It was the best deal in London. For just a penny, you were guaranteed hilarious entertainment. Samuel Pepys, who loved a good time and a good bargain, noted with regret when he wasn’t able to go. The trip to St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital was short and the amusement well worth it.
Giving your penny to the gatekeeper, you were free to wander about. Attracted by the continuous din, most people would go straight to the cells, where they could be amused by the real lunatics, chained to the wall and howling their days away. Or laugh at those sitting cackling in the filthy straw or holding animated conversations with invisible respondents. One had to be a bit careful with these, as the more canny might resent your amusement and hurl their “pisspots” at you. No wonder the old name for the madhouse, Bedlam, has passed into our language as a synonym for noisy chaos.
But it was not all pandemonium nor were all the inmates locked away. Those deemed to pose no harm to themselves or others were free to wander the grounds, mingling with the paying sightseers. One result was that it became practically a staple of after-dinner stories that old so-and-so had had a long, learned conversation with some gifted savant he had just met at Bedlam, only to have the other suddenly announce that he was really the great Chan of Tartary!
Trips to Bedlam remained so popular that right up to the end of the eighteenth century they were part of the standard London tour. Whenever a foreign visitor arrived, Bedlam was sure to be on the itinerary, sort of like Disneyland today.
To us, all of this seems barbaric. Not only the treatment of the lunatics, but the idea that civilized people could find entertainment in the mad misery of their fellows.
First, we should remember that these are the same people who turned out in such numbers for the high delight of witnessing executions. (And lest we feel too superior about that, there are people alive today whose smiling faces can be seen in photos alongside the bodies of lynched Negroes.)
Second, let us remember that it was not too long before that women who imagined they rode around on broomsticks or talked to the Devil were executed as witches. Lunacy was often taken as possession, and the rituals, beatings, starvings, and drownings that were used to “drive out the devils” were far more brutal than any treatment at Bedlam. It may be hard to see Bedlam as progressive or humane, but compared to the past, it was.
Nowadays we have come further. We recognize that many symptoms have an organic cause or at least are responsive to organic treatments. We live in a time where the use of Valium, anti-depressants, and even anti-psychotics are no longer shunned as signs of personal faults but applauded as honest recognition of treatable problems. And we seem not too far away from going beyond ameliorating conditions like schizophrenia with heavy drugs to actually locating and correcting the underlying organic cause(s).
There is an old aphorism, originated or repeated in various forms by Lycurgus, Sophocles, Euripedes, Seneca, Dryden, and Longfellow (universal truths are like that), that goes:
Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.
Progress, though, can be Janus-faced. One can argue that it was a useful thing to segregate the crazies the way we used to. At least it made it possible to distinguish the weirdos from the ones they let go home at night. Nowadays I’m not so sure we can tell.
I am not just talking about sports and entertainment figures. Oh, sure, any world in which a Dennis Rodman becomes a world famous millionaire must have a fairly high tolerance for eccentricities. And one that would tolerate gangsta rappers and consider stays at rehab clinics to be a normal part of a showbiz resume has stretched the margins of “socially acceptable behavior.” (Parenthetically, what do those folks do for Halloween? Dress up in business suits?)
Instead, let’s look at the wonderful world of politics.
As of last September, we have been leading a war. Terrorism being a world-wide problem, we needed to build up a world-wide coalition. So we told the world that a new day had dawned. That we were single-mindedly going to pursue and eradicate terrorism wherever it was found. We said that the European banks and arms traders would no longer be free to aid, abet, finance, and arm the terrorists. That the Muslim countries would no longer be free to use radical Islamic rhetoric and anti-Americanism to prop up their autocratic regimes.
Well and good. Whether privately for or against the War On Terror, both our friends and our enemies admitted that this was a sensible prescription and they all lined up to sign onto the new coalition. If a new day had dawned, everyone wanted to be seen standing in the light. Even some who were no particular friends of ours, notably Iran and North Korea, seemed to signal a willingness to cooperate. It looked as if by taking a few simple steps we would lead a unified world.
Simple steps? Well, maybe some not so simple. First we had to line up the Europeans, the Africans, and the South Americans. Easy. Next, we had to line up the Russians, the Indian sub-continent, and the Chinese. Not so easy, but doable. Finally, in order for our War On Terror to succeed, it was absolutely vital that we line up all of the Muslim countries on our side. And that was not going to be easy at all.
By far the toughest (and the most vital) step to securing real Muslim cooperation was going to be settling the Palestinian problem. It is impossible to overstate how much damage that problem had done to American influence in the Islamic community. Settlement was made all the more difficult because the current Israeli government was headed by Ariel Sharon. He carried some special baggage in Islamic eyes: As the man responsible for the Shatila massacres in Lebanon, they considered him to be a war criminal. Second, they believed his “inspection” of the Dome of the Rock was the deliberate provocation that started the Intifada. Third, they believe he used that very Intifada to get himself elected Prime Minister on a platform of using Israel’s overwhelming military might to bring the Palestinians to heel.
It was going to take a very delicate touch, a keen awareness of the feelings of our partners, and an uncompromising commitment to the War On Terror to gather all of these disparate interests together into a coalition and then to keep them there.
So what did our wise leaders do? Well, they:
1) Decided to impose trade restrictions on our Europeans allies in hopes of getting some blue collar types to vote Republican in the next election.
2) Declared Iran and North Korea to be part of the “Axis of Evil.”
3) Loudly identified America with the Sharon government (rather than with Israel itself) and simultaneously identified the Palestinians as terrorists.
4) Committed similar egregious offenses in Venezuela, Argentina, India, and other sensitive spots around the world.
These were symptoms of real lunacy. A lot of smart people, the fabled “best and brightest,” were apparently suddenly stricken with an inability to tell the difference between fidelity to their goal and shooting themselves in the foot.
Now comes the real sign of our progress in how we handle the mentally challenged. (It could, of course, be argued that we had already simply expanded the grounds of Bedlam Hospital to include Washington, DC…a place where it is also impossible to tell the inmates from the sightseers.) Far from punishing them for their lapses, we have decided to reward them. After all, we live in a world where standards are a bit…um…elastic. In such a world, self-defeating behavior can be shaded to look almost noble. And that’s exactly what has happened. A lot of Americans now believe these gratuitous insults to our allies, which have severely damaged the War On Terror, were not blunders at all, but instead were examples of our patriotic self-assertion.
Once again, America has established a new standard of progress for the world. Shouldn’t we have a new slogan to match? How about:
Whom the gods would reelect, they first make mad.