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The Power Of Ideas

Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastos von Honheim, better known as Paracelsus. And now I know why

Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastos von Honheim, better known as Paracelsus. And now I know why

I’m currently reading a book that asks the simplest question imaginable: Why did science as we understand the term develop in particular areas of northern Europe and not, say, in southern Europe or China? I remember reading Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverer’s when I was in college and his argument was a variation on American Exceptionalism: Science developed in the west because We Are Great. The author of this book, however, has little to no interest in such nonsense. He wants sound historical reasons why a particular way of understanding the world developed over several centuries in particular places and not others. He wants to know why this is so despite rudiments and bits and pieces developed elsewhere.

I’m not quite half-way through, so I don’t know the answer this gentleman offers. I do know, however, that I am very grateful a historian insists on including the importance of alchemy in European Renaissance and Baroque thought. Unlike scientists and historians of science, particularly those wedded to a Whig history of science – that science as we know it emerged because it is Right and True – the real world is a messy place. Most folks prefer a History For Dummies guide, leaving out the subtleties, complexities, and contradictions that always exist within human communities. No country on earth supports basic scientific research the way the United States (despite nonsensical attacks from ignorant critics who don’t understand what basic research is); yet a large plurality of the American public is scientifically illiterate.

Another example I always find amusing is the way some of the most reactionary, restrictive, authoritarian churches use modern technology to the point of excess. Most mainstream churches are rushing to catch up, whether it’s with “praise teams”, the use of video, or the elimination of the pulpit at the seat for the proclamation of the Word of God. When preaching, clergy tend to wander down to the center of the chancel, sometimes using an iPad rather than note cards (something a pastor in my home church used while preaching from the pulpit). For some reason, because of the success the churches using all these bells and whistles experience – the chairs (not pews) are filled; the bank accounts are filled; the clergy become celebrities – we in the dowdy mainstream are ditching our liturgical practices as fast as we can in order to achieve the same goal of growth.

Which is a bit like putting on a Speedo or bikini and thinking one then has a hot body.

Not precisely Hugh Jackman at the beach, is it?

Not precisely Hugh Jackman at the beach, is it?

Unlike all those Whig historians of science, say, or all those mega-churches with Starbucks in their food courts, self-published books by the clergy, enormous screens and sound systems that would make the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound look small and quiet, we in the mainstream are told, over and over again, how old we are. We are dowdy. Our church buildings are old. Our congregations are old. Our music is old. Our liturgy is old. Our clergy are old. Old old old old OLDOLDOLD!!! In the United States no one wants to be old. So we’re off to the religious version of the sporting wear section of Macy’s and we buy the latest and best looking and most expensive “hottest thing”, advertise how cool and up-to-date we are, then throw open the doors and wait for the hoards to come running.

In the process we forget what really distinguishes us folks in the dowdy mainstream from all those flashy megachurches with their concert surround sound, mini-malls, and clergy with hair parted just so, gleaming teeth that reflect the light in the audience’s (not congregation’s) eyes, and kiosks with ATMs outside the worship-area’s doors so folks can use their ATMs and credit cards to give extra. We have something all those folks with their media consultants and “best sellers” don’t: We have the messiness of life. We don’t offer “answers”. We don’t insist that folks should all think like everyone else, look like everyone else, give as much as everyone else. We don’t claim that membership in our congregations are a mark of social status. We don’t make wild claims about the simplicity of the Scriptural testimony, or how “believing in the Bible” (how I hate that phrase with the heat of a thousand suns) will help make you rich, get your kids in the best schools, get you that job or promotion or raise, or keep your spouse from stepping out on you.

Sure, we’re old, we mainline Protestant churches. Not as old as either Roman Rite and Orthodox Churches, to be sure. By American standards, however, we’re decrepit. Our church buildings reflect a time we had social status, political power, and offered a vision of the Christian life that melded quite well both with the simplicity of much of working class/farm/petty bourgeois life. It also offered not so much a guide to better living as the hope there was more to being who we were than our socially and economically determined roles. The success of American capitalism, however, has left the message of faith, the promise in the message of hope, and the ties that bind in our message of love something that just doesn’t meet our needs for a simple, clear message that what God wants for us is success, upward mobility, and certainly no need to go through the hassle of making difficult moral choices. All that is packaged for us by folks who tell us what to believe and how. No need to deal with a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual America. No need to deal with an America filled with folks who look differently than we, who love differently than we, who have sex differently than we, and who don’t care about success the way we do. In the religious equivalent of gated communities for which people pay exorbitant prices to keep the riff-raff at bay, our security and separation are accomplished for us.

Which is why our mainstream Protestant churches are like that historian I noted above. We aren’t wedded to some idea of success, defined for us as good looks, good jobs, lots of money, well-behaved children who don’t experiment with sex and drugs, and marriages that work because the partners can check all those boxes on the checklists provided for them that determine what makes a successful marriage. No, we mainstream Protestants are old. The world is a messy place, filled with contradictory ideas. It’s a world filled with all kinds of people who think and live all sorts of ways. We know this is true because we are old and we remember our history, how who we are is rooted in who we were. The future isn’t something that belongs to the beautiful, successful folks. The future, like the past and present, is God’s. The organ might wheeze a bit. The congregation may have more gray hair than brown or black or red. We might be in need of all sorts of support to keep ourselves afloat in a world awash in megachurches that are the equivalent of all those Whig historians who believe that present success pre-determined past performance and defines who wins and loses, who’s in and who’s out. Still, I’d rather be old, getting older by the day, and look around the world and see all sorts of faces, hear all sorts of voices, notice all sorts of relationship, and struggling to keep up with our ever-changing world. To grow old is to be alive. To be able to see the world as it is in all its messiness, confusion, and contrariness is a gift. To refuse to offer answers but rather insist that the best any of us can hope for is Divine Presence in the midst of the confusion and travails of a life lived for others is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now that’s old. And I wonder how it went out of fashion.


A Weapon In The Arsenal Of A Repressive State

Probably few ages have felt so inescapably the transition to a becoming different, to something coming up, as the present one has. But the bourgeoisie reacts all the more sheepishly and blingly to this, shows no interest at all or only a hostile interest in the reflection of tomorrow. For this bourgeoisie, coming events merely cast their shadow, nothing but shadow; capitalist society senses itself negated by the future. . . . All psycho-analysis, with repression as its central notion, sublimation as a mere subsidiary notion (for substitution, for hopeful illusions), is therefore necessarily retrospective. . . . [P]sychoanalysis developed in a class which was superannuated even then, in a society without future. S Freud exaggerated the dimensions of libido of these parasites and recognized no other onward, let alone upward drive. Nor any other dreams than those which the Lord, now called Eros, gives his beloved in sleep. . . . . C. G. Jung’s notion of the unconscious consigned itself all the more completely to the cellar of consciousness, since it is only there that the opium with which Fascism stupefies utopia can be smoked. Jung also interprets what is beginning to dawn in an utterly archaic and occult fashion, analogous to the prophetic – sleep in the temple. – Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, p. 137


If you're afraid of the idea of spending time talking about your life with a stranger, that might just be what you need.

If you’re afraid of the idea of spending time talking about your life with a stranger, that might just be what you need.

We are in the midst of a real intellectual struggle in this country. On one side are folks who do research, create and test hypotheses, construct theories, and offer their tentative conclusions to the public. On the other side are those who insist that this practice is either amoral or actively immoral, leaving us vulnerable to everything from gross mass-manipulation to whispered conspiracies of hidden cures. Science is a  continually-evolving practice that has helped humanity do everything from eradicate diseases like smallpox to fly robotic spacecraft to every planet in the solar system, and even leave that solar system, waving goodbye as its batteries die and it turns and looks back at the invisible home from which it blasted off nearly forty years ago. Still, because so much of it seems hermetic, carried out as it is in the language of mathematics, there are those who manipulate our ignorance and fears as a weapon to destroy a most-useful tool.

At the same time, real criticisms of science such as the above quoted portion of Ernst Bloch’s far larger radical critique of the class bias inherent in psychology are most helpful in reminding all of us that, as helpful, even life-saving and -giving, as science has been and will continue to be, it is not something that exists outside the politics and economics of class relations. In particular, Bloch’s analysis both of Freud’s psychoanalysis and Jung’s depth psychology keep both firmly planted in their origins: late-19th century cosmopolitan Vienna and early 20th century occult salons associated variously with both Fascism and Nazism. Bloch is not denying the reality of psychology and its clinical use; he is, rather, criticizing how its is used as part of the larger system of class repression, in particular denying the power of dreams to act as catalysts for creating a better society. These kinds of critical analyses are necessary to correct particular blindnesses to the abuse of particular sciences.

Today, I saw an article that masqueraded as a brave criticism of one particular part of the DSM but was filled with errors and was, by the end, little different than the nonsense we read from creationists, anti-vaxxers, and global warming deniers.

Is nonconformity and freethinking a mental illness?According to the newest addition of the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), it certainly is. The manual identifies a new mental illness called“oppositional defiant disorder” or ODD. Defined as an “ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile and defiant behavior,” symptoms include questioning authority, negativity, defiance, argumentativeness, and being easily annoyed. . . .

New mental illnesses identified by the DSM-IV include arrogance, narcissism, above-average creativity, cynicism, and antisocial behavior. In the past, these were called “personality traits,” but now they’re diseases. And there are treatments available. . . .

When the last edition of the DSM-IV was published, identifying the symptoms of various mental illnesses in children, there was a jump in the diagnosis and medication of children. Some states have laws that allow protective agencies to forcibly medicate, and even make it a punishable crime to withhold medication.  This paints a chilling picture for those of us who are nonconformists. Although the authors of the manual claim no ulterior motives but simply better diagnostic practices, the labeling of freethinking and nonconformity as mental illnesses has a lot of potential for abuse. It can easily become a weapon in the arsenal of a repressive state.

There is so much wrong with this, I’m not sure where to begin. Let’s begin with the whole “DSM-IV”. “DSM” is the shorthand for The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, the Bible as it were of psychiatry. By identifying particular behaviors as symptomatic of pathologies, the DSM gives doctors the tools to diagnose and treat them. The “IV” after “DSM” means that the author is referencing the fourth revision of the DSM. The thing is, we are up to DSM-V, a relatively recent revision that removed a variety of mental disorders as well as adding others, as usually happens. The particular disorder under scrutiny, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, isn’t “new”. It’s been identified as a particular psychological disorder with a cluster of behaviors that are identified as symptomatic. ODD is an illness in children; it might indicate future pathologies, or if diagnosed and treated properly, it could offer children a healthier childhood.

ODD isn’t about “freethinking” or “non-conformity”. This isn’t about making sure kids who color outside the lines do so through the interposition of unneeded medication. The behaviors in question are not only socially disruptive; they indicate the child in question does more than question authority, but expresses often dangerous behaviors that, if not treated, can lead to future behaviors that are even more dangerous. Far from being a way to control kids who might like to wear different colored socks to school, or color their hair blue, a diagnosis of ODD and its treatment could help a child not only to socialize in more constructive ways, but to benefit from healthy interactions with others, including authority figures.

The DSM-IV hasn’t been around for fifty years. The DSM, in various forms, editions, and revisions, has been around for a long while. Once upon a time, homosexuality was a diagnosable mental disorder, treated either through electroconvulsive therapy or radical behavioral modification, including aversion therapies. That it is no longer demonstrates that psychology is indeed a science, self-correcting and willing to admit error. To claim, as one commenter does that “[p]sychiatry is not a science . . . [as it is] based upon fraudulent research” is to express ignorance of the highest order. It is little different from anti-vaxxers insisting vaccines cause autism, creationists who insist evolution isn’t a scientific theory (or if it is, it is “only” a theory, demonstrating ignorance of what scientific theories are and how they function), and global warming deniers who toss snowballs in the well of the United States Senate to claim global warming is a hoax.

There are two ways to deal with anti-science folks. You can demonstrate all the ways they are wrong, ignorant, and even dangerous; or you can ignore them. In this case, I think it’s important to make clear just how wrong the article in question is. It is certainly true that psychology and psychiatry have been both wrong and abused in the past. The abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union is particularly egregious. This doesn’t necessarily mean the DSM is a weapon in the hands of dastardly, mustache-twirling government bureaucrats to repress free thought and non-conformity. It can certainly be the case that such might occur, but that isn’t the fault either of psychology itself, and certainly not the DSM.

Furthermore, being a “freethinker” or “nonconformist” should never mean buying a line of anti-science hokum because it fits with one’s preferred way of living in the world. For example, I know Ernst Bloch was not anti-science, and his criticisms of the class bias inherent in Freud’s and Jung’s theories were not only spot on, but a useful corrective to the ways psychoanalysis and depth psychology were less than helpful in many ways. For example, Bloch points out that Freud was a pretty gloomy guy, resigned to repression as necessary for healthy functioning in a society in which non-conformity in anything from politics to art could be understood as pathological. We no longer think folks who are political radicals or are happy to live outside the boundaries of accepted boundaries of social life are mentally ill. On the other hand, self-declared radicals or free-thinkers can indeed demonstrate pathological behaviors indicative of mental illness. Just consider Abbie Hoffman, for example, all the while posing as a political radical who has a deep streak of misogyny, rejecting Second Wave Feminism by saying, “The only contact I have with a woman’s movement is in bed.”

Do folks who live outside the norm have anything to fear from the medical establishment? I think all of us should be wary of too-quick diagnoses; the best doctors, however, are, too which is why they recommend second opinions. Whether it’s the possibility of a gall bladder in need of removal or possibly pathological behaviors indicating an underlying psychological problem in need of treatment, it is far better to have two or three folks agree both on the diagnosis and treatment rather than just jumping in to some recommended treatment plan. It’s one thing to reach middle-age and decide it’s time to do some things in one’s life that one’s been putting off; it’s quite another to reach middle-age and dump one’s spouse and family out of fear of getting old. The former is a perfectly healthy response to aging while the latter is not. While I don’t know if there’s a recommended treatment for men getting trophy wives or buying unaffordable sports cars (beyond a kick in the ass), it should be pretty clear there are real distinctions here.

Bad-mouthing psychology and psychiatry is a kind of sport. It’s usually a sport for people who have no idea what they’re talking about, kind of like a baseball team made up of sports journalists. Imagine a baseball team made up of folks from Sports Illustrated. Particularly in a time it’s so easy to receive accurate information about everything from making martinis to how to build a particle accelerator the only excuse for this kind of ignorant anti-science writing is a real fear of what psychology might offer. Even with its class and political biases.