One of my favorite diseases—and I say favorite because it has a great moral associated with its diagnosis—is an old, discredited but useful look at how the views of power filtered down to popular medicine, a disease named drapetomonia. Ever hear of it? It was one of the first illnesses to have a very clear ethnic identity—it only affected blacks. It was also one of the first specific mental health diagnoses. Declared an epidemic among its target population, shortly after being discovered by a Georgian physician in 1851, its treatment protocols involved harsh whippings and restraints in chains.
Today, it is one of the few discredited diseases reemerging as one of the false equivalencies that increasingly characterize American views of politics–and global warming, evolution, education, economic growth, race, and religion. I see a new strain of the disease emerging, and clearly we have no cure, or even treatment or care for it.
My old favorite, drapetomonia, was a response to a social condition, slavery, and was diagnosed as the condition that made slaves run away. Flee toward freedom. Hide in the woods, outside of civil authority, living in a place of fear. The new equivalency has jumped the old ethnic bounds. But it sees itself as flying toward freedom. Leaving behind civil authority—and also living in a place of fear. The new strain is tied to the older drapetomonia by its implied inability to accept reality, but it is characterized by far greater frequencies of delusions. The old and the new, the up and the down have been with us since the beginning. As the poet W. H. Auden said, “the situation of our time surrounds us like a baffling crime.” But this new strain forgets why the old strain was discredited, lost its potency and went bust: it described a wrong reality; it was a projection of its own delusions.
So, too, today, in the new, unnamed strain is the double circle of logic whose answers assume the truth of its assertions. My favorite example this week was a radio interview with Virginia’s Attorney General, whose radio host pointed out that the President did not win the red states where a photo ID law was in place or early voting was drastically restricted, and the wins and loses of those states alone were sufficient to point to clear evidence of a pattern of widespread Democratic fraud being rampant throughout the country. Well, Barack Obama didn’t win those same red states last time either, in 2008, before restrictions of early voting or photo ID laws were enacted. And he won all of the states he won before, without a single reputable complaint of fraud, except in the mouths of talk show hosts and elected officials whose delusions are a double circle.
Secession is another tangent along the double circle, with its talking points about the loss of freedom as health care expands, taxes remain low, education scores improve, and guns are safe despite their increasing menace. Secession is tied to the encroaching menace of socialism—even as wages are stagnant, jobs growth is modest, and hunger remains a silent epidemic of thousands of families living off the grid. Hundreds of thousands have clicked on computers, reached the White House through their IP service, and electronically signed petitions to establish their states as their own republics. (I say let Texas apply for foreign aid and be a ten-year demonstration model!)
But nowhere has the new strain of drapetomonia been more present then in the Congress, especially among three Republican senators engaged in foreign policy reviews and oversight. One of the symptoms of the new strain is a phastasmorgia (my favorite grad school word!) of forgetfulness. These senators seem to have completely forgotten that Colin Powell was once sent on a mission to the UN to inform the world of non-existent weapons of mass destruction as the justification for launching a war. Yet appearances on talk shows that protected classified information about four American deaths are more “significantly troubling” than the petitions to secede from the US, a position clarified after another lengthy, unnecessary war, and somehow overweigh the peace so quickly brought to Gaza.
Well, I, too, am significantly troubled. An old favorite, drapetomonia, has returned. In a new form, more virulent. And given its new patterns of delusions, its rapid spread, the intractable, untreatable illogic of its phastasmagoric double circles that lock out all other views, it should be taken more seriously. It is more dangerous since it enlarges its formerly defective worldview. But we can wipe out the new strain by making the next election a prevention campaign.