Sometimes you simply have to decide just who’s crazy and who’s not – and whether being crazy might be, after all, the most appropriate response to these times. Fox News has its new star Glenn Beck, with his own form of madness, ironically lauded by Stephen Colbert here. Beck in the clips is either inspiring, or frightening. Beck makes Bill O’Reilly seem like Bertrand Russell. And then there’s Michelle Bachmann – we need an armed revolution and Swine Flu only happens when Democrats are in office and so on. The left has their crazies too of course. When the Republicans are back in power, one day, they’ll come out of the woodwork. Crazy may be a function of suddenly being powerless – you don’t know how that happened and you sure don’t like it, and even if the people have spoken and you lost, and you know it, it certainly doesn’t seem fair, or right. You say so, with zeal – and you seem bat shit crazy. Everyone else has moved on.
But an argument can be made that refusing to accept reality – and being quite public about it – is a good thing. Actually, that’s a quite common argument. The most recent iteration of it comes in the Health and Wellness section of the Independent (UK), with Creative Minds: The Links between Mental Illness and Creativity. And this is much what you would expect:
At first glance, Einstein, Salvador Dali, Tony Hancock, and Beach Boy Brian Wilson would seem to have little in common. Their areas of physics, modern art, comedy, and rock music, are light years apart. So what, if anything, could possibly link minds that gave the world the theory of relativity, great surreal art, iconic comedy, and songs about surfing?
According to new research, psychosis could be the answer. Creative minds in all kinds of areas, from science to poetry, and mathematics to humor, may have traits associated with psychosis. Such traits may allow the unusual and sometimes bizarre thought processes associated with mental illness to fuel creativity. The theory is based on the idea that there is no clear dividing line between the healthy and the mentally ill. Rather, there is a continuum, with some people having psychotic traits without having the debilitating symptoms.
So researchers are proving that madness and genius are akin – slapping a layer of scientific, verifiable observation on top of the commonplace observation. All that is left is to add a dollop of Darwin:
Mental illnesses have been around for thousands of years. Evolutionary theory suggests that in order for them to be still here, there must be some kind of survival advantage to them. If they were wholly bad, it’s argued, natural selection would have seen them off long ago. In some cases the advantage is clear. Anxiety, for example, can be a mental illness with severe symptoms and consequences, but it is also a trait that at a non-clinical level has survival advantages. In healthy proportions, it keeps us alert and on our toes when threats are sensed.
And you can go further, even if it is a bit uncomfortable:
“It can be difficult for people to reconcile mental illness with the idea that traits may not be disabling. While people accept that there are health benefits to anxiety, they are more wary of schizophrenia and manic depression,” says Professor Gordon Claridge, emeritus professor of abnormal psychology at Oxford University, who has edited a special edition of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, looking at the links between mental illness and creativity. “There is now a feeling that these traits have survived because they have some adaptive value. To be mildly manic depressive or mildly schizophrenic brings a flexibility of thought, an openness, and risk-taking behavior, which does have some adaptive value in creativity. The price paid for having those traits is that some will have mental illness.”
Got that? Flexibility of thought and openness are easier for you if you’re loopy. And we learn that studies have shown that psychiatric patients perform better in tests of abstract thinking, and of 291 eminent and creative men in different fields, 69 per cent had a mental disorder of some kind. Someone has too much time on their hands. But we get this – “Scientists were the least affected, while artists and writers had increased diagnoses of psychosis.”
Basically, scientists and mathematicians tended toward autism, while artists and writers tend toward schizophrenia – but we’re talking traits, not anything actually debilitating. And then there are the comedians:
Heard the one about the man who went to the doctor to get help for his depression? He’s told to go and see a show with a well known comedian who would make him laugh and lift his spirits. “But that’s me,” says the patient. “I’m the comedian.”
The joke, related by Rod Martin, author of ‘The Psychology of Humor – An Integrative Approach’, is apparently something of a favorite among comedians, who are known to be prone to depression, from the late Tony Hancock and Spike Milligan, to Stephen Fry and Paul Merton.
One theory is that humor is developed in response to depression, and that it works as a coping mechanism. One study, reported by Martin, looked at 55 male and 14 female comedians, all famous and successful. It found that comedians tended to be superior in intelligence, angry, suspicious, and depressed.
The thought is that their early lives were “characterized by suffering, isolation, and feelings of deprivation” – so humor became a coping mechanism, classic compensation. And there is another study showing comedians had significantly greater preoccupation with themes of good and evil, unworthiness, self-deprecation, and duty and responsibility, even if they had happy childhoods.
But that Professor Claridge of Oxford say it’s really depression we’re dealing with – “Comedy seems to act as a way of dealing with depression. I think there is an emotionality and cognitive style that goes along with these depressive disorders which seems to feed creativity.”
This of course does not explain Beck and Bachmann – although a whole industry has developed to post their latest and comment on it. Flexibility of thought and openness – they’ve got that. The question is the tether that holds them to this world. There a difference between James Joyce, or William Butler Yeats, and the toothless old Irish drunk at the corner bar ranting about the communists from Argentina stealing his underwear.
To begin with, that mental illnesses may be inherited on the basis of an advantage in evolutionary terms is obvious nonsense: any inheritable illness that keeps the victim alive long enough to procreate, will stay around. Then, treating mentally-ill traits connected with creative people as a cause of creativity is putting the horse behind the cart: anyone who knows something of the psychology of creativity also knows that artists begin by having a personal vision, which subsequently creates social problems.
And there is this:
That psychiatric patients perform better in abstract thinking, is also better explained by inverting the conclusion: unusual characters get more isolated and hence, their thinking gets ‘freer’ from the ‘clutter’ of more intense human contact, they can see things more at a distance – a normal result with ANY isolated individual. The relation between a ‘schizoid person’ and revolutionary thought is the same thing: the more an individual sports original, i.e. deviating ideas, the more he will get isolated, affecting the normal instinctive needs of any human being. The mystery of creativity BEGINS with a given, natural talent, which shapes the development of the personality.
So, then, Beck and Bachmann may be missing that given, natural talent. And as for comedians – “Does it not cross the mind of these researchers that, with a comedian, depression could be the perfectly normal result of having a job that forces one to be humorous on a daily basis?”
There’s more at the link, but you get the idea. We can make too much of madness, thinking it’s cool. It isn’t, and creativity is something else entirely. And a friend who lost his job on Wall Street was right when he said that of course he was suffering from situational depression that was quickly morphing into full-blown clinical depression – but he preferred to call it realism.
And as for admiring free-wheeling almost free-association passion bordering on madness – turning on the Glenn Beck Show on Fox News every day to get your fix of that – the market for that sort of things seem to be drying up. Something else is in the air. Star Trek is back. On Friday, May 8, the newest of the “Star Trek” movies will open in theaters around the world, and the premiere at the Chinese Theater here in Hollywood was a big deal. The early reviews have been positive and the fans are primed. And it’s clear that everyone has missed the severely rational and oddly formal Spock – which may be a sign of the times.
That is what Jeff Greenwald argues in Obama Is Spock: It’s Quite Logical. He says that “our president bears a striking resemblance to the rational Star Trek Vulcan whose mixed race made him cultural translator to the universe.”
Greenwald may be onto something. And he reminds us that Star Trek is, whether you like it or not, culturally important, and a sort of comet:
From its tiny, ancient core – a mere 79 episodes, airing before we set foot on the moon – a seemingly infinite tail has grown, its glow still bright after 43 years. The original series (featuring James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. “Bones” McCoy) ran for just three seasons, from 1966 to 1968. All of the techno-bling we associate with the show – communicators, transporters, warp drive, phasers and Tribbles – was introduced during that first run. It’s staggering to reflect that the premier episode aired during NASA’s two-man Gemini program – five years before the first pocket calculator.
And it’s still around, and it has been stripped down to the essentials:
Only one of the three main actors of that era will appear in J. J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.” It won’t be William Shatner (Kirk), or DeForest Kelley (McCoy), who died in 1999. Though Mr. Spock’s role as a half-human, half-Vulcan Starfleet cadet is played by Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy makes a cameo appearance as the future Spock, coming to advise his younger avatar.
Leonard Nimoy was the one who returned for this, because he matters. Greenwald notes all the comparisons of Spock to Obama – even from Maureen Dowd – you just have a parallel “between the dependably logical half-Vulcan and another mixed-race icon: Barack Obama.” It’s not that much of a stretch. And what was only imagined sort of becomes real:
Nimoy’s alter ego was the harbinger of a future in which logic would reign over emotion and rational thought triumph over blind faith. He was a digital being in an analog world; the Pied Piper who led our generation into the Silicon Age.
We finally got one of those for real. And Greenwald speaks for many of us who grew up wanting to be either Spock or James Bond:
Both displayed total self-confidence, and amazing problem-solving skills. Both traveled to exotic destinations, and were irresistible to women. And both shared a quality that my generation lacked completely: composure.
While Bond had his weaknesses (anything in a bikini), Spock was virtually unflappable. The most startling marvels in the cosmos were “fascinating.” Disasters were “unfortunate,” perhaps even “tragic.” The raised eyebrow, the lifted chin, the vaguely sarcastic mien – these were coins of the realm to my pubescent friends. How did we weather the terrors of grade school, and survive the irrational outbursts of parents and teachers and parents? By invoking Spock. Who served as our logical, enlightened counterpoint to the madness of the late 1960s? Who else but Spock?
And Greenwald turns to Henry Jenkins, co-director of the MIT comparative media studies program, for more of this:
I am a first-generation Star Trek fan, and I’ve long argued that many of my deepest political convictions emerged from my experience of watching the program as a young man growing up in Atlanta during the civil rights era. In many ways, my commitment to social justice was shaped in reality by Martin Luther King and in fantasy by Star Trek.
Greenwald explains how that works out:
Obama, Jenkins points out, positioned himself in the primaries as a man “at home with both blacks and whites, someone whose mixed racial background has forced him to become a cultural translator.” In this sense Obama even surpasses Spock, whose struggle to reconcile his half-human, half-Vulcan genes is a continual source of inner conflict. …
Like Spock, part of what makes Obama so appealing is the fact that although he’s an outsider – “proudly alien,” as Leonard Nimoy once put it – he uses that distance to cultivate a sense of perspective. And while we’re drawn to Spock’s exotic traits – the pointy ears, green blood and weird mating rituals – we take comfort in his soothing baritone, prominent nose and ordinary teeth.
And there was the 1997 Greenwald interview with the original Spock:
“There is a sensitive side to Spock,” Nimoy said, “to which a lot of people, male and female, responded. Also very important – at least I thought it was, because it was what I was constantly playing – is the yin/yang balance between our right and left brains. How do you get through life as a feeling person, without letting emotions rule you? How do you balance the intellectual and emotional sides of your being?”
We see Obama doing that, and Greenwald comments that Spock’s only real vice was sardonic ire, but Greenwald says that’s one of the character’s most appealing qualities – the guy from MIT says Spock is “someone who can bitch slap you with his brain.” And Greenwald comments:
It’s an ability shared by Obama – who, unlike Spock, doesn’t employ that superpower recreationally. His brilliance isn’t a defense (or defended by sarcasm). While Obama embodies Spock’s passion for reason, he adds the element of warmth.
And this whole parallel is getting spooky. But it does make sense:
Star Trek fans who bonded with Spock already understood what those of us who followed Obama learned early on: that witnessing a powerful intellect can be deeply satisfying on an emotional level. We got a similar hit from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys, of course, and from Bill Clinton. But while Clinton’s administration was smart, Obama’s seems futuristic.
“Bill Clinton promised a Cabinet that looked like America,” Henry Jenkins said in a recent conversation. “Obama gave us one that looks like the Enterprise crew. In a matter-of-fact way, he’s embraced diversity at every level. No Klingons yet – but the administration is new.”
It all comes together:
“The Enterprise crew was a professional team of people solving problems together,” agreed Nimoy. “It was always a very humanistic show, one that celebrated the potential strengths of mankind, of our civilization, with great respect for all kinds of life, and a great hope that there will be communication between civilizations and cultures.”
So we have another reason why “the sometimes audacious diplomacy of the Obama administration” is innately appealing to Greenwald and the Trek folks, who were weaned on the credo of “exploring strange new worlds” and “seeking out new life and new civilizations.”
As for the free-wheeling Beck and Bachmann, and those who love their fervor and generally don’t much care for the rational, there is a problem:
The problem with smart, thoughtful people is that you have to pay attention. Even with Star Trek some viewers complained that the stories were too complicated, requiring too much focus for the average TV viewer. Nimoy sympathized. “Star Trek,” he reflected, “was a language show. A lot of the ideas were expressed verbally. It has been said – and I think it’s true – that if you didn’t listen to Star Trek you couldn’t follow the stories.”
The same could be said of today’s White House: It’s a language show. “Issues are never simple,” Obama has said. “Very rarely will you hear me simplify the issues.” The stakes are high, the narrative is complex, and no one’s talking down to us.
Obama, like Spock, rewards close listening. His cool logic is a real departure from what we’ve grown used to. Often presidential speechmaking is an emotive art, where oratory trumps reason. What was being said was often confused with how it was being said. We could watch Ronald Reagan with the sound off, and get a pretty good sense of how we were supposed to feel. Bill Clinton’s richly accented arias lulled us, while reactions to the appearances of George W. Bush – pro or con – were driven less by analysis than by a limbic, visceral response.
If you’re a connoisseur of madness, or at least a regular consumer of such stuff, you don’t get all this. The rational is back. Old Star Trek fans get it, and now the new young fans do too.
And it seems Obama gets it too, as Nimoy noted last year:
“About a year and a half ago, I was at a political event,” Nimoy recalled. “One of our current campaigners for the office of president of the United States saw me – and as he approached, he gave me the Vulcan hand signal.” You can practically hear Nimoy’s eyebrow rise. “It was not John McCain.”
Now THAT is spooky. And on the anti-rational side, this is not playing out well, as Gene Lyons explains in The More Republicans Whine, the Better Obama Looks:
A funny thing happened on the way to the Tea Party. The more furiously the party out of power denounces President Obama, the more confident Americans appear to be that voters made a wise decision last November. That would be the Republican Party. Remember them?
Every time you turn on the television, some Republican is ranting like the kind of barstool know-it-all who gives booze a bad name. Recently it was Tom DeLay, explaining to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that Texas might leave the United States to avoid (imaginary) tax increases. And here I thought the Dallas Cowboys were “America’s Team.”
After first giving us George W. Bush, then impugning the patriotism of anybody who thought invading Iraq was a bad idea, the Texas Knothead faction loses an election, and then talks secession. DeLay was making it up as he went along, claiming the Obama administration seeks “50 percent to 60 percent tax rates on American citizens.” In reality, it seeks a 39.6 percent rate on yearly income over $250,000, tax cuts for everybody else.
Tom – reality, rationality – they matter. People seem to like them. Not that it matters much:
Then there’s Washington Examiner columnist Byron York, who actually wrote that Obama’s “sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.” Got that? Apart from those pesky minorities, real (i.e., white) Americans dislike Obama. York’s not a Texan; he’s from Alabama.
Meanwhile, Fox News can’t decide whether the new president’s policies make him a “socialist,” a “communist” or a Nazi – words that once meant very different things, but have now come to signify “I’m a big crybaby who pitches a hissy fit whenever I don’t get my way.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough uses similar language.
And Obama (Spock) just keeps getting more popular:
Not only did a remarkable 81 percent of Americans express a favorable personal opinion of the president in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, but almost two-thirds support his policies across the board. Asked to describe Obama in a single word, most said “intelligent.”
They didn’t say reckless and passionate and proud and often inarticulate – that’s Captain Kirk, or Bush.
And everyone knows what’s going on here. From the Dana Stevens review of the new Star Trek movie:
For fans who grew up watching the show in ubiquitous after-school reruns and who commandeered the La-Z-Boy as an impromptu captain’s chair, Star Trek is neither a franchise nor a property. It’s a world. Abrams’ cannily constructed prequel respects (for the most part) the rules of that world and, more importantly, retains the original Star Trek’s spirit of optimism, curiosity, and humor. …
Star Trek’s vision of the future, as guided by creator Gene Roddenberry, was also a relic of its time, the age of NASA and the Cold War and Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a podium at the UN. The show’s faith in diplomacy and technology as tools for not just global but universal peace might seem touchingly dated in our post-9/11 age of stateless jihad, loose nukes, and omnipresent danger. Yet in a weird way, Star Trek’s cheerfully square naiveté makes it the perfect film for our first summer of (slimly) renewed hope.
It’s a blockbuster for the Obama age, when smarts and idealism are cool again.
So if you are considering whether being crazy might be, after all, the most appropriate response to these times, the answer is no, not really. Refusing to accept reality – and being quite public about it – is not a good thing these days, if it ever was. And you can take that to the bank. Paramount Studios has done just that. Madness really is overrated.