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"The Medicalization of Everyday Life" contains a selection of Szasz's essays about how moral and political disagreements are often portrayed as medical problems rather than problems in living. It is an excellent book to read if you want to get an impression of the full scope of Szasz's ideas so that you can decide what other Szasz books you might like to read.

Psychiatry is a prominent example of this. Jim is behaving in a way that Jill dislikes. Instead of discussing Jim's behaviour or leaving Jim, Jill calls in a psychiatrist who declares Jim mentally ill. Thus a moral problem is obfuscated by portraying it as a medical problem.

Another example is that people are uncomfortable with discussing suicide. So instead of discussing the reasons why a person might commit suicide we try to deprive people of the means to commit suicide. Two policies used to do this are drug prohibition and involuntary commitment for dangerousness to yourself or others.

These positions and many others are explained in this book in more depth and with greater clarity than is possible in a book review. Anybody who wants to be challenged to think more about the ways in which we deny personal responsibility and the terrible implications of doing so should read this book.
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on 26 December 2011
Contained within these lucky pages are some of Mr. Szasz's most exiquisite beatdowns, taken from the absurd amount of articles he has written, similar to another of his collections, 'the Therapeutic State'.

It touches on many of his perennial concerns, yet furnishes the reader with new insights, which is why it is essential that one ignores the compromised individuals who, in their desperation to find some cogent criticism to level at him, some chunk of mud to throw at him from down there in there in the moral and spiritual inferno, which is their natural habitat, often take recourse to the myth that Mr Szasz just keeps on regurgitating the same ideas, making one book indistinguishable from the next. The people who make such comments are conspicuous by their obviously having read no more than a few of his books (likely because they find his ideas impalatable) or none whatsoever.

It is like saying that Luis Bunuel made the same film over and over again just because he was an auteur who was recurrently and understandably obssessed with bourgeois and clerical repression; like saying Balzac wrote the same novel over and over again because he always was preoccupied with the morphology of human society. It is absurd, and worthy only of contempt and derision. I thought I'd start with that disclaimer because the claim is patently nonsensical and self-serving and should not deter Szaszian neophytes because it's a lie, told by people enmeshed in and supportive of an institution inextricably mired in fraud and mendacity.

There are many criteria you can use to demarcate the good from the evil in this world; the good man, like Szasz, when experiencing the universal emotion of ecstatic insight, delusional or otherwise, shares his thoughts with other people in books, at seminars and symposiums, respecting the sanctity of man's rights, endowed on him by nature. This, lamentably, is in contradistinction to the evil human being, who proceeds to use his/her insight as a crutch with which to batter his/her opponents, campaigning for governor or applying for some other job that will allow him/her to forcibly subsume others to his or her version of the truth, building institutions or simply gravitating towards already existing institutions where one has the discretionary powers to decide who is and who isn't sane, who should be sacrificed and who shouldn't, and so on. Thomas Szasz, being a force for good, certainly understands that under no terms would it be proper to go around incarcerating people in his house and forcing them to accept toxic ministrations, just because he is convinced that he is possessed of special insight into people's problems and what it is good for them!

As Szasz says in the first essay of this book, 'mental illness is not a condition but a policy; not a fact but a strategy.' It is not scientific-descriptive, but political-strategic. Some people will protest this is just about semantics, but it is much more. To paraphrase Confucius, if things don't get get called by their proper names, then things don't get done properly. Sadly, most people treat words as if they were just words, that have no cultural, political or any other resonances.

Supposedly, words don't have any consequences, they play no role in how people engage with reality; language plays no role in thought and reality control; those in power don't avail themselves of language for their own base purposes. Defining disenfranchised African-American slaves as fractional human beings is meaningless, after all, they are only words! I guess their true impact is only in the eye of the stigmatised, apart from a few wise men moulded out of rare moral and intellectual integrity and courage.

Another brilliant essay compares the concept of mental illness to phlogiston, one being to psychiatry what the other was once to chemistry, both the profoundest nonsense. In it Szasz, with characteristic acumen, makes the all too true point that 'once names and theories gain wide acceptance, they exercise a powerful influence on people inculcated to believe that their existence forms an integral part of the way the world is.' Depressingly true.

Perhaps one my favourite essays, and certainly the most pithy, is more of an anecdote about some symposium he attended, the speaker purporting to have proof that alcoholism is a disease, you know, the ritualised assertion of the despot that his prejudices are scientific in nature and all that baloney. He makes the very piquant observation that most of the audience (arrogant psychiatrists) are smoking cigarettes and points out that if you transpose the underlying logic used to pathologise and medicalise drinking to smoking, then you could say excessive smoking is a disease. Of course this elicits a hot-tempered response, the reaction of upstart authority to something they deem an impertinence, the moral of the story being that might defines the metaphor. It's like the history of psychiatry telescoped into one page!

Particularly stimulating is an essay that looks at psychiatry's cankerous influence on the legal system as exhibited in a case he was employed in. It looks at the ritualised response of the psychiatric community, exemplified in all its desperation, ignobility and farcicality by the response to Szasz's refusal to examine a defendent, where he is accused of having committed the impropriety of failing to observe his duty (whatever that is), and having affronted the sacred cows and the untouchables.

The best people usually can do to criticise him, is condemn him with guilt-by-association fallacies about Scientology and all that, which, needless to say, all exudes an odour redolent of desperation and an obvious lack of serious criticisms; yet Szasz has documented a veritable cornucopia of abominations perpetrated habitually by institutional psychiatrists since its inception. To these psychiatrists I would simply say this; remember, the blood is on your hands, not his, and no Orwellian inversions are going to alter this, and no trying to wash it off, like with Lady Macbeth, is going to change that.

In the last essay, Szasz looks at the alliance of medicine and the state, which he does in much greater detail in one of his most important works, 'Pharmacracy'. It looks at Nazi Germany as proto-therapeutic-state, elucidating some of the conventions we've inherited, such as the state monopoly on health care; the furor therapeuticus, to the detriment of liberty, that characterises both societies. There is also both society's use of base verbal and cinematographic rhetorical forms to condition and control, the use of euphemistic, pseudo-medical camouflage and language designed to detoxify wanton, criminal acts; also there is the use of the imagery of the hospital, and the iconography and idiom of humanitarianism and healing, and of course the symbology of nursing and caring, all used to conceal the state apparatus of control, and violence and coercion. Some will say this is a fallacy of moral equivalence, that we are nothing like Nazis, but as I have just shown, you are wrong!

One salutes you, doctor.
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on 23 February 2010
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is extremely clear, well written, and sensible, de-bunking the myth that life is a medical rather than a moral/psychological process.
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