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Jared Gardner Headshot

The New Normal

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My brother is ill -- seriously, tragically, out of his mind. For a couple of years he was on medication and seemed to be turning his life around: he was able to be a father to his son, able to finish the college degree he had walked away from during a darker time many years earlier, and he even received acceptance to graduate school. And then, about two years ago, he stopped taking his medicine, and within a year he was homeless, barred from access to his family by various court orders, talking to an imaginary audience on late night subway cars and in the darker corners of the Internet. All who love him are both scared for him and very much scared of him.

In order to shield my mother from the poison my brother spews about her on the internet, I visit his website each morning, always with horribly mixed emotions: hoping he is still out there, wishing he would shut up. Because what he has to say is more than often ugly, angry, paranoid, hateful, violent. He talks of the hidden cameras secretly watching his every movement, of his "enslavement" at the hands of the government and Big Media, of how blacks, muslims or homosexuals have denied him his rights and privileges, and about how all the world's events -- famines, presidential elections, natural disasters -- are all about him.

And then, each morning, once I make sure he is still alive and that he seems to pose no immediate threat to himself or to others, I turn to the rest of the news. As a political junkie, I look to the early election season like a die-hard baseball fan does spring training; and especially this year, I am desperate for distraction from the lunacy in my family and on my computer screen. Increasingly, however, what I find in the daily political news is all but indistinguishable from the madness so close to home.

That madness erupts from the keyboards of political bloggers is of course nothing new. I learned in 2008 to filter the hateful noise of bloggers, and as, over the course of the next few years, many of these same bloggers became cable news commentators, I learned how to turn off the tv. Instead, I now restrict myself largely to straightforward coverage of the candidates and their positions: transcripts of speeches, debates, and interviews. Here at least one might expect a space where rational political discourse can take place.

Instead, I find only more madness, coming now from the candidates themselves. Michele Bachmann declares that the Hurricane Irene was a message from a God outraged over runaway government spending (a joke, she later insists: I suppose along the lines of some of her other knee-slappers, like blaming the swine flu outbreak on the election of a Democratic president). Rick Perry tackled the wildfires devastating his state with a giant prayer rally, sponsored by the American Family Association, at which t-shirts were circulated that wittily prayed for the death of President Obama (Psalm 109:8). And then, after threatening to treat Ben Bernanke "ugly" down in Texas, in the most recent debate Perry declared Social Security a giant conspiracy to defraud the nation.

I could go on. And on. Rick Santorum recently accused the LGBT community of declaring "jihad" on him. Newt Gingrich sees Sharia law consuming the nation, its way paved by secular atheists and their allies, while Herman Cain's Islamophobia makes Gingrich look like an Imam. And of course Ron Paul and his supporters continue to see a conspiracy everywhere -- primarily a conspiracy on the part of the media to not talk about Ron Paul.

In short, they all sound remarkably like my brother. These are candidates for the most powerful elected office on the planet: not, like my brother, unmedicated paranoid schizophrenics. I can forgive my brother the ugly words he directs at my family, at the president, at entire groups of people because I know he is ill and fully consumed by a paranoid vision wherein celebrities, elected officials, the legal system and his own family are "enslaving" him. He sees his life falling apart, and in his illness can see only conspiracy and can make only threats. As a result, my brother is homeless, unemployable, and barred by the courts from his family. He is not, to put it mildly, running for president.

When did madness become not only acceptable in our candidates but, it would seem, a prerequisite for the honor? One sane candidate in the room, Tim Pawlenty, is already gone. Jon Huntsman is boldly waving his own flag of sanity trying to get attention, but to no avail. And Romney is doing his best to act as crazy as possible in hopes of fitting in with the new normal.

Meanwhile, my "sane" friends watch the spectacle with growing delight, assuring themselves that these people are unelectable and that their ravings will ultimately make Obama the only rational choice. There is no way that someone who sees the world as these candidates do will be entrusted with the Presidency of the United States, they comfort themselves. But as anyone who has lived with mental illness in their family knows, madness is contagious. The longer it is allowed to go untreated, the more it warps and contaminates the reality of all who live with it. We will be living with these candidates and their world views a long time, plenty long for voters to start to lose their bearings, their sense of what is real and what is right. Plenty of time, I fear, for the lunatics to run the asylum.