Monday, June 18, 2012

Disordered Afflictions

I guess someone's already writing a book about the Jerry Sandusky affair – even though the trial's only half over. There are so many layers of metaphor in it all – starting, of course, with the phenomenon of a college town where football is a religion, a fetish, an obsession... and a monolithic juggernaut that one defies only at great risk. Football becomes, in short, a law unto itself... and when you're talking about a place like Penn State, which sits in an isolated valley in Central Pennsylvania, with nothing around but trees, it starts to look like some sort of cult, with its adherents huddled together in a communal survivalist camp, brainwashed each morning before breakfast, and living in awe, and fear, of their rulers.

And it's not like this could not have happened anywhere, because it could. It's just that when it happens in a mountain fastness like State College, it starts to look like something that happened in a kind of Never-Never Land (Michael Jackson, white courtesy phone) (um... ). The area is even called Happy Valley, for gosh sakes! But things are not so happy these days, since a revered coach was accused of, and arrested for, taking sexual advantage of a number of young boys in his charge. To indulge in typical media hyperbole, the mask has been ripped off what was formerly an idyllic place and an archetypal American way of life. So in that sense, it's a modern take on “Main Street” or “Winesburg, Ohio” -- or, maybe more properly, "Peyton Place".

The sad drama will drone on for a while longer – but the outcome is already considered inevitable. “Coach” will be locked up in the perv and pedophile wing of the state pen, and life will go on. But it's interesting how typical, in a way, the trajectory has been – the cover-ups, the accommodations, the benign (or otherwise) neglect... followed by “shocking revelations”... followed by a circling of the wagons combined with great feelings of ambivalence and disillusion. If your perfect place turns out to be a hotbed of iniquity, and your idols turn out to have feet of clay, where then do you go? Is nowhere safe?

And it's odd how the pendulum swings back and forth on these matters. During the era of the child-abuse witch hunts of the 1980s, everyone believed everything any child said – or was rumored to have said, or was encouraged to say – about having been abused. But as those cases (some, not all) fell apart, we started to hear more about “false memory” than about “believing the children” (no matter how fantastic the allegations were) -- and this was, I suppose, one of the reasons for the skepticism that followed, which extended to allegations of sexual abuse by priests (and other persons in positions of power and authority over children). The mood changed from one of hysteria to one of caution – over-caution, some would say. Thus, what the statisticians call a “Type I error” -- believing in an effect which did not occur – turned into a “Type II error” -- believing that an effect which actually did occur did not. And it all reflects the overloaded emotional content of this issue... which courts, to give them a bit of credit, have seemed recently a bit more willing to work through in a search for the actual facts. It will never be an emotionally-neutral, rational, business-like affair – this is too much to ask in a society obsessed with sex – but it may be that we're at least on the right track.

But to all of this has been added a new note of... I can't call it anything but absurdity. The latest defense ploy in the Sandusky case has been to call “expert witnesses” (there's a warning signal for you) to testify that Sandusky “has a condition known as histrionic personality disorder”. Um... have you ever heard of this “disorder” up to now? I haven't. One suspects it was made up just for the purpose of this trial, the way some alien virus will appear in a sci-fi movie and start turning everyone into green slime as a plot point. It's being presented, mind you, not as an excuse but as a reason – hopefully to ameliorate, somewhat, the severity of the charges, or of the jury's image of the accused, or of the sentence... whatever. As a P.R. ploy it's about as effective as “I was just following orders”, a la Adolf Eichmann. 

But have you noticed that an ever-larger proportion of society is being diagnosed (usually at a safe distance by “experts”) with some sort of “disorder” these days? The trend is especially marked in public schools, where we, all of a sudden, are burdened with an avalanche of kids with “ADHD”... problems “adjusting”... “attitude problems”... autism... allergies, sensitivities... et cetera. I mean... you can make this stuff up; it's not hard. Take a kid who never turns his homework in on time – he's obviously a victim of “Learning Non-Cooperation Disorder” in an overly structured environment that is not sensitive to his “needs”. A kid who downs too many Cokes during school hours is clearly suffering from “Pre-Addictive Behavior Syndrome”. If he prefers to walk to school rather than riding the school bus, he's suspected of having anti-social tendencies, and falling somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum. How long is it going to be before every public-school child is “sick”, and thus needs special treatment and therapy – and we all know what big bucks there are in all that. It's all part of the drive toward nanny-statism, which is a subset of totalitarianism.

And I'm not saying that all of this is totally fictional. When I was in grade school, there was this one kid – the absolute bane of the teachers' existence – who would, by today's standards, be classified as ADHD. With a vengeance! This kid was a holy terror. I used to wonder whether the teachers drew straws before the beginning of the school year to see who would get stuck with this kid for the next 10 months. But hey – that was one kid, out of the whole class (numbering 166 by the time of graduation). And sure, we had our antisocial elements, AKA “hoods”... our bullies... and a few “special needs” kids (who were put, in those days, into “occupational education” -- I guess to be made ready to work in sheltered workshops, I don't know). But no one dropped dead from inhaling peanut fumes! I mean, good grief.

I suppose Nietzsche would call our obsession with the “other-abled” an example of degenerate Christian charity, and he would pronounce it not only wrong, but downright anti-Darwinian. Nazi Germany was an example of institutionalized social Darwinism, where the unfit had to be weeded out in order to make room for the “master race”. (And didja ever notice that all their exemplars of the “master race” were muscular blonds, while most if not all of the Nazi leaders had dark hair, and most of them were either overweight or scrawny?)

The challenge, in our time, is to try and find the middle ground between these two extremes – but the reason this has become one of the government's highest priorities is that the more traditional ideas of voluntary charity have been so seriously eroded. We don't know what to “do” with outliers, so fall all over ourselves trying to reconcile our firm belief in Darwinism with a warped, secular version of charity – which is not charity at all, since it typically involves coercion, of either the provider or the recipient, or both.

My home town had its share – some would say more than its share – of outliers. There really was a “village idiot” -- more than one, in fact. There were kids who “weren't right”... old people who were senile... drunks... bad-asses... bullies... the entire colorful panoply of small-town characters mixed in with the “normal” people (who only got drunk or committed adultery if absolutely necessary, and then behind closed doors). And yes, there were “gays” and lesbians who were quite well closeted and managed to fool just about everyone, maybe even themselves. But here's the difference. There were no labels – or very few. There was a kind of unschooled acceptance – these people were a bit odd, but they were ours, OK? They belonged there; we couldn't imagine them being anywhere else. And on those few occasions when one was sent off to a “special school” or an asylum, it was considered a loss more than a sign of progress or humanitarianism. And why? Simple loyalty? Tribal cohesion? Yes, but more than that, it might have made people think along the lines of “There but for the grace of God...”, etc. Maybe we were all a little bit sick. But in these times you have to be Sick with a capital S. You have to have a “syndrome”... a “disorder”... you have to be declared “challenged”. (Someone pointed out a while back that people who get this label aren't really “challenged” at all – it's the rest of us who are challenged by their presence in our midst.) 

So we get back to poor old Jerry Sandusky. He now has a label! Praise be! He now has an official designation, and – by implication – a place in the scheme of things. There's a slot he fits into (if that is the word...). Even if he goes trundling off to jail for life, at least he gets a ribbon, or certificate of some sort – and it's not really his fault (the objective of humanist/secular society being to remove all responsibility for one's actions).

But where is the freedom in all this – the freedom to simply be, without being labeled? Why are all the various victim groups and minorities (of all sorts) so anxious to get a socially-approved name – to be called something? To form a lobby? To stage marches and rallies?  To come up with a ribbon color that hasn't been used yet?  Why does a homosexual who has been “closeted” for 50 years all of a sudden have to “come out” and call himself “gay”? “Gay” is not a condition, it's a lifestyle – if he were “gay” we'd already have known it.

And then you have the pharmaceutical industry – oy vey! For every name, syndrome, disorder, condition, or label there is a drug at the ready – and usually more than one. And they cost plenty! But not to worry, the government, AKA the taxpayers, will pick up the tab. This is just further evidence that the whole thing is a racket. And like all rackets, it starts with something real which then metastasizes into a monstrosity. There really were, and are, autistic individuals, for example – but who profits when the diagnosis of autism multiplies ten-fold over just a few years? Is the rate really going up (no time now to argue about vaccines)? And even if so... that much? Are we really becoming a sick society? Or has diagnosis gotten out of hand? I think what it really is is a form of regimentation – everyone has to wear the uniform of the state, everyone has to have a rank and an approved specialty, and if you don't they will hunt you down. The Nazis used to brag that they were eliminating the unfit from society – and their definition of “unfit” was quite broad – broader, even, than Margaret Sanger's and all the other enlightened eugenicists'. Well, we're a bit more humane than that, I guess – we don't send them off to death camps, but we do insist on the labeling, cubbyholing process, and I, for one, see this as a threat to individuality, dignity, true diversity (vs. the political variety), and therefore freedom. There must a way to leave people alone without leaving them all alone, if you see what I mean. Why can't even institutionalized charity be combined with a little more respect? The way we “celebrate” people these days is that we do so “despite their (insert label here)”. Why can't we celebrate them just for being whoever they are, and save the labels for canned goods?

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