Politico’s Foucauldian trip

Roger Simon is the best political commentator at the best popular political newspaper.

In a recent editorial for Politico, Simon had a simple point on a much-discussed story: Jared Loughner, the gunman in the Arizona shooting, is called “crazy” by the media so we can avoid any implication that he is like us. He is deficient, defective, and somewhat unhuman. He is different and separate from us.

In a few words, then, Simon sums up Michel Foucault’s more complicated argument in Madness and Civilization. There, Foucault traced the treatment of insane persons through Western history. Medieval Christendom’s demoniacs lived in the cities and were fixtures of normal live. They became, by the Renaissance, “fools.” On the one hand, an actual “ship of fools” allowed for an early exclusion of madmen from society, but in a scapegoat sense, where unreason was also the sinfulness of man, unable to attain God’s reason and perfection. On the other hand, the later, northern Renaissance could use the fool in comical ways, and yet serious. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly made light of institutional foibles in order to criticize them; Shakespeare used the fool or jester to expose the hidden truth that the main characters could not see.

The 17th century brought the confinement of insane people, locked away from the rest of the world, and the 18th century Enlightenment condemned insanity as the obverse of Reason. A humanitarian approach developed, according to Foucault, which further marginalized insanity by making it an object of knowledge and expertise. The silencing of the madman was his ultimate exclusion.

Loughner, it must be said, does not seem normally adjusted. But it would be a mistake, then, to refuse to study him or his crime any further. To marginalize the madman is to refuse the suggestion that the only, thin membrane separating him from us was his decision – we prefer to emphasize his clinical (and controlling) condition.

The scary truth, according to Simon, is the truth of evil. “Evil has been medicalized into insanity.” Foucault wouldn’t use that word, “evil.” But Simon isn’t superficial, either.

There seems to be a correlation between the number of people you kill and whether you are called insane or evil. Loughner allegedly kills six and is insane. Adolf Hitler kills more than 6 million, and he is evil. … Is the difference just numbers, however? You kill a certain number of people and you are nuts, but you cross the line and kill more and you are evil? Is that how it really works? Or, in our modern times, are we embarrassed by the term “evil”? To some, it seems too primitive or too religious or both.

In declaring Loughner insane, evil can be isolated. Isolated for inspection, for diagnosis, for voyeurism, and then for a dusty shelf.

Simon’s Foucauldian conclusion is probing: that isolation “is a lot less scary than believing that evil walks among us.”

And the Christian conclusion is deeper still: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.”


  • January 18, 2011

    Adam D'Luzansky

    This concept is fascinating to me. The fact we explain away evil via madness to persuade ourselves that we are safe from it is especially ironic, I think, when you consider our society’s otherwise uninhibited obsession with individual autonomy.

    For generations, people have railed against various institutions and their alleged quashing of individual choice or expression. Certainly reasonable arguments exist among those which this group has advanced. We so adamantly believe that we need personal efficacy in order to self-actualize, but should that personal efficacy end up creating a mess then we backtrack and say that we didn’t really choose that mess. I think backtracking is consistent with the primary argument for freedom from liberty-restraining institutions, namely that personal freedom and choice can only lead to good things. Hence if a bad thing happens it is some other actor’s or actor’s influence who is really at fault.

  • January 18, 2011

    Adam D'Luzansky

    Also Simon may be the best political commentator in America, but his commentary on non-political subjects seem like they may be lacking.

    Exhibit A: