The condition commonly called depression has been so widely discussed in recent years that many people, even those with no first-hand familiarity with the most serious expressions of the condition, like to think they understand that which is, at best, difficult to know and presents itself differently among dissimilar people. Having wrestled with, been treated for, and researched depression all of my adult life, I intimately know the idiosyncrasies of my own melancholia, yet claim no great understanding of the meta-nature of the condition.
Though the influences of family and the larger environment are increasingly appreciated, most physical and behavioral health care in the west still focuses on individual causes and treatment plans. Hyperindividualism, a cultural bias toward personal explanations over social ones, is a powerful bias that runs through many western beliefs, most notably the economy, government, public ethics and social responsibility. (Even western notions of international relations suffer from a form of individualist emphasis, with the nation-state substituting for the person and the world for society.)
Today I read a profile of James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 29 June issue of The New Yorker. It is titled “The Catastrophist” because Hansen, a public scientist for decades, believes global warming requires immediate and drastic action, starting with the elimination of all coal-fired power plans. He points out that global warming is occurring at a pace that way beyond the projections of scientists that were branded as “extremist” by oil and gas industry representatives just a few years ago. Having served in his position for eight years under Pres. George W. Bush, who was uninterested in the science of climate change, Hansen was optimistic about an Obama presidency and offered to brief the new president. He was rebuffed by Obama staff.
Hansen thinks the climate change bill proposed by Obama and the Democratic leadership is a sham and woefully inadequate, he criticized the environmental groups that supported it, and said the bill would create only an appearance of change. Yet when the legislation won the support of the U.S. House of Representatives on Saturday, the Reuters news service gushed that the “sweeping climate change bill … will significantly change the way Americans use and produce energy.”
Elsewhere, in the healthcare debate, the free-market fundamentalists are claiming that any government-run program is axiomatically inefficient, their article of faith being that for-profit enterprises are manifestly more competent. Like ostriches with their heads in the sand, they refuse to see what is right before their eyes: that without state regulation, unfettered capitalism produces staggering wealth for a few and an oceanic wake of corruption, waste and fraud.
Meanwhile, network television is falling all over itself in adoration of the late Michael Jackson, the “king” of pop music. His professional success was unparalleled, but Jackson was inarguably a twisted, tortured soul who was clearly at war with himself. That doesn’t seem to matter because fame trumps everything else.
Yes, depression is to a large degree an individual condition, but please explain to me how any sane and rational person could not be depressed living in 21st century America.