[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Good news for our fledging offspring, Dispatch Books! Our newest volume, Rebecca Solnit’s incandescent Men Explain Things to Me, published only a week ago, is already a California bestseller. It just hit both the Northern and Southern California Indie Bestseller Lists, the very week she also went on Democracy Now! to discuss feminism in light of the Isla Vista killings. For those of you who, after reading today’s piece, would like a personalized, signed copy of her incredibly timely book, a visit to the TD donation page and a $100 contribution is all that’s needed. The offer remains open for now. Tom]
It was a key match in the World Cup of Ideas. The teams vied furiously for the ball. The all-star feminist team tried repeatedly to kick it through the goalposts marked Widespread Social Problems, while the opposing team, staffed by the mainstream media and mainstream dudes, was intent on getting it into the usual net called Isolated Event. To keep the ball out of his net, the mainstream’s goalie shouted “mental illness” again and again. That “ball,” of course, was the meaning of the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.
All weekend the struggle to define his acts raged. Voices in the mainstream insisted he was mentally ill, as though that settled it, as though the world were divided into two countries called Sane and Crazy that share neither border crossings nor a culture. Mental illness is, however, more often a matter of degree, not kind, and a great many people who suffer it are gentle and compassionate. And by many measures, including injustice, insatiable greed and ecological destruction, madness, like meanness, is central to our society, not simply at its edges.
In a fascinating op-ed piece last year, T.M. Luhrmann noted that when schizophrenics hear voices in India, they’re more likely to be told to clean the house, while Americans are more likely to be told to become violent. Culture matters. Or as my friend, the criminal-defense investigator who knows insanity and violence intimately, put it, “When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever it’s immersed in—the surrounding culture’s illness.”