Ralph Benko: The politicalization of sanity, or why is Jon Stewart acting like Nurse Ratched?

Comics deserve a lot of liberty to walk the edge.  Yet the choice of theme of the Rally to Restore Sanity toys with shameful undercurrents.  The comics’ choice of theme is just one step away from referencing Josef Mengele’s sadistic medical “experiments” as a launching pad for … irony.

Progressives like Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart are certain that their worldview is objectively right and, thus, the only possible sane one. (Apparently he is unfamiliar with Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism as “incredulity toward meta-narratives.”)  Thus a society that permits political dissent from Stewart’s own worldview can be indicted, “humorously,” as … needing its sanity restored. 

Well.  A brief refresher course of where this once led might be in order. Branding those who politically dissent as “insane” was practiced aggressively by the Soviets.  Like Stewart, the Soviets, too, genuinely believed that those who disputed their view of things were insane.

The psychiatrists of the Soviet Union notoriously diagnosed dissent as a form of mental illness.  It is especially troubling that, as noted in the Wikipedia article on Punitive psychiatry in the Soviet Union, official Soviet psychiatry posited “ideas about a struggle for truth and justice are formed by personalities with a paranoid structure.”

This more than vaguely resembles the American elitist diagnosis of the Tea Party as an emanation of “the paranoid style in American politics,” as phrased by Hofstadter in an earlier attack on conservatives, particularly Goldwaterites.

The abuse of psychiatry for political ends famously was dramatized by British dramatist Tom Stoppard, in “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,” based on the experiences of Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky.

It presents a dissident committed to an insane asylum and presented with a demand that he admit that his anti-government commentary was a sign of mental illness.  Such an admission was the price of release.   Are we to suppose that Stewart might find this… hilarious?

One by no means suggests that Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or even much more important progressives — probably not even George Soros or John Podesta — are planning, desiring, or conniving at the abuse of psychiatry for political ends.  That’s preposterous.

Still, it is unsettling that Comedy Central’s leading personality would choose to ally himself with Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” rather than that book’s heroic dissident, McMurphy.  This makes Stewart’s gig about as funny as, well, Nurse Ratched.

Purely as a matter of taste, not implying anything sinister, a Rally to Restore Sanity — given the shameful historical abuses of the politicization of sanity and the pretext of “restoring sanity” as a rationalization for torturing political dissidents — is about as funny a premise as would have been a “Rally to Restore Racial Purity.”  (Ha ha, just kidding!) 

Anne Applebaum wrote a trenchant critique of “Jon Stewart’s Million Moderate March,” as it was originally known before it changed its theme. She concludes: “I’m sure his Million Moderate March will be amusing, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun by calling it tragic. But if that’s the best the centre can do, then ‘blackly humorous’ wouldn’t be that far off.”

Applebaum is a respected social critic of Soviet human rights abuses, who earned a Pulitzer Prize (and many other awards) for her landmark work, Gulag: A History.  Hers is a voice to be reckoned with and it is not hard to imagine that it was her column that forced the shift in theme by Stewart. 

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Stewart, by shifting from the theme of a “Million Moderate March” to a “Rally to Restore Sanity,” moved from farce to tragedy.

Ralph Benko, author of The Websters’ Dictionary: How to Use the Web to Transform the World, is a senior advisor to The American Principles Project.

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