It inspires conviction, faithfulness, right-thinking and devotion to duty - as well as bigotry, self-righteousness, fanaticism and mulishness. It nourished the atrocities of the Inquisition and directed the persecution of Galileo. It propels persons to hoard religious hatred toward others who are mutually hateful. It seduces heroes and martyrs onto the shadowy altars of glory, serving eternal principles that are quickly forgotten. It motivated the execution of innocent persons as witches and it continues to condemn innocent defendants and to liberate guilty miscreants. It incites nations to squander their resources, dissipating their prospects on crusades, blood feuds, and holy wars. And it sustains revered institutions that degrade and threaten humanity, even to foreshadowing the extinction of the species.
--"Autistic Certainty" Donald E. Watson, 1993
Radio personality Jack Rice leapt into the news this weekend by asking if Republicans were autistic. The metaphor is crude, and largely undeserved, but merits further exploration.
The word autism was first used in 1911 to describe human behaviors so self-centered as to suggest failure to process the realities of the outside world in language, and an inability to relate to other humans. In the 1940s symptoms were defined further as social withdrawal, difficulty in communicating, extreme self-absorption, and repetitive or stereotyped behaviors.
Now called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it is generally agreed that people with ASD have few linguistic, social, cultural or logical constraints to manage their lives. A current definition adds " ...people with ASD have difficulty seeing things from another person's perspective. Most 5-year-olds understand that other people have different information, feelings, and goals than they have. A person with ASD may lack such understanding. This inability leaves them unable to predict or understand other people's actions."
Historically, severely afflicted individuals have been burnt as witches, honored as shamans, hanged or incarcerated for crimes, or celebrated as geniuses. Adolph Hitler, Thomas Jefferson, Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Darwin, Wolfgang Mozart, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Kaczynski, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Charles Richter, and Ludwig Wittgenstein have all been labeled autistic by one or another critic.
Last winter the Kent community was rocked by the terrible tragedy of an 18-year-old autistic youth named Sky Walker beating to death his mother, Trudi Steuernagel, a distinguished professor at Kent State University.
Apparently Trudi did things right - loved Sky unconditionally, got the best professional help available, offered extraordinary opportunities for Sky to be in situations he could handle and among people he could function with.
The horror is that Trudi survived for a week after the attack, probably aware that she was suffering and dying at the hands of the child she had tried to do right by. She had protected him from the consequences of his actions for 18 years, unable to control his behavior. Reality intervened.
The understanding and compassion shown by people in the Kent community, the actions of law enforcement personnel and others in protecting Sky in the succeeding months is admirable. It is the way mature humans should treat the afflicted. Sky has been judged incompetent to stand trial and sent to permanent custodial care.
Most full grown reasonably healthy adults are physically capable of inflicting fatal injuries on another person. And every one of us is, to some degree, autistic - somewhere on the spectrum between full physical, intellectual, emotional and social functioning, and total self-absorption and disconnection from the realities others live in.
We are also, as a society, autistic to some degree. Politically, in the last 8 years we displayed some of the autistic certainties Donald E. Watson refers to: allowing our government to invade a country that had committed no aggression toward us, tolerating the use of torture and indefinite detention of suspects without charge. We now seem to be on the verge of letting a new administration escalate the war that isn't working in Afghanistan.
But what should frighten us is that collectively, patriotically, too many of us are self-centered, disconnected from reality, not communicating effectively but believing myths and mantras that do enormous damage: absolute certainties like "support our troops", "universal healthcare is socialism", "guns don't kill people", "raising the minimum wage creates unemployment", "Bush lied, people died", "the power to tax is the power to destroy".
Interestingly, early this century French economist Bernard Guerrien and his Sorbonne students started a movement called Post-Autistic Economics (PAE) based on the idea that neo-conservative economics and politics have been driven by autistic patterns of thought. They make the case that free market economics is essentially autistic, based on "abnormal subjectivity, acceptance of fantasy rather than reality." (see also James K Galbraith: "Can we please move on? A note on the Guerrien debate" September 2002)
That shoe fits rather too well: the autistic child of neo-conservative economics, generally unresponsive to the real world, to other humans or human language, reasoning and values, has badly beaten our economy, and almost grown strong enough to kill the democracy that nourished it.
The times we live in are threatening. Most of us are not autistic, but are poorly equipped to deal with the uncertainties of today's complex and contested realities. We are easily tempted by the simplistic certainties of fiction and ideologies, and the contrived realities of radio, TV and the blogosphere.
We need to be concerned with the elemental violence of individuals who are not sufficiently socialized to control their own actions. We need to recognize that most violent acts are driven by physical and/or sensory overload, frustration, anger, or the inability to cope with perceived reality. Autistic persons have fewer linguistic, social, cultural or logical constraints to manage their actions, but they almost never act violently out of malice or for ideology.
We also need to be concerned with the entrenched ideological violence of war, torture and YOYO economics. It doesn't help to label one another autistic, fascist, socialist, or racist, but we should be ashamed that we spend our wealth and resources on wars to kill or control one another, and that we reward people who do selfishness better than the rest of us and punish the poor.
Are Republicans autistic? Not more - or less - than the rest of us. Somehow we have to learn better ways to live with the uncertainties of life on a fragile planet with billions of imperfect humans with fallible social and political tools.
And we must learn to be very suspicious of certainties - ideological or autistic - that sustain beliefs that degrade and threaten humanity and foreshadow the extinction of the species.