Prophets in a Freudian age

We live in an age of mental illness, with every human behavior ascribed to some psychiatric pathology. Nobody suffers anymore from the sin of vanity. Instead, they’re narcissistic. People don’t keep their house immaculate, as they used to in my mom’s era, they’re obsessive. That gal you know who has a flair for drama is histrionic. Everything comes with a label.

Those are just the small behaviors, of course, and I’m being a bit tongue in cheek.  I know that there’s a huge difference between the gal who keeps her house clean and the one who obsessively scrubs all surfaces with bleach, several times a day. And there’s a difference between the man who appreciates his own undoubted good looks, and the man so insecure in himself that he can make himself feel better only by womanizing (Clinton and Kennedy spring to mind) or by denigrating and controlling everyone around him (take your pick of candidates, because I bet you know someone like that). In other words, the itches and twitches of human nature have always been there, and our modern age simply reclassifies them as psychiatric disorders, rather than character flaws.

The really big change from days of yore has come with the major mental illnesses. In times past, people who heard voices, depending on the nature of the voices, were considered possessed of the devil or touched by God. Now, depending on the range of symptoms, they’re “merely” delusional or they are worryingly paranoid schizophrenic. I’ve seen a lot of those people, since I grew up in San Francisco after the ACLU’s successful campaign to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. Many of these wretched souls did not have families who could care for them (whether because there was no family at all or because they were too destructive to have at home). Unable to work and unable to pay rent they drifted inevitably onto the streets, where the ACLU has consistently made sure they had the right to live, regardless of the unbelievable burden this imposes on ordinary taxpayers trying to create a clean, safe environment.

Some of the homeless sat there like alcohol-sodden, smelly lumps, faces buried in their chests, tin cup placed discretely in front of them. Others stood up and actively begged: “Will work for food.” “Haven’t eaten in three days.” I believed the latter, not the former. The scary ones, however, talked, not to those around them, but to some invisible conversation partner. If you got too close, you could hear gibberish, or pleasant visions or, more frighteningly, harangues rich in blood and violence. Although most of the delusional homeless people were harmless, even the ones with the wildest and most scary internal lives, bad things could and did periodically happen. (Indeed, a police officer was the victim of the latest violent attack from a San Francisco homeless person.)

As a child of the modern era, the one thing I’ve always known about the wild ones, the talkers, is that they were mentally ill. Since neither I nor my friends and colleagues were trained in psychiatry, we had convenient pop culture psychiatric terms by which to describe them. The ones who were just hearing voices were “delusional.” The ones who were scary, since they seemed to have a sense of persecution and the rage to respond, were “paranoid schizophrenic.”

I’ve always realized, of course, that these syndromes are not unique to the modern age. As I noted at the start of this post, they’re just labeled differently now, and we have an entirely different understanding of their origin. In other words, it is impossible to imagine a prophet living now, not because prophets cannot still walk among us, but because we are pretty much incapable of acknowledging that such talk can come from God, rather than from a malformed brain or mixed up neurochemicals.

I got to thinking about all of this because I’m reading Robert Spencer’s The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.  In it, Spencer relies solely on original Muslim texts (the Koran, the Haditha, etc), to examine who Muhammad the man really was, as opposed to the idealized figure presented to the West (and presented to most non-Arab speaking Muslims).  Muhammad, by his own admission and by the acclaim of his followers, heard voices.  As Spencer demonstrates, an amazing number of these Angelic voices either repeated, with varying degrees of accuracy, stories from the Old and New Testaments (or from supporting analyses prevalent at the time) or they authorized Muhammad to do exactly what he wanted to do in the first place.  Given these facts, my inclination is to believe that the only voices he heard were those of his own desires, but that’s just me.

Assuming Muhammad did hear voices, so many of those voices were hostile and violent.  Jews were out to get him and they must die.  Christians were out to get him, although not as badly as the Jews, so they didn’t have to die as much.  Neighboring tribes were out to get him, so they must be defeated in war and brought to heel.  Women, his favorite wives notwithstanding, were evil temptresses and must be controlled.  If I were hearing him on the streets of San Francisco in the 1980s, I would have turned to my friends and muttered “paranoid schizophrenic.”  They would have nodded, and we all would have wondered when he would finally be picked for the 5150 observation that allows homeless people to be locked up and observed for three days to determine if they are a danger to themselves or others.

Now, if Jesus were standing on a street corner in this psychiatric age, we also would have listened to him, nodded profoundly to each other, and said “delusional.”  We would have been dismayed by his hearing voices (only crazy people not only talk to God, but hear God talking back), but we would not have been frightened by his visions.  They are humane and generous (which is why it was so bizarre when MSM types were both horrified and snide about the fact that Bush, in 2000, said Jesus was his favorite philosopher).   Nowadays, Jesus wouldn’t be 5150’d (clearly harmless), but he’d definitely be disregarded, treated not as a prophet and Son of God, but as the product of mental illness.

My question for you is, if you lived in a psychiatric age, but were nevertheless required to place yourself in the camp of either Jesus or Muhammad, would you choose to ally yourself with the man who is delusional, but humane, or the man who is paranoid schizophrenic, with all that this diagnosis entails?  I know what my answer would be.  And I find it interesting that in this modern era, where religion and psychiatry intertwine but never merge, so many people choose the latter, not the former.

San Francisco Nimby’s

I think David Latterman, the President of Fall Line Analytics, a Bay Area market research firm, has put his finger on the San Francisco psyche:

“Maybe there has been an epiphany,” says David Latterman, president of Fall Line Analytics, a local market research firm. “People have realized they can hate George Bush but still not want people crapping in their doorway.”

Yes, it turns out that San Franciscans, famed for loving everyone but Republicans (and especially the arch Republicans Bushandcheney), have found another unlovable group, and it’s a shocking one, since it’s a victim group:

San Francisco – the liberal, left-coast city conservatives love to mock – could be undergoing a transformation when it comes to homeless people. Although the city would still be a poor choice for a pep rally for the war in Iraq, indications are that residents have had it with aggressive panhandlers, street squatters and drug users.

Of course, being San Franciscans, they’re justifying like mad their perfectly normal response to filthy, often mentally ill, people with substance abuse problems:

Consider the case of David Kiely, who has lived in the South of Market area for 18 years. He bought a home when prices were low and now lives there with his wife, Jenny, and their three boys, ages 7, 4 and 1. Kiely insists “we’re not some white, yuppie parents saying we can’t take this.” In fact, he says, they donate to programs for homeless people at Glide Memorial Methodist Church and the food bank at St. Anthony Dining Room. But he’s finally saying “enough is enough.”

“I don’t expect it to be Cow Hollow or Pacific Heights,” he says. “But the other day Jenny is bringing the kids back from the park, and some guy is standing on the corner throwing up on himself.”


Of course, having staked out what can only be seen as a conservative position, those in the center of the issue are seeking to redefine it:

“I don’t think this is a conservative or liberal thing,” [Trent Rhorer, executive director of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency] says. “This is quality of life for everyone. What research has shown and what we have seen from visits to cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Portland and New York is that you need to combine good social outreach with law enforcement.”

As someone who grew up in San Francisco, let me explain that it is, in fact, a “conservative or liberal thing” — or, at least, that its genesis was the battle that the conservatives lost 40 years ago to the ACLU. I have to warn you that Reagan figures in this narrative too, and not in a good way.

One of the big ACLU and liberal lawyer triumphs of the 1960s (and one they’re still working on at irregular intervals today) was to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. (You can get a taste of that battle here.) The ACLU’s point was that it was a denial of civil liberties to force the mentally ill into institutions when many of them (most notably the paranoid schizophrenics) so obviously didn’t want to be there. I remember vividly when Reagan, while still Governor of California, signed off on Legislation deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. (I don’t know if he did it out of conviction, political expediency, or because he was forced to do so. I just remember it happening.)

The immediate and obvious result of Reagan’s “freeing” of the mentally ill was a huge influx of people on the streets living in filth and talking to themselves. Indeed, my experience with these street people is so deeply ingrained that, even now, more than a decade into the wireless headset years, when I see a well-dressed young man talking to himself and gesticulating, my first thought is still “Oh, boy, a crazy man. I’d better cross to the other side of the street to avoid him.”

These new homeless, who often coupled substance abuse problems with their mental illness, were appalling. They ate out of garbage cans; lived in their own filth; had all their worldly goods piled in stolen shopping carts; had terrible lesions on their bodies; were tubercular; harbored contagious vermin (such as lice); lunged at people walking by; and occasionally killed people. That sentence was in the past tense. It needn’t be. As the above shows, these street people are still appalling. While I don’t live in the City anymore, I only have to head to a major urban downtown (New York, S.F., Phillie, wherever) to see them again.

In California, if the street people are too visible — too wild, too decayed — they can be “5150’d”. That is, the police can bring them into a City psych ward for observation for three days. If they are not deemed an imminent danger to themselves or to others, though, and if they decline treatment (which paranoid schizophrenics or heroine addicts craving a hit usually do — that being the nature of their illness), they’re back on the streets again. As it is, I’m not sure how you measure “imminent danger” for someone who is mentally ill, drug-ridden, tubercular, riddled with skin lesions, eating out of garbage cans, and sleeping in gutters, but, heck, what do I know?

All I can say is that, if you measure a society’s humanity by how it treats these helpless people, our current laws allowing them to descend into the Seventh Circle of Hell on our own streets is a striking example of inhumanity. The fact that some who are profoundly mentally ill can still function at a minimal, animal level, doesn’t mean that we’re doing them a favor by allowing them to avoid health care, mental health treatment, decent food, and some level of physical safety.

I’m absolutely sure that the old mental institutions weren’t nice places, and I’m equally sure that many were Dickensian in their horrors. I also doubt that the current mental institutions are anything to write home about. Nevertheless, it would seem to be that the better tactic is to improve the institutions and not turn our streets in giant, filthy, insane asylums. And so, while it may not be a liberal/conservative thing now, it was then, and I find it hard to forgive the ACLU and their fellow travelers for their huge push, 40 years ago, to create the urban sepsis of homelessness.