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I lost an argument the other day. It wasn’t one of those arguments that you lose because you didn’t care or because you didn’t try. It wasn’t an argument that you lose for a lack of articulation or for an inability to make others see what you see. It was the sort of argument that you lose simply because the law wasn’t on your side. That’s a difficult loss to take, and trying to sleep that night, exhausted and alert, as if shouting as loud as I could in an attempt to locate silence, I knew it was a problem for which I would find a solution only years after the opportunity had passed. Immediately after the argument, I stepped out and took a little walk with my client, a 14 year old girl, just to get her away from all the commotion of the courtroom. We talked about a lot of things, and anticipating conflict ahead, I told her of the principle of charity, to interpret every word spoken in the best possible light, to grant what good she could find, and to always argue tactics over intentions; she smiled and thanked me for helping her to get away from everyone.
Some time ago, a woman stared at me from a plastic chair across a table. We sat in a concrete room, her in an orange jumpsuit, and me in the usual suit and tie; the 4×4 table took up roughly 80% of our allotted space, with the rest adequate only for ingress and egress maneuvers. I tried what every other adult in her life has attempted, but was wholly unable to cut through the actual mental illness, the influence of her peers, whatever residual effects of drug use, and the ignorance of youth, to convince her that those people around her – the people she tells me she hates because they just want to control her and pretend like they know what’s best when she knows perfectly well what’s best – really do want to help her, and they really can help her, but only if she accepts that help. She got out of juvi and ran back to the gang whose insignia is tattooed across her back, where she trades sex for money and drugs, or is used herself as currency; but they also recognize mental illness, and where risperidone is replaced with beatings, eventually, the only solution is a permanent one.
Another solution would be forced medication with non-amphetamines, involuntary commitment, placement in a locked facility of the sort that got a bad name during a time when people seemed to acknowledge the existence of evil, and the occasional necessity for its ranking in order to settle upon the lesser of two. Today, I’m not sure what exactly we’re thinking. There are a few old mainstays when it comes to thoughts about insane asylums; the guy who thinks he’s Abraham Lincoln, the guy who thinks he’s Jesus, the guy who thinks he’s Caesar. They lived within padded walls for the very demonstrable reality that they were not, in fact, who they claimed to be. Today, we take a man who believes he’s a woman, and we give him hormones, silicone implants; we mutilate his body so that he will look like a bad caricature of the woman that he is not, has never been, and will never be. We don’t yet sew on beards, paste artificial moles, supply tophats, and house our country’s many Mr. Lincolns at the white house… but it isn’t entirely clear to me why we should change the word “delusion” to “personal reality” only in some cases and not others. And if we require that men’s bathrooms accept the short-haired, flannel-clad, woman with a chemically induced soul-patch and a silicone replica penis, why don’t we require Graceland to admit that guy down on 40th who sincerely believes himself to be Elvis? He’d certainly be more comfortable there.
But delusion doesn’t exist, remember? We’re a bit slow in maintaining consistency, although I suppose we will eventually succeed in making everyone equal. That means treating someone with a serious mental illness as if her preferences are merely preferences. It means only allowing for a voluntary commitment, a non-secure transport, and a facility from which you are free to leave at any time. It is one thing to remove gender so that sexual delusion can find itself comfortable in a nondescript stall… but it seems quite another thing to remove sanity so that all the world can be an asylum. It seems terribly obvious to look at prisons and madhouses and recidivism, to observe that this system of ours is broken in the sense that it is imperfect in its attempt to create a utopia; almost as obvious as to look at the results of closing them all down, and observe that Eden is no closer, and the world is still broken. But like the Bolsheviks who rallied for change and destruction, rightly pointing to existing flaws, we stand staring at Chesterton’s fence; we see the cracks and want to remove it, wholly unable to articulate why it was placed there to begin with.
Yet, I’m at a loss. Conservatives should be at a loss. Arthur Koestler wrote a book some time ago, called Darkness at Noon. He vividly described what happens when authority gets to exercise its own judgment and define what is and is not sane, who is and is not a danger to society. Mistake of fact is easily conflated with mistake of opinion, and the power to confine someone for his own good, or for the good of the whole, absent some actual crime… well, that is a power that we rightly treat like open flame in a powder room.
I lost a war the other day. It wasn’t one of those wars that I lost because I didn’t care or because I didn’t try. It wasn’t because I didn’t fight, or because I didn’t know how to fight or who to fight. It was because I recognize that there is evil in the world, and that those sorts of wars are ones you cannot win. You can only wait them out, and in the meantime, you can find which of the little girls and boys are willing to listen; you can pull them out of the melee for a minute and take a walk. You can impart what small amount of wisdom you have, and hope that it sticks in the back of their heads, so that it may someday give them the perspective they need as they look at all these fights that wage around them.
[Disclaimer: The characters in this story are fictional; based on real ideas and real experiences, but not upon actual facts.]