The mad in our streets

We are neglecting to write new Idleposts, while being drawn into banter in the Comments, & email. See for instance the Comments under “Why why why?” for an illustration of our descent. Still, it is banter with actual readers. We must have a dozen of them, by now! Soon we may catch up with Lady Gaga (thirty million followers on Twitter) & Justin Bieber-Trudeau.

In the olden days, before the invention of all these portable electronic “devices,” we would sometimes sit at some long table in a public library, examining a book. It always seemed that we were sharing this table with what was called in our parents’ generation a “rubby-dubby.” He would not be examining a book, but nevertheless making notes in a soiled cahier, or on scraps of much-folded paper. He would be using a short & extremely blunt pencil, in an advanced state of engnarlment from chewing. Always, the fingernails caught one’s attention; or the hair, unwashed for a very long time. The eyes one seldom met. We would be in wonderment at the amount of paper that could be covered by his remarks, & might compare his exercise with our own, as a journalist.

On one occasion we decided that the brotherly & charitable thing, given the shortness of the poor rubby’s pencil stub, was to give him a much longer one from our pencil case. On another, our ministry required the surrender of a cheap plastic pencil sharpener. A neoconservative might say that we were feeding his habit, but what do neoconservatives know? They don’t understand people who must write.

Sometimes this habit provides a useful service to the economy. In our own case, we look back over years of supplying copy, to fill the spaces between the advertisements in large daily newspapers. Press lords recognized the value of this service, & would pay us handsomely. Too handsomely, we fear: for look what has become of their poor tattered properties. More sensible to pay by the word, use wire services, & encourage letters to the editor. As one press lord famously opined, the letters were his favourite part of the editorial “package,” because he didn’t have to pay for them.

Only a fool would pay, as so many of us journalists, & other graphomaniacs, have discovered to our cost since the invention of the Internet. Soon, those among us who must write to eat, will find ourselves in an acutely embarrassing position. We may have no choice but to become interesting.


The question of what to do with the (formally diagnosed) insane was raised in the Comments to the post we flagged, above. Perhaps at this point we might drop the masque of humour. Those who have had the honour of working with the insane (a distinctly Christian honour) will know that being (certifiably) crazy is not much fun. They will also know that the genuinely insane often lack social skills; that they can be sometimes quite alarmingly charmless.

We are straying now into a very large topic, in which the tribulations of the mad are compounded by the organized & scrupled insanity of statisticians, policy wonks, & overpaid social workers. We will excuse pharmacists, for the moment, for we are convinced by modest experience that certain powerful anti-psychotic drugs, & even “mood stabilizers,” can be merciful in the relief of real human suffering, & should not be denied. If the condition of the patient requires their use, however, it also implies the folly of self-medication.

We live in Parkdale, a district overflowing with “outpatients” from what was once the largest mental asylum in Ontario (larger even than the Legislature). It has “evolved” into the province’s largest “mental health” processing centre. This means, in practice, that it hoovers in the mad from all over this Fine Province of Ontario — especially Sudbury for some reason — drugs them to the gills & then turns them out on our big city streets. From where they instinctively roll to the lowest accessible point on the socio-economic surface, i.e. Parkdale.

As we mentioned in our Comments banter, there is a huge & rather grave social problem here, known to euphemists as “the homeless.” It has been addressed not mercifully but ideologically, over recent generations. We summarized that history: “Throughout North America we emptied the mental asylums in the 1950s & ’60s, only then to fill up the gaols.” A fiscal problem — the cost of maintaining mental asylums — was solved in the usual way, by a bureaucratic game of cups & marbles, slipping it from one department into another. Meanwhile we, the people, have beggared ourselves with an array of middle-class “entitlements” which make every other fiscal problem irretrievable.

We are not a policy wonk, & while we are also not much of a democrat, we do wish sometimes there were a mechanism for voting the existing policy wonks out of power. For they are there ensconced, commanding all departments, whatever politicians we might happen to vote in or out. They even write the politicians’ legislation for them, when not by-passing “democracy” entirely with daily rafts of new & very petty regulations.

The wonk comes in two flavours: cause-&-effect specialist, or “technocrat” as it is called; & ideological “progressive,” in comparison to which your common garden lunatic is so much easier to endure. And to make the mess the more intractable, they are not two camps — for then we could just eliminate the progressives. The average policy wonk is instead a hybrid. That different wonks defer to slightly different ideologies might go without saying. There are, by analogy, many different kinds of mental illness, & in truth each patient is his own little universe of trouble.

It should be obvious that the Nanny State’s spic-&-spanking, upbeat, “mental health” approach, prettied up & tarted out in smileyface niceness, has failed, utterly. Look at the streets. To our mind it should therefore be abandoned, utterly. The tax-flesh consumed by these wolves in smileyface stickers is anyway needed elsewhere. It would indeed cost plenty to rebuild the network of old-fashioned, essentially incarcerative, mental asylums.

They are needed at many locations & in many different kinds. None need be “mediaeval dungeons,” need not even be as spiritually & aesthetically numbing as the asylums in which we now warehouse our old. For the point is not to serve our own convenience, exclusively; it is also to serve the real & often desperate needs of the mad. And, their needs are not served any better than our own by housing them on the streets.

A vast issue: on which we journalized in the past at some length, & on which we have since accumulated bags of additional fact & anecdote. Gentle reader must not assume we are overlooking the more obvious objections; that we are not for instance prepared to wrestle with the whole vexed issue of human freedom, which comes directly into play because the mad are not inhuman. Their instinct to seek freedom — & thus avoid incarceration regardless of consequences — is something we have encountered more than once firsthand.

This yields a spectrum wherein we find grey areas, which the determined may employ to confuse the larger issue. But that grey elides into darker on the one side, & lighter on the other. Some street person may turn out to be Diogenes, & by all means let him sit in the sun, as a constructive example to the rest of us. We are surely not opposed to mere public loitering, or invigorating eccentricity. We are talking mad here — visibly nuts — & as the jurisprudes have said, “hard cases make bad law.”

One must read back into the 1950s — the golden age of “liberalism” it could be argued, from which the ‘sixties & forward might be considered mere radioactive fallout — to see why sane, effective, & even affordable remedies will not soon be found. In the cause of emptying out the old, clearly labelled mental asylums, the progressive forces of that day set up a huge propaganda, demonizing the asylums & those who worked often selflessly to sustain them. They depicted these places as “mediaeval dungeons” — when they were not. Most reflected more than a century of tireless & sometimes heroic if also somewhat unimaginative work to improve living conditions for the inmates. (And incidentally, few mediaeval dungeons were like “mediaeval dungeons,” either. Victorian dungeons were probably much worse. This propaganda had in turn the usual Reformation ancestry.)

In retrospect, it is fairly easy to see that the propagandists were rather more concerned with some abstract idea of perpetual “progress” than with the actual fate of the inmates they were “liberating.” Not that they wished the mad ill, for the indifference was more akin to bullshit than to lying: they didn’t really care what happened to the actual, as opposed to the statistical, mad — as tended to show in their cost/benefit analyses. They only pretended to care, for the purposes of their propaganda.

(We might refer gentle reader on this point to the learned Prof. Harry G. Frankfurt’s useful little tome, On Bullshit, for light on this phenomenon, including a passing explanation of why bullshit may do more harm than lies, & bullshitting be morally lower than lying, since the liar at least knows that he is lying & therefore retains some appreciation for the truth.)

A good way to start felling this thicket of false consciousness might therefore be to put all money questions likewise on one side. Should gentle reader hesitate, he need only ask himself: “If we couldn’t afford to keep all these asylums for the mentally ill, how do we afford to keep all these asylums for our vastly more numerous unwanted oldies?”

Anyone who wishes to do something comprehensive for the mad in our streets must first help overcome this legacy of progressive bullshit. That, much more than the usual shortage of money, stands between the individual sufferer from a serious mental illness & a huge improvement in his conditions of life.

The even bigger thing is Love. Paid doctors, nurses, strong-armed orderlies, & basic service staff are not replaceable, & may need to be paid. On the other hand, we spy an immense bureaucratic infrastructure for which we might propose a Carthaginian reduction. Far too many “push paper,” or push people as if they were paper; it takes years to realize on how great a scale. The whole machinery might simply be unplugged, but would then require arduous recycling efforts. For we must never entirely withdraw our sympathy from the bureaucrats themselves, while wrecking their bureaucracy.

But the point here is that they have replaced the unpaid & perfectly voluntary endeavours of that host of people, both secular & monastic, who once filled the gaps. Who, to be plain, rendered their services out of Love — & for Christ alone in those moments when the mad become too much for anyone to bear. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say, “I wouldn’t touch a leper for a million dollars.” Yet for the love of God, she touched them every day.

The same Mother Teresa who spontaneously observed, in a California hospital where the forms were being filled for a little baby who urgently needed to be operated upon: “Such a lot of signatures for such a little heart!”

One may see, every day in the nursing homes that have proliferated through our urban landscape, that money can’t buy Love; that, where we do see love, in all this galaxy of professionally smiling government agents, it is an intangible, unpaid, even provocative “extra.” (And if it were tangible, the government would find a way to claw it back through taxes.) Mental asylums, like nursing homes, like prisons & public schools for that matter, could be made far more humane. But we would have to spend a lot less money in order to achieve this result, & build them around the very notion that without Love they are lost.


Which takes us back to those Commonplace Books. … Item: “Let us do something beautiful for God.” … Item: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” … Item: “To keep a lamp burning, we must keep putting oil in it.” … Item: “Love does not measure, but just gives.”

Item: “Our life of poverty is as necessary as the work itself.”

Item: “When a poor person dies of hunger, it is not because God failed to take care of him. It is because He told you & I to take care of him, & we forgot.”

Item: “The miracle is not that we do this work, but that it makes us so happy.”

Item: “Suffering in itself is a waste of time. But suffering in the passion of Christ is the most beautiful gift: His love token.”

Item: “We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but it will not cure loneliness, hopelessness, despair. Many in this world are dying for a piece of bread, but so many more are dying for a little love. This is the poverty I have seen in the West, & it is so much more terrible than what I have seen in the slums of Calcutta.”

Item: “People are often unreasonable, illogical, & self-centred. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win false friends & true enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest & frank, people may cheat you. Be honest & frank anyway. What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway. If you find serenity & happiness, they may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, & it may never be enough. Give it the best you have anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you & God. It was never between you & them anyway.”

Item: “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”