Rick Perlstein absolutely nailed it last month: "In America, crazy is a pre-existing condition."
I want to take this extremely useful reminder one or two steps further. We need to ask ourselves (1) When dealing with manifest mental illness, what is an effective and humane form of behavior that doesn't make things worse, for us or for them? and (2) Let's be explicit about what kind of crazy we're facing here.
Once I was having dinner with an old friend who had retired to a rural area for a while after an extended, messy break-up. She was back in town and we were catching up. She looked much brighter and happier than she had when she'd left town, and I was relieved to see it. Before we got to dessert, however, she confided that she'd finally gotten over her heartbreak after having visitations from aliens -- she could name the planet and galaxy -- who let her know she'd been born there, not on Earth, and she would always have problems relating intimately to Earthlings. I broke into giggles, but she was dead serious. She had come up with a way to cope, a narrative which worked for her, and I had about twenty seconds to figure out what to do.
That sort of situation, once the shock passes (take several sips of tea), is not so hard to handle. Ask questions, stay kind, remind yourself what they -- any of us -- really want/deserve is love and interest. Easy to remember when it's your friend. She didn't have any children she was responsible for, she was clean and eating well and driving okay, and she wasn't going around telling everybody she was from Planet X, only the folks she trusted, so she wasn't about to get locked up. Functionally delusional.
I'm thinking, at this point in America, about one out of every three people is functionally delusional. I think we've always had more than our share because of the nature of our immigration here -- folks who can healthily adjust to and remain in their home communities don't leave those communities. And being persecuted doesn't mean you haven't also become pretty messed up along the way.
On top of that revisitation of the great American myth, I also believe that white supremacy, woman-hating, class exploitation, and child abuse are all concrete forms of mental illness. They are interlinked, they have for millenia been fostered and supported by European governments and the Christian Church, and they are the bedrock upon which our country was founded. When Che said he envied us because we live in the belly of the beast, the point is not whether he was being sarcastic: The point is that living in the belly is a very poor strategic position from which to fight the beast unless you first acknowledge all your sustenance is coming from the beast.
To put it another way, if you say you are not a racist, you most definitely are. Racism is a core value in our culture and nobody escapes the conditioning. And the basic tenet of racism is not that "there are differences between the races" or whatever Websterian bullshit semantic game you want to trot out: The basic tenet of racism is white supremacy. If you are not white, you are second-class (on a good day). You are the Other. You are a risk to the American Way of Life.
Yes, some white Europeans got labeled not-quite-white or The Other for a while, but that merely proves the point. You can lose your position of safety in a system built on racism by associating with/defending/or becoming not-white. It keeps white people in line, this risk; most especially working-class white folks who are already on thin ice.
So, because of a brilliant campaign in which one of the subliminal messages was "I'm not entirely black, I'm not black like Jesse Jackson or Jeremiah Wright, I've picked up enough class polish to not embarrass you like Dubya, and I will NOT make America deal with its bedrock racism", we've elected an African-American to the Presidency. I'm not saying those are the only reasons Obama was elected, but for too many white people who cast the deciding votes, I believe the hope that we could simply side-step racism and Just Be Together made Obama someone they voted for.
Plus: The mess about to handed to the next President was godawful. Who do we get to clean up our messes for us in this country? The really terrible messes, the ones that make you need to gag? Women and/or People of Cullah. Goes without saying.
But for that 30% who are functionally delusional, part of their functionality vanished when the Presidency didn't go to a white guy. They simply cannot cope with what has actually occurred. They are, to use jargon, decompensating. I happen to believe the impact would have been just a great if Hillary had been elected, and if there's one bright lining in all these, it's that I'm not having to listen to the non-stop woman-hating jag that would be going on if she'd been elected. Not Sarah Palin, because she is a Real Woman, according to the delusion, which means she's under the thumb of a man. But in comparison to all the horrifying racism that has bubbled up to the surface (didn't have far to go, let's be honest), if it were Hillary as target, it wouldn't just be the Right. It would be all our nice liberal boys who get twitchy at the mention of her name.
You'll see their flecks of spittle start appearing in the comments as soon as I post this. Until I delete those comments for being unhingedly off the point, that is.
Thus, the racism that was always there, always running the show, has been unmasked for a lot of white people, and we can't live in the same comfortable pretense that we had before. Even those of us who have other labels which make us pitchforks-and-torches targets -- dykes, fags, Jews, crips, poor and not upwardly mobile -- have had a jolt, seeing how much crazy is pouring from the seams. To quote Madge, "We're soaking in it."
And the only way to clean it up thoroughly is to scrub down to bare wood. Otherwise, we'll keep having what we've got.
It won't be Obama and his inner circle who does this work. It's going to be so-called progressives (which is not a cohesive, clearly defined community, either) who will help steward our culture from about to self-destructive Crazy to admitting-we-have-a-problem-and-maybe-we-can-work-on-it Crazy. What I've promised myself in this process is to not lie just because what I'm criticizing Obama and his crew for may remind me/us of the hate pouring from racism. I have to remember, I voted for him, I want him to succeed, I want him to find a way to live up to ideals that he may have only mouthed for political expedience, but people can change.
And here's a few thoughts I've had over the last couple of weeks.
(1) The Birther insanity is code for "There is no such thing as a legitimate black birth." Admitting that black children can be born with as much legitimacy as white children strokes a sledgehammer blow at white supremacy. ESPECIALLY if it's the result of miscegenation, which was still illegal in this country for a chunk of my lifetime.
(2) The school speech "controversy" is code for "We don't let our children see or hear black people who speak well and with pride." This is no joke: Families built around authoritarian principles don't let African-American images in television come into their homes, unless they are being arrested by cops, clearly poor and/or "know their place", or the parents are there to make sure the kids hear non-stop racism instead of noticing the black people look/sound like people. White people who have been raised with this kind of isolation and deliberate poisoning are all around us. Continuing that practice is the real point of not letting their kids hear Obama speak in a non-racist, public setting. Contagion, you know -- if they find out they can be lesbians, their daughters will never choose men, and if they find out black people can be smart and powerful, they'll insist on living in a world where that's the case.
(3) Having lots of people openly carry guns makes public settings extremely unsafe for everybody present. Statistics have proven it over and over again: Add a gun to a crowd, and the odds of somebody innocent dying go way up. The point of having armed presence at public forums is to scare away the non-crazies, to get us used to further militarization of our discourse and community environments, and to have weapons handy in case somebody goes off the deep end and DOESN'T HAVE ONE OF THEIR OWN TO USE. "Hey, I was just carrying for self-defense, how was I to know that lunatic would snatch it from my holster and fire at the President?"
(4) Recruitment and glomming together of the deranged can be subtle. During the 1980s, the activist group I worked with finally figured out how come the Klan and Nazis kept having rallies in places where they were absolutely going to be shouted down by the opposition. They didn't hope to persuade any of us to change our minds, and they knew they were pissing off the neighborhoods they intruded upon. But because of that antagonism, they had to be surrounded by cops two or three rows deep, cops who were facing screaming commies, Jews, lesbians, and POC. Those cops were the Klan's recruitment target. These days it's cops plus the military.
(5) If somebody says, in any translation, that they cannot handle what is actually occurring -- and we're hearing that now, 24/7 -- we need to point out over and over again that THEY are the ones with a problem. Crazy people seldom admit they are crazy.
(6) You don't argue with crazy people. We go on with our work, and if they interfere, we say "Nope, I don't have time to help you right now with your emotional imbalance" and MEAN IT.
[Cross-posted at Group News Blog.]