Anyone Can Whistle!

April 21, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

One of the most startling ideas of the existential psychoanalytic tradition confronts us with is that “normal mental health” is itself a form of pathology. The simply “normal” person in any society has purchased that normalcy at the cost of loads of repression, denial and truncation of his or her true inner feelings and of reality in general. I suppose it is always good to be cautious in making sweeping generalizations about all societies. But this certainly seems to be true of modern technologically advanced societies, and of current American society in particular. The normal, everyday actions of normal, everyday human beings are laying waste to the very planet we rely on for our sustenance.

I got up this morning, walked the dog, and then drove a total of about 20 miles doing various errands around town. Totally normal, nothing unusual, nothing to provoke deep thoughts. But clearly, as I do think about it, my actions, in conjunction with the hundreds of thousands and millions of others acting similarly, create the markets for continued oil consumption, the lines of tankers across the oceans, the ecologically devastated refinery port areas like New Orleans (the destroyed coastal wetlands is largely what makes a hurricane like Katrina so destructive–a healthy coastal wetlands would enormously absorb and diminish the strength of the storm), the wars that are required to maintain the oil flow, and the climate change that is causing havoc all up and down the east coast and the southern belt this winter and spring. Despite my morning’s contribution to global destruction, I will curl up in my reading chair sometime this afternoon, probably with at least some reading material that will indirectly chastise me for my lifestyle. Later I will pick up my child from school, make some dinner of Passover leftovers, and with my wife attend a program of my daughter’s school choir this evening. Perhaps, if all goes according to a scenario taking shape in that back of my mind, before dropping off to sleep tonight I will have fulfilled Freud’s vision of the best we can do in terms of “normal mental health,” i.e., the ability to work and to love (to be productive and to mate.)

The fact is, in our culture, our normal everyday activities are destroying the environment we depend on for life. We daily soil our own nest. I don’t know what to do about it, what the long term solutions are–that is, as the saying goes, above my pay grade. But I am quite sure that I cannot repress or deny the facts. It is not the psychopaths that threaten our existence and the long term viability of our species. The threat, collectively, comes from everyday, normal guys like me, and you, and you, and you. From us.

I was listening again recently to a recording of a great Sondheim musical, “Anyone Can Whistle.” To put it mildly, this musical was a big flop on Broadway, probably because it is too honest about the human condition. The basic story line is that there is a mass escape from a local state mental institution and all of the patients have come to town and mixed with the townsfolk, so that no one knows for sure who is who, who is “normal” and who is “mental patient.” Soon the great doctor Hapgood shows up, charged with the task of sorting out the sane from the insane. He goes about asking questions of the people, and it quickly shows that each and every life is so full of mixed motives, repressed realities and logical contradictions that every judgment Hapgood makes as to the relative sanity of this or that person appears totally arbitrary. And in a typical Sondheim twist, the great Hapgood himself turns out to be one of the patient inmates. It really makes you think…



  1. Well said Dan. It certainly has sparks from Becker’s Escape from Evil, etc. This while there are folks like Lester Brown and the Earth Policy Institute pointing the way out of the mess, but not with “business as usual,” only with a “WW II like mobilization.”

    How this contrasts with the headline today: Obamma ratings go down because of the cost of gas. He cannot even talk about the need to tax gas for the real costs to the environment, etc, so that the taxes could be used to “mobilize” for a new energy environment! We are in a morass of our own making, at least in terms of technology and mass society.

    • And yet without thinking about it I find myself also hoping gas prices go down a bit before the travel we have planned for this summer…

  2. Dan, Thanks for bringing this play to our attention. One of the tests I used for years to assess the moral viability of Washington State’s civil commitment program for sex offenders was the armchair experiment of capturing all the men in bars in Tacoma’s “battle zone” district at closing time and putting the in the civil commitment facility. The legal rationale for the initial commitment would be waived for this imaginary experiement. Once committed, the men would have to follow the rules and most of their behaviors would be seen as pathological, and of course, many of them would be. These guys might be at one end of normal, but certainly recognizable as the guy down the street. I often concluded that most of these guys would get out by playing by the rules, but some would be so angry and resentful of the injustice of the capture and the inapplicability of the rules to “normal” indiviudals that their “normal” resistance to authority that they did nothing to authorized would result in prolonging their stays. If at any point we felt that one of these normally “resistant” guys would not get out in a reasonable time, say a year and a half, we would have a morally untentable commitment program. I never thought of the situation where one of our psychologists or psychiatrist would be one of those exiting the bar, but its far from unlikely.

    • Years ago working in a long term in-patient mental hospital, we had a case of a young man from a southern appalachian state brought in by the police for involuntary 72hr observation. The NFL football team of this northern city was performing in the toilet, and this young man (a star QB of the high school team from which he had just graduated that spring) got in his pickup truck and came to our city on what he spoke of as a “mission” to try out for the NFL team and restore them to their former glory. He arrived on a Saturday afternoon, boasted of his “mission” in a local bar that night, ended up in a brawl with some local super fans for dissing the current QB, and was 302ed to our hospital before Sunday morning! Almost to a person, the psychiatrists and RNs on our team were convinced he was in a totally manic phase and, given his size and musculature, a clear danger to the public. They were totally ready to med him down and lock him up. I and one psych tech (who had also lived in the south for some time) had grave doubts about that assessment – we had seen plenty of guys just like him before, rebel boys, feeling their oats and out on a hoot! The “problem” was purely sociological, not psychological – he was “out of place” with behaviors that on home turf might have ended with a lawman’s crack over the head and landed him in a county jail until he sobered up and calmed down, but not potentially significant-length involuntary institutionalization. Luckily, I had enough cred with the team to be allowed to sit him down, explain his situation to him clearly in terms he could understand, and though it was very difficult for him (esp. when being razzed by other patients) he held his tongue and muscular “threat” flexing for the duration of the 72hrs, after which he was released, got in his truck, and hightailed it back to home territory, far away from (in his view) those totally crazy folks up north!

  3. Your anecdote only goes to confirm what I’ve always believed, namely that the people labelled ‘mad’ and incarcerated in asylums are there not because ‘sane’ society needs to be protected from them, but because they need to be protected from ‘sane’ society.

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