BACK IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, in a land called the Soviet Union, the authorities used to lock up dissidents in psychiatric hospitals and "treat" them. Most people believed that this was just KGB thugs seeking cover for torturing enemies of the state. It largely was.
But one leading American psychiatrist advanced a more nuanced view. Dr. Walter Reich, who had challenged the Kremlin by examining some of these dissidents—and, to its great embarrassment, finding them perfectly sane—argued that some Soviets had so thoroughly imbibed their own ideology that at some level they actually believed dissent was prima facie evidence of psychological disturbance.
Strange creatures, those Soviets. Or were they?
Major League Baseball has just sentenced John Rocker to a psychiatric examination. Rocker is a relief pitcher with a loose tongue and a malevolent heart. He made some nasty remarks to Sports Illustrated about immigrants, AIDS victims, and people differently hued from him. Unpleasant stuff, though in truth, not terribly different from your average rant at a redneck bar.
Does the commissioner of baseball really believe that Rocker needs psychiatric help? I'd bet he believes it even less than the Soviets—or the Chinese, who send their dissidents to reeducation camps (what we here call sensitivity training, though the Chinese use the somewhat more coercive means of starvation and beating to extract their public recantations).
Racism is not a medical problem. We would like to pretend it is, because we like to medicalize our social problems. (In the early 1980s Dr. Robert J. Lifton diagnosed those who disagreed with his disarmament views as suffering from "nuclearism.") Medicalizing offers the illusion of understanding of a problem, and ultimately curing it.
John Rocker is a jerk. But jerk is not a medical diagnosis. The only diagnosis I'd pin on Rocker is "closer." A closer is a pitcher who pitches only when the game is on the line, when a fractional deviation of the angle of the wrist means failure, not only for him but for the 24 other guys on his team.
People who choose this line of work are, not surprisingly, rather odd—the weirdest species of that already weird genus, professional athlete. Some ballplayers talk to the ball. Some talk to themselves. Some perform rituals even the Aztecs might find elaborate every time they step up to the plate. Star fullback Mark Van Eeghen used to leap off a television set onto his bed before every game. Batting champ Wade Boggs once decided that chicken was the key to his success, and ate little more than chicken morning, noon and night for eighteen years.
No one sent Van Eeghen or Boggs to the Menninger Clinic. Why Rocker?
Speaking evil of others is not mad but bad. And we, quite rightly, try to prohibit people from doing bad things. We have made a rule in our society that you must not speak hate out loud.
This, of course, is hypocrisy—we regulate just the speech, not the feelings—but hypocrisy is what keeps society civil. You may hate black people, you may disdain Asians, you may despise homosexuals, but if you say what is in your heart, you are going to be punished. That is a good thing.
You are not punished by government, because we believe in the First Amendment. But you are punished by society: by universal opprobrium, condemnation, and ostracism. The heat Rocker took for his remarks was perfectly appropriate. Until Commissioner Bud Selig decided that this was a problem for the brain doctors.
Selig's maneuver is cynicism in the service of silliness—the silliness of a therapeutic society that reduces all social problems to the psychological. As when the President of the United States tells Serbs and Kosovars, Hutus and Tutsis, Chechens and Russians, Arabs and Israelis that the root problem of ethnic conflict is irrational prejudice and mistrust of "the other"—rather than the struggle for power, domination, territory, wealth, pride, vindication, etc., which has underlain wars both between and within groups since Cain slew Abel.
Silliness, as when the killer of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk in San Francisco is found guilty of a reduced charge because the jury believed that junk food had mentally impaired him.
But there is a dark side to this silliness. A year before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacred their classmates at Columbine High, they had been "treated"—with counseling sessions and "anger management" classes.
You don't therapize "anger." You don't cure ethnic cleansing with sensitivity training. You don't send bigots like John Rocker to a shrink.
Evil is a moral problem, not a medical or psychological one. It is nice to pretend otherwise. But if that pretense becomes real, then we start inhabiting a universe somewhere between A Clockwork Orange and the psychiatric prisons of the gulag.
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