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Sunday, November 30, 2003


In the 17th century, European colonizers came to West Africa searching to expand their trade routes and tap the dark continent for what they saw was a vast treasure chest of natural resources, including, but not limited to, the people themselves. One of the things, however, which terrified a lot of the company workers, especially those new to the area, was the local religion of Vodun: the belief that spirits could inhabit one's body and force him to do things. Given the superstitious nature of the Christian colonials in the unfamiliar surroundings, they did exactly what they thought they had to: starved or killed the ones who wouldn't be converted. This is not something that Europeans were exactly reluctant to continue in the rest of their travels: 17th century Salem, 19th century India, and so on and so forth. Local cultures who had beliefs that the Europeans could not reconcile with their own personal world, and which in many cases hit too close to their own internal fears, were considered a threat and had to be eliminated. This is the sort of cultural insecurity the western world has grown up with.

Now we deal with a different set of fears, and a new frontier we're just beginning to explore. We no longer travel across oceans to face our inner demons on some dark continent, but rather begin the inward journey, and more often than not, the vessel for our exploration has been nothing more than a notepad and a curiously well-worn leather couch. Psychology is a discipline which has only recently, in the span of things, come into vogue as a science. Well-meaning individuals go to school for many, many years in order to learn the tools of a trade which is still trying to crack the surface of the wrinkly ball of cholesterol we call a brain. Yet at the same time, it's one where well-meaning individuals take what is necessarily an oversimplification (due to the relative infancy of psychology as a whole) of what constitutes normality, and from there sets up a standard people are asked to meet.

Like the first men to sail to the ivory coast and encounter a vision of humanity with which they could not suffer to coexist, we now take some of the more eccentric fringes of our own culture and label them "unhealthy" on the grounds that they fail to meet a standard of behavior which we can understand. At least in the past, these individuals were viewed with suspicion by the more urbane classes, but still tolerated simply as a different breed. We endured the more frivilous elements of society, dismissed as youthful caprice or artistic strangeness; now, that trend has changed. Now, we take a whole generation of bright kids who are bored by the rigors of a school system designed with mediocrity - and worse - in mind, and medicate them becuase they have the audacity to aspire to more than the dull, listless, cow-eyed stare of a lobotomy patient. It used to be that drugging your children had a different name: child abuse. Now, it's almost bad parenting if your child ever shows signs of life.

Alas, that's the real fruit of the problem. It's not even as if this practice is being relegated to the dank and darkened basements of the seedier sections of Utah, where only fanatics dare to live - this is a practice backed by the Gods of our civilization - science and reason. The legitimizing of this soma culture is something undreamt of by even the most bizarre fiction writers. For so long, we've seen the mass degradation of our collective mental independence as something coerced; something a government would swoop in and impose. Yet as it turns out, all it required was the merest hint that your mood swings were something which needed to be fixed. Asthma, Bipolar disorder, Cancer - the ABCs of health have included these real or imagined mental afflictions, and propagated by these cerebral interlopers, people have just accepted it. If you feel the monotony of life bearing down on you, and your job makes you unhappy, the new solution is to take the red pill with a glass of water and make the feeling go away. We're killing our natural defense against the death of the spirit one Zanax at a time.

There are people who legitimately need the help. There are those who become, through the various misfiring neurons of what is truly a diseased brain, unable to live their lives in such a way that they can self-actualize and become the person they want. What we've done to help those people is trivialize the condition. We've put those who are unable to tell the difference between dreams and reality on a level with suburban housewives who can't sleep at night because they have spent the whole day wasting their potential in a listless series of meaningless tasks. And we don't even understand most of it yet. We're still exploring the coastline, we haven't got a clue what lays beyond the dense underbrush of our psychic jungle. The solution we've found is to clearcut: o slash and burn. To treat everyone like a terminal case, and medicate them and medicate them and medicate them until they don't know how to face the world without it.

We've got a series of people who treat their patients as objects of observation, like a cyst which could at any time explode. People go through university and medical school in order to become empathic listeners. Paid professionals who act in the same capacity as a prostitute - to just be someone that can be talked to, or who one can spend time with in the absence of the genuine article. Is this really the expeditionary force we want exploring our inner demons?

There is a very real problem our society has. It will not be solved by exterminating the local culture, even if that culture does not mesh well with a consumerist, homogenized version of America, land of the free, home of the trademark. Let's hope we can learn from our past mistakes, and make a future where we understand people instead of forcing them to conform to what we want them to be.

cranked out at 10:20 PM | |

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