SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2020
Mychal Smith's depression: With tires squealing and foghorns blaring, a fire truck bearing Jonathan Chait has finally arrived at the smoldering ruins of what was once a fire.
Putting it a different way, Chait has belatedly spotted a sociopath. His name is Donald J. Trump:
CHAIT (9/18/20): There’s a term for a person who views other humans purely as instruments for his own advancement, and is unable to conceive of the idea of caring about them independent of his own self-interest: “sociopath.” The United States has had some terrible presidents before, but probably never a sociopathic one. When his own aides warn the public that he does not care if the people he is tasked with helping live or die, we should take their warnings with the utmost seriousness.
That's the way Chait ended the post in which he named the sociopath he has now managed to spot. It's hard to imagine why anyone, let alone a major journalist, would think this is worth saying now.
Chait is basing his diagnosis on a newly released assessment of Donald J. Trump made by a former Pence aide. He apparently missed the best-selling 2017 book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.
The best-selling book was edited by Yale psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee, but was then deep-sixed by the upper-end press corps guild at the direction of the New York Times editorial board.
Chait's musings on this newly-discovered topic strike us as perhaps underfed. Has America "probably never" had a sociopath commander before? Why in the world would Chait say that?
Professional estimates hold that something like 5 or 6 percent of American men are diagnosable as sociopaths. Within the realm of the general public discourse, these are extremely murky concepts, but we'd guess the chances are good that we've had such a president before.
The guild has agreed that this can't be discussed. A commenter to Chait's bombshell helps us ponder the poverty of our discourse:
COMMENT: Is this supposed to be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention? He showed us who he is, and yes, he's a sociopathic narcissist. And much more, I'm sure. Just ask Mary Trump. She shares genes with him (she got all the good, he got all the bad) and she's a trained clinical psychologist. She knows of what she speaks.
Just ask Mary Trump, the commenter says. After all, she's a trained clinical psychologist.
The problem is, our major journalists have agreed not to ask Mary Trump. Rather plainly, she is agreeing to play along with this industry-wide convention.
When she spoke with CNN's Brian Stelter last Sunday, she was asked to opine about every conceivable topic except her uncle's psychological or psychiatric state. The same rules rather clearly obtained when she spoke with Lawrence O'Donnell on Thursday night.
This code of silence was especially striking on that occasion because O'Donnell is one or the very few major journalists who has dared, on rare occasions, to bring a psychiatrist onto his show to discuss the commander's apparent psychiatric state.
In her recent best-selling book, Mary Trump explicitly diagnosed her grandfather, Fred Trump, as a sociopath. She spoke less directly about her uncle, the current commander in chief.
By now, she has become an almost wholly useless part of the Pundit Industrial Complex. She goes on the air and she plays by its rules, offering the same non-medical assessments all other mainstream pundits could deliver in their sleep.
So it goes as our floundering species pretends to engage in public discourse. Last night, a fire truck bearing Chait squealed up to the remains of a fire, pretending to have discovered something several years after discussion was squelched.
The post was faux, all the way down. We'd say that Mychal Denzel Smith's recent column in the New York Times pretty likely was not.
Inevitably, Smith's column carried an identity line promoting a new book:
Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of the forthcoming book “Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream,” from which this essay is adapted.
That said, Smith's column offered an account of his long battle with depression. It may have been the most interesting and significant piece of journalism we've read in recent weeks.
In Smith's account, his depression "took hold" when he was just 12, after his cousin died in a way which goes undescribed. As an adult, Smith has received therapy—though in the face of a certain challenge, the therapy ceased to help:
SMITH (9/14/20): Through therapy, I’ve become good at recognizing the signs of depression and warding off the worst of its effects. I can note my own social withdrawal, recognize that I have slipped deeper into an overwhelming sadness and correct some very basic things in my life—diet, exercise, sleep, returning phone calls—to help me get back to normal.
Since the day Donald Trump was elected, this hasn’t worked.
"I know I'm not alone," Smith writes. He notes that one psychologist has coined the term for a certain range of mental health disorders.
The syndrome is known as Trump Anxiety Disorder. "Some of us broke four years ago and haven’t recovered," Smith writes.
Depression robs good, decent people of their good feeling and their vitality. Antisocial personality disorder, the technical term for sociopathy, robs a different class of people of their basic decency..
(According to what we've read online, sociopathy may in part be a genetic disorder, and it may in part stem from a person's upbringing. That's what we've read onlinel By common agreement, such matters can't be discussed by medical specialists, whether on our "cable news" channels or in our major newspapers.)
Sociopathy can't be discussed even as the commander's sociopathic behavior appears in the open air. Elites have settled on a euphemism, "unfit," as they refuse to tell us rubes what they actually think and believe.
Smith is much more direct and open about his situation as he understands it. Here is his account of the way he's been affected by the commander's election:
SMITH: Some of us broke four years ago and haven’t recovered. Along with so many others, I had to ask myself what it meant to live in a system that allowed for a proudly racist and sexist representative of the capitalist class to seize presidential power. I mourned for the younger version of myself that had cast his first vote for the first Black presidential candidate on a major party ticket and had his cynicism challenged when that candidate actually won.
In the beginning, I tried taking up Muay Thai, thinking that the endorphins and supposedly healthy space to place my anger would be able to buoy me. But as much fun as it was to strap on gloves and beat a heavy bag, I lost interest within a couple of months and gave in to my desire to do nothing. I saw all the familiar signs: I wasn’t answering phone calls. I was taking days and weeks to respond to texts, if I responded at all. I slept infrequently, fitful and afraid.
I know well that this moment in history is not an aberration. But I’m haunted by thoughts of the tens of thousands of migrant children who have been held in detention and away from their families, 100-degree days in Siberia, people dying alone of Covid-19 and the astronomical infection rates among American Indians and Black Americans. I feel an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.
No, I never assumed that in my lifetime we would defeat the entrenched forces of white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalism. But I had come around to believing that a slow, frustrating but ultimately sustainable victory and all the jubilation that would come along with it was something my friends’ children might someday experience.
That sense of possibility has largely dissipated. I am afraid every single day—of wildfires in California, of hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, of the police and ICE, of going to the grocery store in a pandemic, of Electoral College math.
We think we recognize Smith's mental and emotional state. We're going to offer two reactions, the first of which may sound snarky:
First, if a good, decent person wants to achieve some sort of victory over "the entrenched forces of white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalism," we'd advise that person to avoid using terms like "the entrenched forces of white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalism."
Within our system, tribal language of that type tends to create and harden separation and to ensure defeat.
At present, the sachems of our failing tribe—for example, the assistant, associate and adjunct professors—are in love with our tribe's deeply inspiring though incoherent tribal language. But that deeply inspiring language is most likely self-defeating. It sends a signal to the others that we are Other too.
We hope that doesn't sound snarky. Our second thought would be this:
We would advise a good, decent person like Smith to accept preemptive defeat. Here's what we mean by that:
He should accept the fact that he will never achieve a "victory" over the entrenched forces of which he disapproves. Those forces will always be active. Nothing resembling an ultimate victory will ever be experienced by the children of his friends.
Around the world, children will continue to see their parents die or be maimed in allied bombing raids.
Children will continue to drown in the Mediterranean with their loving parents. Very young girls will be sold into marriage or into sexual bondage. Smith will never live in a world in which the forces which create these events will have been "defeated."
Here at home, the hurricanes will only be worse. Human suffering will continue in every way Smith has described.
(Police misconduct won't be eliminated, though it could be lessened. Of course, misconduct within the overpaid guild to which Smith belongs could be lessened too.)
We'd advise Smith to give it up—to stop thinking that the forces with which he sees himself aligned can ever hope to "win." We'd advise him to come to terms with a basic fact:
Human suffering will never be "defeated," it can only be lessened. In setting an impossible goal for himself, Smith has guaranteed his own defeat and possibly years of anguish.
Might we also say this?
Almost no one ever does everything he or she can do in the fight against human suffering. Mychal Smith hasn't done all he can. Neither has anyone else—not even [INSERT NAME HERE]!
Very few people will ever do all they they possibly can. The trick may be to stop blaming the others and to focus, in a new approach, on doing the best and the most one can sensibly try to do.
This may involve giving up one's own tribal identity. Chait, for example, has perhaps been running a bit of a scam. So have Stelter and O'Donnell and all the corporate stars, perhaps including the diagnostically silent though best-selling Mary Trump.
Smith seems to have himself tightly aligned with one tribal group. He might feel better if he dropped the narrowcast of their language and their framing and blew the whistle on imperfect human behavior wherever it might appear.
Very few people ever go where the suffering is greatest. Almost all of us agree to stay in our lanes and to maintain our own relative safety and comfort.
This is part of human nature and it isn't evil. When we pretend that we're doing something vastly more grandiose, it may consign us to defeat. It may bring the suffering within.