Peter Sedgwick

[Thomas Szasz +
Language of Politics]

(9 December 1972)

From Socialist Worker, 9 December 1972.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

JUST arrived in my mail: a sheaf of articles by Thomas Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness, The Manufacture of Madness, etc, etc.

Szasz’s material is entertaining and sobering. He has uncovered a treatise of 1851, Cartwright’s Report on The Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, which identified two psychiatric diseases peculiar to black slaves.

‘Drapetomania’ was apparently an illness whose only symptom consisted in the slave’s propensity to run away from service. This, said Dr Cartwright, ‘is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule.’

The favoured therapy was for the slaves ‘to be treated like children, with care, kindness, attention and humanity’. Any still inclined to disobey ‘should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which it was intended for them to occupy.’

The other mental disorder was ‘Dysaesthesia Aethiopis’, a ‘ disease peculiar to Negroes’ who proved ‘insensible to pain when inflicted as punishment’, hence displaying a partial insensibility of the skin’ as well as ‘ torpor of intellect’ arising from ‘the want of blood sufficiently aerated or vitalized in the circulating system.’

Szasz is very good at denouncing and exposing the insanities of official sanity and its regulators. It follows however from his position, that heroin addiction should not be interfered with by outside authority since ‘we must regard freedom of self-medication as a fundamental right’, as he says in his paper The Ethics of Addiction. He also opposes medical intervention to frustrate suicide, unless the suicidal person volunteers to be persuaded (in other words is not feeling all that much suicidal).

The second edition of William Safire’s The New Language of Politics, which is subtitled A Dictionary of Catchwords, Slogans and Political Usage, caught my attention in a bookshop. It is published by Colliers at £1.50 and cannot be reviewed but simply quoted:

BALONEY: ... ‘No matter how thin you slice it,’ said Alfred E. Smith in 1936, ‘it’s still baloney.’

BOODLE: ... graft; illicit profit derived from holding public office; usually in form of bribes; more loosely, loot of any kind.

CONTRACT: ... A contract is not a ‘deal’; a deal clearly implies a two-way transaction, while a contract is merely an assignment accepted with non-specific return favour demanded.

ELECT A LEADER NOT A LOVER: see DIVORCE ISSUE (Remarriage after a divorce will not be forgiven by a wide section of the great American public, though they will accept virtually any hypocrisy, financial or sexual.)

HOOPLA: devices and techniques to stimulate enthusiasm. ‘Hoo’ is the sound of excitement and gaiety, ‘Hooray’ and ‘Hoo-hah!’. Along with ‘Whoopee’ and ‘Whoop-de-doo’, all probably derive from the excited squeals of children. In politics, Hoopla is a necessary ingredient of campaigns.

INFLUENCE PEDDLER: one who has, or claims to have, the contacts and ‘pull’ supposedly necessary to get government contracts and favours from public officials, for a fee.

STAYING BOUGHT: constancy in corruption. Lincoln’s First Secretary of War defined ‘an honest politician’ as ‘ a man who, when he’s bought, stays bought.’

Mr Safire, the compiler of this excellent dictionary, now works at the White House as Special Assistant to President Nixon. Somebody in the Tory Party or Transport House should try to hire him for a season: over here in Britain we have the same reality after all, we just lack the vocabulary.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 25.11.2004