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The Worm Turns By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, August 05, 2002

Back in the sixties' the paradigm of cultural types was pretty simple. Conservatives were uptight, repressed authoritarians eager to regiment people according to set rules about what made the best society. Liberals, on the other hand, were champions of spontaneous individualism, quirky self-expression, joie-de-vivre, and the ideal of personal freedom as the highest good.

The one cultural artifact that perhaps best embodies this idea is Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." The mental hospital is an obvious metaphor for the modern, bureaucratic oppressive "establishment" that seeks to control people not so much through physical violence as through psychological intimidation, all camouflaged by a therapeutic solicitude for the inmate's health and well-being — what Robert Frost called "collectivist regimenting love."

Nurse Ratched represents that establishment: her need to control everything that she cannot understand or has repressed in herself is hidden behind a calm demeanor of therapeutic concern. Yet behind the mask lies the face of raw power, the lust for domination, the neurotic compulsion to destroy everything that challenges the arbitrary rules providing the scaffolding for her unstable psyche riven with sexual dysfunction. Hence she must be the enemy of freedom, for freedom compromises the order that keeps her inner demons at bay.

Back in the sixties we thought we knew who Nurse Ratched was. She was the cop, the principal, the coach, the white suburban dad, the corporate executive, the senator, the judge, the general — all those uniformed, uptight stooges and goons of a vast, oppressive system that tries to grind down the individual on the wheel of homogenizing, soul-killing rules and regulations.

Nurse Ratched's mortal enemy, of course, is the charming, prankish lover of life, MacMurphy. MacMurphy represents the sheer, exuberant freedom of the unique individual for whom personal relationships and pleasure are the highest good, rather than the fetishes of order and stability. He is the liberator who through pleasure helps the inmates break the psychic chains of internalized repression and express their true, unique identities that the hospital (read "society") had warped into neuroses.

MacMurphy was everywhere in the sixties too. He was the hippie, the jazz musician, the foul-mouthed comic, the long-haired athlete, the acid-dropping biker, the hip-gyrating rock star, the macho Black Panther, the bra-burning feminist, the flamboyant homosexual, and the pot-smoking professor. They were all the icons of raw freedom, the freedom of the individual to love life, enjoy pleasure, tear down hierarchies and walls, battle the "man," challenge authority, break all the rules, and finally usher in the Age of Aquarias, an unstructured world of freedom and peace and love and polymorphously perverse pleasure.

Boy, were we ever wrong. Of course, these cultural stereotypes from the beginning were simplistic and reductive. But the main problem was the naivete of the crude contrast of freedom and order. What the sordid aftermath of the sixties showed was that freedom easily degenerates into license and irresponsibility, narcissism and selfishness. Freedom became the freedom to indulge one's appetites and whims without regard for the consequences, with no thought for the infected sexual partner, the abandoned child, the murder victim, the drug-addled parasite cluttering the streets, and the degradation of public life that follows the ethic of "if it feels good, do it."

Equally as dangerous was the assumption that those who claimed to be our liberators from the oppressive mental hospital of "Amerika" were really concerned about individual freedom. What we started to learn as the years passed was that most of the Nurse Ratcheds were now on the left. These days the humorless, repressed enforcers of rigid standards of behavior are the politically correct professors and pundits, the dour feminists ("That's not funny!"), the race-tribunes, and the identity-politics hacks who monitor popular culture for any deviations from the party line of multiculturalism and victim-politics.

We've all seen the legions of Nurse Ratcheds in action, the protestors who shout down speakers they don't like, the teachers and administrators who harass and intimidate anyone who disagrees with them, the social-services bureaucrats and politicians who use the coercive power of the courts and government bureaucracies to enforce their vision of the perfect world, which always turns out to be a world in which they call all the shots.

What better embodiment of the Nurse Ratched syndrome can one find than Hilary Clinton? Like Nurse Ratched, as First Lady Hilary wielded the iron fist of state coercion wrapped in the velvet glove of therapeutic concern. For all her talk about children and the suffering masses, we all knew what she was really about — power, the power to enforce her vision of human good on the rest of us whether we liked it or not. The courts, the schools, and the government bureaucracies were all to be the instruments of this enforcement — once, of course, we get under control all those quirky, uncooperative individuals who don't know what's good for them.

And MacMurphy? He's hard to find these days, but you're more likely to discover him on the right, where the individual's right to disagree is more likely to be respected. Likewise true diversity of opinion, true tolerance of the contrarian and the skeptic, genuine resistance to unexamined orthodoxy, and the passionate love of freedom are all more abundant on the right. There you'll find the MacMurphies who battle the phalanxes of Nurse Ratcheds still trying to make us swallow their brave-new-world medicine.

Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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