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The Fine Line Between Activism and Mental Illness

 

I wonder how many of you saw this story about David Buckel. It’s got all the tropes: gay, legal activist, food co-ops, composting, Brooklyn, climate activism. Let’s just say I doubt he was a Trump voter. His suicide note apparently said that…

[p]ollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather . . . . Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels and many die early deaths as a result – my early death by fossil fuels reflects what we are doing to ourselves.

Other than the horrible way he died (for those too lazy to click, or outside of NYT’s paywall, he doused himself in “fossil fuels” and lit himself on fire in a public park), many of us might be inclined to deride him.

I’m not going to do that. You see, I knew him once, and I liked him a lot, maybe even had a slight crush on him (although that could have been a mixture of exhaustion and euphoria).

One of the early highlights of David’s legal career, mentioned in much of the press about his death, is also one of the highlights of mine. It was a case called Nabozny v. Podlesny and back then David was fighting with different tools, and apparently for different causes. We just wanted public schools to respond with discipline when gay kids were bullied — like they did for non-gay kids. And our tool was the courtroom, not the gasoline can and the matchbox. David was a nice guy, determined (we all were), but level-headed and driven to achieve the achievable by conventional means.

In the 20+ years since then, something must have gone wrong for him, and I guess in writing this I’m going to speculate about what, even though I know it is speculation (I didn’t know him well even back then and we hadn’t kept in touch). But I haven’t been able to let this go in my mind since a former colleague sent me the link above yesterday.

Why? He had a partner of many years (apparently his boyfriend way back when I knew him), and children, and work he apparently still cared about, and his final note said he was still in good health. So, why? Why bring it all to this horrible end? What must the people who loved him be going through now? And in order to draw attention to pollution and climate change? As though no one has noticed? Even granting his environmental premises, what good could he have thought this grisly act would do? It just seems such a tragic, pathetic, horrible end for someone I remember as a beautiful man. I can’t put my finger on a word for how I feel but it is nagging and uncomfortable.

My speculation is that, like so many of us these days, right and left, David found himself simply unable to accept that things weren’t always going to go his way in the world of activism he lived in. We are a country of 320 million people and almost as many opinions, so sometimes our own don’t win out. But more and more, we’re letting ourselves think that “losing the argument” over more and more issues, is an existential threat. Fossil fuels will destroy the planet. Gay marriage will destroy the culture. Tax cuts will kill the poor. It’s a Flight 93 election.

You name it, in the past decade or so if you are politically engaged, chances are you’ve overreacted to something — told yourself, or said on Twitter or Facebook or here on Ricochet, that if some policy proposal was adopted or some person elected it was “literally the end” when all it was was a modest alteration of a status quo that in truth, tends to change slowly and often modulates back and forth as the pendulum of public opinion swings.

In David’s case, it sounds like that tendency may have been what lead to his horrible, senseless act and I think that is the warning we should take from what he did. Not that fossil fuels will destroy us but that we will destroy ourselves if we don’t learn again to live and let live.

RIP David.

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There are 24 comments.

  1. Coolidge

    The use of an inflammable substance to commit suicide is very odd. Mental health might be an answer. The destruction of the culture is not caused by gay marriage but it is going on anyway and began long before most of the aberrations we see. At least he did it to himself and did not take children with him as the two lesbians in California did recently.

    http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8163127-181/chp-names-2-adults-in

     

    • #1
    • April 16, 2018 at 7:25 am
    • 2 likes
  2. Thatcher

    I read this last night. I thought how horrible it must have been in his mind to resort to this action. Thank you for the glimpse into the rest of his life. There is always more to the story.

    • #2
    • April 16, 2018 at 7:28 am
    • 9 likes
  3. Thatcher

    Suicide requires both a lack of fear of death and since that there is no good fix to problems. Homosexuals are a increased risk of depression and suicide. 

    I do not think people actually tend to kill themselves over politics. My guess is more was going on.

    • #3
    • April 16, 2018 at 7:30 am
    • 6 likes
  4. Member

    I am so sorry. The husband of a girl I grew up with committed suicide 6 months ago, and it haunts me even though I hardly knew him. He had three children.

    As someone who has struggled with suicidal thoughts, and has friends who have actually attempted, just because someone kills him or her self doesn’t mean that their whole life was nothing but misery. Believe it or not, I actually consider myself happier than most people, and the same could be said of at least one of my suicidal friends, but great joy and great pain often go together, and sometimes, in moments of weakness or insanity, people succumb to the pain. It doesn’t mean that their whole life was nothing but pain.

    Again, I am so sorry. I never understood how horrific suicide is until I knew someone affected by it.

    • #4
    • April 16, 2018 at 7:43 am
    • 9 likes
  5. Member

    I’m so sorry to read this Cato. I hope you’re okay. 

    • #5
    • April 16, 2018 at 8:11 am
    • 10 likes
  6. Reagan
    Cato Rand Post author

    Zafar (View Comment):

    I’m so sorry to read this Cato. I hope you’re okay.

    I am. Like I said, we hadn’t been in touch in a long time. Just a bit bewildered and trying to make sense of it. But thank you.

    • #6
    • April 16, 2018 at 8:13 am
    • 10 likes
  7. Thatcher

    Cato Rand: It’s got all the tropes: gay, legal activist, food co-ops, composting, Brooklyn, climate activism.

    If you ever want to see the living embodiment of Jonah’s Liberal Fascism, visit the Park Slope Food Co-Op. It’s a David Mamet masterpiece in waiting. It’s got it all. Border checkpoints, pervasive intelligence awareness, crushingly stupid propaganda and more politico-dietary-sexual rigidity than many National Socialists.

    Too bad your friend didn’t follow you into libertarianism, where he could have found optimism, appreciation for free wheeling human genius, emergent order and hope for the future. 

    • #7
    • April 16, 2018 at 9:01 am
    • 7 likes
  8. Member

    Wow, you knew this guy? What a terrible story. Your analysis is spot on. I’ve never seen people behave this way over politics in my entire life. Though you’re correct that both sides have overreacted to issues, I, of course, blame the Left and their Drama Queen behavior when things don’t go their way. They can’t believe their eyes when things don’t go the way they want them to, so they think that if only they can couch their beliefs in dire enough terms, we’ll all finally see the light. Then when we don’t all slap our foreheads like the guy in the V8 commercial, they’re shocked at the depths of our stupidity. And just when I think they can’t escalate their dire warnings any further, they prove me wrong.

    • #8
    • April 16, 2018 at 9:12 am
    • 11 likes
  9. Member

    Cato Rand (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):

    I’m so sorry to read this Cato. I hope you’re okay.

    I am. Like I said, we hadn’t been in touch in a long time. Just a bit bewildered and trying to make sense of it. But thank you.

    They take the answer with them. We can’t make sense of it, just ride it out. 

    • #9
    • April 16, 2018 at 9:13 am
    • 8 likes
  10. Reagan
    Cato Rand Post author

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Wow, you knew this guy? What a terrible story. Your analysis is spot on. I’ve never seen people behave this way over politics in my entire life. Though you’re correct that both sides have overreacted to issues, I, of course, blame the Left and their Drama Queen behavior when things don’t go their way. They can’t believe their eyes when things don’t go the way they want them to, so they think that if only they can couch their beliefs in dire enough terms, we’ll all finally see the light. Then when we don’t all slap our foreheads like the guy in the V8 commercial, they’re shocked at the depths of our stupidity. And just when I think they can’t escalate their dire warnings any further, they prove me wrong.

    Yes but. I agree with all this but I’ve also come to believe that we do it on our side of the aisle too. I cited a couple examples. I was careful to take two from the right and two from the left. But there could be many more, on both the right and left, that are treated as absolutely existential by partisans when in truth, they’re not. At the end of the day, living together in a community or a nation requires learning to look away, and to walk away, and to tell yourself simply, “well, so be it if he wants to live that way, as long as I don’t have to.” It requires us to accept that there are others whose wants and needs and beliefs and sentiments just differ dramatically from our own, and to be at least ok letting that be.

    • #10
    • April 16, 2018 at 9:26 am
    • 10 likes
  11. Reagan
    Cato Rand Post author

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Wow, you knew this guy? What a terrible story. Your analysis is spot on. I’ve never seen people behave this way over politics in my entire life. Though you’re correct that both sides have overreacted to issues, I, of course, blame the Left and their Drama Queen behavior when things don’t go their way. They can’t believe their eyes when things don’t go the way they want them to, so they think that if only they can couch their beliefs in dire enough terms, we’ll all finally see the light. Then when we don’t all slap our foreheads like the guy in the V8 commercial, they’re shocked at the depths of our stupidity. And just when I think they can’t escalate their dire warnings any further, they prove me wrong.

    By the way, I speculate on David’s motivations not because I knew him so well, but because I knew him a little and I know a lot of Davids quite well. I just happened to be gay and to work in a legal environment where Davids abounded. I know most of the lawyers who have lead the gay rights revolution and some of them quite well. I know how much pain they are choosing to feel over the last election and the rightward turn post-Obama. I also lived through the SSM wars here on Ricochet and saw how much angst some of my fellow Ricochetti chose to feel. I use the word “choose” very intentionally because I don’t believe we’re actually compelled to accept delivery of that kind of angst. When it’s an adverse diagnosis about our own health, or a death in the family, sure. But when it’s an election or a tax bill or a Supreme Court decision, or some other event out there in the world without much real personal connection, no. If we get worked up about those things it’s because we choose to. And I think David’s action should teach us all to step back a little and choose a little less outrage, a little less angst, and a little less intolerance for those who differ from us.

    • #11
    • April 16, 2018 at 9:34 am
    • 9 likes
  12. Member

    Your guess might be right. But I recall seeing similar pictures of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire in protests, so I doubt it is always a result of mental disorder and not mistaken philosophy. Why did Japanese culture so long condone “honorable” sepukku? I vaguely recall an old Ricochet post in which a Japan resident tried to explain it. 

    In any case, suicide is always a brutal blow to associates. And you are right that we can and should endure no matter how sick or mad the world can be at times. I hope you find peace.

    • #12
    • April 16, 2018 at 9:50 am
    • 5 likes
  13. Member

    Cato Rand (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Wow, you knew this guy? What a terrible story. Your analysis is spot on. I’ve never seen people behave this way over politics in my entire life. Though you’re correct that both sides have overreacted to issues, I, of course, blame the Left and their Drama Queen behavior when things don’t go their way. They can’t believe their eyes when things don’t go the way they want them to, so they think that if only they can couch their beliefs in dire enough terms, we’ll all finally see the light. Then when we don’t all slap our foreheads like the guy in the V8 commercial, they’re shocked at the depths of our stupidity. And just when I think they can’t escalate their dire warnings any further, they prove me wrong.

    Yes but. I agree with all this but I’ve also come to believe that we do it on our side of the aisle too. I cited a couple examples. I was careful to take two from the right and two from the left. But there could be many more, on both the right and left, that are treated as absolutely existential by partisans when in truth, they’re not. At the end of the day, living together in a community or a nation requires learning to look away, and to walk away, and to tell yourself simply, “well, so be it if he wants to live that way, as long as I don’t have to.” It requires us to accept that there are others whose wants and needs and beliefs and sentiments just differ dramatically from our own, and to be at least ok letting that be.

    Too true. The difference is that most of our side have lives and jobs, and no time to organize protests, which we think are silly anyway, and we also don’t control the schools and the media. We just voice it and go about our lives.

    • #13
    • April 16, 2018 at 10:39 am
    • 2 likes
  14. Member

    We have to be very careful about drawing those red lines. I knew plenty of eastern and central Europeans who hated Communism but were terrified by the slapdash conversion to capitalism, convinced they’d never find work and would starve to death. We shake our heads at that now, but in 1992 nobody had a crystal ball–“hold on another few years and it will gradually get better”. After the initial euphoria of the wall coming down, there was a rash of suicides, mostly of older people who couldn’t imagine a future for themselves. Life was changing faster than they could cope. 

    So we should all hesitate to begin a thought, “If x comes to pass, life is not worth living”. You might just convince yourself that it’s true. 

    Fine post, Cato. Sorry for your pain. Out of it, you’ve brought wisdom for the rest of us. 

    • #14
    • April 16, 2018 at 11:12 am
    • 12 likes
  15. Member

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Suicide requires both a lack of fear of death and since that there is no good fix to problems. Homosexuals are a increased risk of depression and suicide.

    I do not think people actually tend to kill themselves over politics. My guess is more was going on.

    I think this and other posts miss the possible nobility of the man’s act. Consider the iconic photo of the Buddhist monk burning to death in Saigon. Suicide by self-immolation is perhaps the most extreme social protest, but is protest none the less. We should hesitate to dismiss it as mere mental illness.

    Cato, I am sorry for your loss.

    • #15
    • April 16, 2018 at 11:59 am
    • 3 likes
  16. Reagan
    Cato Rand Post author

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Suicide requires both a lack of fear of death and since that there is no good fix to problems. Homosexuals are a increased risk of depression and suicide.

    I do not think people actually tend to kill themselves over politics. My guess is more was going on.

    I think this and other posts miss the possible nobility of the man’s act. Consider the iconic photo of the Buddhist monk burning to death in Saigon. Suicide by self-immolation is perhaps the most extreme social protest, but is protest none the less. We should hesitate to dismiss it as mere mental illness.

    Cato, I am sorry for your loss.

    I see maybe noble intentions, but in my mind they are overwhelmed by what seems to me to be the senselessness of it. And thank you.

    • #16
    • April 16, 2018 at 12:15 pm
    • 7 likes
  17. Coolidge

    Thank you for this eloquent essay regarding your friend. I understand how he feels. (Although he and I would greatly differ on our views of what is causing the massive Global Climate Change that is so visibly occurring.)

    I suppose he thought that immolating his physical body would bring about some change that wouldn’t occur without him doing so. I am assuming that if he was severely depressed about things, there are easier ways of ending it all than by becoming a human torch.

    In any event, he was lucky for knowing you, and also lucky for all the wonderful things that were going on in his life. I am sad over the tragedy that he couldn’t see how much he had to appreciate before he lit the match.

    • #17
    • April 16, 2018 at 12:41 pm
    • 4 likes
  18. Member

    Cato Rand: You name it, in the past decade or so if you are politically engaged, chances are you’ve overreacted to something

    Yes. So so true. What a sad story.

    • #18
    • April 16, 2018 at 12:48 pm
    • 2 likes
  19. Thatcher

    Oh, @catorand! How awful!…It seems our inter/intra-personal environments can become toxic, too, in ways we can’t begin to fathom. I’m reminded of the saying of Ian Maclaren: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” <3 and a Panda Hug.

    • #19
    • April 16, 2018 at 2:42 pm
    • 5 likes
  20. Thatcher

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Suicide requires both a lack of fear of death and since that there is no good fix to problems. Homosexuals are a increased risk of depression and suicide.

    I do not think people actually tend to kill themselves over politics. My guess is more was going on.

    I think this and other posts miss the possible nobility of the man’s act. Consider the iconic photo of the Buddhist monk burning to death in Saigon. Suicide by self-immolation is perhaps the most extreme social protest, but is protest none the less. We should hesitate to dismiss it as mere mental illness.

    Cato, I am sorry for your loss.

    There is nothing “mere” about mental illness. 

    • #20
    • April 17, 2018 at 4:48 am
    • 5 likes
  21. Coolidge

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Wow, you knew this guy? What a terrible story. Your analysis is spot on. I’ve never seen people behave this way over politics in my entire life. Though you’re correct that both sides have overreacted to issues, I, of course, blame the Left and their Drama Queen behavior when things don’t go their way. They can’t believe their eyes when things don’t go the way they want them to, so they think that if only they can couch their beliefs in dire enough terms, we’ll all finally see the light. Then when we don’t all slap our foreheads like the guy in the V8 commercial, they’re shocked at the depths of our stupidity. And just when I think they can’t escalate their dire warnings any further, they prove me wrong.

    My consolation in reading this is at least he did himself in. I have to deal with such angry Left Wingers, that I am convinced sooner or later they will take one or more of us out.

    I feel bad he did this to himself, but the alternative others might take is much worse.

    • #21
    • April 17, 2018 at 1:05 pm
    • 1 like
  22. Member

    I met David briefly in 2009 at a memorial service for my aunt. One of my cousins is gay and married. She was artificially inseminated so that she and her partner could have a child. She gave birth to a girl. David and his partner Terry lived in the same building and they became “fathers” to the girl. From everything I know, they were wonderful and caring people. As I said, I only briefly met David once and did not really get to know him. Everything I know about him is from things my cousin has mentioned – usually simply in relation to how David and Terry were taking care of her daughter (my first cousin once-removed). I didn’t know about his activism – initially about gay marriage and later about the environment. Both my wife and I, however, agreed that in order for him to take his own life in such a horrible way, there must have been some mental issues going on. Whether it was depression or something even more serious, I don’t know whether my cousin will feel free to share. But I simply cannot conceive that someone in a committed relationship with responsibility for a child and with many friends who love and respect him could choose to cause such never-ending pain to everyone unless he was simply not thinking clearly. And to someone who was old enough (he was 60) to remember the Cuyahoga River catching on fire from pollution, and the smog and pollutants being belched out of steel plants in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Gary, Indiana, and the smog blanketing LA, I cannot accept that he would feel the pollution today was so bad that it required self-immolation to bring it to the public’s attention. So tragic.

    • #22
    • April 18, 2018 at 8:47 am
    • 5 likes
  23. Coolidge

    There is a lot of rage in the left’s hysteria about Trump. I think we are going to see more instances like the man who drove from Illinois to Virginia to shoot GOP congressmen.

    Dick Durbin’s office had some correspondence with that man that is still not disclosed. I wonder if it will cool off or get more insane if the elections do not result in gains for the Democrats ?

    • #23
    • April 18, 2018 at 11:09 am
    • 2 likes
  24. Member

    In cases of suicide, I think there is usually some underlying mental disorder — i.e., clinical depression — which is the prime motivator, and the afflicted person latches these feelings on to whatever secondary causes are most convenient. These secondary factors may well intensify or provide a feedback loop for the existing disorder — or maybe even serve as a temporary distraction from hopelessness — but I doubt that activism in itself is to blame. It might be useful to look at the activism as a symptom rather than a cause.

    • #24
    • April 18, 2018 at 11:47 am
    • 5 likes