HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 24, 2008
From Liberty Street

Mental Breakdown

John Turner


I'm not worried in the least about the commander in chief threshold but I am becoming seriously concerned about the looney tunes threshold, which millions of Americans seem to be flinging themselves across with total abandon. After all, it's not impossible for a nation to go crazy. We've seen it happen before. In the 1930s and 1940s, Germany, supposedly one of the most civilized of nations, went insane. There's widespread agreement about that.

Is there any reason to take it for granted that the same thing could not happen to the United States? And, if it did, how would we know? Would Katie Couric report it on the CBS Evening News?

Consider this recent statement from Patrick Buchanan, and keep in mind that it comes not from some thoughtless remark he made on TV in the midst of a heated debate, but, rather, from his syndicated column. He actually wrote this down, and had a chance to look it over before he sent it out.

First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000
black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were
introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity
blacks have ever known.

Mr. Buchanan is telling us that people who were forced violently into slavery, sold like cattle, abused for centuries, kept until fifty years ago in a system of apartheid, and still are imprisoned at a rate many times higher than the rate that applies to their fellow citizens, should be grateful to the people who did it to them because it has lifted them up to a higher level than they ever could have reached on their own. Is that a sane statement?

Well, one might say, everybody knows that Pat Buchanan is crazy. But that's just the problem: everyone doesn't know it. He has been granted a privileged position from which to speak to the American people. Millions hear from him every day. And there's not much doubt that millions believe him.

Or, think about this simple little statistic. In 1925, the incarceration rate in the United States, that is the number of people in either federal or state prisons for each 100,000 people in the general population, was 79. At the end of 2005, the rate was 491. It is even higher now, though the official figures have not yet been published. If you divide 491 by 79, you get 6.22. We find it necessary to keep more than six times as many people in jail now than we did eighty years ago. Why?  Can anyone justify this shocking number? Has anyone even tried? Wouldn't you think that a sane people would demand answers for a figure like that?

Or, roll this little tidbit around in your mind. More than twenty thousand of those people are held in so-called supermax prisons, where the conditions are so brutal that the United Nations Commission Against Torture has condemned them. In other words, day after day, year after year, thousands of people are tortured by official institutions of the United States, even though torture is supposedly illegal in the United States. Wouldn't you think that a huge discrepancy of that kind would lead to a deafening outcry? When's the last time you heard Bryan Williams or Charles Gibson say anything about it on the nightly news?

And, then, this may be the most telling evidence of all. One of our major political parties has nominated a man to become president who has announced he wants to continue the policies concerning war and economics that have been in place for the past seven years and that are seen by most citizens as having led to national disaster. Truth is, he not only wants to continue them. He wants to intensify them. And tens of millions of people are going to vote for him because they think his experience is superior to his opponent's. What is the good of experience that leads a person to push disastrous policies? What sane person would vote for doing that?

I realize that one can point to many zany practices in the past that led to hardship. One can say people have always been crazy. There's no sure calculus that tells us we are getting more crazy than we used to be. That's true. But there are signs. My question is, how much do the signs have to pile up before we begin to credit them as something serious? Is there anyway we can turn away from insanity before we dive fully into it?

I wish I knew.


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