’ attention to “‘Mad Pride’ Fights a Stigma,” a story in the “Fashion and Style” section today. Allow me to begin by noting how appropriate it is that a story about reclaiming pride in insanity should appear in a section devoted to “Fashion and Style.” Some enterprising investigators will want ponder the metastasis of fashion and style in elite liberal culture. They will want to pay particular attention to the way fashion and a certain species of left-wing politics have joined forces, or perhaps “inter-married” would be a more accurate description. Here I will only point out the relevance of an earlier study by the social pathologist Tom Wolfe, whose work among the natives resulted in an important monograph on the phenomenon of Radical Chic, a fertile concept whose emanations and penumbrae have yet to be fully catalogued.

But that is work for another day. For now, let me simply recommend to your attention the Times‘s latest entry in (as Nietzsche put it) the Transvaluation of All Values. My executive summary: once upon a time, in the bad old days, being mad was “stigmatized” by small-minded cretins, er, I mean small-minded bigots. Back then, it was critical The Elect not acknowledge that someone who seemed, you know, STARK RAVING BONKERS was mad or insane. Those are prejudicial terms, and we members of The Elect have read Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing and we know that sanity is a social construction. Despite George W. Bush, we members of The Elect have been eagerly spreading enlightenment and now it is time for this traditional victim group to reclaim its heritage and take pride in its “differently-abled” mentality. In short: We’re mad. We’re glad. Get used to it.

Lest that precis seem too schematic, let me quote from the story by the Times reporter Gabrielle Glaser:

Just as gay-rights activists reclaimed the word queer as a badge of honor rather than a slur, these advocates proudly call themselves mad; they say their conditions do not preclude them from productive lives.

Mad pride events, organized by loosely connected groups in at least seven countries including Australia, South Africa and the United States, draw thousands of participants, said David W. Oaks, the director of MindFreedom International, a nonprofit group in Eugene, Ore., that tracks the events and says it has 10,000 members.

Recent mad pride activities include a Mad Pride Cabaret in Vancouver, British Columbia; a Mad Pride March in Accra, Ghana; and a Bonkersfest in London that drew 3,000 participants. (A follow-up Bonkersfest is planned next month at the site of the original Bedlam asylum.)

Of course, every revolution spawns factions and splinter groups. And so it is no surprise that what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” should taint the pride and happiness of these newly enfranchised lunatics, if I may employ another traditional epithet that is in need of semantic rehabilitation.

Members of the mad pride movement do not always agree on their aims and intentions. For some, the objective is to continue the destigmatization of mental illness. A vocal, controversial wing rejects the need to treat mental afflictions with psychotropic drugs and seeks alternatives to the shifting, often inconsistent care offered by the medical establishment.

Oh, the mad, bad “medical establishment.” It not only keeps harping on the difference between sanity and insanity but also insists on “privileging” one over the other! How judgmental. How prejudiced. How unlike The New York Times.