The tragic death of seven young people in Isla Vista, CA, has sparked renewed calls for gun control, as everyone expected. Less expected: Republicans in the House are leading a push for a well-funded federal program to give a broad range of new services to Americans with serious mental illness.
Before we get to the details, let's review some basic facts: Only 5% or less of violent acts are committed by people with serious mental illness. Mental illness alone causes virtually no increase in the likelihood that any person will do violence. People with no mental disorder who abuse alcohol or other drugs are far more likely than the mentally ill to commit violence.
These facts lead a lot of people to the rather logical conclusion that the real problem raised by mass killings lies not in mental illness but in the all-too-easy availability of guns.
Of course Republicans will have nothing to do with that line of thinking. Again, no surprise. The surprise is the new Republican interest in seriously addressing the nation's shamefully inadequate treatment of the mentally ill.
It's led by GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, a clinical psychologist from Pennsylvania. He's introduced a rather sweeping bill, The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 3717). While some of its provisions are no doubt debatable, overall it would provide an unprecedented array of services to people struggling with mental illness and their families. Some of the reforms would come from changes in existing federal law and interpretations of law.
But some would require significant increases in federal spending. The bill even calls for a whole new level of bureaucracy: an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders within the Department of Health and Human Services.
So far the bill has 86 co-sponsors — and 50 of them are Republicans!
Why the sudden GOP enthusiasm to see the feds take care of Americans who have suffered so much neglect for so long? A spokesman for a prominent House Republican, Duncan Hunter, acknowledged what everyone knows: GOP members "want to avoid any situation where mental health is primarily hitched to the gun debate."
Murphy himself put it more delicately: "If guns caused mental illness, then we would treat that; mental illness needs to be treated, and it is not." But the point is clear enough.
So what's a self-respecting liberal to do? Murphy's bill is the stuff that liberal dreams have been made of for years. Anyone who has directly seen the agony mental illness can cause will want to stand up and cheer for the Republican psychologist and his 50 colleagues. And the bill can't pass the House without plenty of Democratic support.
Meanwhile, with the House surely under GOP control through 2016, and perhaps the Senate too, chances for any kind of gun control legislation are as nonexistent as the unicorn.
Still, supporting Murphy's bill is a symbolic endorsement of the politics behind it: pandering to the totally false but widespread belief that mental illness, not guns, is the primary cause of violence in the United States. It's comes pretty to close to saying that gun control no longer really matters, at least not for the time being.
Should liberals buy this devil's bargain?
That question brought to my mind the old Joni Mitchell line: "We're caught in the devil's bargain / And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."
It's a pithy summary of the political dilemma Americans have struggled with throughout our nation's history, the one that this mental health bill raises yet again: Are we pragmatists who take only what we can get, believing that politics is the art of the possible? Or are we idealists, standing up for absolute truth and justice every time as the genuine American way?
Idealists since colonial times have claimed that the Old World was marred by pragmatism — the willingness to compromise with the devil and soil one's soul in the dirtiness of political deals. Here in the garden of the New World, on the other hand, life could be Edenic. Every kind of perfection was possible. We could have it all — or so the story was told.
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Thomas Morton's Maremount, Brook Farm, and the communes of the '60s hippies are only the most famous of the many efforts to put that vision into practice.
At the same time, there has been an equally powerful tradition of priding ourselves on our distinctive pragmatism, our Yankee ingenuity, our ability to get the job done no matter what it takes — even compromise on basic principles. The Constitution, putting into practice Madison's vision of checks and balances, stands as the greatest monument to this side of America's national narrative. The story of the Constitutional Convention has been told over and over to prove that our spirit of compromise works — even if it produced something as shameful as the 3/5 compromise (slaves counting as 3/5 of a person).
Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt used a (no doubt invented) "Bulgarian proverb" to justify alliance with the Soviets in World War II: "You are permitted to hold hands with the devil until you get across the bridge." That line has often been quoted, almost always with approval -- except perhaps by ardent, principled anti-communists. Yet just a few years after the war's end they were willing, even eager, to embrace all the evil means of the "red menace" to defeat it, and they never seemed ashamed of saying so.
Which is a good reminder that both liberals and conservatives have been found in abundance among both the pragmatists and the idealists. The current battles between the tea party and the more "moderate" Republicans as well as between the Clinton and Warren wings of the Democratic Party are both as American as apple pie.
The lesson of history is that pragmatism and idealism are permanent features of all our major political parties. Every one has been riven by internal strife between its absolutists and its compromisers. Often enough the same person has been an absolutist on some issues and a compromiser on others.
So if we ask whether Democrats will support Rep. Murphy's anti-gun-control mental health bill, the obvious answer is that some will and some won’t.
The question that remains is how each side among the liberals will deal with the other. Will the supporters of the Murphy bill respect the purist gun control advocates and their righteous motives for criticizing the bill, recognizing that the purists want both mental health reform and gun control, not a choice between the two? Will the purists respect the righteous motives of pragmatists who support the bill, recognizing that the pragmatists remain committed to gun control whenever it becomes politically possible?
The lesson of history is that the answer to both questions is "Not very likely."
Idealists have typically been absolutists, stoutly resisting every suggestion of compromise. And their absolutism has given America some of its finest moments — like Dr. Martin Luther King's refusal to tolerate the words "wait" and "gradualism" in the drive for genuine equality, now! The civil rights movement of the 1960s might have won no victories at all if the compromisers had prevailed.
Pragmatists have typically criticized the purists, often harshly, for letting the best become the enemy of the good and thus condemning the nation to end up stuck with the bad. Their cautious approach, too, has led to some fine results.
When FDR first entered the White House, for example, many of his advisors urged a utopian program of transforming the U.S. into what historian William Leuchtenberg called a “Heavenly City: the greenbelt town, clean, green, and white" prevailing everywhere. FDR opted for more limited, realistic goals. As a result we still have Social Security and unemployment checks flowing across the land to people in need.
Even if Tim Murphy's mental health bill becomes law, it's not likely to be remembered by history on the same level as the New Deal and the civil rights movement — though for the millions affected by mental illness and forced to endure our terribly inadequate mental health system, the suffering is often on a par with the worst effects of poverty and racism.
While the bill is being debated, however, it offers liberals of both the pragmatic and idealist persuasion a chance to show each other some respect and acknowledge that good motives can be at work on both sides.
Our national mythology has always insisted that such mutual respect is possible because (as illogical as it sounds) Americans are both exceptional pragmatists and equally exceptional idealists — that we have a unique ability to walk on both sides of the fence simultaneously.
Our national mythology has also enshrined the claim that America created the best possible political system, where honest disagreement between well-meaning factions need not lead to outright hostility.