It's always satisfying to have a pet theory supported by new data. A large and authoritative study, just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, confirms a favorite hypothesis of mine, that there is more mental illness and insanity, far more, in America than you find in other advanced societies.
The study, led by a Harvard Medical School researcher, found evidence of mental problems in 26.4% of people in the United States, versus, for example, 8.2% of people in Italy. The researchers were concerned with matters such as lack of access to treatment and under-treatment, but for those concerned about a safe and decent world, I think the salient finding is simply America's high percentage. The world is being led by a nation where more than one-quarter of the people have genuine mental problems.
The finding is strangely both comforting and disturbing.
It is comforting because it helps explain why Americans continue supporting a man proven wrong every time he opens his mouth, a man who has de-stabilized parts of the world in the name of creating stability, a man claiming sound business principles who has pitched the United States into deficit free-fall, and a man who arouses suspicion and fear throughout the world.
The study is comforting, too, because it helps explain an opposition candidate like John Kerry. How can liberals generate excitement over this stale, fly-buzzed doughnut of a candidate? I suppose the same way they get excited every time Bush's polls dip by something little more than statistical noise. Perhaps the same way a man like Michael Moore - who makes gobs of money playing to the suspicions and prejudices of the paranoid segment of America's great political market - could so eagerly embrace a crypto-Nazi like General Wesley Clark as "his candidate"?
The finding is comforting in explaining all those Americans shocked and appalled over The New York Times' recent apology for its drum-beating, pre-invasion coverage of Iraq's non-existent weapons. Here is a newspaper that, more often than not, comes down on the wrong side of human rights, always protects Establishment interests, always ignores abuses until they can no longer be ignored, and yet it somehow retains a reputation in America as guardian of treasured values and as the nation's newspaper of record.
Well, the "record" part is easily explained, since The Times often takes one position before an event and another after, adjusting its emphasis according to shifts in public opinion or facts discovered by someone else. With that kind of coverage, you surely do qualify as some kind of paper of record.
But nothing could be a bigger nonsense than The Times' reputation as guardian of values in a free society. Just ask Wen Ho Lee, or Richard Jewell, or the woman who accused a Kennedy of rape, or all the people who died unnecessarily at the Bay of Pigs. Go back and examine The Times at key points in the communist witch hunts or at the outbreak of the Korean War. Go back and examine its views and emphasis when President Johnson offered his Hitler-like lies about the Gulf of Tonkin. Go back and see how often The Times has done any real investigative journalism - when it mattered, not in retrospect - about subjects as vital as the FBI's huge abuse of power during the 1960s or the shameful backgrounds of many of the country's leading politicians. Just examine the statements of the paper's signature columnist, Thomas Friedman, who sounds like Henry Ford condemned to bizarre re-incarnation as one the Jews he so hated.
But the finding also is quite disturbing. America, for many years to come, will dominate world affairs. The world will continue to be treated as though it were the backyard sandbox of the Bushes, Cheneys, Rumsfelds, Liebermans, Kerrys, Albrights and other privileged, selfish, and not particularly well-informed American Establishment figures.
I explain American insanity by a gene pool fouled with the heavy early migration of Puritans, mentally disturbed fanatics if we accept the rather detailed historical record in Europe, plus the immense stresses of a society run along strict principles of Social Darwinism. An almost unqualified admiration for greed now dominates American culture. Yes, Adam Smith's "invisible hand" involved self-interest, but go back and read that thoughtful and compassionate philosopher and compare what he says to the chimpanzee screams we hear from America.
As to the stresses in American society, I refer not only to the struggle of individuals to survive there, but to the fact that the whole story of America has been one of unremitting aggression. It is the story of "a pounding fist," as Tennessee Williams' Big Daddy described himself.
Had America somehow come to be in Europe, its story would most closely parallel that of Germany and its long, belligerent effort to dominate the continent. It is only because so much of America's aggression has been against what seemed lightly settled places - the Ohio Valley, the Great Plains, Canada, Mexico, and Hawaii - that people think any differently about it. Other places were not so lightly settled, and opposition in places like the Philippines was crushed with great bloodshed.
My criticism of the United States is not concerned with how it wishes to order its own society, but about how its activities spill over into the rest of the world. Its actions in the world too often resemble those of an ugly drunk pushing his way into your living room and puking all over the carpet.
Iraq provides a textbook example. The net effect of the invasion of Iraq is a badly de-stabilized country, now full of people who resent Americans for their brutality and arrogance, where once there were undoubtedly many who dreamily admired America at a distance. Saudi Arabia also has been de-stabilized, as many warned Bush that it would be before he set his crusaders marching. Many old friends and allies, like France or Canada, have been stupidly abused for offering sound advice and declining to join the march to hell. Tony Blair's pathetic rag of a government hangs by threads after working against the clear wishes of the British people, and Blair has found the voice he thought he had earned in the councils of war arrogantly dismissed by Bush and his fanatics. Israel's state-terror in the West Bank and Gaza, cheerily accepted by Bush (and Kerry), has risen to nightmarish levels, and if you think that has no connection with all the hatred for America in the world, you are either foolish or qualify as part of the more than one-quarter of Americans who need professional help.
Oil prices are high and unstable, as are American deficits. International security arrangements, those things so loved by police-mentalities but which have never been known to stop real bad guys, are becoming stupidly cumbersome and heavy-handed. Yet America still supports Bush, no matter what its small tribe of liberals chooses to believe. Knowing America's record on small tribes, I suppose it's healthy self-interest to pretend enthusiasm for tiny dips in Bush's polls and for an alternative as insipid and meaningless as John Kerry.
While I am glad for the confirmation of my hypothesis, I can't help feeling, as with so many studies, this one does little more than confirm the painfully obvious.
John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company. He writes frequently for Yellow Times.org and other publications.
Other Recent Articles by John Chuckman