Saturday, March 26, 2011

Taking Care of the Cuckoo

I was reading an article in Alternet about the 1980s and this really caught my eye:

In 1975, a Democratic Party emboldened by civil rights, environmental, antiwar, and post-Watergate electoral successes was on the verge of seizing the presidency and a filibuster-proof congressional majority. That year, the Rocky Horror Picture Show and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest were two of the three top-grossing films -- the former a parody using the late-sixties sexual revolution to laugh at the puritanical fifties, the latter based on the novel by beat writer Ken Kesey. Meanwhile, three of the top-rated seven television shows were liberal-themed programs produced by progressive icon Norman Lear, including "All in the Family" --a show built around a hippie, Mike Stivic, poking fun at the ignorance of his traditionalist father-in-law, Archie Bunker.

I've seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and that movie among personal life experience solidified my anti-statist anarchist tendencies. In that film, the state takes the place of the mother and father for many at risk patients and the people willing to take that role are often attracted to it for sick reasons - including a fondness for being in power over other people.

Since I saw that movie years ago, I have lived in the Bay Area. San Francisco, the once "City of Love," is beset by several groups ranging from Hispanic immigrants, art students and homeless people. The large homeless population is often credited by locals as the result of Reagan-era policies of not taking care of the mentally ill.

Only recently, this article appeared in The New Republic in the wake of the Arizona shootings:

Starting in the 1970s, civil libertarians worked to eliminate involuntary commitment or, that failing, to raise the standards and burden of proof so high that few individuals would meet it. Important decisions by the Supreme Court and subordinate courts gave individuals new protections, including a constitutional right to refuse psychotropic medication. A few states have tried to push back in constitutionally acceptable ways, but efforts such as California’s Laura’s Law, designed to make it easier to force patients to take medication, have been stymied by civil rights concerns and lack of funding.

We need legal reform to shift the balance in favor of protecting the community, especially against those who are armed and deranged. This means two changes in particular. First, those who acquire credible evidence of an individual’s mental disturbance should be required to report it to both law enforcement authorities and the courts, and the legal jeopardy for failing to do so should be tough enough to ensure compliance. Parents, school authorities, and other involved parties should be made to understand that they have responsibilities to the community as a whole, not just to family members or to their own student body. While embarrassment and reluctance to get involved are understandable sentiments, they should not be allowed to drive conduct when the public safety is at stake. We’re not necessarily cramming these measures down anyone’s throat: I’ve known many families who were desperate for laws that would help them do what they knew needed to be done for their adult children, and many college administrators who felt that their hands were tied.

Now, one has to ask if there is really a left/right divide on this issue. Reaganism spelled well for many of the civil libertarian causes that the left-wing counterculture posting during the 1960s, like getting rid of the draft (something both Reagan and his chief economics influence Milton Freidman favored) and doing away with the large scale mental institutions mentioned above. The institutions were associated in pop culture not just with the lobotomies that beset Jack Nicholson but also with electro shock therapy (watch the film Shine some time).

Just as it was back in the 1970s, mental illness is still an issue. I've posted alot here about Asperger's syndrome and popular films still dominate the media with the subject. The film It's Kind Of A Funny Story, a recent release about a teen who checks himself in to an institution, is very different from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and tells us that we should trust our superiors to be able to treat the vulnerable well. In life experience, both the evil and good attract to these occupations and it could be a big mistake to get reactionary on the issue. It's an even bigger mistake, however, to leave it below the radar.

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