Friday, September 5, 2008

Tyranny with a happy face

The last two weeks have offered something of a nostalgia tour through old-fashioned police-state tactics. Tear gas, phalanxes of black-clad riot cops, mass arrests -- it's a bit of truth in advertising, as the major political parties let us know in the streets outside their convention halls just what they think of us and what we should expect from them in the future.

But control freaks don't always wear jackboots. Sometimes they come along carrying Blackberries, spouting psychobabble and telling you how much they care.

That's the premise of Mean Martin Manning. It's a wildly funny book by Drexel University writing Professor Scott Stein, about a retired misanthrope who locks himself in his apartment with TV, an Internet connection, his collection of frog figurines and a supply of salami sandwiches, wanting nothing more than to be left alone -- and discovers that the world just won't cooperate.

The neighborhood in which Manning lives is designated by the state governor as a "life-improvement zone" where social workers are sent to "help" people who are considered to be making irrational and unhealthy lifestyle choices Of course, not everybody wants help, so the social workers bring a little muscle ...

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The "life-improvement zone" comes off as an implementation of the "therapeutic state" that maverick psychiatrist Thomas Szasz warns of. The therapeutic state is "a system in which disapproved thoughts, emotions, and actions are repressed ('cured') through pseudomedical interventions."

Why criminalize disapproved choices when you can medicalize them and even diagnose "patients'" protests as evidence of their illness? Resistance is then delegitimized. It's actually part of the problem to be "cured."

As diligent Caseworker Alice Pitney tells Martin Manning, "[N]ot wanting help is one of the signs of needing it. Yours is a textbook case."

Even when it's represented by a concerned smile, the state is always backed by steel, so a stubborn Manning is dragged from his apartment at gunpoint in the middle of the night -- all for his own good, of course.

And that's when the fun really begins. Manning's life is deconstructed by a courtroom parade of people from his past who recount the wrongs he's done them ever since childhood. His diet is carefully monitored and regulated. He's subjected to group therapy sessions -- including a mandatory exploration of his supposedly deep-seated racism. His personal belongings are confiscated, to reduce distractions from his treatment.

And then he's dragged on "Dr. Karen," a pop-psychology TV show that's sort of like "Dr. Phil" meets The Running Man, to be stripped of all dignity before the taunting mob.

But they don't call him "Mean" Martin Manning for nothing. You can only push a collector of frog figurines so far before he becomes a one-man insurgency.

Appropriately, the therapeutic state that Stein explores to hilarious effect in his book turns out to be popular with much of the public. While it starts as a top-down imposition, put in place by executive order, politicians are soon vying to see who can promise bigger and better "life-improvement zones."

As Manning himself realizes:

Pitney wasn't t he problem. This wasn't about Pitney. I finally knew how to get her, understood what the something was that would stick, eat at her, but this wasn't about her any longer. Alice Pitney was only possible because the governor gave her power. The governor was only possible because the people gave him power. And his opponent, with the same damn plans, was only possible for the same reason.

That's right. Tyranny often comes with a friendly smile to accompany its long lists of requirements, prohibitions and interventions. And a lot of us like it that way.



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