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National Observer Home > No. 57 - Winter 2003 > Book Reviews

Book Review: the Politics of Deviance

by Anne B. Hendershott

San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002, pp. 194 and index.

There is a certain type of lazy-minded Australian who imagines, on the strength of various thoroughly objectionable sociologists, that the whole idea of sociology is a conscious swindle. Since his distaste derives from no inherent aversion to gibberish or sloppy thinking — he will eagerly embrace any economist and any philosopher, however obnoxious or mendacious, who panders to his own views — it clearly has other causes. Examination of these causes requires not so much sustained intellectual effort, as the stoicism of the housewife who steels herself to pick up a moribund cockroach and thrust it in the rubbish-bin. A more agreeable, as well as more worthwhile, endeavour in every respect is the study of Anne B. Hendershott's new treatise: steeped in knowledge of long-standing sociological issues, replete with invocations of recognisably serious (if not always convincing) thinkers, and — mirabile dictu — governed by a clear moral sense, one all the more effective because the author can distinguish between morality and moralising.

Professor Hendershott, who teaches at the University of San Diego, is confronted by the dilemma that awaits any writer on the topic: in the early twenty-first-century English-speaking world's popular culture, more akin to the Weimar Republic than to anything adult, what exactly is deviance? Can deviance, which by definition implies some more or less universally admitted moral norm to deviate from, retain any meaning whatsoever in post-Christian societies like ours? Given (in particular) that those same erotic practices which as recently as three decades ago were banned throughout the West are now not merely allowed but, in numerous sub-cultures, a job requirement for anyone with the slightest career ambition — and that even where they are not required, it is illegal to condemn them — has not the entire notion of deviance gone the way of phrenology, Pelmanism, Emile Coué's auto-suggestion, and suchlike fossil-faiths? These are among the questions that Professor Hendershott is at once compelled to ask, and able to go a long, detailed way towards answering. She herself puts it thus:

"Most sociologists in the face of this juggernaut, have been disinclined even to speak of the concept of deviance any more. To do so would require a willingness to discuss behaviour such as homosexuality, teenage promiscuity, adultery and addiction in relation to standards of ‘acceptable conduct’."

She recalls with a certain understandable nostalgia the heady years when merely to include "deviance" in a lecture's title would pack the hall with voyeurs eager to hear the latest marginally academic gossip about perversions and psychoses (these days, when far more perverse and psychotic activities can be viewed in glorious living colour at the nearest movie-house, a certain redundancy is apt to set in). Within the same context, she surveys Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1992 "defining deviancy down" speech to the American Sociological Association: though as Moynihan had already proved a hagiographer of Martin Luther King, and afterwards turned into a cynical defender of the Clintons, he would himself appear a fairly fragrant example of that corruption which he bemoaned.

In an analysis that for all its concision is exceptionally wide-ranging (anorexia nervosa's politicisation one moment, euthanasia rackets the next), Professor Hendershott treats so many themes that a reviewer cannot do them all justice. Selection therefore becomes imperative, and two of her themes warrant special note: first, the Therapeutic State's impact on mental illness, both genuine and feigned; second, the paroxysms of loathing against America's Roman Catholic Church over its episcopate's real or alleged complicity in paedophilia. Different in their outward and visible signs, both these crises share in their inward and spiritual nature an origin spelt out by British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, whom Professor Hendershott quotes: "Ours is a culture dominated by experts, experts who profess to assist the rest of us, but who instead make us their victims."

The medicalisation, or rather (for want of a less cumbersome noun) psychiatricisation, of American public life is a phenomenon for which not even the most erudite and well-disposed foreigner's knowledge of America can prepare him until he sees it for himself. No Australian environment approximates to it. The United States’ most somnolent one-horse towns — however deficient they are in street lighting, storm-water drainage, a First World postal service, or other such fripperies — will infallibly contain drugstores where hundreds and usually thousands of potent, sometimes near-lethal, medicaments can be bought for a few dollars each without the faintest hint of a prescription. Nor are such towns, if they have a middle class at all, likely to lack formalised psychiatric care for dogs and cats. Aid for seriously disturbed creatures with two legs is now subject to the same constraints in America as it is in Canada, Britain and Australia: notably the 1975 Supreme Court O’Connor v Donaldson ruling that ratified de facto deinstitutionalisation ("A finding of ‘mental illness’ alone cannot justify a State’s locking a person up against his will and keeping him indefinitely in simple custodial confinement"). This development Professor Hendershott deprecates, and she provides several case histories to justify her annoyance. In addition to discussing such grotesques as the late "therapist" R. D. Laing, she describes the still more dangerous Buford O’Neal Furrow, who in 1999 killed one person and wounded five others during a shooting spree at a Los Angeles Jewish creche. Convinced that he somehow had a divine mission to display his patriotism by killing Jews, Furrow nevertheless — before his rampage — had repeatedly sought admission to psychiatric wards; but each time he had been refused it. (His guilty plea saved him from death row; he is now serving life without the possibility of parole.)

Yet surely Professor Hendershott, in her fears of deinstitutionalisation's social impact, is confusing essences with accidents? The first Anglophone politician who systematically urged deinstitutionalisation was the very opposite of a leftist or a social engineer: Enoch Powell, in 1961, as Harold Macmillan's Minister for Health. In any event, the true menace of deinstitutionalisation is the true menace of psychiatry in general. Once one hands over to a clerisy of pseudo-scientists (so fashion-crazed that they cannot even make up their minds from year to year whether electro-convulsive therapy is a blessing or a curse) the intellectual, juridical and moral authority which belongs to Christian institutions alone, it is of comparatively little importance whether you put these pseudo-scientists’ victims on the streets, in straitjackets, or for that matter atop the Empire State Building.

The psychiatric mind is a mind of almost inconceivable greed: whether greed for power, for prestige, for money, or for using patients as sexual spittoons. In 1956 leading psychiatrist Karl Menninger announced that "most people have some degree of mental illness at some time" (translation: "How are we shrinks going to pay our mortgages and alimony unless we broaden our customer base?"). Alas, the psychiatric mind is also a totalitarian mind; and inasmuch as individual psychiatrists of some residual decency are not totalitarians, they cease — in any sense more meaningful than that of the tax-office questionnaire — to be psychiatrists. If they avoid being primarily dishonest, it is strictly to the extent that they remain careless of the difference between truth and falsehood. Their "science" is (as in their less guarded, more bibulous moments they will privately admit) dubious. In 1975 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexual vice from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders: not through discovering any experimental evidence, but through a majority vote. Maoist China's Cultural Revolution might have invented the concept of deciding eternal scientific laws by a head-count; it took America's cultural revolution to make this bad joke a permanent therapeutic reality.

This should not, of course, be interpreted as a defence of deinstitution-alisation per se. To query Professor Hendershott's attitude is simply to place deinstitutionalisation's disasters in the context of wider disasters. Perhaps it especially behoves a Sydney-born reviewer to do so, since it was at Sydney's Chelmsford Hospital during the 1960s and 1970s that Dr. Harry Bailey and his myrmidons slew at least twenty-four inmates with their deep-sleep "treatment". Still, analogous American instances abound. Witness such exposés as The Shame of the States (1948) by distinguished journalist Albert Deutsch, and Mad in America (2002) by Pulitzer laureate Robert Whitaker. Deutsch likened mental homes to "Nazi concentration camps . . . buildings swarming with naked humans herded like cattle and treated with less concern, pervaded by a foetid odour so heavy, so nauseating, that the stench seemed to have almost a physical existence of its own." (Naturally no Deutsch ever penetrated the darkness of asylums further south. At one Guatemala City madhouse in 1960, a fire incinerated 225 patients and injured another three hundred: firemen had to bulldoze a wall down before they could rescue anybody.)

It is precisely because such widespread horror continued long after Deutsch's book had faded from public consciousness, and because of such hospitals’ sub rosa function as venues for involuntary — but legal — mass sterilisations, that no amount of special pleading will ever make informed mental patients go one miserable inch back down the long-term-lockup road. (Their repugnance towards such travel is increased when they read Professor Hendershott's own account of Michael Marcavage, a student at Philadelphia's Temple University, who in 1999 was hauled off against his will to a psychiatric unit. Marcavage's "crime" was Christianity, which impelled him to oppose — in public — the on-campus production of blasphemous theatrical agitprop that depicted Jesus sodomising His disciples.)

Deprived of clueless adult guinea-pigs in sufficient quantities, numerous mental health "professionals" find themselves more and more resembling Moloch. For this role, they are admirably fitted by their own mixture of puerile optimism and susceptibility to drug corporations’ pressure (the faked clinical outcomes which Mad In America recounts would have made Lysenko himself blanch). Fraudulent childhood "diseases" such as "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder" — in plain English, "brattishness" — provide the ludicrous situation whereby the land of the free (more-over, a land whose government purported, when last heard from in domestic issues, to wage a "war on drugs") forces millions of school students to become Ritalin addicts, and their parents Ritalin peddlers, or alternatively to endure complete official ostracism. In 1998, according to an exceptionally chilling statistic that Professor Hendershott cites, taxpayer-subsidised A.D.H.D. pill-poppers in Michigan alone included 223 children aged three years or even younger. When is child abuse not child abuse? When the Welfare State, in league with pharmaceutical plutocrats, commits it.

We daily observe a similar cognitive dissonance operating against Catholic priests, who find themselves charged en bloc — and usually by outright fantasists — with same sex crimes. Admittedly, the origins of anti-Catholic animus differ even among English-speaking nations. In Professor Hendershott's homeland, the engine of anti-Catholic rage is fuelled by media-wise atheists whipping up the ancient passions of poor white trash who in earlier times would have joined the Ku Klux Klan, and of rich black trash who derive their entire learning from the most feculent daytime television talk-shows. In Australia, by contrast, such rage comes mainly from baby-boomer ex-Catholics who long ago discovered that sincere piety was a loser's game, compared with the glittering financial promises of tabloid victim culture at its most lachrymose and exhibitionistic. With both countries, the result is identical: Catholicism, which hitherto was the most powerful single weapon against Communism, paper-shuffling capitalism and materialist pornocracy overall, is today — though not, despite its foes’ mightiest labours, actually killed — at the very lowest estimate permanently weakened.

It is worth stressing (whatever polite disagreements with Professor Hendershott may have occurred above) the almost complete impossibility of any book as good as this being published in Australia. Never is Professor Hendershott less antipodean than in her concluding chapter, where she expresses her hope that the 11 September terrorist outrages may have shocked a few moral relativists into sanity. She alludes to Gertrude Himmelfarb, who reminded Americans of Victorian Britain’s discovery that help to the poor is senseless unless the latter are divided into the deserving and the undeserving. Whether anyone can be lastingly civilised by Al-Qaeda atrocities that, vile as they were, killed fewer innocent Americans than the New Class’ beloved abortion mills butcher every single day is doubtful; but at least one of Professor Hendershott's remarks defies disputing:

"The only sufficient response to the compelling marketing techniques of these [New Class] advocacy groups is a renewed willingness to make moral judgments."

Fortunately no literate individual — unless he is actually taking bribes from Rupert Murdoch, modish ethnic lobbies, or the North American Man-Boy Love Association — assumes for a moment that the post-Christian "human rights" mania, which now makes such willingness to make moral judgments totally impossible, is a permanent social condition.

R. J. Stove

National Observer No. 57 - Winter 2003