by Stephen Masty
Dr. Himmelman dumped her files onto the common-room table, made a cup of Earl Gray and sat down heavily. It didn’t take a world-famous clinician to see that she was having a bad day.
“Looks like you’re having a bad day,” observed Barbara D’Angelo, a world-famous clinician. “Is it Charles again?” Janet shook her head no and forced a small smile as she stared into her mug.
“He’s as good as cured,” murmured the younger woman. Both knew that such severe cases were prone to recurring attacks, but her patient had been in remission for nearly a year. “He let me see his Kindle,” the newer doctor added.
“And?” demanded Dr. D’Angelo, who had helped with the initial diagnosis.
“He’s reading Cicero, and self-prescribed as well,” Janet answered almost cheerfully. Among hundreds of patients on the clinic register, and thousands waiting for admission, it had been a textbook recovery and she was writing up her notes for a scholarly medical journal.
“I hope that you’re proud,” the older doctor whispered. Barbara had pioneered the radical therapy that has saved thousands of American conservatives from misdiagnosing themselves as libertarians, and as a result they go on to live normal, happy lives free from cognitive dissonance, psycho-ideological trauma and well-known damage to their cultural autoimmune systems. (For that earlier TIC case-study, see here).
“He’s going back to school as well; he wants to write a doctorate on Mel Bradford. He’ll be fine,” Janet concluded without revealing the cause of her obvious upset.
“Maybe you just need a holiday,” Barbara suggested. “The Mayo Clinic is holding another seminar with the Mecosta Centre. Why don’t you take a long weekend and go? I’ll get Oscar to pick up the costs.”
“Someone taking my name in vain?” asked a white-haired man in a well-cut suit and an ever-.present smile. Oscar sat down and put a box of donuts on the table. “Dig in,” he urged.
“Janet just needs a break,” Dr. D’Angelo started to explain but her colleague interrupted.
“No! I most certainly do not need a break!” Janet objected strongly. “It’s just…just…” Words failed her.
“Just what?” asked the administrator. Oscar knew the high levels of stress affecting his clinicians and he did all that he could to make their lives as relaxed as possible.
Janet swallowed hard and began to explain. “Either my patients are getting more delusional or, well…” She fidgeted nervously with her china mug.
“Go on,” urged Oscar.
“Or it’s gone viral,” blurted Janet and her colleague dropped a donut.
Oscar whispered under his breath, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”
Every mental-health professional in America knows of the recent studies linking schizophrenia to a virus often carried by mites on common housecats. So none of the experts seated around the table needed to be warned of the consequences of virally-induced libertarianism, either in its genuine or far more common preliminary form of self-misdiagnosis by otherwise healthy conservatives.
“Real libertarianism or false-positives?” asked Dr. D’Angelo carefully. Her colleague answered the latter but nobody sighed with relief. They all knew the individual effects of self-misdiagnosis and the even greater risks to national mental health that a viral epidemic could incur. Before they could alert the other institutions, they needed proof and an etiology – but they could be short of time.
“It’s six patients all in a week,” Janet fretted. “All display identical symptoms that I’ve never seen before.”
It had been her treatment of Charles that led The Libertarian Clinic to expand from curing actual libertarianism to also rescuing conservatives exhibiting false-positive symptoms. Until then, the relatively young science of CAIT (Cognitive Anti-Ideological Therapy) had not recognised how the two conditions were inter-related, and how mistaken self-diagnosis could break down natural defence mechanisms and lead to genuine ideological infection.
“At once and independent of one another, they have all begun claiming that goodness is mankind’s natural state, implying that society’s religious values do not matter,” Janet explained. “They say that since goodness is rational and normative, markets can solve everything.”
Her colleagues could see the ramifications immediately. If ordinary, healthy conservatives suddenly began hallucinating that faith and faith-driven culture are not prerequisites to any civilisation, then induced hyper-utilitarianism, disguised as merely being non-judgemental, would begin to switch off their anti-ideological immune systems. Then, just as in unmedicated AIDS patients, the slightest (conceptual) illness would go unchecked and could prove fatal.
Barbara D’Angelo restrained her worry and chose her words carefully; “Janet, have you checked the Web?”
Oscar nodded. “The simplest explanation is that these patients were all affected by reading the same article on the same libertarian website,” he explained. Indeed, each of them remembered a similar incident several months before, when on a single Tuesday four conservative patients all began agitating for anarchy.
“I checked all the usual websites and interviewed everyone. Nothing going,” sighed Dr. Himmelman. “But it’s difficult to stabilise the patients. Since every culture is based on some religion, however imperfect, I cannot show them an historical control-group outside of the influence of religion. So they just assume that goodness is natural. Already they’re saying that Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” explains goodness as a human default-position and makes no reference to the numinous. If they start quoting Rousseau, we’ll need to consider voluntary quarantine while we run the MRI scans and genetic testing.”
“Janet, this takes time we cannot afford,” warned the older clinician. “Besides, there is indeed something that we can do immediately, but only if Oscar approves.” The others stared and waited as Barbara drew a deep breath.
“Turnbull,” she whispered, and Oscar nearly sprang from his chair.
“Turnbull! You want to try Turnbull Therapy? Have you gone mad?” the administrator demanded. “It has never been tested properly! There is no scientific literature on it whatsoever! The Lord only knows what it will do to the patients, not to mention our clinical reputations. We could end up like nineteenth-century quacks treating syphilis with mercury.”
“Oscar,” soothed the elder doctor, “it can work and we haven’t time to delay.” Janet nodded, but hesitantly. It had been discussed at scholarly conferences, but only late at night in the bar, and only in whispers among the most daring clinicians.
As they all knew, Colin Turnbull (1924-1994) was an Anglo-American anthropologist who wrote a best-selling 1961 book about living among gentle African pygmies in Zaire. His second work, in 1972, was vastly different, focussing on the Ik tribe in Uganda. Suffering from several generations of hunger and loss of their ancestral forests, Ik families stopped raising their own children, leaving the tribe’s offspring to feed and educate themselves as a leaderless herd. The elderly were starved to death intentionally and food was stolen from the sick. Any religion or sense of compassion had been long forgotten as the Ik reverted to a Hobbesian “state of nature.” The scientist recalled that his toughest challenge was overcoming his urge to despise them.
“Barbara,” said Oscar gently, “this nearly destroyed Turnbull’s respect for humanity, and he was a seasoned anthropologist while our patients are not. Can we take this risk? Might this turn them into monsters? Even into Objectivists?” With his last word both physicians shuddered involuntarily, but the elder doctor recovered fast.
“Virtually all forms of psychotherapy require stripping patients of self-delusion, and you know that,” Dr. D’Angelo replied forcefully. “If they learn that goodness is not innate, then by simple deduction it must come from somewhere else. It sounds harsh but they need shaking up!” The administrator looked nervous and unconvinced.
“Besides,” added Janet helpfully, “we can introduce countervailing influences and positive, religiously-led examples from elsewhere; brave and compassionate Christians and Jews in Nazi Germany, Mother Theresa and Damien of Molokai, moral myth from ancient Greeks and Romans, mandated personal charity in Islam, theology from Hindus and Buddhists.”
“So we let Turnbull’s findings describe a moral void that gets filled elsewhere by Grace?” asked Oscar.
“And science,” Dr. D’Angelo added. “They often travel together.”
“We’re about to start juggling chainsaws,” the administrator sighed, as he rested his head and hands on the tabletop.
It was two days later that they met unexpectedly on the broad limestone steps, hours before their scheduled meeting back at the clinic.
“Seeing you here is either really good news or really bad news,” Oscar observed. “What gives?”
Dr. Himmelman smiled and they knew instantly. “Out of six, two got it immediately,” she began. “Three are thinking seriously, but one is taking it hard, wondering if life means no more than everyone for himself. I’ve got him under close observation, in a hotel away from his libertarian housemates. Hotel rooms have boring television and complementary Bibles,” she added.
“Who’s a clever girl?!” laughed Barbara D’Angelo. The trio continued up through the towering wooden doors that led into the church.
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Stephen Masty is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and has been a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He has spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he is presently a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu. Read more of Mr. Masty’s TIC essays here.