The Politics of Crazies

Dr. Trott has a nice post over at Mahogany Feed on Terry Jones’ threat to burn Korans over the weekend to commemorate the attacks of September 11th and to remind Muslims “not to push their agenda on us.” Dr. Trott suggests that this threat to burn the holy book of a cultural group, with an ultimatum tied to the Park51/Cordoba House project, is “cultural terrorism,” and that:

we need to do the work of analyzing his particular brand of crazy, a dangerous brand, in my view.  It’s dangerous because it’s tyrannical, and an attempt to make a slave out of those whom you want to do your bidding, which is what happens when force replaces discourse in public life, even if that force isn’t with guns or bombs but threats to burn your holy book.

Because I, like many people, am incensed by the rhetoric surrounding the latest 9/11 commemorations, and the problems caused for Muslims by the fact that it coincides with the end of Ramadan, I’m sympathetic to this view. But I think that analysis of Jones’ particular brand of crazy is misplaced.

The “tyrannical crazy” Dr. Trott describes seems completely ignorable, and needs no more analysis than any other debilitating schizophrenia. An act of “cultural terrorism” can’t be performed from within the context of madness or “crazy,” because the Islam being attacked is a fantasy with no relationship to its actuality. It’s akin to the more stereotypical forms of madness in which real people or groups play conspiratorial roles in a paranoid’s fantasies of persecution. The relevant comparison here is the hostage-taker James J. Lee, who attacked the Discovery Building because the network wasn’t doing enough to address overpopulation and global warming. This was a man completely unhinged from reality, and he does not “represent” environmentalists or anti-natalists. Similarly, Jones ought not to be allowed to represent Americans or Christians.

In both cases, the symbolic attack on the enemy within his delusion is not a psychic attack on the cultural group that shares the same name unless we allow it to be, unless we speak about the private act of a crazy person as if it somehow stands in for what we all mean or think. But of course, that’s exactly what we’ve done. Jones would not have the status he has today if our real representatives weren’t saying things like “Islam isn’t a religion” and burning down mosques (in Murfreesboro, TN) or trying to ban the building of mosques in the communities where Muslims reside. So in this sense, there’s a comparison to be made between white supremacists burning a cross on a black neighbor’s lawn and somebody burning a book in their own yard that they paid for themselves. Jones’ kind of crazy is empowered by racist and intolerant institutions, like the cross-burners were.

Yet there’s also a big difference:  without that political and legal support, his act would be meaningless, while theirs would still be trespass and arson. Also unlike the white supremacists, we can easily strip Jones’ act of its power to injure by removing our support for the figures and institutions that empower him. That means commenting, positively, on the wisdom of the Park51/Cordoba project Jones opposes (my biggest disappointment with the President so far), and treating as Jones’ co-crazies anyone who believes or acts otherwise. This kind of policing of the zones of madness and reason seems eminently practical and desirable in this situation, and makes me wonder if Foucault hasn’t had perhaps too much impact on our thinking about the politics of crazy and the crazy of politics.

Where the traditional Foucaultian analysis focuses on how often those dubbed mad or mentally ill do not violate the basic “Harm Principle” and thus do not warrant the kinds of medico-juridical coercive measures instantiated in the asylum, this cannot be said of racist and intolerant paranoias motivated by political attention-seeking, nor by cultural ultimatums that enforce and are enforced by legitimate political and legal institutions. So even as I applaud the spirit of the widespread opposition to Jones’ Koran-burnings, I think that the better solution would have been a two-fold agreement to ignore and marginalize him and those who agree with him, perhaps combined with Josh Marshall’s advice to act as chroniclers of the current madness:

And here we have it. We’re in a midst of a spasm of nativist panic and raw and raucous appeals to race and religious hatred. What effects this will have on the November election strikes me as not particularly relevant. What’s important is compiling some record of what’s afoot, some catalog for understanding in the future who was responsible and who was so willing to disgrace their country and their principles for cheap advantage.

So far, this group who would trade “principles for cheap advantage” includes many people who do not belong to my party. Neither Dr. Trott nor I can effectively call Terry Jones to account: he is lost to his own brand of crazy. Nor will Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin ever care much what we think of their actions. Yet this group now also includes a few figures that do belong to my party, including the President and Senator Harry Reid. We need Dr. Trott’s analysis to understand what would cause them to add their voices to the madness.

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