Year of the moron: Making sense of 2017

31. XII 2017

Madness is the purest, most total form of misunderstanding; it takes the false for true. Madness needs no external element to reach true resolution. It is merely to carry its illusion to the point of truth. (Michel Foucault)

All other things aside, 2017 will be remembered as the year when madness gained acceptance in mainstream politics and everyday life. Last year raised one key question that begs for an answer: Why is there such a similarity between the mindset of right wing conservatives and the mentally ill? With the rise of new conservatism, madness has been embraced and promoted as a tool of political alchemy. The tide of madness has been rising, its secret intrusion spreading effortlessly, acquiring new substance and metric. Last year represents a giant leap in terms of general acceptance of madness – the beginning of its accelerated phase towards production of human bodies without human reason and a general abnormalization of the world. Since the extinction of leprosy in the middle ages, madness had been kept outside of the public life as a way of protecting the social body from its influences. We are witnessing a radical departure from a long tradition whose consequences are just beginning to be visible. This is a new chapter in the history of our civilization.

The alchemy and the substance of madness

Madness, like plague, is contagious, and everyone who gets close to a mad man seems to participate in his delirium. (Sylvère Lotringer)

Dutch masters had a thing about madness. According to a curious belief held by some in the middle ages the stone of madness represented the substance of madness and its primary cause. Bosch’s piece, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, is the earliest in a group of paintings addressing the topic of its extraction, a procedure believed to be the cure of mental illness. Later notable works by Jan van Hemessen, Pieter Huys, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder tackle the same theme in various contexts.

Stone of madness

Hieronymus Bosch (El Bosco): The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (Museo Nacional del Prado)

Stone of madness, a dialectical twin of the philosopher’s stone, was the child of alchemy, one of history’s blind alleys, which took root as an attempt to find what in medieval times was imagined to be the benchmark of perfection and purity in every aspect of human existence (not dissimilar to the quest current financial markets and politics are chasing in a modern setting).

The philosopher’s stone is a legendary alchemical substance, which epitomizes the quest for perfection. In contrast, the stone of madness represents a flawed dysfunctionality, an affliction on the opposite side of perfection, terminal imperfection, damage and dishonor, and fatal incompleteness. It is not necessarily something we look for, it finds us at the end of one of those blind alleys. The philosopher’s stone has the ability to transmute base metals into gold or silver, create perpetually burning lamps, transform common crystals into precious stones and diamonds, revive dead plants, and create flexible or malleable glass, heal all forms of illness and prolong the life of any person who consumes a small part of it. Anything touched by the stone of madness turns into shit.

Alchemy has always straddled the line between science, philosophy, and charlatanism, with the exact blend varying through history — the more science advanced, the closer alchemy moved towards charlatanism. With progress in science, alchemy was exhausted, but the underlying fantasy of alchemy did not disappear, it only got diverted into financial markets and politics. Modern alchemy sees science and reason as enemies. This is the most eloquent testimony of its charlatanism.

The medieval concept of madness has gotten a contemporary twist in light of recent political and economic developments. The contagious madness and charlatanism are alive and well, more vigorous than they have ever been. With very little imagination Bosch’s picture has a distinct contemporary vibe.

Political alchemy and the right wing agenda

The elite is not composed of ideologists; its members’ whole education is aimed at abolishing their capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction. Their superiority consists in their capacity immediately to resolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose. (Hannah Arendt)

This brings us to the present day and our original question: What is wrong with the right and why do they resemble the mentally ill so much? Although the two share a distinct antisocial backbone, one systematic, the other systemic, it is the same stone of madness that has touched both.

The most complete and elegant answer to this question was constructed by George Lakoff, one of the leading American cognitive linguist, best known for his thesis that peoples’ decision algorithms are shaped by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena. His starting point is the same logical question everyone is asking: How is it possible to convince the underprivileged class that their interests are aligned with those of the American billionaires so they voluntarily express that belief in the ballot box time and again? The key to the resolution of that puzzle is Lakoff’s realization that people, in fact, rarely vote in their self-interests. They vote their values and identity. And if their identity fits their self-interest, they will vote for that[1].

How does the whole thing work in practice? Social evolution is largely defined by the tension between the state and family, and the modern state is a result of years of gradual emancipation from the confines of patriarchal family structures. Through a strange reversal of things, the Western conservative politics has followed a regressive path of convergence towards the very same patriarchal family roots from which it took centuries to escape. In that respect, American conservative politics has been the most radical example.

This is the starting point of Lakoff’s argument. Our intuition about the functioning of more complex social structures is most often based on family metaphors and different interpretations of the nation are linked to different understandings of family. In the United States, where politics is represented by two dominant parties, the two types of families corresponding to the underlying political worldviews define: a strict father family and a nurturant parent family.

The strict father model begins with a set of assumptions:

  • The world is a dangerous place and it will always be (because there is evil out there)
  • The world is also difficult because there is competition (there will always be winners and losers)
  • There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong
  • Children are born bad (or ignorant) and have to be made good.

What is needed in this kind of a world is a strong father who can:

  • Protect the family in the dangerous world
  • Support the family in the difficult world, and
  • Teach children what’s right from wrong[2].

In these “axioms”, not only is there no mention of the mother, but they also make no room for her. Outside of her reproductive role, the mother’s role and influence has been minimized.

This is where the conservative hoax starts. The internal discipline that is learned from an early age is required in the difficult, competitive world. In the first iteration, the strict father model establishes equivalence between moralities and prosperity, and prepares terrain to draw a link between the strict father worldview and free market capitalism. This is the key step that converts the whole story into an ideology and policy rules. If everyone pursues their interests (and profit), then the profit of all will be maximized (by the “invisible hand”), another masterful example of political mindfuck. The flipside of that is another beauty: those trying to help someone else (rather than themselves) screw up the system. This is another point of exclusion of the mother. Mothers are nurturing — they always give. And, to make things worse, they are forgiving. In a word, mothers are a bad influence for children[3].

The second step follows naturally: A good person – a moral person – is obedient to legitimate authority (identified with the father). Of course! A good child grows up to be prosperous and self-reliant. A bad child cannot care of him/herself and thus becomes dependent. At this point one has to be a real moron to buy it, but there has never been a shortage of morons. In fact, they have become the most precious commodity for conservatives, something that has to be cultivated and preserved[4].

The next mindfuck follows almost automatically. When good children are mature, they learn discipline and the strict father is no longer needed to meddle in their lives. Political extension is loud and clear: there is no need for government meddling in the affairs of those who didn’t make it. The corollary is unambiguous: It is moral to pursue your self-interests and it is immoral to give people things they have not earned[5].

This implies that welfare programs are synonymous to “wasteful spending” and it is, therefore, a moral duty of the society to enforce policies that shut these programs down and create further positive externalities for businesses and deserving members of society by cutting taxes. This is the core of the conservative antisocial backbone[6].

However – and this is where madness makes its presence visible — although the right wing narrative revolves around the idea of a smaller state, they are really not against the government, especially when it comes to riot police, military spending, or subsidies for corporations, tax cut loopholes or a conservative Supreme Court[7]. They are only against nurturance and care, anything that represents the feminine side in the state-family metaphor.

When seen through the prism of this narrative, many developments of the last 50 years (and 2017, as their pinnacle), begin to make sense: Staggering inequality, criminalization of poverty, gun ownership, mass killings, high incarceration rate, opioid epidemics, right to life bullshit, misogyny, anti-scientific sentiment, religion, creationism … Everything. Without boundless stupidity, none of this would be possible. That is why stupidity has become the most precious commodity, one that needs to be cultivated and nurtured. With it, it is easy to see how an access Hollywood tape became a winning ticket in presidential elections; how birtherism and dismantling everything-Obama became implicit reparations for having to suffer the “humiliations” of eight years under a black president, and how a revival of white supremacy and other still-born ideologies entered mainstream politics.

Dark enlightenment

If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. (Hannah Arendt)

It was believed in the middle ages that the stone of madness could be removed by surgery; many quack healers roamed Europe performing sham operations on the mentally ill, removing the “stone”. Getting the madness out requires drilling a hole in the head and extracting the stone of madness. Who’s to perform the operation? Let’s not forget the charlatans of 2017, the doctors with funnel hats more insane than the patient they are attempting to cure. Their false knowledge reveals the worst excesses of madness immediately apparent to all but the chief Madman himself.

Victory is neither God’s nor the Devil’s: it belongs to Madness[8]. Madness has to be countered by madness, but of a different kind; the two have to annihilate each other. For this to happen madness has to be made contagious and it has to spread. The stone of madness will touch and enlighten us all. Everyone will have to go crazy before they can get better. Madness will be everywhere; it will disappear through its proliferation, and charlatan doctors will be the kings.

[1] George Lakoff, Don’t think of an elephant, Chelsea Green Publishing; 2nd Revised ed. (2014)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, (p.23) Vintage (1973)



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