The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Thursday, December 17, 2009
HOLY SPIRITS: The new Utne Reader includes an abridged version of my "
Paranoid Center" article. I also have a Web column on the Reason site today, titled "Five Reasons for Optimism" and subtitled "As awful as the times may seem, they also contain seeds of hope." And my review of Alan Petigny's The Permissive Society, published in the January Reason, is now online as well.

At one point that last piece discusses the mixed legacy of the therapists of the 1940s and '50s, contrasting the coercive psychiatrists "who offered modern, secular, supposedly rational reasons to mutilate gay patients' brains" with the exponents of humanist psychology ("an individualist and egalitarian approach" run by "analysts seeing voluntary clients, not asylum keepers administering snake pits"). I didn't have room to discuss it, but just as the liberal Protestant churches tended to be receptive to the humanists' views, the humanists' ideas, in turn, owed a lot to the liberal Protestant tradition, with important similarities to the doctrines of Quakers, Unitarians, and similar denominations. For Petigny, "the common thread running through situation ethics, Rogerian therapy, and religiously robust notions of the Holy Spirit is the optimistic belief that the answers to life's most important questions are to be discovered by looking internally and accessing a mysterious but wonderful power at the center of our very beings."

Petigny doesn't get into it in his book, but such ideas were prominent in another period of cultural and countercultural ferment: the Second Great Awakening that erupted in the early 19th century and fed the reform movements of the antebellum era. If it's hard to disentangle the liberating and authoritarian effects of psychology in the postwar period, it's even harder to perform such an operation on the "perfectionist" religious doctrines of a century earlier. In the words of Eric Foner, their worldview "emphasized both the ability of men to save themselves by an act of will, and the necessity on the part of the saved to attack the sins of others." This outlook led some believers to "challenge all existing institutions as illegitimate exercises of authority over the free will of the individual," but it also contained a "tendency toward social control," represented in different ways by the temperance movement, the anti-Catholic crusade, a push to prevent prostitution, and a drive to design intrusive new institutions: the prison, the poorhouse, the insane asylum, the compulsory common school.

Tellingly, the most coercive elements of the antebellum reform movements were often advocated with liberatory language. Temperance was aimed at freeing the drunkard from the tyranny of demon rum, for example, while nativists declared they were fighting the mental slavery of the papist church. Something similar recurs in the postwar period Petigny describes. Quoting my review:
At one point Petigny argues that the rise of the disease model of addiction reflected the rise of permissiveness, since the perspective's proponents "viewed the self as essentially innocent, the victim of a disease process beyond its own control and causation." But the idea also suggests a loss of personal responsibility, and a government's right to forcibly liberate its subjects from the habits that enslave them.


posted by Jesse 4:37 PM
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