The late British psychiatrist R.D. Laing made a career out of his idea that civilization is a psychosis. He said you had to be crazy to even get out of bed in the morning in countries that routinely murder millions of human beings with carcinogenic products, zombie-like militaries, and pathological legal and medical practices. He said a diagnosis of mental illness is often the result of seeing what's real instead of believing the consensual lies of family or culture.
Laing has lost his luster as a psychotherapist, because even if he was right, it's no path to sanity if you think you can see the truth and the rest of the world can't.
Still, when I see Republicans trying to explain foreign or fiscal policy, I decide Laing was onto something. Listening to Attorney General Michael Mukasey talk about torture during his confirmation hearings was like listening to a mental patient talk around the family secrets that drove him nuts in the first place. Listening to Hank Paulson ask for ever bigger bazookas for the financial markets makes me think he's hallucinating a dream date with Mae West.
And how to explain the differences between the official statements about interrogation and the facts of water-boarding and the sex-torture photos at Abu Ghraib? How to explain an administration that nationalizes the banking system even as it praises the free market? How to explain a financial system that turned debt into wealth, and wealth into debt? How is it that most people don't even know which country their house belongs to?
These are all reality-based questions, and they need to be considered by anyone who cares about this election. Kurt Vonnegut, before he died, was fond of saying, "Things are going to get worse and worse. But it's not really my problem." And it wasn't.
The rest of us might not be so lucky. Our financial system is facing the reality that debts always get paid on time, even though it's never certain whether the lender or the debtor will pay them. As a generation, we Baby Boomers decided to ensure our health and safety as old people by passing enormous debt on to our children and grandchildren. The reality is that it's not certain they will accept it.
Given that we've spent our borrowed time and money on Iraq instead of infrastructure, on wall-size TVs rather than on education, on fossil fuels rather than on renewable energy, we shouldn't take for granted the kindness of strangers, particularly if those strangers are our own children.
What will they say about us? That our consumption of plastic crap became a kind of drug, and we as a generation spiraled into the deadly psychosis of crap-addiction? Or that our consensus reality deviated so far from the real that finally the story we told ourselves about ourselves became so much a lie even we couldn't believe it?
The current rush toward Obama and Biden in the polls is not because they can see through our national story. It's because they can't.
What's making McCain and Palin look like a couple of nut-jobs is that the constructed narratives of nation and family haven't worked for them for some time. They hit their R.D. Laing moments long ago. The word-salad that comes out of Palin's mouth every time she speaks off-script is the product of a mind that cannot construct a coherent cultural narrative. The narrative that McCain speaks was painstakingly constructed long-ago in a prison in Hanoi, and it serves the same purpose--minimal personal survival in a violent and threatening world--as it did then.
We are looking to Obama and Biden to pull us back from the abyss of seeing things as they are. We need them to patch the holes in our national narrative that the Bush Administration put there. They're being chosen for their ability to reassure us that consensus reality is real. It's not, as anyone who's been inside the Beltway can attest, but right now even R.D. Laing would tell us that we can't allow the next generation to lose their faith in it.